Place, Language, and Literature

Place, Language, and Literature


Part Two of a Conversation with the Judges for the 2015 Man Book International Prize

[Editor’s Note: The Man Booker International Prize is a literary award given every two years to a living author of any nationality for a body of work published in English or generally available in English translation. Electra Street caught up with the judges for the 2015 prize — Nadeem Aslam, Elleke Boehmer, Wen-chin Ouyang, and Marina Warner (chair) — during their recent visit to NYU Abu Dhabi for a program at the NYUAD Institute on the subject of world literature. Click here for the first part of the interview.]

Jamie Sutherland: At one point during your discussion at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute, Nadeem Aslam said that the writing desk is the only nationality of the writer, even though this writer is nevertheless still trying to show the world’s injustices. Do you think that world literature has managed to transcend national identities and biases? Could we describe it as supranational?

Elleke Boehmer: I think that national identity is not as crucial as it once was. World literature’s concerns now may be the concerns of a region. Or the concerns of a certain minority. Or of a migrant community or a cross-border community. Or indeed of writers who simply feels that they’re representing themselves, their own particular situations. It doesn’t necessarily come down to national identity, which I think is how world literature was conceived in, say, 1895.

Wen-Chin Ouyang: I once had a conversation with David Damrosch, in which he conceded in that world literature can look very different depending on where you are. If you ask someone from China what world literature is, you’d hear about certain works that would be very different from the list compiled by someone from the UK.

I think the Asian contingency, the Asian bloc, has responded very much to David Damrosch’s idea of modes of circulation. For him, circulation is linked to a national canon and an international canon. He emphasizes canonicity. The movement is always from east to west, from the current periphery to center, to primarily London or New York, thinking about English. The Chinese would say that that’s not world literature: what about the “Pan-Asian empire,” the Chinese classics that are at the heart of a body of work that is shared across nations – Korea, Vietnam, China, Japan.

Sutherland: You spoke briefly last night about the ways in which literary centers and all these nodes in the network of world literature are still determined by traditional postcolonial power and influence.

Warner: No, I don’t think it’s only the old trade networks, because the very fact that we’re we’re here in Abu Dhabi shows that it follows also where the new money is.

There’s also the E.U. effect. The E.U. keeps having to expand because it has to find new people to lend money to, because it can’t profit that much from itself. That’s my view on it. I’m quite keen on being in Europe. But I also think it’s about we basically have enfiefed more and more people on the borders in order to have more markets that we can dominate. So there’s that effect as well, that actually publishers are looking not on the old trade routes, but on the new ones for people they can sell to now.

The old literary gentlemen actually were steel-headed businessman underneath. Even though they looked so charming. Now they don’t bother to look like literary gentlemen. Now they look like businessmen. [LAUGHTER]

Boehmer: The literary robes have been ripped off.

Warner: They don’t have Penguin Classics bulging in their tweed pockets anymore. They’re cool, sharp; they’re dressed in Armani; and they take their business class flights to the new markets.

Boehmer: Thirty-five year olds with shaved heads, yes.

Warner: And they try to find the next best-seller. That’s what they’re trying to do. Because if you do hit the next best-seller, there’s a huge amount of money to be made.

Sutherland: Do you think that could be from a not as yet established literary nation? Could that be from central Asia?

Boehmer: Yes, but then there is a thing about language. So a writer from central Asia would need an extremely compelling translator. Or would probably need to write in one of the major world languages. One of the top ten in terms of number of speakers.

Warner: There’s a bit of a parallel with the visual arts. And it’s a tremendous problem for artists and writers, which is this co-opting by the market. You’re quite right about Central Asia. There’s a sufficient amount of possibility there in terms of the nations with oil and so forth. One can see that they might attract some sort of publishing magnate. They would find some extraordinary visionary, perhaps a poet of the steppes, who’s writing an extraordinary visionary poetic history of Uzbekistan, of Kyrgyzstan. And then somehow this is translated and starts traveling on. It happens to artists. They’re put up in front of audiences all the time to be –

Boehmer: The spokesperson.

Warner: To be the spokesperson. And that’s a problem. It’s been one ever since the world came to mass marketing. You devour your saints. You make saints because you need to have some guarantee of your freedom, identity, whatever. And then you eat your saint. Cannibalize your saint.

Nadeem Aslam: For me, the important stage is the one before this writer or this visionary is discovered. When he’s just doing his thing before he was discovered by us.

We talk about language and writers. The great Pakistani writer Intizar Hussain was shortlisted for the last Man Booker International Prize. Now, I grew up in Pakistan reading Intizar Hussain. I left Pakistan at the age of 14, and for me he was just brilliant.

