Let’s be reasonable

Guardian reports that Orhan Pamuk, while speaking at Jaipur Literary Festival, has expressed his concern over the fact that very little literature that is not written in English will ever get translated and will therefore remain unavailable for most of the reading public worldwide and thereby “much of human experience is marginalised”. This gripe is, of course, not a particularly novel one and I guess that Pamuk himself counts as a lucky exception, insofar as all his major works, such as Snow, My Name is Red and Museum of Innocence have been originally written in Turkish. This, however, leads to another problem that Pamuk raised in the same occasion — despite of his global renown and status (not only as a writer, but also as a Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia), critics keep on provincialising his work as somehow inherently “Turkish”. As Pamuk himself puts it:

When I write about love, the critics in the US and Britain say that this Turkish writer writes very interesting things about Turkish love. Why can’t love be general? I am always resentful and angry of this attempt to narrow me and my capacity to experience this humanity. You are squeezed and narrowed down, cornered down as a writer whose book is considered only the representation of his national voice and a little bit of anthropological curiosity.

This is of course another long-standing issue that, among others, Edward Said has talked about in his Orientalism — when a Western writer tells a story about love, loss, joy or what have you, it is apparently a universal tale that touches every human soul from inside out. However, when there’s an African, Asian or muslim writer, it becomes an interesting side-glance, a shard of mirror to reflect our own existence upon, necessarily limited in its universality.

Reading this reminded me of one great poem by Martin Espada that I found from Open Letters a while ago:

Revolutionary Spanish Lesson

Whenever my name
is mispronounced,
I want to buy a toy pistol,
put on dark sunglasses,
push my beret to an angle,
comb my beard to a point,
hijack a busload
of Republican tourists
from Wisconsin,
force them to chant
anti-American slogans
in Spanish,
and wait
for the bilingual SWAT team
to helicopter overhead,
begging me
to be reasonable.


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