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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Literary voices broadcast new ideas, but will the world listen?

Shirine Saad describes how writers are challenging politicians in the United States
Jamaican author Marlon James addresses the audience after being awarded the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction award. Neil Hall / AFP Photo
Jamaican author Marlon James addresses the audience after being awarded the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction award. Neil Hall / AFP Photo

On the 100th day of Donald Trump’s presidency, PEN World Voices – an international literary festival founded by Salman Rushdie after the September 11 attacks in 2001 to foster intercultural dialogue – brought together a group of thought-provoking speakers and performers in New York City. Through song, spoken word, debates and performance, they proposed an alternative to the destructive propaganda and fake “facts” that have become a part of our daily lives.

The so-called Muslim “ban” and the proposed Mexican wall are just two examples of a much deeper reality: the dangerous and persistent interest in fostering a dialogue with large parts of the world, leading to an increase in intolerance.

For those of us who live in the US, it has become clear that the path to progress must be imagined anew.

It will be forged by the artists, activists and thinkers mobilising for urgent change. And in a culture increasingly marked by bigotry and intolerance, who can better guide the way than the very victims of incessant discrimination, those who have never experienced the luxury of white, male privilege?

At the festival, voices spoke out about the need to expand the range of voices that are heard in the US, whether voices from disenfranchised groups such as African-Americans, or from women, or writers from abroad.

Speaking to me at the festival, Marlon James, the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker Prize in 2015, spoke out against the idea of having token “diverse” voices. “There must be more to the assertion of oneself than imitation of something else. There must be more to getting along in society than assimilation,” he said.

Of course, there needed to be more representation, he said, but those who were doing the speaking from diverse backgrounds could not simply replicate what came before.

“We have tried conforming and it hasn’t worked. It ties into the issue of diversity, which we’re still only paying lip service to, and is a subject I now refuse to talk about. Even now when [politicians] are calling for unity they are calling for homogeneity: suppress your identity, your concerns, your anger and unite for this common cause. Except that doesn’t quite work. It’s an old model.”

Calling for change, too, was Siri Hustvedt, an author known for her virulent critique of misogyny in novels such as The Blazing World or A Summer Without Men, who wished for a greater feminine perspective in society – a counter to the white man of power she compared to a “cowboy”.

She called for a new model for engaged citizens, those who genuinely embraced plurality and difference.

In the context of another widening chasm, that of the West and Islam demonising each other, the Syrian poet Adonis, the icon of the revolutionary post-colonial era, read a poem about alienation and longing for a homeland, in Arabic. Though only a few in the audience could understand it, this was a moving moment.

Before the event the poet criticised the absence of engaged public intellectuals in the tradition of Sartre or Camus, asking why western thinkers today seemed to work as “functionaries” within their nations.

Years after he was forced into exile to Paris, he continues to view his role as a watchdog, albeit a poetical one, in both East and West.

“Everything is political,” he said. “My role, and the role of a poet, is to continually question and criticise both Arabic and western civilisations.”

The festival demonstrated that there are many talented voices who are struggling to be heard and need to be part of the conversation. Now, the question remains: if artists speak their truth, is the world ready to listen?

Shirine Saad is an editor and writer who lives in New York

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