Thursday, October 16, 2014

Literary Parochialism and its Discontents

It will come as no news that UK structures of power are deeply averse to diversity (see here and here, just as examples) but a recent set of literary events have prompted me to examine both the issue and its consequences on culture, its production and circulation. The Exhibit B mess at the Barbican, when the protesters felt unheard while the 'establishment' closed ranks and few of the issues raised were addressed is possibly the starkest recent reminder of the parochialism in the the country's cultural establishment.  But I know the literary world best and I want to discuss that more closely.

Ten years of living in London and being actively engaged in writing and publishing means I have grown increasingly familiar with the literary 'establishment' - and here I mean the publishers, agents, editors, reviewers, etc. rather than academics (the latter require a whole other blog post). With few exceptions, literature doesn't pay, and it is necessary to note that most of the people involved in literary production and circulation are not only passionate but deeply committed.  Many are wonderful people (and I am fortunate to count many of my friends among them).

I say the above to make a simple point: on an individual level, the city's literary establishment is made up of wonderful human beings. On a structural, collective level however, there is another story.

It will come as no surprise  to most that Britain's literary establishment is as lacking in diversity as its academia, press, and various other fields (intriguingly, the much reviled City is also most diverse, perhaps as a result of focussing on profits, especially in a globalised world). A publisher recently described reviewers as results of 'public schools and some crack comprehensives.' He may as well have been talking of just about any part of the British literary world - with possible, and with caveats, exception of writers themselves.  It is this 'establishment' - made up of a very narrow group of people - not only impacts literary production, circulation and consumption as well as the larger issues of formation of 'taste', and assignation of cultural 'value.'

And this is where the narrow demographic that makes up this 'elite' becomes problematic. Race, gender, class, all contribute to our world-view. In case of literature (and cultural production in general), if most of the arbiters of taste and value - including the decisionmakers for books that are published, reviewed, win literary prizes - are drawn from a tiny homogenous group in society, we end up with a parochial mindset. So same sort of books are prized, same narratives are privileged, and indeed, same kind of authors lauded. A corollary of this is that passively, unconsciously - if not actively - alternative, 'different' voices are shut out. A closed communication loop is thus set up between a narrow group of people choosing the books they want to publish, others like them reviewing them, and even further more similar (if not the same) people serving on juries that reward them with recognition/prizes/cash/any and combinations of these.

One could argue that this has always been so (and I have heard these arguments made in earnest); that literature (or art, or theatre) has always been 'elite' arenas. One may also question if this matters at all. I would argue - and not only for personal reasons - that it does. A closed, homogenous group is self-affirming, parochial, incapable of change, and indeed eventually self-destructive.

In practice this means, for example, the inability to read, appreciate, or even be interested in literatures that do not reaffirm the entrenched (dominant) parochial world view. So books that are seen as 'different' are often only superficially so, and instead of challenging the parochialism, tend to reaffirm them. The lack of diversity of backgrounds, experiences, world views, and opinions mean that there is little or no challenge to the perpetual self-affirming feedback loop. This means even when a book is nominally different - presenting, for example, a working class, or non-white, or queer perspective, it is still selected, judged, viewed from a narrow and parochial lens. Difference or 'challenging' often becomes a question of form rather than content, providing a comfortable illusion of intellectual risk-taking without any real danger. This also means that even 'different' narratives are filtered to affirm the established ethos instead of challenging them. In such cases, superficial difference is seen as enough and anything more is considered discomfiting, alien, even confrontational (or my favourite, 'too strange'). Over time this creates a situation where comforting, familiar work is prized and anything challenging is either blocked, ignored, or left out. And indeed, this is where British literature and literary establishment stands in 2014.

Of course most of this is due to structural inertia. It is easier to read or publish or review material that reaffirms our own beliefs. Reading that challenges - intellectually or worse, ethically - is uncomfortable business. And more importantly, it is hard work! It is easier and more comfortable to stick to what we already know.

