Tuesday, October 02, 2012

A dialogue between Danish and Indian writers IV: Carsten Jensen and Manu Joseph

Vera Alexander (moderator): Can you share your thoughts on your role as writers?

Manu Joseph: I'm not really comfortable calling myself a writer. To me it's embarrassing... There's something vain about calling oneself a writer. I used to claim I was a writer when I was 16. I grew up in a middle-class family in Madras, where if you are 16 years old you're supposed to be preparing for the toughest engineering exam in the world, otherwise you're pretty hopeless. And when I said I wanted to be a writer, people thought there was something seriously wrong with me. But now I'm not sure... it’s something you can call yourself at the end of your life. I'm pretty sure you could be a writer after many, many years. On days that I'm feeling vain, I call myself a writer, and nobody objects.

Carsten Jensen: (As a writer), and I know it sounds pathetic, you somehow feel as if you're a stranger on earth. It feels like you don't belong. So you look at everything with a stranger's eyes, because you need to know the world in order to survive in a strange, and to you unfamiliar, world, in which you can't really identify. And you're constantly questioning to get to know it. And I think when it comes to language, you very quickly, as a child already, discover that the language that is handed over to you it doesn't really fit your experience of the world. You don't necessarily see it that way, and then you start a lifetime search for more precise words. And this is also called talent, or inspiration, but I think at the bottom of it, there is questioning, but there's also I think, an informal sort of aggressivity, as there always is in questioning. You don't just take things for granted. You don't basically accept them. So you are, somehow, aggressive as a writer, whether you lead a peaceful life or not. You are somehow at war with the world.

Manu: I have a schizophrenic existence as a journalist and a novelist. As a journalist, though, I find novelists very naive. ... For example, I was at a conference where they were making a 30-second silence for Syria. There is a naïve idea that to be a writer you must be a good person. So that is my perception as a journalist, (that as a writer) there is a constant posturing, that we stand for decent things, we are against oppression... As a journalist I find that amusing sometimes.

The second thing that I find hilarious is this… A novel is about failings. Writers write a novel around failures, yet the whole aspiration of writers is to be very successful.  I find that that's become a mismatch. And the consequence, especially in India, is the rise of the inoffensive writer. The new generation of writers is deeply networked. Writers who compliment each other, very well behaved. A V.S. Naipul just cannot survive anymore. You have to be a well-behaved writer who is not into a grudge, or such things... A completely reliable person one can marry. They keep exchanging blurbs, they keep reviewing each other's books. Nobody wants to write anything that offends people anymore. There's too much at stake... I get that feeling at least in my generation of writers in India. Success is always a possibility and there's an unwillingness to offend (the people who can get you there).

Mridula Garg: I must protest. We are all at each other's throats. We are about to be arrested... Our only purpose in life. We are outsiders and we are proud to be outsiders. We're doomed to be outsiders in every location. I haven't met any of the pleasant people you're thinking of.

Githa Hariharan: I think he's making a very important point. He's not talking so much about their pleasantness... He's talking about the fact that the market is God. When you go to these literary festivals, when you want to know who are the most powerful men in publishing outside of India, I'm sorry to be crude but, all you have to do is follow the young people. The young women have more equipment, and the young men are very drunk.

Mridula: You're talking about writing in a particular language.

Manu: I’m talking about exactly 32 writers.

Vera: It's obviously something that relates to the market. It's about getting it right, getting books sold. On one level, when we talk to you writers about writing Literature with a capital L, we always want these big topics, we want something that gives an uplift. That makes a difference. At the same time there's also the small problem of getting a book published in the first place. And that's even tougher in smaller languages, than for instance in the world language of English.

Carsten: Well, I'll tell you something about literature in Denmark, because it's very different from what you describe here. Basically, the market in Denmark is very small. Just think of 5 million persons. We are great readers, but that still doesn't make for a very great market.

So the market is not really God here. The state is God. Because Danish writers are -- and I know what I'm speaking about -- the most spoiled and well-taken-care of writers in the world, with Norway as the only exception. And it’s not because it's we want to preserve the language, and so on, but because we are a small community, whose language is spoken by a very small minority among the billions of people in the world, and there is such a big number of grants and so on, for Danish writers. And it means it is perfectly possible -- and I have plenty of friends who are doing it -- half of them don't make any money on their books, but they live very well on grants. Lifelong.

Once you get started, it's automatic. It just follows and follows. And that means you also have developed in Denmark a very introverted literary culture... There is a kind of competition between those who sell and those who ... (the former) are immediately -- by the literary establishment in Denmark -- labeled as bestseller writers. And that is not a good thing to be in Denmark, as seen through the eyes of the literary establishment, because it means you are not serious. Basically, it also means you're not writing in a modernist tradition, which is also bad.

But this means that you have -- and you can see this, as you talk about the "inoffensive" writers (Note: a reference to Manu's input) -- the new generation writers, who are not even interested in the market, they are not even interested in readers: they're interested in each other. I would say that those who are powerful and talented writers are always outsiders. And they are always initially, condemned by the establishment, as not serious.

I have a background like you (to Manu) as a journalist, and that means I have a huge respect for facts and knowledge. And I do share to some extent your skepticism about writers being God-given, good advisors on what to do with society, and where to go, and where to end. In Denmark you would always find, in the media, the cry, "Where are the writers in the debate?" They are not very often found there. And I will sometimes admit that when a writer raises his voice I wish he never had, because his testimony is that of a man who knows nothing about the world, who thinks it's enough to have, exactly, a good heart.

Because he apparently doesn't write with his brain, but with his heart. He's got lots of emotions, but the reasoning part of his brain is not very often activated. I think the one condition we need to contribute to the public debate on what kind of society we are, and where we are heading, is that you know something about it.

So I don't really disagree with you (to Manu). History is filled with great writers who were not only horrible persons, but who were Fascists and anti-Semites. Just think of when the ethnic cleansing started in the former Yugoslavia:  it was very much inspired by some of the country's best writers, who co-wrote a horrible manifesto with its best academics, which became the intellectual platform. (continued below)
Manu Joseph at Trankebar bookshop in Copenhagen, September 25,  2012, with Vagn Plenge, director of ALOA.


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