“Home” for me evokes a certain consciousness that dates from before my move to Abu Dhabi. Leaving home meant leaving behind not only my family’s house and my hometown, but also, in a way, my mother tongue. Therefore, I have selected Slovenian music, or songs by musicians and bands at least partially Slovenian—both “evergreens” (as we call the legendary classics) that I grew up with, and contemporary tunes by my friends and musicians who I have great respect for and whose concerts and performances have punctuated my youth. The songs take me back to the memory of home they helped shape—my formative years in Ljubljana as it was then, filled with family and friends.
1. Marjana Deržaj: Poletna noč
2. Elda Viler: Lastovka
3. Svetlana Makarovič: Bifejska rastlina
4. Melodrom: Preden grem naprej
5. Lollobrigida: Stroboskop
6. Vlado Kreslin & Severa Gjurin: Abel in Kajn
7. N’Toko: Slovenec sem
8. NAPRAVI MI DETE: Gorska
9. New Wave Syria: Let It Out
10. RondNoir: Monsun
Grega Ulen is a member of the NYUAD class of 2017.
As I buzz myself out of my Parisian apartment and light a cigarette, I wave at my Algerian neighbor through the window of his Arabic bookstore Librairie du Monde Arabe. Counting my steps to the tune of Edith Piaf’s Dans ma rue, “On My Street,” recently popularized by raspy-voiced Zaz, I swiftly stroll along my street. Russian, Ethiopian, Lebanese, and Chinese restaurants, a Greek fast food joint, a traditional French brasserie, a pub appropriately named after a saint — I consider how everything in this microcosm looks so well put-together and the mental snapshots sink in my memory as tableaux vivants I wish would never fade away.
Even outside the restaurants, I devour exquisite cuisine: the cuisine of the Parisian urban landscape. I think of my leisurely strolling as flânerie, a trope from French literary and cultural history that Honoré de Balzac, one of the founders of French realism, described as “gastronomy of the eye.” I dare to imagine myself in the worn-out shoes of the central flâneur, Charles Baudelaire, and venture to find myself in his words: “To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.” Worn-down though his shoes were, Baudelaire’s words remain forever spirited.
There is a word in Arabic that comes to mind: ghurba. My Arabic textbook Al-Kitaab translates the word as “longing for one’s native land, feeling of being a stranger” but its semantic field is much larger, ranging from detachment and homesickness to alienation and exile. Ever since I have first crammed my whole life into a standard checked-bag allowance and left my home of twenty years, I have felt ghurba in varying degrees. Drifting between my family house in Ljubljana, the NYUAD residence halls in Abu Dhabi, and my very first, very own apartment in the Parisian Latin Quarter, this uprootedness—albeit voluntary—only intensified as the idea of home started fading away. When the office of the administrative unit in my hometown handed me a document characterizing my legal status as “emigrant,” it foreshadowed my mental state of “homeless,” and the Slovenian words (zdomec and brezdomec, respectively) aptly indicate the blurred line between the two. But “home” only ever transforms: I have found mine in words, languages, poetry. Not unlike Baudelaire in his dialectic, I feel myself everywhere at least partly at home.
In fact, the “passionate spectator’s” sentiment gains in purity when I remind myself how many of the refurbished (read: gentrified) quaint dwellings throughout the Latin Quarter used to house this great French poet. Baudelaire lived his poetry and poetized his life in much the same way and I pass by many of his over forty accounted-for “homes” during my voracious strolls throughout the quartier. Few know that the small Île Saint-Louis, one of the two remaining natural islands in the Seine—the other supports the lavish Gothic cathedral Notre-Dame—used to provide an abode for Baudelaire and his Club des Hachichins. In the 1840s, the “Club of the Hashish-eaters” included some of the great French literary figures, including Gérard de Nerval, Gustave Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, and Honoré de Balzac.
Some paddle strokes further along the river, a plaque commemorates a former home to a couple of French intellectual giants, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and I wonder if this address is where they seduced their students into ménages à trois. Decades before them, a band of fin de siècle Symbolists owned the quarter: the poètes maudits, cursed poets. In Paris, the times change, but the company does not. Before the tourist industry, the left bank of the Seine used to be The Left Bank, la Rive Gauche, the Paris of writers, philosophers, and artists. Beneath all the hustle and bustle of souvenir shops advertising “1 for 3€, 4 for 10€,” intellectual fireworks are inscribed on the historical memory. I can see the enchanting Luxembourg garden close by and almost feel the ambiance of Gertrude Stein’s salon, which hosted the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound … On the other side of the jardin, young Jacques Prévert was growing up at the same time—perhaps my café crème used to be his Breakfast. I am mesmerized by the spaces marked with indelible intellectual history and a false sense of self-importance overcomes me.
