IS THERE such a thing as a national literature – for Scotland, or any other country? And is such a thing desirable? The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference continued on Sunday with a lively debate on this issue, recalling the notorious “war of words” at the 1962 conference between the fiercely-nationalist Hugh MacDiarmid and the internationally-minded Alexander Trocchi.
Irvine Welsh, the main speaker, pointed out that the question has changed little in 50 years, but the context has changed immeasurably. Not only is nationality a much more complex concept today, but our view of internationalism is no longer utopian. Now, it is bound up with the homogenising steamroller of multinational capitalism.
Welsh’s address opened up the subject, but the conference participants – 50 writers from more than 20 countries – were clearly chaffing at the format of having a single main speaker on each topic. No one writer could be expected to address single-handed a subject which is, by its nature, so diverse.
Happily, other voices quickly joined in from the floor. Several Scots writers echoed Irvine Welsh, arguing that strong regional voices were needed to challenge the upper-middle-class English hegemony in much of literature. Alan Bissett argued that nationhood is not fixed, it is a constant negotiation, and literature is a place where this can happen. “If we don’t write about our own culture, who will?” he asked.
However, several international participants spoke in favour of a more cosmopolitan outlook. Kapka Kassabova (who has Bulgarian and New Zealand ancestry, but lives in the UK) said that internationalism enabled an opening of gates between nations from which she had benefited. Janne Teller (Danish, but with Austrian and German ancestors, now living in New York), argued that national labels were limiting: “When I write, I’m just a human being.”
Ben Okri (Nigerian in origin, now living in London) echoed this, saying that the responsibility of writers is to write as truthfully as they can about their deepest concerns, regardless of nationality, while China Mieville reminded us of the importance of literature which does not simply reflect our experience but surprises and astonishes us.
Later on the same day, Irish writer Anne Enright spoke of how her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Gathering, had been criticised in Ireland because it did not seem to reflect the country at the time it was published. Her experience touches on a point raised in the conference: that no one writer can hope to represent a nation. Indeed, writers tend to do best when they are not overburdened with such responsibilities. As Irvine Welsh concluded: “Don’t get obsessed with histories or legacies or markets or rules. Just hit the keys and let the magic happen.”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
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