correspondence from a reader:

Making New Maps

by Araby Carlier

Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at

I jubilantly attended "PEN World Voices: The New York Festival of International Literature," in New York City, April 16-22. I was on the edge of my seat to hear the voices of Fadhil al-Azzawi, Azar Nafisi, Salman Rushdie, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

At the same time, I felt so honored to be introduced to writers whose names I did not recognize, authors whose home countries I have never read about outside of newspapers. All week, libraries, schools, museums, and bars were packed for discussions, panels, and interviews with dozens of writers from around the world. In this commentary, I drop a lot of names and titles to turn you on to literature and authors you may not have heard of. This is an invitation to investigate.


Three books in high school snapped my eyes open to the rest of the world: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, The Stranger by Albert Camus, and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. The reality in these novels pushed me beyond my borders. In the past year, I have taken to consulting maps almost daily. I seek out the countries and cities where my books are taking me. Three or four books usually occupy my thoughts all at once. And as I check out the distance between St. Petersburg and Puerto Rico, I wonder if Dostoevsky ever read The Arabian Nights , and I know his contemporary Tolstoy did.

Across the country, history departments are dwindling, and history courses are increasingly not a mandatory part of the curriculum at many liberal arts colleges. A student's knowledge of the past is increasingly found in works of fiction. Where would students be without novels from around the world? V.S. Naipul and Staceyann Chin taught me of the vast South Asian and Chinese Diaspora throughout Africa and the Caribbean. Julia Alvarez guided me through the Dominican Republic. The senselessness of World War I is nightmarishly clear in my mind because of Sebastien Japrisot and Erich Maria Remarque.

In a piece on Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie said that there is "something that literature needs to recognize all the time: Reality is not realistic. This is something we're all beginning to recognize. Have you noticed how weird things are lately?"1 Technology has brought people closer than ever but, at the same time, the imperial stabs the U.S. has inflicted on the rest of the world have driven us further apart. The view of the planet and its people from within the U.S.—as taught to us—is not realistic.

I told a friend that Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace was so fascinating because I didn't know anything about pre-revolutionary Russia. My friend replied that when he begins a work of fiction and it mentions an event he doesn't know, he usually puts down the novel and grabs a history text. I'm all about the history texts, but putting down the novel I don't recommend.

Grabbing a history book to emphasize a novel is a fantastic idea. Remember though, that while a novel won't necessarily present a linear timeline of events, a work of fiction will infuse history with the vibrant humanity it is often stripped of.

We always hear how desensitized we are to the violence and brutality surrounding and sometimes even infiltrating our own lives. Falling in love with the characters so affectionately created for us by the writers I have mentioned and more is one antidote for curing us.

On Writing and Catastrophe

"Writing and Catastrophe" was a panel of writers at the PEN Festival who cover real-life natural and man-made disasters. The event included Svetlana Alexievich (Ukraine), who has written several books on the Chernobyl disaster, the most recent being the upcoming Voices from Chernobyl ; Francois Bizot (France) who recently published his memoir, The Gate,detailing his time as a captive of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; Carolin Emcke (Germany), a reporter at the German newspaper Der Spiegel ; Philip Gourevitch (USA), author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda ; Ryszard Kapuscinski (Poland), whose four decades of reporting brought him close to Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, and Patrice Lumumba; Elena Poniatowska (Mexico via France) whose publications include Massacre in Mexico and Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Earthquake.

The rapid pace at which natural disasters and horrific massacres take place combined with the brief flash of media allotted these stories, push the voices of victims into the background. Catastrophic events often become "retrospective stories" and "anniversaries," said Philip Gourevitch. The story fades from our view, but the avalanche of violence being perpetrated on the people does not end.

Carolin Emcke covers human rights violations and war crimes in Lebanon, Colombia, Nicaragua, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In her presentation, she described how victims of violence lose their language and ability to completely describe the trauma they have experienced. One's loss of language is a result of losing their trust in the world, of being part of a community, which is required for a people to share language and communication.