As I approach my street, I reflect on my share in that history. I wonder what traces of ink I might leave on the palimpsest of the rue de l’école polytechnique, which harbors me so generously. The tiles I stride on overlay the fertile soil on which vineyards once stretched. There used to be an abbey here, frequented in the 5th century by Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, who lent her name to the hill into which my little street was carved. Not much later, church schools sprung up, joined in the 11th century by one of the first universities in Europe, la Sorbonne. Students and academics settled on this soil, echoed by generations that followed. This very soil then welcomed bookstores and printing houses and it cried when it was made to carry public gallows for the executions of sinners and unruly publishers …
Photo Credit: Xinyi Wei
And today? People from all walks of life pass their days on this little street that bears witness to layers upon layers of knowledge. The headquarters of L’Harmattan, one of the largest French publishers, stares back at me through my window and I bow down to everything the scraped green façade stands for. In my third-floor apartment, I live on top of a deep history of education.
Ali, the owner of the Lebanese restaurant opposite my house, wraps me a shawarma for dinner while we reminisce about Beirut we both last saw a year ago. He complements my Modern Standard Arabic with phrases in shami (the Levantine dialect) and I teach him how to wish bon appétit in Slovenian. Zaz’s voice slowly stretches out into the night: Dans ma rue il y a des anges qui m’emmènent, pour toujours mon cauchemar est fini. There are angels on my street that take me away, my nightmare is over forever.
Where is world literature? It is quite a slippery fish, and it is not yet certain where we should look for it or where we might end up finding it.
The idea of world literature is a current problem on several levels: society, the literature itself, and language. The question of world literature is in conversation with the world-system theory pioneered by Immanuel Wallerstein, which deals with global economic and cultural power relations. On the level of texts, the problem of world literatures calls for discussion on which bodies of literature dwell in the domain of world literature, how stable a place they occupy, what are the criteria for the categorization, and who makes them. World literature also brings language into question by constantly reinventing reading in translation and the relationship between a translated text and its original. From the perspective of a student of literature, I see two intersecting problems being crucial to the edifice of world literature: one concerning its content and the other questioning its language. Which set of literary works makes it to world literature; and what are the tensions between the original and its translations in terms of the language of origin of the text and the language or languages it branches into?
I have become familiar with and interested in the academic discussion of the concept of world literature through my coursework in Foundations of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi. On November 4, I attended a panel discussion with the Man Booker International Prize jury, entitled Where is “World Literature”? and sponsored by NYUAD Institute. The description of the event promised a conversation about the term which “suggests a territory without borders, where writers and their readers enjoy international mobility and intelligibility” and which was “coined to cover contemporary developments in fiction and the changing map of literature.” The quoted definition of world literature is only one of many that try to pin down this elusive category, but it seems to me catching the concept in some sort of a net is crucial for all further consideration. Since we are dealing with a still recent and unsettled issue, our first step should be to ground the term world literature for the purpose of unifying our efforts to understand and frame it.
Nadeem Aslam and Elleke Boehmer
A member of the Man Booker International Prize jury, novelist and Professor of World Literature in English Elleke Boehmer considered the forces which propel books across borders and compounded the question of world literature with three interrogatives: where, when, and who.
Where is world literature? Boehmer suggested that what was once an opposition between the city and the village is increasingly shifting towards the loci of the city, with world novels defining city life in various parts of the world.
When is world literature? Boehmer emphasized that it is important to think carefully about how to undertake the project of periodization. I would add that it is equally important to think about what is to be done with the frameworks that the Western intellectual tradition bequeathed: an example of the disconnect between established scholarly frames and emergent literatures is the confusion that arises when Eurocentric terminology applies labels like “modern” to a historical classification of the Arabic or other non-Euro-American literary traditions, in which “modern” may refer to completely different time periods and have completely different connotations. When the scope of literary studies is expanded to the whole world, I think the academic language needs to be reevaluated as well.
