Sunday, January 04, 2009

Indian Booker Winners Face Hostility at Home

It qualifies as the ultimate act of subversion. This spectacular feat by writers from a previously colonised nation almost mocking the righteous patronisation the Western literary world would like to heap on writers from the sub-continent. English writers vie for the same prize and that makes the victory sweeter. But back home, as news of yet another Indian writer beating the impossible odds trickles in, the celebration, if any, is muted and tinged with suspicion. Certainly it is nothing when compared to the adulatory headlines every time the Indian Cricket Team beats Australia or England. Even allowing for the much touted cliché that cricket and not literature is the national pastime, it is baffling that these achievers are not accorded a fraction of the accolades that a Bronze Medallist from the Olympics commands. Instead, the hostility they encounter tends to force them into being “Salingeresque” recluses in their own country.

Vijay Nair in The Hindu writes about antagonism towards the Indian Booker prize winners (Aravind Adiga, Kiran Desai and Arundhati Roy) from the literary from the literary establishment in their homeland. It's an awful pity that these authors find their efforts met with so much hostility ... and one wonders if the "tall poppy syndrome" doesn't have something to do with it.


Unknown said...

The hostility may also be because these writers portray India as it really is today, with all its inherent contradictions, and not as the exotic "India Shining".

The powers that be obviously do not like it, especially when writers like Roy take up causes unpopular with the political milieu.

I hope this changes, because writers are the documenters of their times, and need to respected as such.

Anonymous said...

this 'phenomenon' isn't unique. orhan pamuk isn't exactly a darling in turkey either even though he won the biggest prize of all. go to any youtube posting on orhan pamuk and you can read some very negative comments about him.

gao xinjian also isn't considered a hero in china either.

and in malaysia, who cares about our booker long list nominees TTE and that harmony silk whatever guy what's his name?

the comment about accolades for olympic bronze medal and rooting for cricket perhaps do point to part of the answer why this is so.

it's not difficult to see why people root for these athletes who strive their best FOR the country. in contrast novelists are not meant to do that. the good ones more often than not put a mirror to the face of the country to show warts and all. little wonder why they are not appreciated or even face hostility in their own country.

but the very very good writers can find a balance between kicking sands in the face of the country and at the same time write things that make the country feel proud.

ah pong

Anonymous said...

don't put our Malaysian writers in there with the others. they can't compare with other real, world-class writers.

our writers can't write about anything else except WWII and the Japanese occupation, etc. or some exotic fantasy-fuelled family history to satiate orientalist tastes. here a Salman Rushdie wannabe, there a Mo Yan wannabe, etc etc.

how absolutely and terrifyingly boring.

and all the while they try to intellectualise everything. in the words of one writer who recently interviewed some singer: "As a professional writer, I’m accustomed to long intellectual discussions ..."

oh my puking guts.

our filmmakers, on the other hand, are winning awards and also winning support at home because they are telling stories that have never been told before, presenting aspects of society we've never seen before in our films. sure, they may be accused of emulating a Taiwanese filmmaker or two in terms of style, but their stories are original.

our novelists? WWII, Japanese occupation, family history exotica ...

Ewe Gno Hoo

bibliobibuli said...

ai gno hoo - yeah, what were we saying about bitchiness from home and tall poppy syndromes???

Anonymous said...

don't worry, i have read and memorised the book How To Lose Friends And Alienate People!

Yoo No Who

bibliobibuli said...


Anonymous said...

Don't think you need to read that book. It's a talent you were born with. Your mother must be as proud of you as the mothers of those Malaysian writers are of their children.

- Poppadumdum

bibliobibuli said...

you no hoo - i think your real name must be grau chee wan

Anonymous said...

, my real name is

Rhea Lees Teek

sometimes i am also known as

Sayit Lie Keet Ease

Anonymous said...

Alas, Friend-losing Anonymous, it seems like the literary novelists who focus their narratives on hamster wheel competition, riverbank erosion and cloud shapes find themselves with very limited audiences.

There are plenty of "original" stories to be told. Unfortunately for you, the ones that resonate tend to concern things we care about in our own lives (see "family histories"), deeply troubling historical events (see "WWII" and "Japanese occupation"), and interesting overlaps between the two. I'm curious to know what films you are watching that don't involve families and/or troubling historical/current events.

I'm also baffled as to why you seem particularly resentful (and cruel & mocking? ugh) about any recognition that Malaysian writers get -- they have earned some respect in the world at large, as measurable by awards, positive press in important newspapers, etc. -- they are certainly "real writers" by any definition -- but they aren't getting any free rides. When a random American woman wants to grab "something exotic" to read on the beach, she doesn't ask about Malaysian writers. She likely has no clue where Malaysia is.

Frankly, if you personally are unsatisfied with the state of Malaysian literature, the best possible outcome for you would be *more* positive attention, both locally and internationally, and more money (imagine a Malaysian writer with a million dollar advance, included in Oprah's book club, and so on... and think of how many more Malaysian writers that would inspire). Encouragement from other Malaysians is of course essential (you are unfortunately working very hard against your own interests here...) to get more books written -- for aspiring and existing Malaysian writers need to find the spirit to *write*, to hone their craft and keep exploring.

Obviously, not everyone's tastes will match yours -- you seem to have special needs that may never be met exactly -- but the more writers actively putting out books, the more likely it is that your number will come up and your ideal Malaysian novel will be written!

Anonymous said...

On the actual subject of the post -- sorry, I got distracted! -- ah pong has some good points; an athletic performance is completely message-less, and they're discouraged from making political statements. So particularly when the people in a country feel themselves "represented" by a novel to the world, they will read very differently from someone who is simply reading an interesting story.

That impulse is a shame, particularly when authors accommodate it -- I've yet to read a good novel that only shows the positive side of its characters! -- but that impulse probably isn't going to change anytime soon.

My hope is that global literature will continue to expand and diversify -- this could also mean that Malaysians (for example) writing for a world audience would have less explanation to work into their text, because readers would have probably already read novels set in Malaysian history and culture. AND discussing the problem is valuable -- reviewers at home can possibly be encouraged to discipline themselves to evaluate a novel on its literary strength, separate from any perceived criticism within it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fayah Antsinmai Eh Nuss,

Your command:

"don't put our Malaysian writers in there with the others. they can't compare with other real, world-class writers."

is sadly misplaced and underexposed here! *You* may not be putting Malaysian writers "in there with the others," but others have and are and will, so you better write to them post-haste! Write to the Booker committee, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Wall Street Journal, etc. etc. (you e-mail me lah I give you complete list okay?), and tell them to withdraw their accolades retroactively, because You Said So, and you clearly know what makes good literature. Original stories, for one (real writers don't write about wars and families! Only poor blinkered Malaysians are still writing about these things!), and no intellectualising (real writers talk like kindergarteners!) Sharon can only do so much, you know, to publicise your clearly important opinions! You need to be more proactive. Get cracking right now.

With sincere concern,


Anonymous said...

Preeta -

Real writers don't make money (tall poppy syndrome here ! :) )

bibliobibuli said...

preeta - Yew Soh Fan Nee lah!