Gourevitch asked the audience to think about the words used to describe genocide: "unimaginable, unspeakable, and unthinkable." These are "the words by which the press gives you permission to forget about and ignore things." Part of the writer's challenge in documenting catastrophe is to collect the pieces of personal narratives from the people struggling to regain their language. The reporter assembles the individuals' stories as well as reaches between the narratives to discover what people are unable to describe.

The writers were asked if the subjects they wrote about made it more difficult for them to enjoy the beauty in the world. In response, Elena Poniatowska, the author of Massacre in Mexico , beamed and delightedly exclaimed that she had never considered a question like that because before she could, the people of Mexico were out and running in the streets again and she had to join them. Poniatowska never gets very far in contemplating her personal life because "suddenly the Mexicans arrive, they take over, and things happen, like the earthquakes, or revolutions, or killings, and then you can't be in your house writing about how you feel or you can't stay there. You have to go out and see what's happening and speak." Missing the action of the masses would dampen Poniatowska's spirits more than she would ever allow their oppression to sink her determination.

As she smiled, a spark in Poniatowska's eye reflected her confidence in the capability of the masses. Her lifetime of work following the lead of the people in the streets is her evidence.

This reminded me of a section from Bob Avakian's "The Revolutionary Potential of the Masses and the Responsibility of the Vanguard" (in Revolutionary Worker #1270): "I hate the way the masses of people suffer, but I don't feel sorry for them. They have the potential to remake the world, and we have to struggle like hell with them to get them to see that and to get them to rise to that. We shouldn't aim for anything less. Why should we think they are capable of anything less?" Avakian and Poniatowska share a respect for the great leaps the people take in changing the direction of politics at a given moment.

The victims of violence demand that the writer "confirm that, `no, what you are enduring is not right, it's wrong,'" said Emcke, and it brings the people back into the global community they had been isolated from. Writing creates "a we that is sort of a normative we, a moral we, a we that is bigger than the realities of the war zone."

Emcke pointed out, as she writes from the war zone, the people there are not naãve enough to believe that her words will alert the global community to mobilize and bring an end to their suffering. The truth alone will not restore humanity.


Throughout the PEN Festival I was constantly amazed by the writers I heard, and I felt fortunate to have access to them. At the same time I felt cheated that in all my years of reading I had not come across many of their works. Upon closer investigation I found out why. Of all the works published in the U.S. each year, not just works of fiction but nonfiction, textbooks, instruction manuals—about 5% are translated from another language into English for American consumption.

I heard this statistic and thought, Damn , what are we missing?

Writer Khaled Hosseini was born in Afghanistan and as a young adult his family moved from Kabul to Paris, and finally to California. The success of his first book, The Kite Runner,is attributed to curiosity, word- of-mouth, and the support of local book clubs. These factors combined with Hosseini's tremendous talent as a writer and the immense beauty of his novel have carried The Kite Runner into over 50 languages and 1.4 million copies printed in the U.S.

I wonder who would be reading The Kite Runner if Hosseini's family had remained in Kabul and he had written the book in Farsi or Pashtun. Major publishing houses are not translating and publishing the latest works by young Afghani novelists. Or Iraqi novelists, or Filipino novelists, or Chilean novelists, or Serbian novelists.

A theme that was revisited over and over at the Festival was the truth carried in works of fiction, and often the imagination applicable to interpreting nonfiction for a global audience. "Facts can be abused, facts can be distorted, facts can be misunderstood...both fiction and non-fiction will be judged by whether they're truthful," said Gourevitch.

The American Literary Translators Association reports only 13 books have been translated from Arabic since 2001. When I saw the number 13 a cold stone landed in my stomach next to the frozen boulder I choked down while watching the U.S. military rain thousands upon thousands of tons of bombs over Iraq in the last decade and a half.

There is truth coming from writers in Iraq, from writers all over the world. Living in the U.S., we have to fight to discover the narratives and dreams of people writing from other parts of the planet so that their experiences are not simply "unimaginable, unspeakable, and unthinkable" because, said Gourevitch, "What are writers here to do except to imagine, speak, and think?"


1. Rushdie, Salman. "Inverted Realism." PEN America, A Journal for Writers and Readers, 6 Metamorphoses . Ed. M. Mark. New York: PEN America Center, 2005. pp. 44-45.

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