Statement for "The Post-National Writer," PEN World Voices, 21 April 2005

                                                            by Eliot Weinberger


Saul Bellow's recent death was a sad reminder of his unfortunate defense of Western Civilization:"Where is the Zulu Tolstoy? Where is the Proust of Papua New Guinea?" (Bellow being perfectly fluent in all 700 languages of Papua New Guinea.) At the time, I was ranting to my old friend Lydia Davis that there may or may not be a Papuan Proust, but there certainly is a Bengali one, Nirad Chaudhuri, author of "Autobiography of an Unknown Indian." Decades later, when she was commissioned to do a new translation of "Swann's Way," Lydia happened to remember my rant and read the book. It turned out to be inspirational for her, not only as a great book itself, but for the way Chaudhuri handled long sentences in a turn of the century diction, which she thought perfect for Proust in English. She told me the book was continually at her side throughout the writing of her brilliant and acclaimed translation. Literature, contrary to most literary critics, rarely moves in a straight line.

Post-national, like any "post-" phrase that does not refer to an actual chronology, is essentially meaningless. We all sort of know what it means, but there are various models, each with entirely different ramifications.

One model is the writer born in a former colony, who writes in the Colonial language, and who now lives in the colonial country or another first-world country where that language is spoken. Many, or most, of the liveliest books now being written in French or English are by African, South Asian, or Caribbean writers living in the UK, the US, Canada, and France. As they often write about their countries of origin, all of these writers face the dilemma of audience: For whom are they writing? And what should they do about local things and customs? Should a character in a novel by an Indian writer cook with ghee or clarified butter? If you write "ghee," the readers in your country of residence will be bewildered; if you write "clarified butter," the readers in your country of origin will accuse you of toadying to the West. Conversely, if you choose to write about white couples getting divorced in Fairfield, Connecticut, this will be considered either bizarre or a tour-de-force. (White writers who set their novels in Fez or Benares of course do not have this problem.)

What is not said often enough- especially in Europe where even people who are ashamed by the rhetoric of the "Jewish problem" in Europe's past now frankly speak about an "immigrant problem"- is that this new wave of writers is the best thing that could happen to a national literature. Any given literature thrives in eras when there is a great deal of translation, and/or an influx of new people speaking and writing in the language: new ideas, new stories, new forms of expression. A literature stagnates when it's the same old people repeating the same old things. The second model is the writer who moves to another country and adopts the language of that country. This is hardly new. In English, the tradition goes back at least as far as Charles d 'Orleans in the 15th century; much of the greatest German prose of the modern era was written by people who were neither German nor Austrian; most of the major modern Rumanian writers did not write in Rumanian; and so on.

But like everything else, the pace has accelerated. It is now only slightly unusual to find, as at this festival, a German novelist, Yoko Tawada, who is Japanese, or French and American writers, Shan Sa and Ha Jin, who were born and raised in China.

The third model is the writer who lives abroad, often for political reasons, but continues to write in the mother language- Adam Zagajewski being our example here. These writers live a kind of double exile, both from the language of home and the language of their residence- and one that becomes even more complicated when, as is often the case, they are not allowed to publish in their countries of origin. Bei Dao, in his first years of exile in northern Europe, used to say that he spoke Chinese to the mirror.

A fourth model, and one that I think will become more common, is the Third World writer who lives in and writes about another non-Western country- exemplified at this festival by José Manuel Prieto and Pedro Rosa Mendes.

This is a kind of horizontal dialogue-beyond the old hierarchies of colonialism-- that is just beginning. An interesting recent example from another medium is the movie "Midaq Alley," a funny melodrama about an extended family in one of the anonymous slums of Mexico City. It is a quintessentially Mexican movie, in hilarious Mexican slang, with all

The familiar Mexican stock characters- the fierce patriarch, the good-for-nothing son, the trashy daughter trying to sleep her way out of the ghetto- except that it is based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, set in an anonymous slum of Cairo. Put that in the context of the so-called "clash of civilizations," and the next time you hear more drivel about the "Arab street," think of it as populated by Mexicans.

I belong to yet another model, in that I still live in the place where I was born, the island of Manhattan, and I write in my birth language, New Yorkese. But, in terms of magazines and newspapers, most of the literary essays and political articles I write appear abroad in some 20 languages, and are often not published in English at all until they are collected in book form. I may be one of those writers who's a lot better in translation, or it may be simply a mistake. I've just come back from Albania, where I was invited to give some readings. Since visitors are rare in Albania, the leading newspaper featured a full-page article on me, accompanied by a large photograph of T.S. Eliot. I'm not only post-national, I'm post-personal identity.

The "dead white male" critique of Western Civ-- that Bellow and so many others attacked- did not lead, as many of us had hoped, to a new internationalism, but rather to a new form of nationalism that emphasized hyphenated Americans. Chinese Americans and Chicanos were now part of the intellectual universe, which was fine as far as it went, but Chinese and Mexicans were still excluded. Multiculturalism was, and is, not very

multicultural at all.

Less than 20% of Americans have passports. The total number of literary books in translation published in the US each year- all genres, all languages, all sizes of presses- is about 250. When the National Geographic Society tested American high school students a few years ago, 11% could not find the US on a world map; 29% could not find the Pacific Ocean (and of course many of them live next to the Pacific Ocean) and, almost needless to say, 85% could not find our current bombing targets, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Americans may be the most insular people on earth, apart from a few nomadic tribes in the deserts and rain forests.

This was apparent a few years ago when the State Department commissioned 15 famous American writers to write essays for a book on what it means to be an American. This was to be translated into many languages, beginning with Arabic, and distributed free around the world, as a publicity campaign to show that, despite all the evidence, we're really not such bad guys.

Leaving aside the fact of their collaboration with the Bush administration, it was astonishing that none of these writers had any sense of writing for people for who are not Americans. Nearly all of them evoked their childhoods, and all did so in terms of nostalgic referents that would be meaningless abroad.

It never occurred to them that their presumed reader in Yemen or Burundi might well wonder, "Who is this Leave it to Beaver?"

The post-national writer, in all its manifestations, is the most interesting and fruitful thing to have happened to world literature since the birth of modernism. It's safe to say this will be the literary hallmark of the new century, with the internet its Gutenberg. And post-nationalism itself is a sign of hope. After centuries of barbarity, a Union in Europe only became possible when it was harder to define who was French or German or Italian or Dutch.

We can imagine what the world would be like if only Americans would become post-American.



Eliot Weinberger’s publications include Works on Paper, Outside Stories, Karmic Traces, and a recent collection of political articles, 9/12. The author of a study of Chinese poetry in translation, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, he is the translator of Unlock by the exiled poet Bei Dao. He has also translated Octavio Paz, and his edition of Jorge Luis Borges’s Selected Non-Fictions received the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 2000.                                       Volumes of his selected essays were recently published in Germany, Spain, and Latin America.                                           He lives in New York City.




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