November 22, 2019No Comments

“The novel as a way to foster understanding”: full text

Keynote Speech: Ubud Readers and Writers Festival - 24th October 2019. Bali, Indonesia.

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.


May 27, 2019No Comments

On Male Refractions – English PEN

Male inadequacy and virtual mirages of aggression: Guy Gunaratne on terrorism, incels and the performance of violent masculinity.

I wrote something earlier this year for English PEN on our refractions of masculinity in regard to extremism and mass violence. It cane be read here.

February 22, 20192 Comments

Shamima Begum is as British as the rest of us

The decision of the Home Office to revoke the British citizenship of Shamima Begum, while using the justification that her Bangladeshi heritage provides her with an alternative means to nationality, raises serious concerns for those of dual or migrant heritage in Britain.

When working on my novel In Our Mad and Furious City I had the opportunity to research historic examples of how extremist sentiment manifests itself in the UK. One of the parallels I tried to explore was the pathological similarity between those involved in the sectarian violence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and those who join extremist groups like daesh.

What is interesting to note, especially in light of Shamima Begum’s case, is the difference in the position taken up by British governments in regard to dealing with former combatants and perpetrators of violence.

During the 1980s and 90s, former volunteers of the (Provisional) IRA (those who were regarded as terrorists but had laid down arms) were encouraged by the government and police at the time to re-enter communities in order to use their influence to de-escalate tensions in areas where Loyalists and Republican communities lived. These community networks still play a crucial role in preventing sectarian violence from escalating again.

Whether the likes of Shamima Begum or any daesh fighters seeking to return would ever be capable of a similar role-change, is difficult to say. But these historic efforts stands in stark contrast to the posturing of this current government. They choose instead to rescind this broader responsibility in favour of racist dog-whistling - which is what I believe this decision to be.

Not only is it incumbent upon the Home Office to reverse the decision to revoke citizenship from Shamima Begum, it is also important that the rest of us are clear eyed about the signalling that takes place whenever the Home Office – in this case Home Secretary Sajid Javid in using his special privilege - dilutes, muddies or otherwise mitigates the nature of citizenship in this country.

Whether it be the ongoing betrayal of the Windrush generation, the treatment of migrants at British detention centres such as Yarls Wood, or the status of European migrants post-Brexit, there is a need to hold this government’s record on human rights to account, and specifically, when it comes to how decisions are made in regard to who does and does not belong.

A precarious, and multi-tiered system of citizenship is no citizenship at all. And clearly, coupled with this government’s anti-migrant rhetoric, the precedent set this week is the latest in a series of efforts in not only appeasing racist anti-migrant sentiment in Britain, but also demonstrates how generations of migrants and their children may expect to be treated in Britain under this Prime Minister’s 'hostile environment' pledge.

It is beside the point as to whether Shamima Begum herself appears ‘sympathetic’ in her various interviews. Women of colour have a long history of being deemed unworthy of victimhood in these kinds of debates. But it is difficult to see how either herself or her baby could pose a threat to our national security.

It is telling also, that those who are against 16 and 17 year olds getting the right to vote in this country are also now arguing that Shamima Begum made her decision consciously. At the very least, the government has a responsibility toward the Begum family, whose daughter left for Syria without their consent. It is neither shrill, conciliatory or paying sympathy to terrorists to believe that citizenship should not be used as a political cudgel.

Like it or not, Shamima Begum is as British as the rest of us. It was here, in Britain, that she was radicalized. And it is here that she should face justice. The only way we can begin to understand the pathologies behind those who choose to follow ideologies of hate groups is to bring them home.

Perhaps it is too much to ask that debates around such an emotive story focus on individual rights and statutes. But political decisions must be. And while I am no expert in the legal ramifications of rendering a mother and child stateless, I am alarmed by this move. I see what is happening here, and I begin to fear what would happen if my own father fails to remember his passport the next time he is rushed to hospital.

Is my father British enough? Am I?

We need to assert our belonging as being grounded in law. Anything less and we abdicate our collective responsibilities as members of civil society. We also lessen the commitment we share to our own communities and as citizens ourselves. Clear lines must be drawn around what it means to be British in the first place.

