Tuesday, October 02, 2012

A dialogue between Danish and Indian writers II: Githa Hariharan and Astrid Saalbach

Vera Alexander began the panel discussion by addressing the first pair, Githa Hariharan and Astrid Saalbach.

Key phrases for this first installment are: writer’s role, time and space, globalization, gender roles, Danish language, dansk, multilingualism, translation, theater, English, hegemony, Githa Hariharan, Astrid Saalbach.

Vera: Can you comment on your role as a writer? What is it like to be a writer? How does it feel to be a writer today -- has that changed in the course of your career?

Githa: In your day-to-day ... as a writer, you don't get a salary every month. And you're not a poet, you're not in a garrett, you're not this romantic figure. A novelist is a kind of middle-class figure, which is very boring indeed. I have a formula to describe my writing … It's called the well-constructed lie. Because we don't know ... And you're guessing as much is your readers are... but we have to construct it well.

So I came to my writing partly because I had a very traveling childhood. At the age of 13 I moved from Bombay to Manila, and there's nothing worse than being a 13-year-old in a classroom, and in those days we still had a very un-politically correct course called Oriental History, and the minute they began to speak of reincarnation and transmigration of souls, my 13 year old self would immediately look down and hope the teacher wouldn't call me to immediately explain this civilization that was such a burden on my poor little shoulders. But of course I was asked to explain, and so very early on I developed a deep and healthy skepticism about all forms of establishment, whether it was reincarnation or the nuns who ran the school...

More than anything you don't need to travel in India to find out that you live a multilingual existence, which is not of course all sweetness and light. There's a lot of tension, there is humor, but there's a lot of chaos, and I think that this is fertile ground for a writer. You know that language is something slippery, but it's something powerful and you better be very good friends with it. So I think this shifting ground is where a writer is made.

And finally, I think I really became a writer because I had a good job in publishing, and then I got pregnant. So when I went on maternity leave, I was surrounded by a whole lot of women who kept giving me contradictory advice, and then I had a baby who was wonderful, but terribly boring because you can't talk to a baby, so I wrote a novel.

Astrid: I'm still very confused when people ask what is a writer's role, because I still don't know after 30 years of writing. It's changing, I think it depends on how you look at yourself, and I look at myself as some sort of witness to a world that is disappearing, in my view. It is a way of understanding the world, and the difficulties of changing gender roles, and of belonging to the privileged part of the world, that I think is in its last days. And the guilt that I think we are born with, because we are so privileged, and we are living our very nice lives, because of so many people's not-so-privileged lives. And not being able to do anything about it. The skisma(schism) in everything.

Vera: Can we talk a little bit about the sense of place, and about the significance of the location in which you live and write, and write about, and the kind of feelings you have about places?

Astrid: Yes of course, places are very important. I very much like to write about being a foreigner, here and there. The closest I got to India was when I wrote a play about some Danish people who were working with development aid in Nepal, and not making so many good things as they thought, of being part of the problem and not part of the solution. And there I found out that some people look upon the writer's role as telling good stories, and not bad stories. I think a writer should try, all the time, to update our self-image. But that was not what the big institutions wanted. So I had a fight with the Royal Theater, who had commissioned the play. And I think that as long as you have clashes with the big institutions, there is a meaning to your work.

In modern life we don't have places, all of us, we are more or less traveling around all the time, trying to define where we, who are we, and if we have a right to be here.

Githa: I think place is actually about location, and location is not something that you just find on a map. I do think that that literal, geographical location is important, because how you view where you come from is colored by where you're sitting and living, obviously. And you might have an imaginary homeland, even if you come from somewhere else. ... But if I'm writing about India, it's not because I must, but because I know the place best because I live there, and that is used as a kind of place that reflects the universe for me. So I would say location is several things. One is where you are, literally. Because for a writer, it's the texture of day-to-day life, the little rejections, the little shocks, the little pinpricks that you get, all that add up to exclusions and inclusions and so on. But you also have location of time. We are in a particular historical juncture, where we are being told about globalization ad nauseum. So we could make believe that our lives are full of travel, but as a matter of fact, it's existing side-by-side with all sorts of new provincialisms. So the fact that we live in these times when fault lines have to do with this peculiar kind of coexisting universalisms and provincialisms, and then where in the universe you're from... I had a Eurocentric education. But like all thinking post-colonials, you have to sort of reinvent it with your own ideology. So as a writer, it would be impossible for me to say that my work is not informed with some of the important streams of thought of the 20th century, whether it's feminism, Freud or Marxism. At the same time, being located where I am, I have to make my own little version. So I would say time and space ideology. And we have our gaze on the Western part of the world, as well as on our own.