There is a real world price to be paid for this parochialism as this feedback loop excises cultural production from real world concerns. In a globalised and interconnected world, there is real economic, political, even military cost to such deliberate ignorance. A society that shuts out most of its people from representation in, and production and consumption of culture, will find itself increasingly unable to examine or understand itself. Such a society will be incapable of not only recognising internal and external threats and risks to itself.  This society will also find itself incapable of examining or reflecting on not only the changes that may be necessary but also the transformations that are forced upon it by circumstance and history.

This refusal to engage with difference and discomfort also has serious cultural consequences. It creates a stale, staid conservative culture that is neither capable of growth nor change. It also steeps itself in nostalgia, in endless replication and repetition of supposedly valuable form while sacrificing substance. And finally, it stops engaging with the very society that sustains, nourishes and at the end consumes the cultural products that are created.

There is also a practical, even commercial angle to this. This literary/cultural parochialism also limits both sales and potential markets due to a seemingly endless replication of an ever narrowing set of narratives, viewpoints and world views. Regardless of UKIP-style nostalgia, Britain has irrevocably changed - demographically and culturally, and this change urgently needs to be reflected in the narratives and cultural production.  In many ways, one can argue, that this contemporary Britain is already producing and consuming culture even if it is shut out of the art, literary or cultural 'establishments.'  One could even make the case that perhaps the most exciting, challenging literature, art, theatre is emerging from places that hidden, and even far beyond the reach of the 'establishment.' But this would only be one side of the picture. Ignoring, refusing, actively or passively shutting out narratives, cultural products, world views that engage with the larger society, means fewer books are sold and read, both internally and externally. Moreover the arbiters of 'taste' remain in their fossilised glory, ever more irrelevant to the culture and society beyond.

This also means diminishing influence both within Britain and abroad. Internally, this means fewer readers engaging with a 'culture' that appears remote because does not include their concerns, anxieties, or stories.  Instead they are finding narratives in texts from countries across the globe (made accessible by the Amazon behemoth). Abroad, it means a loss of soft power (which Britain has exercised very well, especially through its literary production) and thus a diminishing of diplomatic, political, cultural, and eventually economic influence.

Of course, none of the arguments above are particularly new and there is little doubt that diversity matters. Few, even in publishing, would argue against it. The problem - however - is of inertia, of a passive and parochial literary elite that appear to prefer pulling up the drawbridge instead of engaging with the world beyond.  Frankly, even after ten years, I can see no way of persuading them to venture beyond their blissfully ignorant comfort zone.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Muscovado: A Disturbing, Powerful Play that Heralds an Extraordinary New Voice

A school night, in the midst of a busy week, and a very full day of teaching is almost enough to dissuade one from venturing across the river for pretty much anything. Add a blustery, rainy day, and Clapham Commons seemed even further away from my north London office. Still, I had tickets and company to nudge me along, so off I the Holy Trinity Church, that almost forgotten spiritual - and political - home of William Wilberforce who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade.  It seems apt, in retrospect, that I went to the church - for the first time, last night - to see Muscovado, written by the startlingly talented young playwright Matilda Ibini, and produced by Burnt Out Theatre

The brand new play had an initial run of ten days as part of Black History Month, but I might as well tell you right off the bat, it should be running at a major venue, backed by Britain's theatre big-wigs, and be seen by a LOT more people.  And frankly, if British Council and other tax-payer funded organisations are listening, they should be sending this one abroad too! 

We were greeted by a cheery atmosphere at the entrance, and my first reaction was surprise, and gladness, at very racially diverse, mixed audience -  in terms of race, ethnicity, class and nationality. Sadly, theatre-going in London - despite all its diversity - can be a strangely mono-racial phenomenon and I often feel marked out as the 'odd' one in most audiences. There were other little welcoming signs: in addition to the usual glasses of wine, there was the option of a warming, lovely rum punch. And much welcome it was after my cold, exhausting day! There was also a stand from the Caribbean Cafe selling the most delicious, restorative, food; ladies, you saved my life! 

