The knowledge hero

There is a particular type of hero out there. Let’s call them the knowledge hero. You’ve come across them if you’ve ever watched a feature documentary. It’s the voice of the narrator telling you ‘I was on a Welsh River, and I caught an enormous salmon that year. I was immensely proud. But I think it’s the last anyone’s ever caught around there. I kept going back, but nobody caught anything. And that’s what got me thinking: what was happening to the fish in the sea? That’s what I decided to find out.’

It’s a simple proposition: a single person – a man preferably – identifies a pattern in the world that they think is not right. It’s a change they dislike, or it’s a phenomenon they’re concerned about. Or maybe they’re just curious about something. It’s motivating enough, somehow, for them to go on a large, concerted and coordinated series of efforts to find out what the truth is.

That same character, is the common protagonist of detective novels: about a third of the books sold out there. Many romance and adventure books also contain an element of truth discovery. It’s about finding out what really happens, who the real problem is. See, we like to paint ourselves as adventurous pleasure seekers, or cynical money-makers, but we seem to be, first and foremost, a truth-driven species. And a man on a mission to figure out the real cause for something, and share it with the world, is a definite hero to us, in America, France, or Japan. Why is that? Because knowledge is power, knowledge allows you to make informed decisions on future behaviour, change the way that you behave, and from there, change the world around you.

Beyond the anglosphere – on a poem I read

As Covid-19 is putting us all in self-isolation, I have been going through my drafts and folders, putting some order into them. I resolved either to polish and share pieces publicly, or dispose of them. Some, I simply shared as is, others I contextualised. This is what I wanted to do here: in this post, I talk about anglo-ness as default in Australia’s cultural and literary world. As our borders lock down, at the same time that the world is experiencing a genuinely global trauma, some of the questions raised here may be more pressing than ever. So – what should we do, and what can we do, to no longer take ‘English’ as a default? 

Two days ago, my partner sent me the link to a poem by Koraly Dimitriadis, Greek-Australian writer and performer, called ‘an Open Letter to Melbourne Unesco City of Literature’. The poem throws flame at Melbourne literary institutions – festivals, magazines – denouncing their whiteness in explicit ways. And it expresses the rage of the poet for having to stay outside the door.

Oddly, this piece resonated strongly with me. I wouldn’t have expected it to. I’ve been trained in French formalisn, the raw emotional style jars with my classical taste, and I find its direct name-throwing discourteous. Yet I was moved.

I’ve been invited to many of the forums and events she names, disproving their exclusive anglo-ness, or non-queer friendliness. I never felt I was in as a ‘token foreigner’, and witnessed real commitment to diversity from the organisers, many of them women. Maybe because I’m nice and naïve – or maybe because they do have a genuine desire for more diversity.

And yet, in all these instances, I often felt a great solitude as one of the very few migrants, foreigners, non-native English speakers, among panelists and audience. I never quite know what these figures mean, but I read that in Greater Melbourne, 25 to 30% of people speak a language other than English at home. This is certainly not the soundscape I encountered at those events.

I do strongly feel the gap between a discourse putting forward cultural and linguistic diversity – aspirations to be some international city of literature, even – or in other circles, a part of Asia – and the domination of anglo-american authors and references in our literary life. It’s embarrassing, at a literary event, when you never heard of such American author, and the person you’re talking with has never heard of such Italian collective you love.

But it’s a tough game. It’s hard enough to lead a reasonable conversation within one’s own tradition. Trying to bridge aesthetic and ethical gaps may be beyond what audience or readership can accept.

I’m not sure rage is the most appropriate way to deal with this, but I believe we should be very aware of these issues she raises. And as a semi-white writer myself – for better or worse, I felt good after reading this piece.

On narrative experiences

Our current conception of music distinguishes three main figures: the composer, the performer, and the listener.

In Music, Nicholas Cook interrogates the Western construct of ‘music’ as an historically and geographically determined cultural experience. As I read his book (I’m up to chapter three), I wonder about writing as an art form. In particular, I wonder to what extent our current understanding of ‘writing’ echoes industrial production models. The writer is the ‘primary producer’ of a good (the book, the article), packaged and transported by intermediaries (editors, publishers, booksellers), and eventually purchased by customers (the readers). With this model as a background, we fight for the right of ‘writers’ to be paid in proportion to the quantity they produce – alternatively using word count or number of copies as a basis to calculate their share.

This framework has always struck me as dated and deceptive. Value chains are significantly more complex, involving layers of direct and indirect benefits, social, symbolic and financial. In addition writers don’t  produce goods in the way publishers do. Books and magazines are goods – texts may not be.

So what if we redefined writing as ‘crafting narrative experiences’, using contemporary service industries as a model?What new business model and value proposition could we come up with? What new prospects would that open to rethink the way we pay the writers, and the type of literature we produce?

On translation – reflections on English imperialism

Last year, I taught a class on translation at La Trobe University. On the reading guide from the subject coordinator is an article by Tim Parks about underpaid and underrecognised translator. I liked one part of the piece – a recurring theme against the praize of individual genius in literature. I winced, however, at the following passage:

‘Some years ago Kazuo Ishiguro castigated fellow English writers for making their prose too difficult for easy translation. One reason he had developed such a lean style, he claimed, was to make sure his books could be reproduced all over the world.

What if Shakespeare had eased off the puns for his French readers? Or Dickens had worried about getting Micawber-speak into Japanese?’

Indeed, but isn’t it remarkable how a Japanese author is thinking of overseas readers – while London-based Tim Parks defends the genius of his co-native authors, who should never compromise their own capacity to use all the resources of the English language so that barbaric French or Japanese readers might access them. These are not our audience – and we shall not cater to them.

This short extract – and my reaction to it – reveals tension between two different ethics of literature. One whereby the great book is written by a great individual. One whereby the great book is that which can access a larger number of readers – including, because the writing is easy enough, or universal enough.

Take the case of Italian epic-writing collective Wu Ming – possibly the most remarkable literary experiment to come out of Europe in the last fifteen years. They create myths for contemporary reader, and work as a group. There is no genius writer. And their work has been reasonably well translated.

With collective writing, translation can occur without the odd obsession that translators have, what Tim Parks describes like this: “You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then he sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to his experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness.” Note the gender of the pronoun.

Translators can take pride in this extreme level of attention to details. It is a remarkable, and remarkably undervalued skills. Yet there can is an hybris to translation – the desire to recreate, and deny the difference of languages – and an hybris to literature, that of the author directly communing with the language, and neglecting all considerations of their readership.