Saalbach, Hariharan and moderator Vera Alexander.

Vera: Can you comment on the phenomenon of different languages in Denmark?

Astrid: I think that today's (Danish) language will disappear, because if our willingness to give up our own. We don't want to be the bad guys, but we still are the bad guys -- we're not a very friendly country, but we have a strange ambivalent relation to our self and our own culture. We think that we are the best but at the same time... we are very willing to give (our own) up. I think we could very well end up as something in a museum for the last Europeans, because we don't have the power, we don't have the will to include both ourselves and the foreign people.

Vera: How does that work in India, all that multilingualism?

Githa: To give you an idea of how it works in practice, as a little girl growing up in what was then Bombay, at home we spoke a mix of two languages, because my parents came from the South, and across the border of two neighboring states. So already a hybrid. And they had to write to each other in English, and my mother was not comfortable in writing in English. But we were in Bombay, and those days you had to learn the state language. So in school, the medium of instruction was English, and we had Marathi, and then Hindi as the national language. But for those in the South, before television happened, Hindi was strictly a rumor. So it was an effort to learn that. And then for some unfathomable reason I also had high school French… So we had this complete madness of languages, and very early we decided not to make a fuss of it… And of course the location of English was a very, very complicated thing in India. We always had a ruling language, so English is not the first. It did come in through this complicated door, but it is in some sense a naturalized citizen, but on the other hand, hegemony is hegemony. So it's no longer English, it's American... You have these different dialects of English, you have English that only those in the government can understand. So it's a complete hodgepodge, and English, the hegemonic language, is always to be seen as the language of aspiration. …

Vera: What kind of memories do you have of encountering translators, translations of your work, in a different language from how you originally wrote it?

Astrid: I'm always excited when my works are translated and produced in another country, but I can never know what it is!

One can never know if it's a good translation or bad translation, but in the theater one can feel it. If I see that it's 10 pages longer, or shorter, than what it was in Danish, there might be something wrong! But it's out of my hands. I can only be grateful when I have a translator that I know is good, and I hope they will live forever, because I'm very much depending on them.

Ghita: But a common language is much more important in theater than in a novel.

Astrid: Yes, it's another way of translating.

Ghita: Because the English-language theater in India would be hard to take seriously for that reason. With theater, language becomes even more important to you because it sounds artificial. Theater... Swear words... Clearly there are some things that are not translatable.

Vera: It seems it creates an amount of uncertainty, above the uncertainty you are already talking about, about creating something, and then it's out there, in somebody else's hands, and at the same time reaching out to others. You have mentioned this uncertainty in close proximity with issues about womanhood. Can you comment on the role of gender in what you write, what you do and how you see yourselves? How important is gender as an issue?

Astrid: To me, it's a gift, the changing (gender roles), because as a writer you can really use the new modern man, and the new woman who resists thinking about women as victims -- if we do that we will continue being victims, besides that we are no longer victims, I think. Perhaps, for sure, in India it is another story, but in Scandinavia, it's about time that we don't look at ourselves as victims anymore. And I think it's boring to be an actress and play the part of a victim, and it's much more interesting to be the bad guy.

Ghita: When I'm writing, I'm just a writer. But we are all people, and we have different identities. So where the citizen in me, the feminist in me, the mother in me ends, and where the writer begins, is clearly not definable. So what I work for, in the rest of my life, feeds into the writing. …

When my first novel came out a lot of my feminist friends were very disappointed that at the end this young woman leaves her husband and goes off with her lover. I said of course, it would have been much better if she had marched to Parliament immediately, but in real life that's what happens…

We're not sociologists, were not political scientists -- what writers do is go backstage, and look at the sort of fourth side, the secret fears... So if I'm writing about a feminist in a novel, I'd be much more interested in talking about the secret fear of a feminist ... Because we know what it is to espouse an ideology. What is more human, and interesting, is how difficult that ideology is to practice on a day-to-day basis.


To come:
* Mridula Garg and Kirsten Thorup
* Manu Joseph and Carsten Jensen
* Free discussion and open forum
* ALOA sponsored program: Mridula Garg, Githa Hariharan and Manu Joseph talk about their work at Trankebar bookshop in Copenhagen
* Author biodata

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