As the doors opened and we streamed into the church, we were greeted by Parson Lucy (played by James G Gunn), and other characters from the play were already dotted around, seated in pews, eerily lit by candle light, or slowly weaving their way through the shadows. It can be tricky to perform in a space that isn't a formal theatre, but the director Clemmie Reynolds used the space well, and placing the actors in the church established an early complicity and intimacy with the spectator that made the play itself much more disturbing. 

The play itself unfolds in 1808 on the Fairbranch sugar plantation in Barbados. The timing is key as a year before Wilberforce had successfully pushed through the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in British parliament. On the Fairbranch plantation however, the Act brings little change to the slaves' brutalised lives, and commercial calculations of its owners. The set was sparse yet effective, with props moved around, and the church surroundings were used fully to stage, with the audience seated in the pews in the chancel, and a few chairs spilling out into the nave. 

The plot skilfully weaves together multiple characters including the plantation owner's wife and daughter, the local parson, and various slaves. However, Muscovado keeps the owner of the plantation as an off-stage yet all-powerful, sinister presence/absence. It is a masterful choice, signalling the invisible pervasiveness of racial, gender, and class privileges that continue to this day. It is this off-stage evil 'deity' who repeatedly rapes his wife, Kitty, and in a grotesque coming-of-age ritual, is also the invisible rapist of the distraught child-slave Willa (who may/may not be his daughter).

While the most upsetting parts of the play are familiar to us from slave narratives - the whippings, humiliations, brutal violence in guise of discipline, the casual but persistent degradations and dehumanisations of quotidian plantation life - they draw power from a source that is not often seen on screen or stage. Muscovado presents the Fairbranch slaves as fully formed humans, not merely as props for a morality play; they dream, they dare to laugh and love, they find hope and strength in unexpected places, and most importantly they continue to resist by reasserting their humanity in innumerable small acts, words and thoughts of defiance and courage. The script has - perhaps unsurprisingly - been compared to Twelve Years a Slave

I would reject that comparison. I found Muscovado more humane and more powerful of the two as it finds little need to make narrative and commercial compromises. Unlike the film, the play offers no easy resolutions. But it also refuses to let historically dominant narratives push slaves to the sidelines of their own history. Instead Muscovado offers one of the few instances where non-white bodies - and even more importantly female black bodies - occupy centre stage, in all their fullness, complexity, grace, and tragedy. 

There has been a long tradition - in writing, art, and performance - of silencing and erasing the female nonwhite body from our stories, stages, screens and imaginations; Muscovado is compelling for its powerful insistence on placing the ignored, fetishized, brutalised black female (and a single male) bodies, lives, and beings at the centre of its narrative. By keeping the sexual and non-sexual violence inflicted on the black female body off-stage, it refuses to let the audience revert to the default practices of fetishization we have been taught and thus distance ourselves.  Furthermore, by similarly keeping Miss Kitty's rapes off-screen, it forces us to examine both the similarities and brutal disparities of gendered violence; and yet by performing Willa's invisible violation on-stage, the play also refuses to excise the role of race in gendered violence.

Moreover, the script fully explores the complex web of relationships, oppression and brutality of slavery and racialised oppressions. It does not shy away from messy hierarchies of gender and race: Kitty is not only fully complicit in the exploitation and brutalisation of slaves, she is also the mastermind who realises the ban on slave trade can be subverted by using her own slaves as 'breeding stock.'  Yet, she is at the same time, also a raped, desperate, isolated wife who can find few allies and fewer friends and can drunkenly order a house slave to help her kill herself.  

