Writers speak out at Global Literary Congress | Sunday Observer

Writers speak out at Global Literary Congress

22 May, 2022

The world is on fire. At one end of the world, there are wars – mainly the Ukraine - Russian war and the Palestine -Israel war – and at theother end, there are economic crises – Sri Lanka is a classic example for it.

Of course, there are climate change catastrophes as well – according to the United Nations report published on March 26, 2022, the world has experienced 350-500 medium- to large-scale disasters every year over the last 20 years, and it will face around 560 disasters every year by 2030.

So, no doubt, the world is on fire. But who are the victims? Who are the ones suffering from it? It is normal citizens. In fact, 3,668 civilian deaths have been reported as of May 15 during Russia's military attack on Ukraine according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Of them, 245 were children. And also, around 180,000 avoidable deaths over the past 14 years in fast-growing tropical cities had occurred due to rapid rise in emerging air pollution disclosed by a recent report from the University College London.

The dangerous situation of the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka is also another aspect. So we are in a crucial point in mankind's history. The biggest challenge in this is to find solutions to them. How can we get rid of this mayhem?

“Emergency” meeting

It is in this backdrop that 80 authors from 30 countries held an “emergency” meeting at the United Nations in the US to address the multiplecrises of the moment — and whether stories can help.

The meeting was held at Trusteeship Council Chamber at the United Nations, from May 11-14, and was convened by the writers' organisation PEN America.

The occasion was named Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers, and the PEN America gathered some renowned writers such as Salman Rushdie, Abdulah Gurnah and Professor José Prieto.

A Sri Lankan novelist Shehan Karunathilake, also participated in the event and he presented some insightful observations to the Writers' Congress.

As reported by the New York Times, the meeting was chaired by PEN America President Ayad Akhtar, and it was opened by the PEN America chief executive, Suzanne Nossel.

She said that the U.N. Security Council, which meets just across the hall, counts among its permanent, veto-wielding members “the world’s most aggressor” (Russia) and “the world’s worst jailer of writers” (China).

“If these are the guardians of our freedom and security,” Nossel said, “we’re in trouble.”

The Congress, which coincided with PEN’s annual World Voices Festival, was inspired by a similar emergency gathering held in New York in May 1939 whose aim was to address Europe’s slide toward war.

Some 500 writers, including Thomas Mann, Pearl S. Buck and Dorothy Thompson, participated in it, though the role of the writer — and the nature of the emergency — has changed a lot since then.

The New York Times journalist Jennifer Schuessler reported highlights in the Writers' Congress on May 15, 2022 as below:

“Over three hours, there were impassioned statements on Ukraine, the killing of the Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, social media polarisation, climate change, the deluge of disinformation and the global decline of democracy, along with pleas to remember, as one Sri Lankan novelist wryly put it, 'the insignificant little countries' of the world.”

According to Jennifer Schuessler, there was lots of jokes about Klutzy writers fumbling with microphones. But if there was an overall theme in the meeting, it was faith in the old-fashioned power of stories.

“A poem will not stop a bullet, a novel cannot defuse a bomb,” said Salman Rushdie at the Congress, adding that writers can still “sing the truth, and name the lies.”

“We must work to overturn the false narratives of tyrants, populists and fools by telling better stories than they do — stories within which people might actually want to live,” he said.

Andrey Kurkov assails Russian invasion

During the Writers' Congress there were also impassioned on-the-ground appeals for solidarity with Ukraine from a delegation of Ukrainian writers.

Andrey Kurkov, a novelist and the President of PEN Ukraine, assailed Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine’s territory, culture and history, which he described as an assault on the whole world.

“He is destroying not only Ukraine,” Kurkov said. “He is trying to destroy life on Earth, menacing everyone with nuclear weapons.”

According to the New York Times, there were plenty of laments that, as the American novelist Siri Hustvedt put it, “literature lives at the margins of culture, especially in the United States”. But some stuck up for the less exalted forms of storytelling.