Who is world literature? Prizes like the Man Booker International elevate certain works and authors above others and launch them into the critically acclaimed literary sphere. Marina Warner, Professor of English and Creative Writing and jury chair, said that international prizes create a communicable world of books for global consumer culture, but I think that international prizes are distinguished from national awards because they also create or at least participate in creating a system of world literature. The Man Booker International Prize differs from its sister Man Booker Prize in its discretion of selection. Because the jury does not accept any submissions from publishers, the jurors themselves become active agents responsible for shaping the landscape of world literature; more than global currents of economic or literary capital, their affirmative action plots the literary activity that is disseminated into the world. “Who” can thus become a double-edged sword: not only who produces texts and subsequently becomes part of world literature but also who collaborates to manufacture the system of world literature? When we think about the players in “world literature,” we need to keep in mind not only the roles of publishers and readers-consumers, but also those of prize-givers as well.
It seems to me that while we have established different characteristics of world literature, we still have not made any attempts to throw our net of definitions into the water. A final question is therefore missing: what. What is this body of literature whose places, times, and individuals we seek? What is world literature?
Since Johann Wolfgang von Goethe first coined the term “world literature,” the concept of reading beyond one’s culture and language has been constructed and deconstructed again and again. David Damrosch, founding director of the Institute for World Literature at Harvard University, has written widely in the fields of comparative and world literature and in What is World Literature? (2003) he asserts that world literature is “not an infinite, ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading” that “encompass[es] all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language.” Italian scholar Franco Moretti, trained as a Marxist critic, borrows from the world-system theory to model the network of world literature upon a system of social and economic organization: he defines world literature as one, though unequal, system of inter-related literatures, a comprehensive system of variations.
All of these attempts at containing world literature are useful for the future academic discussion they provoke; I would even go so far as to say that every conversation about world literature first needs to furnish the abstract concept with specific meaning. Another jury member, Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature Wen-chin Ouyang pointed out that throughout the discussion three adjectives, “international,” “global,” and “world,” were being used interchangeably. I began noticing the same trend, but I believe that “world” in “world literature” is a modifier so essential to the concept that it cannot simply be replaced with a synonymous adjective. The shift from literature of the world to world literature requires contemplation of the differences between the two.
The jury shared a sentiment that certain universal themes and motifs work as a binding agent that maps onto the landscape of world literature. Jury member and novelist Nadeem Aslam said he feels kinship with other writers when contemplating the notions like mother or home, which are both ubiquitous and grounded in the cultural locality. The jurors seemed less concerned with the conceptual framework around “world literature,” but I insist that world literature—precisely because it is not just literature of the world — demands something more than eternal or ever-present elements and stories. Even though it is a good starting point, the criterion of universality is a too expansive conception of world literature.
But geographical dimension is not the only one we need to pay attention to. Warner highlighted that in world literature theories, the dissemination of literary works occurs in two directions: from the level of local to international and from one language to another. The language the jury is reading in is English — and it struck me as a silent condition that the destination language of all world literature must be English as well.
Warner expressed succinctly the jury’s target: “Anglophone in orientation, global in reach.” The project of “world history” inherent in the Man Booker International Prize selection is therefore very restricted: the website for this year’s prize states that “the prize is awarded every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language.” I think a more accurate articulation of the jury’s problem and the title of the NYUAD Institute discussion would therefore be: where is world literature in English?
The choice of judges for the panel suggests what Warner confirmed in an informal conversation with students and faculty earlier that day: after the Man Booker International Prize went to authors from Canadian and U.S. traditions in the past three years, this year’s prize aims at a shift to so-called “peripheral” literatures. Boehmer pointed out that works of postcolonial literature today appeal across culture, not just through translation but also through experiences of transplantation that link us in the globalized world — another “universalizing” concept that can be challenged. She also emphasized a recent shift from postcolonial literature to world literature, and therefore from a conception of literature based on paradigms of center and margins to a seemingly democratic totality, as the event description indicated. More pressing questions appear: does the new literary system only omit the place and influence of the British Empire, as a member of the audience pointed out, and how egalitarian is world literature, really? Does increasing the body of literature to the global level and still containing it to English language mean a demise of Anglophone Eurocentric hegemony or simply its transformation?
