Exploring the writer-reader relationship, whether real or imaginary
“I know it’s happenin’, but who is it happenin’ to? I know it’s happenin’, but who is it happenin’ to? What am I gonna do to wake up? ” cries Kate Tempest, the UK wunderkind, into an imaginary cellphone. On the largest stage of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017, she is performing her work Let Them Eat Chaos, part one- woman play, part rap, part poetry. Gutsy, gusty, genuine, she paints with brilliance and poignancy the world of anguished young Brits: “He can’t tell, he can’t dream, he can’t feel, he can’t scream … And he thinks, Is this really what it means to be alive?” But the packed audience of young Indian people knows without the shadow of a doubt who it is happening to and what it means to be alive: they feel only too urgently their desire for a better life, a better India. Still, they clearly appreciate the passionate lament, and with open minds try to understand the strange, frumpy woman plodding the stage.
Writers and their readers have to share a system of meanings: language even if translated, genre conventions, organization and structure, pragmatics. Sometimes the overlap is only partial. The writers who come to Jaipur from all over the world encounter an audience quite different, for the most part, from what they are accustomed to. While the cultural distance may result in less symbiosis, it’s clearly a source of enlightenment and vibrancy for both readers and writers. Sudanese born Yassmin Abdel-Magied relishes it, invited from Australia as one of the youngest panelists. Having navigated different identities in her personal life, she promotes diversity and inclusion, and explores issues of race and gender in her memoir Yassmin’s Story. “The literary world tends to be elitist, and here’s a festival that is free, convivial, stimulating – and mobbed by Indian youth. This audience is getting exposed to issues they might not have been interested in, or are presented with new points of view, and that’s thrilling for the activist I am at heart.”
A tiny part of the audience is Western, mostly sophisticated tourists who like to travel uncommon paths. A larger portion is made of arts-oriented, highly educated Indians from all over the country. But students, some from Jaipur, many having travelled from relatively close Delhi, constitute the overwhelming majority of the attendees. They bring their exuberance and insatiable curiosity to the festival. While they spend a lot of time mulling around with each other, socializing at venders’ stalls, they cram the best events, and the long lines they form at the book signing booths would discourage less passionate devotees.
For Alan Hollinghurst, it is quite an unexpected audience, in a country where same sex activity is still illegal and heterosexual relationships outside marriage barely legal. In his novel In The Line of Beauty which won a Man Booker Prize, he describes in explicit detail the London gay world under Thatcher. To Hollinghurst, the difference between the writer and the reader is essential to the art of the novel. “If I write, ‘He was standing outside Buckingham Palace’, everyone will imagine the scene differently,” says Hollinghurst, looking both elegantly comfortable and fragile behind his glasses as he speaks to an engrossed audience at the main venue. “To me, writing is thrilling because the novel is an interactive form, its world created anew by each reader.”
Writers tend to have an imaginary reader in mind when they work, whether they try to seduce, or fool or convince this creative partner. Reciprocally, anyone who reads a novel is let inside the writer’s psyche, to experience the other’s pain, terror, joy, desire, ideas, concepts. The writer’s perception of the world and intuition of the human condition gets communicated in a way that can’t happen outside the arts. In this, writing and reading offer a unique opportunity to break down our essential loneliness as human beings.
This meeting of the minds was not quite enough relief from the solitude for William Darlymple, a historian whose books about Indian history are both meticulously researched and passionate. He founded the Festival 10 years ago with a few like-minded people. From the first edition of the festival, writers were intrigued to discover Indian culture and share their work with a different audience. Colm Toibín, Orhan Pamuk, Gloria Steinem, Ian Coetzee, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie were among those who couldn’t resist the call. Anyone coming to the Festival expresses their awe at its magnitude: 6 stages going at the same time, dozens of writers from the whole world, an audience in the 100,000s. The Festival is held on the grounds of an old palace turned hotel, The Diggi Palace. The buildings are old and exquisite, the gardens picturesque, the audience dressed to a hilt. All in the atmosphere of an Indian wedding, with live music, food, turbaned waiters, heaps of petals, colorful ribbons.
That’s a fitting atmosphere for Lila Azam Zanganeh who describes in her book, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, her passionate love for reading. “Reality gets phosphorescent from the writer’s magic touch, it becomes a work of art. The world is the reverse side of a magnificent fabric on the loom of the creator!” She weaves with lyrical detail her path through the world of Lolita, an experience that transformed the way she saw the world around her: America was never the same again after having been touched by Nabokov’s wand. When she read his Ada, she had moments of intense insight that were sensual and sensory: for her literature comes from the body. While she has a daily writing routine, her texts accompany her in her daily life, as she meets people and experiences the world. Her relationship to the imaginary reader, a co-creator of the work, belongs to the amorous realm, where sometimes the writer is the seducer, sometimes the reader.
Adam Thirlwell, an E.M. Forster award winner, explores literature in inventive, novel incursions in ways similar to Zanganeh. But he sees his role and that of his reader as players rather than lovers. In this cat and mouse game, he inserts himself in the readers’ heads, guessing their assumptions about plot and style, fulfilling or frustrating their expectations. His imaginary reader morphs for each work, whether it’s an essay or fiction or yet a different genre. In the Delighted States, his exploration of writers, novels and their translations, he addresses a very educated audience that he provokes gleefully with his whims. As he writes, he likes to keep in mind the human memory span, quite aware that the reader operates in a different time frame. Whereas it might take the writer years to complete a book, it’s a matter of weeks or days for the reader. Unless, of course, the reader decides a book’s universe is not a good playground – the role Umberto Eco assigned to literature – and abandons it. While we tend to think of the writer as all powerful, the reader controls the endgame.