When we came to England, we had to leave in a hurry. My mother brought her Koran. She said, “I’m not leaving it. For all we know, they don’t have Korans in England.” But, of course, they did, though she — we — didn’t know that. So the only thing we brought was my mother’s Koran. Which she still, reads 35 years later. Eventually we had books sent to us. And I was reading Intizar Hussain.

But by that time, I’d also learned English, and I was beginning to read García Márquez, Calvino, Borges, and what have you. So when I discovered these new writers, my response wasn’t that Intizar Hussain writes like Italo Calvino. My response was, Italo Calvino writes like Intizar Hussain.

So in a sense, for me the important thing is that stage when you’re on your own and you are trying to do your work. I feel like I’m incapable of understanding what we are talking about. I’m not a publisher. I’m not an academic. I can’t understand how my work is slotted into whatever is going on out there. I don’t even know what those currents are. Is my work global literature? I have no idea. If someone tells me it is, I would say, “Okay.”

In you campus bookshop, there are these little figurines of camels. And I was telling them that that the English word for that animal is camel, C-A-M-E-L. In Urdu, it’s “oont.” When I write “camel,” for me that is exotic. When I write “oont,” it is not exotic: it’s ordinary. And it is the same animal. When I write the word “monsoon,” that becomes very exotic. But the word for the rainy season is “barsaat.”

My being born in one place and having been brought to another one. And having to learn a new language because we couldn’t go back. The dictator who had sent us here was still there. And I was at an age where I had to go to school and had to get an education, so I learned a new language. Now when I’m becoming aware of these things, I do think I want to talk about the rainy season, but there is no other word for it except monsoon. And “monsoon” is exotic. While “barsaat” isn’t.

Boehmer: It depends on position. The world is not homogenized, the same everywhere. There are areas of greater and lesser concentration. And much depends on where you are located on the map.

Ouyang: But it’s also a language world, right? The world that you inhabit. So that if you live in Urdu, the world for you is different from if your language was English, and so when you then read or write English, your response is different.

Aslam: As I mentioned last night, I’ve read Anna Karenina four times, three times in English. And then I picked up the Urdu translation. And it’s a different book. Reading it in Urdu, I imagine that it takes place in Pakistan. Michael Ondaatje said that because he grew up in Sri Lanka, where the houses are bungalows, he had only seen one staircase ever in his life, when he went into town and there was a big shop. So that whenever there was a staircase in a book that he picked up, that was the staircase he imagined. Because he had no other reference point of what a staircase was.


Jamie Sutherland is a senior at NYU Abu Dhabi, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing.

[Photo credit: Courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi Institute]

Is Harry Potter World Literature?

Is Harry Potter World Literature?



Part One of a Conversation with the Judges for the 2015 Man Book International Prize

[Editor’s Note: The Man Booker International Prize is a literary award given every two years to a living author of any nationality for a body of work published in English or generally available in English translation. Electra Street caught up with the judges for the 2015 prize — Nadeem Aslam, Elleke Boehmer, Wen-chin Ouyang, and Marina Warner (chair) — during their recent visit to NYU Abu Dhabi for a program at the NYUAD Institute on the subject of world literature.]

Sutherland: What does the term “world literature” mean to you? Would you argue, like David Damrosch, that world literature is literature that has circulated and been translated around the world? Or does it refer to something inherent in the texts that we include under that label?

Boehmer: I take issue with Damrosch on that. It isn’t just what is circulated, what is translated. I do think it comes down to what we might refer to, perhaps uncomfortably, as universal stories. I think one of the reasons why Harry Potter appeals is because it’s the story of an orphan.

Warner: You’re right. There are structures that are universal. Harry Potter is also a quest story: it’s a story of combat between good and evil. But I think it’s also to do with this language that can be translated very easily. It’s the land of the supernatural. And in Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling has syncretized a million different mythological systems rather amazingly. She’s taken, you know, some bits of Indian, bits of everything, and mixed it all up together.

Ouyang: There’s a lot of the Arabian Nights in there as well.

Warner: Yes. She studied classics in university, so she’s got a lot of Greek mythology in there, too. You can say that that is a universal system of signs, rather than a linguistic language. It’s a semantic language, a symbol system that can be shifted from one culture to another without too much drag.

Boehmer: Which is why it circulates.

Warner: Tolkien is another. Universal.

