One cannot get away from one’s place

Dear Editor,

What a pleasant surprise to see the recent Nobel Prize for Literature award the subject of an editorial in the local press. I refer to the “Unimagined Homelands” editorial in Stabroek News of October 19, 2013. Indeed the literary arts are alive and well in Guyana. I commend the editor for drawing attention to the lesson our own writers may take from who was chosen and what characterizes her work.

Without knowing it, local writers may set their sights on producing one of those “transcontinental fictions currently in vogue,” hoping the end product would be a “global novel” that would make them “marketable internationalists.” Bearing in mind the boundlessness of the imagination and the inexplicability of genius, I would not discount someone in Kurupung, NWD, accomplishing such a feat.

But the example of the winner Alice Munro, as pointed out by the editor, is most instructive for us. Her oeuvre is “lower-middle-class gentility.” Writers of this mold focus on “what is in front of them.” They pay attention to “their immediate reality.” They are not put off by their “too particular a locale.” It is the telling of the tale that sets the work apart. How it is done can make the local universal and the particular general. In a word, “quality can still trump literary fashion” and make the book suitable for consumption across borders and nations, regardless of the subject matter.

V.S. Naipaul’s “Miguel Street” is a good example of what I am talking about. It is not set on Broadway or Piccadilly Circus. Tiger Bay might be a more appropriate approximation. The average American would call the characters in that book misfits, riff-raff, no-goods, losers—you get my point. Yet “Miguel Street” has never been out of publication since it was first published in 1959. The royalties from that one book will continue beyond the grave.

Still, sometimes it is not the quality of the writing that first attracts publishing houses. For example: because Syria has just now become all important, writers from Syria will be sought after. It is not their writing that calls for attention initially, it is where they happen to be from. The reasoning is that the world is now awakened to Syria, let us fill the void with one or two Syrian writers, who have now automatically become an internationally marketable commodity.

Be that as it may, one cannot get away from one’s place. I believe that part of the reason for Edgar Mittelholzer’s suicide is that he was too long removed from this origins and his past. It affects the artist more than it does others. That landscape is your canvas. More than that, it is your muse. Listen to it or you will pay the price.

Yours faithfully,

P.D. Sharma

Los Angeles, CA  

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