Among the writers who expressed their views at the Congress were also some female writers. For instance, Luiza Fazio, a Brazilian screenwriter, said that it was pop culture that shaped the imaginations of most people, especially young people — for better and worse. Are superhero movies, she asked, “normalising war” and “glamorising violence”?

Shehan Karunathilaka's new perspective

Sri Lankan novelist Shehan Karunathilaka was also among the participants and, he said that “it wasn’t a ‘well-researched novel’ but social media hashtags have helped fuel recent protests in Sri Lanka".

“Let’s not be too snobbish when talking about the written word,” he said. “Sometimes a well-choreographed TikTok can bring down a person.”

French-Algerian novelist's thoughts

In his comments, the French-Algerian novelist Walid Hajar Rachedi recalled his shock upon learning that one of the gunmen in the 2015 terrorist attack on the Bataclan nightclub in Paris grew up in the same suburb that he had.

Rachedi said, “I believe in the power of stories.” But he asked if a novel like his own well-received debut, ‘What Would I Do in Paradise?’ could really counteract whatever story turned that young man into a killer.

“We are here in New York, and it is very fancy,” he said. “But does it make a difference outside the world of literature?”

700 million people in the world are illiterate

The French Moroccan writer Leila Slimani offered a different perspective. He said that 700 million people in the world are illiterate, and among them are his mother and grandmother. So he said, “Maybe the first thing we have to fight for is this fundamental right.”

According to the New York Times, the Congress also focused on some incidents that had happened in the United States.

There were references to the Republican-led efforts to ban books and restrict teaching on race. But some speakers warned against the subtler forces that coerce and constrain the imagination.”

Chinese-born novelist's criticism

Chinese-born novelist Yiyun Li opened a picture in China.

There she recalled her experiences of writing propaganda for the Chinese army.

As an 18-year-old in the Chinese military, she had excelled at writing propaganda, a job she took because it was better than cleaning toilets orfeeding the pigs.

The New York Times reported, “Recently, she overheard her American-born son and a friend talking about how they couldn’t win a school poetry contest unless their poems included certain ‘key words,’ like ‘injustice’ and ‘police brutality.’ Can’t a poet also ‘write about flowers,’ one asked?”

So our role, she said, “is to make sure they know they don’t have to write the keywords, as I did when I was in China.”

At the Congress, Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at the Columbia University and a sharp critic of American-style identity politics, described another aspect of literature. He called on writers to cultivate imaginative openness to “the minds of all others, not just the cultural other.”

“We need to make it harder to speak so confidently about what’s wrong, about what’s wrong with the people we think are behind what’s wrong, and we need to develop some humility and self-doubt,” he said.

Some disagreements

While there was no direct debate (let alone Khrushchevian shoe-pounding), there was some pointed disagreement, the New York Times said.

The Cameroonian American novelist Patrice Nganang said that more than 50 nations in Africa had so far declined to impose sanctions on Russia and support Ukraine. But African writers, he said, should feel no shame over their countries’ lack of enthusiasm".

“African people very quickly realise that it is the very same countries that chained the African continent and black people for so long that are clamouring for freedom at the borders of Ukraine,” The New York Times journalist Jennifer Schuessler quoted Nganang.

‘I myself feel tooth pain for Sri Lanka’

Kurkov, speaking last, offered a riposte. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “It is natural to feel one’s own ‘tooth pain’ most acutely. But ‘I myself feel a tooth pain for Sri Lanka, for Africa, for Palestine.’”

“Always remember there is no competition of tragedies,” he added.

“If we can help, we should help.”

The Congress culminated in an informal (and unanimous) vote on one tentative proposal, that PEN initiate an oral history project about the present moment, akin to those undertaken in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration.

However, after the group posed for a portrait, the chief executive, Suzanne Nossel said “These are writers. You can’t script them.”