Keynote at Big Sky festival 2007, Geraldton, Western Australia
Ladies and Gentlemen, Good morning!
The theme of Big Sky this year is “Transition”, and I have to say, you’ve certainly caught me in transit big time. For the past year I’ve been residing in the state of Virginia in the US, and experiencing life at the epi-centre of so many earthshaking world events.
I’ve only just come home to my native Singapore, just 6 days ago, and I’ve still been living out of a suitcase and sleeping off my jetlag from a 12 hour time difference. So if I seem a little dazed, please forgive me!
Yesterday I heard that a friend of mine down in Sydney is staging an anti-Bush protest at the APEC summit; and we were just chatting around the kitchen table about how strange it is that the so-called leader of the free world had to be boxed in with watertight security but the leader of communist China was free to walk about shaking hands and kissing babies.
How does this sort of irony come about? How do our rules and boundaries get rewritten so dramatically? Who is listening out for “the music of what happens”, to borrow a phrase from Seamus Heaney, and what do its rhythms mean for all of us?
When I was in the US, a friend of mine, the editor of the poetry journal Atlanta Review, sent me a copy of his latest edition, which features, for the first time, a selection of recent Iraqi poems translated into English by Iraqi poets.
For me as a poet, it is a profoundly moving endeavour. Even before the invasion of Iraq I’d been trying as far as I could to gather just such a selection of poetry. I had an instinctive urge to salvage from the storm the voices and visions of a people whose predecessors include some of the earliest users of written language, and the authors of the epic Gilgamesh.
So here I had in my hands -- published in the US, the homeland of the occupying forces -- a powerful selection of Iraqi poems written after the American invasion.
Allow me to read a short one:
You won’t regret it.
It is a small miracle
that God granted me.
A bottle whose perfume
is never drained,
that encircles you like a halo.
you’ll see it, you’ll smell it, you’ll hear it.
It is a poem hanging
from its hair
like a chandelier in my grave.
- Jamal Mustafa, trans. Haider Al-Kabi(Atlanta Review, Spring/Summer 2007: Iraq)
What a lovely little gem. And what a wonderful selection, I thought. Yes, you had among the poets varying factional affiliations, degrees of artistic compromise and political accommodation. Yes any selection inevitably falls short of being fully representative. But how immediately it brings us to the value of literature as custodian of a way of life and perhaps more vitally, a way of thinking and dreaming.
A culture’s literature as it survives and is passed on becomes its collective memory or rather its collective imagination, a Constitution of the spirit.
At its best, literature can be a celebration and record of culture and identity: and it is only human to want to pass on our stories and dreams and values, to present ourselves and our world in a certain light and in doing so create expectations about our actions past and future.
Of course, this custodial function cuts both ways: just as literature delineates and celebrates the human space our experience occupies, it can also erect fences around it. It can be used to lull a people into a false sense of security, superiority or inferiority, or reinforce prejudices. What we read tells us who we are.
I’m thinking about how the Book can become dogma: how the people of the Book -- sister faiths all deeply invested in the sanctity and power of the written Word -- have been at each other’s throats in the Middle East and Europe for centuries. I’m thinking about preaching to the converted.
I’m thinking about the use of literature as a instrument of imperialism. I’m thinking about Shakespeare and Wordsworth being used even today as some sort of yardstick of cultural perfection to beat on generations of pre and post-Colonial Singaporeans -- and this so often beats out the love of literature as it is created and experienced as a living process. I’m thinking of how the Japanese did the same thing during their Occupation of Singapore in World War 2.
I’m thinking of how the literary machinery and the book trade and the education system we have inherited replicates many imbalances and preconceptions --- what is good or bad writing, what are proper styles, subjects and themes, what constitutes a genre, and also who wins awards, who gets grants, what sells, to whom and where.
So literature can be about what you keep in and what you keep out -- “good fences make good neighbours”. But it has also been an instrument of resistance and erasure; just as often a wrecking ball to social pretensions and preconceptions, speaking truth to power, writing against the grain, against empire, writing against the boundaries of race, class, wealth and sex. Gender benders, genre benders. Satire, parody, underground zines, beatniks, small presses, smuggled books, furtive pleasures.
The history of censorship is about as old as the history of writing, and today books are still being banned or removed from libraries and schools, because they are seen to be dangerous, or inflammatory, or blasphemous, or politically incorrect, or just too “exciting”. And then you have alternative media such as the internet coming up to fill that thirst to speak, to share and to be heard.
Sometimes attitudes change in the space of a generation --- for better and for worse. Sometimes it can take decades and centuries.
So there’s the idea of literature as a cultural and intellectual and social frontier to be guarded or breached.
But I want to make a case for the value of literature as an indeterminate space, a transit hall, where to quote Filippino poet Marne Kilates, “between our arrivals and our departures, it is a strangely guiltless territory”.
I believe a lot of the attraction and power of literature --- from epic poetry to erotic romances to science fiction to crime writing -- comes from its qualities as a transitional space, a memory buffer, a playground, a sandbox of ideas, emotions, situations and choices; a dressing room of alternative identities; a way of playing gods and monsters without guilt.
We write and read to pose ourselves an infinite variety of answers to those timeless questions: What happens? What If? Who dies? Whodunnit? Will you still love me tomorrow? We want to know the answers, but we don’t want the answers to stick. We want the next book and the next, always differing the finality of choices made and paths taken and conclusions reached. We want to get to “The End” but then be able to start again, perhaps elsewhere.
In literature we find the legroom and headroom we often lack in so-called real life. An opportunity to stretch, to dream, to play, and perhaps to be naughty for once. But these perpetual rehearsals and “what-ifs” I believe are precisely what nurtures the imagination; what clears space for other ways of thinking, leaving room for creativity, human empathy, and hope. We need to learn that the world is more than what we have seen or believe we have seen, before we can imagine new or better ways of being.
We need to be reminded that we are creatures of diversity, genetic and cultural. It is in our nature as a species to change and grow, or die.
Change or die. Once again we find ourselves in a time of big trends and epic catastrophes, but I am deeply suspicious of ideologies and grand schemes. I believe that real change and real life is rooted in individual experience and imagination, for better or worse.
And so I celebrate the intimate, the “small miracle”, the poem hanging from a hair that can shine like a chandelier.
I believe that “To read a book is to marry two solitudes” -- the loneliness of the writer wedded to the contemplative quiet of the reader.
To me, literature is a relationship, and like any other, one that needs to be nurtured and cultivated, person by person, book by book. A poem or a novel, an essay or song, is a conversation; one of many that are taking place every day, and one that could change our lives -- or make it a little less difficult to go on.
Reading widely may also be our only defense against dogma and propaganda.
Of course you can treat a book like a commodity -- after all human beings have treated each other with greater callousness. But I think if you do, you miss the essential humanity of deep understanding, engagement and interaction that underlies the written word and reading experience.
And this is why a festival like Big Sky is so important, as a way to bring people -- and books – together, and a chance to listen more closely to ourselves and each other.
So I wish you all a wonderful festival, one that marks the beginning of many productive and pleasurable conversations, that will nourish our hearts and minds, and our need to connect and move beyond ourselves.
The Sky is the Limit!
Geraldton, Sept 2007