Muscovado also confronts the role of the church, and its clergy in upholding, maintaining, and actively promoting slavery, thus also reminding us of the ways organised religion - and religious scriptures - were, are, and can be used to justify the most inhumane and unjust practices and structures. Parson Lucy's hate filled racist rant took on particular resonance when delivered from the Holy Trinity Church's pulpit.  I couldn't help but imagine that Wilberforce himself had likely heard similar justifications of slavery and wondered yet again about how and why some (so few) of us refuse the dominant narratives of our times, and the necessity of such dissent. 

The play is both powerful and disturbing, and more so for its insistence on complexity. The dialogue is both unflinching and at times scorching. Despite a myriad range of characters, the script maintains tight control of each character's trajectory.  If there are some loose ends, such as for Olive's fate, they offer a glimmer of hope, however false, in a bleak setting. The end is shocking, upsetting and unpredictable, perhaps because the motivations of all involved are clear and familiar, but also because the multiple layers of complicity are rarely explored in narratives about slavery, or indeed contemporary race and racism. 

The actors were well suited to their part, and I walked away once again wishing there were more room for talented non-white actors on British stage. Alex Kissin as Asa, DK Fashola as Elsie and Shanice Grant as Olive brought both emotional power and physical vulnerability to their parts. It is a credit to the script, the director and the actors, that despite the brutal setting and theme, it still provoked empathic and not only discomfited laughter. 

The Holy Trinity Church made a symbolically apt setting for the play although the acoustics are not ideal. I do wish however that Muscovado would find a longer run and larger stage for itself: it is ambitious, complex, powerful, and it delivers dramatic, emotional and political punch. That it is the work of a playwright not yet twenty-three is both extraordinary, and exhilarating for the promise it holds for the future. 

Full disclosure: I know the playwright Matilda Ibini who graduated from the Creative Writing programme where I teach. However, she did not take many classes with me and I can certainly claim no hand in her growth and stature as a writer. I am however very privileged to have watched her grow as an intellect and a writer during her degree. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A new era, and a wild card for India

There has been much analysis already of India's mammoth general elections and its new dispensation, specially the enigmatic new prime minister.  Most of analysis seems to range from gung-ho cheerleading from BJP supporters or desperate, now-the-deluge- hand-wringing from India's 'progressives. As a centrist, who leans right on fiscal matters but left on social ones, I have found both unsatisfactory and incomplete. More importantly, as someone who can write in English but has roots deep in India's rural heartland, and relies on a network of Hindi language news sources, local politicians, journalists and activists to get a sense of the grassroots, some of the analysis - and indeed political reactions and predictions - has felt quite distant from what I observed during my visit to India in April.

Firstly, there is no doubt that Modi - and it is important to distinguish this from the larger party - ran a tight, energetic, efficient, tireless campaign. BJP has shown itself riven by factions, centred often around strong personalities, but Modi early in the campaign seemed to circumvent, and in later stages, sweep all the factions along in his wake. Much kudos to his team that were able to manage the internal politics and divisions of the party.

While I may be seen as overly optimistic, this may bode well for governance of India. One criticism of Modi has been his authoritarian style, one that may work perhaps for a chief minister but will fail when confronting the mind-boggling diversity of interests a prime minister must address. His campaign's ability to rein in, manage and carry along the often very disparate elements of the BJP and its allies may be an indicator that Modi is not nearly as much of a solo player as many in the media have made him out to be.  

Secondly, I was struck by the positive tone of the BJP campaign. The 'achchhe din aane wale hain" (good days are coming) slogan may have sounded cheesy to metropolitan ears, but by focussing on quotidian but necessary needs - education, irrigation, welfare of the girl child - it appealed to those in small towns and villages who struggle to access even the most basic services and products a functioning state should provide. In comparison, the Congress television campaigns focussed on the past, seemed to be more about receiving largesse rather than tools of empowerment, and in one particularly tin-eared instance featured a Sikh 'farmer' lauding the party. A focus on past achievements is most unlikely to win support, specially amongst a predominantly youthful population focussed more on the future. 

