Long Night of Literature: From war to cultural osmosis – writers from Europe share divergent views

Launched in 2015, Long Night of LiteratureS is an initiative supported by the European Union.

Some of them share their thoughts on global concerns facing us today

By Indrani Bose

Launched in 2015, Long Night of LiteratureS is an initiative supported by the European Union. The event is a collaborative effort of Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Georgia, France, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Switzerland, Spain and the Delegation of The European Union to India to celebrate the linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe. At an event recently at Instituto Cervantes in Delhi, the initiative saw many European authors presenting readings from their works in English and other respective languages. Each author read to an audience of about 30 people for 20 minutes. The group then moved to the next room to listen to another author. The concept allowed the audience to interact closely with the authors. Here, some of them share their thoughts on global concerns facing us today…

French author Jean-Claude Perrier

French author Jean-Claude Perrier says he has been to many war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq. His 2018 book, La Nostalgie Des Pays Perdus (Nostalgia for Lost Lands), is essentially about places we will never be able to visit or return to because of war. “The book is very personal. There are some countries where I have been… but it’s difficult to go there right now because war (in countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen) has made it impossible.”
Perrier, who is also a journalist, says, “The barbarians have put bombs and destroyed parts of old cities (around the world) and I am very sad thinking that if tomorrow I go back there, it won’t be the same place as before. And it’s impossible to rebuild it the way it was… Imagine these barbarians coming to India and destroying the Taj Mahal. It would be difficult and expensive to rebuild it, just like the places in Syria, especially because there is still no pacification there.”
Perrier has also put in many personal experiences in the book. “I was in Baghdad for Christmas 2002 just before the Gulf War was starting. The people there knew about the upcoming war… drones were flying over their heads and a catastrophe was imminent,” he recollects, adding, “We decided to spend Christmas with some Christians in Baghdad. We had a feast and it was very emotional because it was probably their last Christmas in peace.”
Czech Republic’s Veronika Resslova, too, deals with war, albeit in a more subtle manner, in her 2016 book, After the War I Am; I Have Nothing More There. The book compiles actual sentences spoken by asylum seekers who were Resslova’s students at the Institute for Language and Preparatory Studies in Prague in 2015. The author and visual artist, however, doesn’t like to call it a book. “It’s not a book. It’s a piece of textual art,” she says. The piece she presented at the New Delhi event, in fact, was also appropriated text consisting of sentences written by these students. “I didn’t correct any of their mistakes. It’s as it is because, for a native speaker, it’s a poetic view of language… it might be surprising, confusing, funny, sometimes sad or offensive, but language plays a very crucial role in a new adopted home,” she says.

Swiss writer Ariane Von Graffenried

Language is very closely linked with migration, believes Swiss writer Ariane Von Graffenried. “I do language swap in my texts because I am interested in the sound of the language. It’s nice if you can create new combinations of words… it’s like a montage, you put things together, so new patterns of rhyme, etc, come out. It’s beautiful because, in most countries, people speak several languages because of migration and globalisation. Language means that you are trying to belong somewhere. But I also use it as a technique of art,” she says.
Elaborating on language swapping, she says, “You probably switch from Hindi to English and back—maybe within the same sentence sometimes. It’s beautiful… you learn your first language usually from your mother to connect with her. In school, you learn another to connect with your friends and classmates. And then, when you are in a foreign country, you learn another to forge a connection with the locals.”
Her 2017 book Babylon Park, a collection of her speeches, is about people of different backgrounds living in Europe. “There are stories about artists, prostitutes, hooligans, bankers, so it’s a wide mix. I like to write stories about different classes, the mix of classes, people living in rural class or in urban cities. I like to mix all this, as well as languages,” she says.
Czech author Resslová says she wrote After the War I Am; I Have Nothing More There in late 2016 after Europe experienced the big migrant wave. There was a lot of misinformation in the public space, she says, and she wanted to rectify this. Through the book, the reader can not only feel the migrants’ worries and problems, but also the positive feelings experienced by them. Resslova’s intention, she says, was to make sure that there were no fixed narratives, as she wanted the reader to make his/her own interpretation. And that’s why she didn’t alter their language. “I didn’t correct their language. I didn’t even tell them that I would use it,” she says, adding, “I just wanted it to be open. In media, you get lots of opinions and I didn’t want to create another opinion. I wanted the audience to reconsider their attitude towards asylums seekers.”

Portuguese citizen Suneeta Peres de Costa

Cultural osmosis
Suneeta Peres da Costa who lives in Australia touches upon cross-cultural influences in her 2018 book Saudade. Her book is about a particular milieu of Saraswat-Brahmin Goans who migrated to Angola during the Portuguese rule there. The protagonist is Maria Christina, who becomes aware of her complicated identity as a Hindu-turned-Catholic. She is aware that at one point of time, forced conversions took place in Goa and had they not taken place, she would have been a Hindu today. She is conscious that her Goan roots, Portuguese rule and the culture of Angola have all contributed to her identity and cultural assimilation. “Portugal had huge affection for Goa in particular. The Portuguese prime minister is Goan!” the author says, adding, “When you walk around downtown Lisbon, in fact, you will see how multicultural it is… Cross-cultural osmosis is inevitable when there is colonisation… that culture has to come in contact with the local culture.”
The author, who has a Portuguese citizenship, was born to Goan parents who migrated to Australia, where she was born. She agrees that there is still denial on the part of the Portuguese to accept that they have imbibed certain aspects of the culture from their various colonies, but she admires the fact that when she went to Portugal for a trip, she was embraced with open arms. Her plural identity—just like the plural identities of her characters—was wholeheartedly accepted.
Swiss writer Von Graffenried’s book Babylon Park, too, has diverse geographies, where people are found to be speaking different dialects in places like Warsaw and Istanbul. The writer talks about how in one instance in the book, the clash between European and Asian cultures is evident. The text reads like a story—it has people taking a ferry boat from Bosphorus river in Turkey and going to the European part of Istanbul. It is fascinating how these people get up in the morning in Asia, go to work in Europe and then go back home to Asia, the writer says. This coming and going from one continent to another, says the author, has the perfect air of cultural osmosis. PHOTOS: Sundeep Bali

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