Sutherland: In his article “Can Books Cross Borders?” Tim Parks argues that for a well-to-do young boy in Cheltenham, the aspect of Harry Potter that is alien is the magic, because the educational system in the novels is exactly what he’s used to. But to a child in Bangkok, perhaps the magic doesn’t feel as extraordinary, while it’s the fact that they go on a train to a far-away remote school with eccentric teachers that is alien in reading Harry Potter.

Warner: Have you been to King’s Cross lately? They’ve changed it! In the old station, they put up a little sign saying, “This is where the platform is.” So many people came and took photographs that they decided to make it a feature. They created the luggage trolley going through the wall. It used to be spontaneous, but the queue now has to be organized There’s a red cord and you have to wait for the photo opportunity.

Aslam: And they give you a star.

Warner: And they ask you which house you would like to belong to, Gryffindor or whichever, and they give you the house colors. And then you wear the scarf and –

Aslam: Someone flicks it.

Warner: And someone flicks it! So you look as if you’re going in! There’s always a queue of at least twenty people.

Aslam: Anytime someone comes into London, that’s where we meet. We say, “I’ll meet you at –”

Boehmer: At nine and three quarters.

Aslam: Yes, at nine and three quarters. [Laughter.]

Boehmer: That’s a brilliant example, actually, of both world literature as circulation, the Damrosch idea, and world literature as [what Franco Moretti calls] “distant reading,” because you’re just filleting it for its leading symbolic effects. But it’s also world literature as universal story, because it resonates with so many different cultures and readers.

Warner: There’s also Alice in Oxford. There’s just hundreds of Japanese looking for Alice.

Ouyang: That’s also world literature as global literature. Globalization is very much a part of it.

Boehmer: That’s yet another spin on world literature. World literature is global literature that addresses the problems of globalization – or the issues of globalization.

Ouyang: Yes, but if you think of the issues that Harry Potter is actually addressing, for one it’s really about growing up and relationships, and yet on the other it’s about this broad thing that everybody thinks about, the struggle between good and evil, that filters down into the day-to-day quotidian activities in a way that resonates with people and that people respond to.

Boehmer: I also think it’s a remarkable study in bereavement. And loss and putting your life back together. Across seven painful stages. I would wager the J.K. Rowling suffers from depression, because she’s very, very good on the dementors.

Sutherland: Do you think that the popularity of Harry Potter might have the effect of leading readers to begin a literary journey onwards, to more “difficult” or “classic” books? Or might it have the opposite effect? Rebecca Mead wrote an article recently in The New Yorker about how the publishing industry promotes books that don’t lead people onward but rather swallow up alternatives. She cites the volume of Greek myths that was written by Rick Riordan in the voice of Percy Jackson and wonders, “What if the strenuous accessibility of Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them … away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise?” We might say the same thing about the way Jane Austen is being rewritten these days.

Warner: Is this the zombie, vampire Jane Austen?

Sutherland: No, I was thinking of the contemporary novels by the likes of Joanna Trollope and Alexander McCall Smith. There is, of course, also Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Ouyang: The only one I know is P. D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley.

Boehmer: What’s interesting is that with all these rewritings we’re just doing Jean Rhys over and over again. But she did it first, didn’t she?

Ouyang: Wide Sargasso Sea.

Sutherland: But we think of that as a postcolonial rewriting, or a writing back.

Warner: But the Greek myths themselves were written like that in the beginning. They were written and re-written in different collections in different versions. They were homogenized in the nineteenth century for dissemination and standardized. You were sometimes given a variant, but very, very few comparative variants exist. It’s hard to remember that in The Iliad there’s no mention of the cause of the Trojan War, and there’s no mention of the Trojan horse. We know the whole story because in the nineteenth century the people who retold them put them all together.

Click here to read part two of the interview.


Jamie Sutherland is a senior at NYU Abu Dhabi, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing.

[Photo Credit: NYU Abu Dhabi Institute. Left to right: Wen-Ching Ouyang, Nadeem Aslam, Elleke Boehmer, Marina Warner]

50 Dirhams a Day: Buenos Aires

50 Dirhams a Day: Buenos Aires


50 AED = 70 Argetine pesos (April 2013)

You’ve got seventy Argentine pesos in your pocket, and the day ahead of you. Where to start?

Wherever you wake up, you can surely find a coffee and a croissant nearby – café y medialunas are the most Argentine way to start the day. Café Josephine in Recoleta, Delicious Café closer to the NYU site or even Oui Oui in Palermo all do the job nicely, and you’ll only have spent fifteen or so of your hard-earned pesos.