It is also worth noting here that BJP also brought in an online code of conduct for its less than media savvy party rank-and-file in 2013. This rag-tag band of supporters led by some party members had caused immense PR damage, attacking and abusing anyone they felt was the 'enemy.'  In doing so, they often relied on grotesque sexist, caste-ist and sectarian abuse, demonstrating to critics the veracity of the party's (and Modi's) hateful underbelly.  Modi's team was smart to rein them in and limit the damage they could have caused in the months leading up to the elections. (Full disclosure: I was also attacked by these keyboard warriors for a period of about 10 months. I have been most surprised that they have gone dormant since mid-2013). 

However, without minimizing BJP's achievement in running a stellar political campaign, it is also necessary to note that circumstances were finally appropriate for a change in dispensation. I had expected the 2009 polls to push forward an anti-Congress shift: a youthful demographic with huge percentage desperate for development, education, jobs and with hopes for the future seemed quite unlikely to accept privileged heirs to various political and business dynasties as the face of change (led by Rahul Gandhi). I was wrong then, but perhaps the tipping point had not been reached, and in 2009, BJP was a deeply divided party that could not marshal a campaign, much less a government. The internecine rivalries were such that various party leaders worked harder to ensure the loss of their own candidates than to attempt winning the election. 

Both party discipline and demographic change within the voters combined this time to deliver a BJP electoral victory. Here it is crucial to note that the UPA-II was mortally wounded not only by the many scams, absymal economic policies, lack of governance and an increasingly hubristic attitude to the voter. UPA-II's attitude to popular movements ranging from Anna Hazare's Lokpal/anti-corruption demonstrations to the post-Delhi gang rape student protests was more reminiscent of colonial action than anything undertaken by elected representatives. It was also - far more than many 'progressive' analysts are willing to accept - hurt by the Gandhi clan!

Sonia Gandhi's super-PM-ship may have been possible in a time before social media and the dizzying array of small, regional, traditional and electronic media outlets. But the constant attempts to blame UPA-II for lack of governance while crediting her with any tiny positive decision or PR victory resulted in making her look dictatorial, albeit benignly so. Congress - better than any other party - should remember, after the Emergency, that the Indian voter may look for a strong leader but is not very amenable to dictatorial ones. Her inept son, Rahul Gandhi, fell into similar patterns, publicly tearing up bills tabled in the parliament, flaunting not his 'moral' credentials but rather his arrogant contempt for a parliamentary democracy. 

Priyanka, who has till now played the constant politico-familial bridesmaid, may have been hyped by the media, but her arrogance turned off more voters in the Hindi heartland than Congress (and their press enablers) are willing to believe. It is also delusional to believe that her much hyped resemblance to Indira Gandhi carries much resonance with voters who are mostly under the age of thirty, and thus have little memory - fond or otherwise - of that leader. 

What I was struck by most, however, was the levels of personalised resentment against the Gandhi clan.  In 2014, for many average voters - the storekeepers, farmers, taxi drivers, students who comprise the unstable but growing lower-middle class - the Gandhi clan had become a symbol of not only arrogance and entitlement, but rapacious greed. I was also struck by the numbers who expressed disdain for a dynastic structure of power, insisting that they wanted leaders who had 'done something' rather than 'part of a family.' A corollary to this is the rejection of the politics of largess, where populist hand-outs can win votes. This may well be a result of changes in economic and literacy levels of the population, but for me, it seems to be a positive development. 

In many ways, the Varanasi election can provide an insight into Modi's - and BJP's - success. The city lies in a primarily rural belt that has been long ignored by the Delhi administration, and battered by caste-ist politics of the likes of SP and BSP. Despite the numbers of religious tourists, and its location as a regional centre for education, medicine, business, Varanasi has seen little development, much corruption, and almost criminal neglect by both state and central administrations. Sadly, even then, Varanasi has received more attention that the neighbouring towns and villages, where poverty can reach sub-Saharan levels, there is little difference between political leaders and mob bosses, and police, district administration, judiciary and politicians collude to pillage the land with near impunity. Indeed, in most instances, there is little difference between the government in the area and the criminals. 