Contemporary debate still rages about whether literary works can enter and exit world literature and whether all of Western canon has a secure place in it, but there seems to be less disagreement whether the language of our studies should be English. I think a critical question presents itself: is the project of world literature in English a logical expectation in an increasingly English-speaking world system or is it a new form of Anglophone linguistic and cultural imperialism?
In How to Read World Literature (2008), Damrosch views translation as the crucial tool that enables a text’s circulation and thrusts it into world literature, enriching the sets of meanings rather than curtailing them. What is lost in translation is lesser than what is gained, because in Damrosch’s view translation is “an expansive transformation of the original, a concrete manifestation of cultural exchange and a new stage in a work’s life as it moves from its first home out into the world.” It is therefore important to read in translation and be critically aware of the translators’ choices, both linguistic and social. Ouyang shared the experience of a confused reader who does not know which language system to tap into when reading in translation. “I speak all languages in Arabic,” she said playfully and described her reading experience of a novel as a multilingual artifact, nourished by her linguistic background. The others shared her observation: Aslam pointed out that he thinks in English but feels in Urdu, and Boehmer elaborated on a sense of double reading, a promise of the original underneath the translation. All of these experiences pose a fundamental question: are we reading and judging the translated text or its idea of the original? Or the original that we believe we can infer from it? How do we think about translated works? And are we not depriving ourselves of the complex linguistic interplay of multiplicity by reducing coexisting translations to one language?
I think at this point in the life of world literature it is more important to ask questions than answer them. But first we have to initiate a discussion about the problems arising from the conception of world literature in order to establish a common framework and terminology; or we have to learn from our inability to do so. The panel discussion was a step in the right direction insofar as it revealed a burning need to talk about world literature as a conceptual system: either as one big English-speaking fish we are hungry to catch, or perhaps more as a net we need to sew together to catch the flock of different fish swimming our way.
Grega Ulen is a second-year student at NYU Abu Dhabi, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing.
Five minutes into a film a friend described to me as “a documentary about the First Intifada,” I stared incredulously at the stop-motion animation of four cartoonish cows. The narrator introduced them as proud Ruth, pacifistic Rivka, overly dramatic Lola, and Goldie, the political activist. The graphics looked amazing, but I did not quite understand what animated cattle had in common with the power relations between Israel and Palestine. I soon found out the cows were a means of reducing Palestinian economic dependence on Israel — but they were also a lens for the representation of an important chapter in the Palestinian history. The Wanted 18, an inherently political film avoided politicization by narrating its story from the perspective of apolitical actors: cows.
A few days later, I found myself listening to a talk titled “Point of View: Objective Truth or Personal Perspectives in Documentary Filmmaking,” which brought together the director of The Wanted 18, Amer Shomali, and two other filmmakers, who were also members of the documentary film jury, Christina Voros and Amar Kanwar. The event was organized by the eighth Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which offered many feature and short films screenings, as well as special events ranging from various workshops to Q&As and discussions on contemporary issues in filmmaking, with a focus on the Arab world.
ADFF Point-of-View Panel: from left to right: Amer Shomali (director of The Wanted 18), Amar Kanwar, Christina Voros.
The discussion about the place of documentary film in today’s world started with a discussion about truth. Voros pointed out that in contrast with reality television, the fundament of the documentary film is the element of truth. Kanwar probed the concept of truth and its usefulness: truth is fluid through time as well as through perspective. Therefore, he observed, we have to say “no” to static vocabulary and adopt an equally fluid, ever-changing form of documentary filmmaking to keep up; new genres keep appearing that escape the narrow label “documentary film.” The Wanted 18 plays with audience expectations and combines animated drawings with archival footage, interviews, and reenactments to produce a nuanced testimony of a historical moment.
Regardless of our consensus about truth — whether one thinks it is absolute or relative, subjective or objective — we cannot overlook that once we attempt to capture it on screen, we frame it. A square two-dimensional motion picture is but a limited re-presentation of reality, and even without a narrative persona guiding the viewer experience, a restricted selection of scenes from real life is but a filmmaker’s perspective. I could not help but notice parallels in discussions about literature and film: documentary film can to some extent be compared to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European literary realism and naturalism. The trope commonly used to describe the literary movement at that time was to record everyday reality in order to depict it as objectively as possible, as if observing it through a camera. The perception that a camera can objectively represent the whole of reality with all its contingencies, however, is a fallacy. A camera is equally liable as the literature that invokes it to fail at recreating reality because even recordings of reality are necessarily filtered and subjected to an editing process that may include multiple points of view. The same applies to any work of literature trading on cachet of truth: neither is pure and unadulterated truth. Instead of talking about “truth,” I think it might prove much more useful to think about point of view.