Take a stroll down Avenida Figueroa Alcorta in the midday sun, stopping off in Plaza de las Naciones Unidas to admire Argentine architect Eduardo Catalano’s giant steel sculpture, Floralis Genérica (ab0ve). Cool off in the contemporary Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (sixteen pesos with your student ID) or Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires (free!) before heading over to Recoleta for the afternoon.

Stop by a sandwichería to pick up something to keep you going – try Mon Oncle on Avenida Pueyrredón and practice your Spanish with the couple behind the counter. Head over to Recoleta’s famous cemetery (below) and spend a free hour or so wandering amongst the stunning monuments. Snap yourself out of your reverie with a café cortado at Clásica y Moderna and bring a book – you’ve still got a while before dinnertime.


Buenos Aires runs late. Head to eat out at a restaurant before 10:30PM and you’ll probably be surrounded by small children. Maybe grab a siesta and then stop by Social de Lechuza later on for an authentic Argentine steak, but maybe split one with a friend – the steaks are huge, and you want to keep a few of those pesos for the night ahead.

You’ve still got a while, as nightlife in Buenos Aires doesn’t wind down until about 6AM. From Lechuza, you can walk into Palermo Soho and find your own favorite nightspot. Dance the night away mixing with pretty porteños (Buenos Aires natives), and then head home to grab some sleep before another day in the city. Recount the night’s adventures to your friends over more coffee and croissants the next morning, and then head to a park. The food may be excellent, and the museums may be great, but a day spent with friends in a park is the true Buenos Aires life.

[Photos by Jason Lester]

Theater in Abu Dhabi

Theater in Abu Dhabi


“As an intensely collaborative and inherently local art form, the theater offers a way of creating community.” So states the NYU Abu Dhabi website. But it turns out that creating community is a tricky business: where to start, and how? Conversations pave the way, but sometimes conversations can be difficult to initiate.

Theater, however, can be a wonderful way to begin that dialogue. Abu Dhabi is a city that does not easily engage in conversation, but lately it has begun to engage with theater. In the past few decades, the government has built numerous theaters, including the magnificent Abu Dhabi Theater on the breakwater. More recently, the government has invested money in touring companies like the Bedouin Shakespeare Company as well as in institutions like NYU Abu Dhabi, which brings theater and drama with it as part of its educational mandate.

These past few months have seen three productions open to the general public: Theatre Mitu’s A Dream Play at NYU Abu Dhabi, Resuscitation Theatre’s Playboy of the Western Region at Café Arabia, and a musical adaptation of the story of Pinocchio for children at the National Theater. These productions seem so incongruent alongside each other that it is difficult to imagine what kind of community could be created from such a mélange of styles and stories. Regardless of history or aims, however, each of these productions changed the landscape of theatre in Abu Dhabi and, in some small way, is contributing to the shape of the city’s community and its cultural life.  Theater Mitu, in particular, offers an interesting way to think about the role of theater in the creation of both a theater-going culture and an ongoing, city-wide conversation about the experience of performance and art.

Theater Mitu is a professional theater company based in New York as well as Abu Dhabi. Its artistic director, Rubén Polendo, heads the Theater program at NYU Abu Dhabi and has been involved in the development of the arts curriculum at the university. Like all of the faculty at NYU Abu Dhabi, Polendo has faced the difficulties of building a program from the ground up, a process complicated by the fact that NYUAD is a “global university” situated in a cosmopolitan city. Eng-Beng Lim, in “Performing the Global University,” writes that the “ramifications” of faculty decisions may be “monumental for liberal arts education as a whole in the coming decades.” Polendo faces the additional challenge of “contextualizing theater and performance studies within the global university.”  In other words, the NYUAD theater program must situate itself not only within the confines of the university but also within the city where the work is performed.

Thus the publicity surrounding Theater Mitu productions means that their performances are seen as representative of NYU Abu Dhabi, just as all theater productions in the city are seen as representative of the city as a whole. A Dream Play had to perform two roles: both immediately as a production of NYU Abu Dhabi, but also as a feature of Abu Dhabi’s cityscape. The success of Theater Mitu’s various productions marks not only an appetite for theater in the city, but also a genuine enthusiasm for the dramatic arts. Theater is a defining art form, and Abu Dhabi as a city has not shied away from this definition.

DP - Corey-croppedAbu Dhabi seems to want theater, but not necessarily theater that “speaks to Abu Dhabi” or “tells the Abu Dhabi story.” The contextualization of theater that Lim describes does not mean that all plays performed in Abu Dhabi need to be set in or be about Abu Dhabi. But any show produced in the city must be aware that it is at the vanguard of the theater in this city. Theater is a powerful force for the development of a community, and every play will have an effect. That responsibility is not to be shouldered lightly.