Readers have power not only over the act of reading, but also in real life, by virtue of their numbers. Some writers, particularly of non-fiction, address their readers for their potential to bring about change. North Korean author Hyeonseo Lee’s relationship to the reader, whether imaginary or in the flesh, is quite clear: her goal is to expose the truth. The Jaipur audience empathizes strongly with her account of growing up in North Korea and escaping to China. As a child she was taught, and believed, that everything good came from the North Korean dictators. She felt lucky to live there, since in other countries, she was told, babies were left to die in the street and health care was nonexistent. Her memoir was written as a record, a testimony, that she hoped would get attention from powerful countries so they would pressure for change. Since its publication, the results have been more far-reaching than she ever expected. Eight million people have viewed her TED talk on YouTube. People, she explains, compare their lot with hers and realize how fortunate they are. A fervent light permeates her face as she describes her account’s effect: “My book helped a man who had cancer go through the treatment. In Italy, a doctor, his daughter lost her two legs in a car accident. He read my book. He found encouragement. His daughter also read the book. A university student who was about to give up went back to his studies.” Her next steps? “I have to keep writing. I’m a human rights advocate. My second book is all about women’s rights. Also non-fiction.”
Rather than reaction, Emma Sky was looking for redemption in telling her story. In 2003, she responded to an appeal for civil volunteers by the Coalition Forces in Iraq and was catapulted to a Northern province of Kirkuk in Iraq to act as its governor. No brief, no training, no guidelines. In The Unravelling, she recounts with extraordinary insight the next 10 years of coalition government in Iraq, with the unique perspective and objectivity of a British civilian. One American general, Raymond Odierno who hired her as a consultant, earned her respect. But she details the gross incompetence of the Coalition as well as the general arrogance and naivety of the occupiers. The Jaipur audience is engrossed by her tale of the West’s know-nothing blundering, and eagerly veers into debate of current politics. Everyone is very critical of Trump, somewhat critical of Putin, and totally uncritical of Modi. Over a thousand spectators pack the venue for a panels entitled “Do We Live in a Post Truth World?” in a raucous atmosphere, to iconic poet activist Anne Waldman’s delight. Her speech about calling women to power to redress the political situation in the US is received enthusiastically.
Politics are also on Alex Ross’s mind, the New Yorker music critic. He discusses aspects of the history of music in relation to power and its abuses: the uneasy relationship between Stalin and Shostakovich, between Hitler and Strauss. Asked about a similar interference of politics in the US, he explains with a subtle irony that classical music, a disregarded sideline to the arts, is quite safe from political attention. Having put the final coda to a brilliant exposé, his tone changes, his voice sounding suddenly deeper and less assured: “It has been a solace to experience the exuberance, multiplicity and polyphony at the JLF, while my country knows its saddest and scariest time in a long time.“
The literary festival is an affirmation of the power of literature through the celebration of minds, of creation, of language. Some writers do not see the need for literature festivals, but to many it is a reward for the hard work of writing. Thirlwell finds that as panelists, if writers hold on to sincerity, they might come up with some new insights. Stimulating conversation with other writers deepens their perception of literature. “Locality also makes for a different, new experience. I participated here in a panel about translation. While in England, this is an issue that’s quite abstract for most readers, people constantly face language barriers in this country, whether it’s in literature or in their daily life. This festival is also less business-oriented than in Europe and less formal, quite exuberant in fact.” For other writers, festivals are a source of support. Proof of their popularity might come from the sale of their books, from their admirers’ emails and letters, but actual encounters in the physical realm are irreplaceable.
Manju Kapur has experienced success with her compelling novel Difficult Daughters. To explore why so many educated women lead menial lives in India, she turned to the story of her own mother who struggled to make a living as a young widow. As a consequence of this very personal process, her imaginary reader resembles her: female, educated, inquisitive. “Writing is a lonely business. In that solitude, doubts often wriggle their way in. Some readers at festivals tell me my novel gave them a new insight into women’s condition, or their own. Later I remember my writing made a difference, it keeps me going if I run into a blockage with a text.”
Just as it is for writers, festivals are a source of enjoyment and stimulation for the audience. These international events also add validation to the place they mark by their presence. For the duration of the Festival, Jaipur, usually a commercial hub of jewelry industry, turns into a literature capital. The fact that many foreign writers attend the Jaipur Literature Festival gives it an additional cachet. The audience comes to the festival attracted by the celebrity of the writers, by the intellectual content, and to socialize with their friends. Additionally, many of the younger attendees are budding writers looking to educate themselves, which delights writers Hollinghurst, Zangeneh, Waldman as they share specific advice and encouragement. Darlymple exults: “Our goal was to expose writers and readers to each other, and now we are turning up the next generation of writers. It’s thrilling.” The meeting of minds comes full circle as these aspiring writers might count the current speakers among their future readers. They might even participate in a panel on that very stage.
Arabella Hutter was the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers from 2012 to 2015. She was a regular contributor to Le Temps, and currently writes reviews of art, opera, theater and literature.