Point of view is one of the most important issues in writing but often remains unquestioned in film, especially in documentaries, which general audiences nowadays still perceive to be “objective.” In fact, point of view is the main and continuously dynamic tool of structuring the narrative: now a Palestinian activist is telling his story, now an Israeli commander, now the cows are mooing and wondering where they are and why. A self-reflective filmmaker will acknowledge his or her presence while addressing the limitations imposed on the art. He or she needs to navigate the waters of personal investment, avoid drifting into autobiography as well as propaganda, and open up space for the audience to come in with their interpretation. Similar to creative nonfiction in literature, documentary film uses reality and remakes it into an independent artwork. Voros explained that in documentaries, she values intimacy over sophistication, and emotion over beauty: a director employs what is true in order to give the audience access to a place they could not otherwise go.
Neither literature nor the film industry however, have managed to escape the impact of the profit-driven economy that remade social relations in the twenty-first century. A member of the audience, an independent documentary filmmaker himself, asked the panel how to reconcile all the demands of the market: cinematic qualities, length, format, festival requirements… and ultimately, to abide or not to abide by audience expectation. Kanwar warned against making films according to a misleading idea of what is supposed to be “appealing” — to the general public, the target audience, the critics, a non-monolithic “million-headed monster,” as Voros dubbed it. She agreed with Kanwar, saying she only keeps market demands in the back of her head and instead pitches her films differently for different audiences.
As a literature student, I look everywhere for crossroads between social phenomena and literature, and the two-way relation of one imprinting itself on the other. Even the arts are forced to conform nowadays to the consumerist mold in order to subsist; we hear they need to be more entertaining because entertainment sells. We live in the tyranny of entertainment. Something as seemingly neutral as the news media has been remade into “infotainment”: truthful news crucial to informing and raising awareness of global dynamics, but remade into hip, flashy, popular commodities, attractive to the consumer. The birth of a “docutainment” genre comes as no surprise when the market wants to sell us an entertaining truth: documentaries in which enjoyable and appealing elements supplant the connective tissue of unbiased representation of truth. The Wanted 18 walks a thin line and begs the question of when the stylish and funny animations start to hinder the “truth” the documentary is trying to present. Literature has long been experiencing an impulse to commodify as well: paperbacks of trivial literature and formula fiction occupy the lists of best-selling books and fill the bookshelves of airport shops in special promotions to “buy one and get one free.” Arts are perhaps losing their autonomy when they are preoccupied with an idea of audience perception and have to look for ways around it, as the panel expounded.
(Creative) writing and filmmaking have become accessible to the masses: anyone with a smartphone can make a mini-documentary and post it online; anyone can write stories and many more get published than in the past. Constantly, professors tell their students to “show, not tell” a story. In his book on writing, subtitled A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies,Sol Stein explains this direction: “The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader is increasingly visual. The story is happening in front of his eyes.” As an editor, he knows the books that sell most are the ones that show, unfold the story before the reader. I enjoy literature that consumes me, not just my sight, but my hearing, smell, taste, my body temperature, my balance, the sensory cells on my skin. Despite the contemporary impetus to push the narrator in the backstage in the name of objectivity, we should pay attention to and reevaluate the narrator’s place in literature, the same way we should always keep in mind the director of the documentary film and his or her point of view. The Wanted 18, for example, counts on the viewer to extrapolate and evaluate the narrator and point of view from parallel accounts: interviews, reenactments, and archival footage.
The question “Objective Truth or Personal Perspectives” in the title of the discussion at Abu Dhabi Film Festival is therefore a false dilemma: whatever the truth is, it is fluid and can never be captured as a whole in an artistic work, but that still does not make it a subjective personal opinion. It is a dialectical synthesis of both, a representation of truth that is neither universal nor a mere private insight: it is an author’s prism through which audience should constantly reassess the truth and its place in the world.
[Photo Credits: top, Still from The Wanted 18; bottom, screenshot from ADFF website. Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Film Festival.]