October 4, 2018No Comments

Kathy Acker – Identity

Here's a great doc where Kathy Acker talks to Melvyn Bragg. It also features Robert Mapplethorn. I'm currently reading In Memorium To Identity. After seeing the Wojnarowicz display at the Whitney Museum in New York recently, I'm getting into a pretty serious phase, it looks like. I'm hoping to add Olivia Laing's Crudo to it.

July 8, 2018No Comments

Why attempt to understand our monsters?

I've often had a variation of the same question: why attempt to understand our monsters? Why write any book that refracts something like violent extremism into sympathetic characters?

Read more

March 29, 2018No Comments

Mathias Enard in conversation with Hisham Matar

Last year I read both Enard's Compass and Matar's The Return. Both books have stayed with me. The questions posited in these books seem not just to be bleeding into my writing, but also how I continue to live in the world, live with absence, and curiosity. Questions that are now all the more difficult to reconcile with my having shifted writing bases to Malmö in Sweden. I shuttle back and forth as I am continuing my promotional duties in the UK, mostly London. I live between cities. Between voices.

Here, Enard and Matar talk about Compass's translation into English by the brilliant Charlotte Mandel. Language, (Enard is a polyglot), the so-called Orient and the Occident, curiosity and art.

March 12, 2018No Comments

Ben Bailey Smith will be reading the audiobook for In Our Mad and Furious City

We've landed a truly exceptional artist to voice the audiobook for In Our Mad and Furious City.

Ben Bailey Smith - Doc Brown for those who know him as a performer from his many other works - will be voicing Yusuf, Ardan, Selvon and Nelson. It'll be available on Audible etc on April 19th.

I’ve heard samples. It's captivating, special magic.

I personally put Ben’s name forward for the audiobook and I’m so grateful the team at Tinder Press managed it. The guy has a reputation for a rare kind of integrity and I know he wouldn’t do anything unless he rated it. I wouldn’t want it any other way, and so it means a lot.

And guys, the fact that a fellow NW native (he grew up in Kilburn, Willesden Green) will be voicing the voices in my head for all of you, is astounding. We had long chat yesterday, about art, music, industry fluff, saying no to work, saying yes when you must, finding space for creativity. We spoke about words and spoke about his sister Zadie.

Here he is talking about what he saw in the book:

March 3, 2018No Comments

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist

Saeed I found hilarious, often moving. The choice to depict the experience of living in the occupied territories using satire is stunningly effective.

Moments that have stayed with me include Saeed's watching Yuuad leave the first (and second) time. His falling in love with Baqiyya:

"I mixed my tears with hers, an activity even more likely to preserve marriage than the mixing of blood in the veins of children."

Saeed's son Walaa becoming a fedaiy, the many reasons the boy gives for his choosing to fight while in a stand-off with the authorities. Baqiyya implores him to come out of hiding:

"Lay down your arms! The cellar is too small, you'll suffocate down there!"

"Suffocate? It was to breathe free that I came down into this cellar. To breathe in freedom just once. In my cradle you stifled my crying. As I grew and tried to learn to talk from what you said, I heard only whispers."

I highly recommend this. You'll laugh through the tears.

January 28, 2018No Comments

Shiraz Maher’s Salafi-Jihadism: The History of An Idea

I read this in tandem with Adonis' Introduction to Arabic Poetics, which I'm burning to write about. But this, it was a fascinating in-the-weeds analysis of the origins and overwhelming resilience of Salafi-Jihadism as a soteriology and political doctrine. The book is structured around specific categories that Maher describes as forming the Salafi-Jihadist project of "progress through regression" - itself a brilliant way to put it, and approach thinking about it.

The categories as I've previously noted were:
"al-walā wa-l-barā", the lines of loyalty and disavowal for the sake of Allah.
"takfīr", which delineates Islam against everything else and protects it against insidious corruption from within. e.g excommunication, banishment from the faith.
"tawhīd and hākimiyya" which explain what legitimate authority should look like and who it should serve. e.g how God's sovereignty is established within a political system.
and "jihad", the method of revolution. Literally means to exert of effort or struggle but also has a legal definition of combat or fighting.

Comprehensive and considerably deepened my understanding of the current conflict in Syria, its international implications as per global terrorism and the various regional conflicts of the last three decades.