Few in the media noted that part of the Modi-mania in the streets of Varanasi and elsewhere in the country was also equally about desperation. At least in Purvanchal, there is a sense of utter desperation and despair, and many are willing to accept any change, because they believe they are already living the worst.

Varanasi is also in many ways a microcosm of India. It is one of the most sacred sites for Hindus and attracts millions of religious tourists. Just beyond the city limits, Sarnath continues to be a crucial Buddhist sacred site. It also boasts of the world-famous silk industry, now in an advanced state of decay, and almost entirely composed of Muslim weavers. The city also has neighbourhoods that have been historically dominated by communities from various parts of India, drawn there for its religious significance and settled within the city boundaries for centuries. It is worth noting that despite the platitudes about Varanasi's pluralism - and secularism - in much of Indian press, the communities do not always co-exist without tensions. Economic scarcity and political manipulation have in recent decades added to these inter-community tensions. 

The 2014 elections marked a big change for Varanasi, the surrounding region, and by extension for the country. The Congress candidate was a well-known mobster, known for violent crime. The AAP candidate offered a middle-class 'new' option but was seen in the city as Congress's B-team, specially amongst many of the middle-class. Modi - who received rapturous welcome from many - was received circumspectly by the numerous Muslim voters in the city. His reputation - and the lingering stain of 2002 Gujarat riots - made that inevitable. But for the first time in many election cycles, many in the city and the region dared to hope that political attention may lead to positive changes.

However now the city waits - much like the country - divided between wild hopes and guarded ones, but also with fear amongst some and palpable worry. In Varanasi, Modi has made specific promises for development of the city. He has also reached out - not in the vote-bank way of Congress, SP and BSP - to the Muslim community. While he has refused the facile symbolic political gestures such as visiting the Gyan Vaapi mosque, he has promised 24-hour power supply to the weavers, as well as twinning them with the industry in Surat. As a sound-bite generator, this makes little news. But for those of us who know how desperately the weaving community needs assistance, this holds out a ray of hope. 

There is also talk (unconfirmed) of a PMO office branch in the city, suggesting that Modi will be spending at least some of his time in the city and far from the rarified confines of Lutyen's Delhi. In the days since the elections results were announced, the city has been on knife-edge, waiting with bated breath for 'change' to begin, and every bulldozer, every crane heading to a public site is seen as a symbol of that change. There is a sense of anticipation, hope, a barely suppressed shiver of excitement that I - for one - cannot remember from before. 

Therein also lies the danger: Modi has promised 'good days,' and we all know these can't be delivered overnight. And yet, he will need to deliver, and fast. In many ways, he has much leeway specially in areas like Varanasi, Purvanchal and much of the non-metropolitan India that has been so ignored and depleted that any change will be gratefully accepted. At the same time, he is faced with a young, clamouring population that may fast run out of patience if the promised changes are not visible soon. 

Then there is Modi himself. Hero and villain, depending on who speaks. Messiah for his fans, the veritable face of evil for his detractors. Despite his many appearances on television, there is little public sense of the man himself. His track record as chief minister is mixed, albeit better than most others (although given many of India's chief ministers, this may be a particularly low bar). 

I have written about Modi before, and while I am (still) not a fan, I do not believe his prime ministership will spell the end of India, or indeed marks the country's transformation into a fascist dictatorship. A majority he has been given makes his path easier to push through some of his governance agenda but I doubt his government will lead to sectarian pogroms as many seem to predict. But then again, I have been called an incurable optimist by many. I choose to remain so, specially when it comes to India, and even now when the country has thrown up a wild card.