Theater Mitu’s production of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play was a reinterpretation of the text under Polendo’s direction. His adaptation of the script was reminiscent of Caryl Churchill’s own reworking of the script for London’s National Theatre a decade or so ago, in its simplification of some of the original’s obtuseness and obscurity. The rest of the staging was similarly beautiful in its simplicity: the set and costumes were almost wholly white, with symbolic video projections and atmospheric music that conjured up the dream-like world that these actors and their audience were entering.

The play’s underlying themes were undoubtedly universal. The audience witnessed an anxious love story set against a backdrop of human futility. Universality may be one requisite of how to perform the global university, as a way of offering the creation of community. The audience walked away from the auditorium that evening discussing, critiquing and – perhaps – dreaming. On a university level, the production gave students the chance to engage with a professional theater company. On a city level, A Dream Play gave Abu Dhabi the chance to engage with theater. These chances are coming more often, and the city proves more receptive to these provocations with each production. Conversations are starting, and communities are growing. New York University claims that it is “in and of the city”; in the same way, theater in Abu Dhabi must be “intensely collaborative and inherently local.” Only with such engagement can the city perform as a global city on a global stage.

[Photos courtesy of Theater Mitu. Top: A Dream Play at NYU Abu Dhabi; bottom: Corey Sullivan in A Dream Play.]


Shakespeare at the Olympics

Shakespeare at the Olympics


Shakespeare at the Olympics

Jamie Sutherland

October 2012

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises.
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

With these words, the world was welcomed to the Olympic games in London. Shakespeare wrote them 401 years ago in his last play, The Tempest. The play traditionally is associated with closure; Prospero, the play’s leading man, rejects his books, knowledge and his ‘art’ at the close of the story, and strives to go on without them. Perhaps The Tempest was Shakespeare’s farewell to his craft. But the monologue that opened the Olympics was not written for Prospero—it was for Caliban, Prospero’s deformed slave, a victim of Prospero’s colonization of the ‘isle,’ and a rebel of questionable morals.

In his essay “Culture,” the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt describes Caliban’s voice as that of “the displaced and oppressed.” Greenblatt lionizes Shakespeare’s “imaginative mobility,” which enabled the Bard “to display cracks in the glacial front of princely power.” He closes the essay, “If it is the task of cultural criticism to decipher the power of Prospero, it is equally its task to hear the accents of Caliban.” Certainly British culture seems more identifiable with the power of Prospero, with colonialism and monarchy. There is no doubt the 1908 and 1948 London games would have associated more closely with Prospero. The magician who could create civilization on a forgotten island would have surely seemed a preferable figurehead for a city rebuilding itself after the Second World War.

In 2012, the Olympics games were bookended by Caliban’s nine lines. Two actors spoke the nine lines quoted above, one at the Opening Ceremony and the other at the Closing. It marks something of a change in British tradition to celebrate Caliban instead of Prospero, but then the past sixty-four years have seen something of change in Britain herself. We have witnessed the birth of counterculture, the celebration of irony, the knowing nod to our own weaknesses.

The London Olympic organizing committee understood the irony of Caliban opening the show. The ceremony proved that London is not only ready to hear and celebrate ‘the accents of Caliban’ but also that the nation is ready to show off the cracks in the glacial front of its power. For like most of the world’s glaciers, Britain’s is melting. After Beijing’s structured brilliance en masse, it was felt that London could hardly compete, on the performative as well as the economic stage. The wise decision was made to take a different tack. The best way to undermine self-importance is with irony, and it was with irony that the world watched James Bond and the Queen parachuting into the stadium, Rowan Atkinson napping alongside the London Symphony Orchestra, and, of course, Kenneth Branagh, British stage darling, dressed in a top hat and tails, declaiming the lines of a deformed former slave.

The isle certainly was full of noises this summer. The endless construction, the road closings and the traffic jams, the bleating of the talking heads on the television … But that night, as the world assembled to watch the ceremony, the sweet airs replaced the hustle and hubbub. The Olympics have now ended, and in the face of the realities of global Realpolitik, we just might cry to dream again, and return to the simple competition of track and field. The troubles around us today are far more traumatic than the supposed tragic upsets on the sports field. Subjugation and discrimination are not confined to Shakespeare’s plays. In the history of the world, the Calibans rarely succeed, but perhaps the decline of British Empire provides an example. For in 2012, we saw colonialism in reverse: men and women of all nations were welcomed to London, and this time they were taking the gold.