I SPEAK pav bhaji,” says Laila Wadia in response to people who ask her what language she speaks. Born in Mumbai, Wadia migrated to Italy at 18 years of age, married a local and the couple made the north-eastern port town of Trieste their home. But even after four decades, the question is always the same. “I am always confronted by the question of my language,” she says. Her provocative answer to that question has now become a poem, titled I speak Pav Bhaji. Part of a collection of English and Italian poetry titled Kitchensutra, this poem and others in the collection talk about identity and integration through food.
Wadia was among 10 writers from as many European countries who took part in the ‘Long Night of Literature’ event in New Delhi recently. Many echoed her words while talking about the refugee crisis that Europe has turned away from. “There was a time when Europe was going all over the world and staying there. It is time now for Europe to accept people from its former colonies,” says Belgian author Jean-Pierre Orban. His 2014 novel Vera, which won the Europe Book Prize last year, talks about identity. “What do you call as your country? Is it the country you live in, (the country) you are from, or the country you dream of? That is the present issue facing the world,” says Orban, who has been living in Paris for the past 15 years.
The blessed island
Austrian author Vea Kaiser created a fictional island in her new novel Makarionissi for its characters, members of a family scattered all over the world, to finally find refuge in and reunite. “My book is about people looking for a home and they find it on an island,” says Kaiser, who started writing Makarionissi when the refugee crisis was yet to explode. “What you dream about becomes a reality,” she adds. Kaiser’s fictional island is in Greece, the gateway for the refugees to Europe. The writer, whose village lies close to the place in the Austrian Alps where the Hollywood musical The Sound of Music was shot, named the fictional island Makarionissi, which means ‘the blessed island’.
French writer Makenzy Orcel, who was born and raised in Haiti, writes novels and poetry, but likes to ‘live everywhere’. “The idea of confining oneself to one country doesn’t exist in literature,” says Orcel, winner of the World Literature Prize this year for his new novel L’Ombre Animale (The Animal Shadow). “But my writing is affected by what is happening in the country—in the past and present.” His book is about a dead woman speaking from her grave. “Women have more things to say than men,” says Orcel, who was raised by mostly the women in his family in Haiti before migrating to France. “The moment women say something, they become free.”
Living & surviving
Long Night of Literature, held at the capital’s Cervantes Institute, the cultural centre of Spain, saw several sessions of reading by the 10 authors. “Reading literature is not about sitting in your room all by yourself,” says Lisa Wagner, an Austrian undergraduate student. “It is about sharing, talking and listening,” adds Wagner, who works at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New Delhi.
The day Markus Kirchhofer, the writer representing Switzerland, was leaving home for the Long Night of Literature event in India, he chanced upon an article in a newspaper. It was about a man who was the central character in a short story he was carrying for the literary event. “The article said Swiss cyclist Roger Bolliger, participating in the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, fought to reach the finishing point even after he had fallen from the cycle,” says Kirchhofer, whose story on the man, who lost a limb in an explosion at a cheese factory, was written two years ago. Bolliger lost one of his legs in the accident in 2004, an incident Kirchhofer made the central point of his short story, The Centrifuge. “Bolliger’s story is about survival,” says the author in reflection of his fellow writers’ works on living and surviving in a new country.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer