07 June 2007

Intellectual allegiance

South African writer J M Coetzee, winner of two Booker Prizes, makes no bones about it. Soon after winning his Nobel Prize in 2003, Coetzee, in an interview with David Attwell, stated that his “intellectual allegiances are clearly European, not African.” And that, all his life, his writing has faithfully responded to this DNA. Even in Australia, where he moved a few years ago, Coetzee has maintained a European sentimentality while lamenting over his immigrant status, documenting it in his 2005 book ‘Slow Man’.

Kazuo Ishiguro, born Japanese but now living in England, and another Booker Prize winner, expresses similar views. In his January Magazine interview with Linda Richards (which I also cited in my previous post), Ishiguro stated, “That’s how I kind of branded myself right from the start: as somebody who didn’t know Japan deeply, writing in English whole books with only Japanese characters in. Trying to be part of the English literary scene like that.”

Like Ishiguro, who had moved to England as a child, Michael Ondaatje, also a Booker Prize winner, had moved to Canada from Sri Lanka at the age of eight and acquired Canadian citizenship along with his family. He has grown up in Canada and currently resides there with his Canadian family. Apart from a touch of Sri Lanka here and there (such as in ‘Running in the Family’ or in ‘Anil’s Ghost’), Ondaatje’s writing has always been peppered with an international flavour.

When I think about these authors, I often wonder how strong their intellectual allegiances are. I ask, how faithfully can these authors return to their pasts, to their countries of origin, in their novels and reproduce characters and scenes of native reality. Ishiguro seems to have a perfect answer for this: “it’s not really about describing a world that you know well and firsthand. It’s about describing stereotypes that exist in people’s heads all around the world and manipulating them engagingly.”

If this wasn’t enough, Coetzee gives another fascinating explanation. Speaking of Samuel Beckett (in the same Attwell interview I’ve mentioned earlier), Coetzee says: “Beckett was an Irishman and a European with no African connections at all. Yet in the hands of a dramatist of the sensitivity and skill of Athol Fugard, Beckett can be transplanted into South African surroundings in such a way that he seems almost native there. What does this show? That the history of the arts is a history of unceasing cross-fertilization across fences and boundaries.”

Wow. Can literature, or the arts, be any more delightful!


Madhuri said...

Ishiguro's word seem so true - it really is playing on the stereotype in some cases - at least it seems so in a Rushdie or a Jhumpa Lahiri.

runawaysun said...

Yes, the stereotype concept/device is an ingenious literary trick for novelists to use. Very smart. I was amazed when I found out.