I’d like to begin by thanking the festival and everyone here for inviting me to speak today. Along with the theme of this year, ‘Karma’, the subject of how literature, our stories, can foster understanding around our differences, is one that I hope will provoke many more conversations over the coming days.
Now, I am a novelist. It’s a term my wife often teases me about, why not just say writer, author. Novelist sounds so grand. But it’s a label – and it is just a label – that I’ve always thought found me rather than the other way around. The novel, as a form and in practice, just fits the way I naturally approach stories. The way I think. The form itself is wily, shifts its shape when I’m not looking, surprises me – it demands of me as the writer a more supple mind. It's the only way I'm able to follow through. I suppose if you asked a poet why poetry? they might say the same thing: the form fits.
As artists, we practice what we do in ways that nurture our curiosity. The forms that choose us guide us too somehow, lets us navigate to parts of ourselves that may be hidden. I’ve always thought of this as key. And whatever forms your own art may take, I’m sure you’d agree that there is something deeply inherent in the application that leads us toward self-reflection. We are drawn toward our art because we feel it may free us, and in turn, help others free themselves – and perhaps speak up.
However, as I was putting together this speech, I began to think about what place the novel, and literature in general, hold in today’s collective conscious. We live in a world, it could be argued, that seems beleaguered with too many words. Too much information. The air out there seems thick with near-constant commentary, both online and off. This constant stream seems only able to highlight our differences – whatever shocks or outrages us, in a way that engenders an essentialism within our public discourse.
Our political discourse has probably always been excited by provocation. But we are working in conditions now that seem to prefer, and gratify, reaction over considered response, a quickness to judge and often humiliate – think of Twitter, think of Facebook or even campaign rallies in real life. Words used in this climate can often harm, and can obfuscate and submerge any real meaning under the noise of goading, baiting and hounding speech.
In this deafening pall what good can come from literature?
Well, this all makes me think of a very nervous friend of mine. A friend who always seems to be scared. He deals with this fear by constantly talking, chattering away simply to distract himself from dwelling on thoughts he finds too difficult. I keep telling him to slow down, breathe, find some peace. And that finally, at some point, he must confront wherever all this fear comes from.
But, of course, I get it. For many of us, these are loud and difficult times. Often painful. And so we find comfort in talking ourselves away. Preferring mimicry to thoughtfulness. We’d rather draw lines in the sand so we don’t have to cross them.
But novelists, poets, musicians – artists. We can’t afford to avoid what makes us uncomfortable. We are fortunate enough to spend lots of time on our own. Thinking, formulating our expression. It is in these moments of relative quiet that we are able to confront issues many people would rather not consider.
It may be that in loud and difficult times it is the responsibility of any artist to seek that animating quiet. Even if it means approaching subjects that we find uncomfortable. The reason I insist upon this, at least for myself, leads me back to the original question: how can literature help foster understanding. Understanding – a word that sounds as serene and as familiar as compassion, can, in practice, often be fraught. It's something that needs to be fought for. We can’t do that by pretending differences don’t exist, or that fear doesn’t exist or even hate.
Many times, as writers, we may prefer to bridge these divides by looking toward our commonalities. What is beautiful about ourselves and each other. The things we share and bind us together. And that, of course, is well and good – as is writing to provide for escapism. But I think, in times like these, it may also be necessary for literature to dare to do different. To confront, interrogate at times, those human compulsions we may hide behind. As writers, we are able to use the quiet of our craft to be self-critical, to use the silence of our own souls, to confront the parts that aren’t always virtuous, both when alone and when we are together.
It is, after all, an essential part of being human which requires us to be open to our own fears. The things we'd rather guard against and what we might even loathe. We might all have a tendency to fail and fall short of civility, respect – we can be unkind to one another. But we must be able to turn an ear toward our own harmful words, our own harmful stories – be they national narratives or our personal insecurities. In doing so we may begin to hear how others hear us. Sadly, we cannot do this by focusing solely on what connects us. We must also think and write about the biases that drive us apart.
That necessary confrontation is what may illuminate rather than snuff out that word understanding. Whether we write about the borders between our nations, the fences, the walls we put up against or neighbors, we must also write about the human compulsions behind why, on some level, we all tend to draw boundaries around ourselves first.
That is why literature is such a radical form. One that has always had the power to emancipate and widen our imagination. It frees us from our tendency to self-deceive. Nothing radical has ever come easy and is seldom comforting.
And so, on these terms, what can literature do? I think the answer somewhere in our coming to terms with the fact that literature can only do so much – and usually it’s not enough. And the writer, the artist? The artist may begin by quieting the rest of the world for ourselves, so that we may do the same for others. We may be able to provide a private place to tell uncomfortable truths – in the same manner the poet Rumi once described as, ‘raising our words, not our voices’. Perhaps we do this through the intimacy of a good book, by telling someone a story that might not be easy on them, might even break their hearts, but it is still, as a pathway to forgiveness as well as understanding, always bound to be worth it.