National Identities and Literature

Literary real estate in the suburbs of history

The book fairs in Cuba draw thousands of buyers and browsers. AP Images/Javier Galeano
01 January, 2010

IN EARLY NOVEMBER 2009, I visited a creative writing school in Havana. This state-subsidized institution is the only one of its kind in the country; it puts out an impressive monthly magazine of criticism and new writing and is equipped with computers and an Internet connection (rarer things than one supposes in embargo-crippled and materially deprived Cuba). Like most countries that experienced a socialist revolution, the idea of literature still has an old-fashioned prestige and even some mass appeal in Cuba. There are few bookshops, and print runs of literary fiction are small, usually not more than 2,000 copies. But book fairs draw tens of thousands of buyers and browsers. Like many revolutionaries, Che Guevara, the national hero of Cuba, wrote short stories and poems. Writers in Cuba today still form a cultural elite of sorts, allowed to travel abroad and to receive foreign exchange.

In that austere building, reminiscent of a small town Indian school, the students represented all of the country’s provinces. Among its oddly mixed intimations of deprivation and privilege, I found myself wondering if there is such a thing as a national literature any more, something autonomous and utterly distinctive, and with a sufficiently large local audience?

Cuba is one of the most isolated and singular countries in the world; in the absence of commercial publishing houses, most writers there are patronised by the state. And yet the question still seems worth asking, if not about the West, then about many non-Western countries where the idea of literature is still relatively new and evolving.

German writers in the late eighteenth century, especially the Romantics, were the first to uphold a prickly literary nationalism, in reaction to the then dominance and prestige of French literature. Proclamations of national literatures accompanied the rise of nation states in nineteenth-century Europe. But the often shared linguistic and cultural roots of these modern literatures could not be denied for too long; and since the early twentieth century the internationalisation—or the cross-fertilisation—of literature seems to have proceeded swiftly. Much of contemporary British literature, for instance, seems a sub-category of American Literature, many of whose most written-about representatives—Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith—owe more to writers across the Atlantic than to their British, or even European, predecessors.

But the view from the vantage point of the politically homogenous West is often distorted. Literature elsewhere is still far from being the autonomous, pure, and ahistorical realm it often seems in the West, where writers and their works freely float across national borders and political allegiances. National independence, and the preceding political struggles, helped create the space for literary creation in many postcolonial countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Much of modern Indian or Chinese literature is inconceivable without the political movement for freedom from foreign rule. Many of the leading writers in India, China, Cuba and Philippines, Senegal—Rabindranath Tagore, Lu Xun, Jose Marti, Jose Rizal, Leopold Senghor—were deeply engaged with anti-colonial campaigns in their respective countries.

Their sympathies were not entirely politically motivated. Regime change for them was inseparable from fresh aesthetic possibilities. Speaking of the influence of the French Revolution on literary modernity, Walter Benjamin once wrote that “the lava of revolutions provides uniquely fertile ground for the blossoming of art, festivity, fashion.” This was proved true, at least briefly, by the Russian Revolution, which greatly inspired poets such as Gorky and Mayakovsky and many avant-garde painters and musicians. Liberation from colonial rule also spurred modernist experimentation in places as far removed from the metropolitan West as Manila and Bogota, often motivated by the feeling among many aspiring writers that they were, as Octavio Paz once wrote about his Latin American peers, “inhabitants of the suburbs of history.”

That said, the nation-state or nationalism is hardly a guarantor of literary quality. Joyce and Beckett founded their aesthetic in opposition to the norms of a culturally defensive Irish nationalism; the cosmopolitan novels of Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis self-consciously defied the philistinism of their cultural commissars. The formative moment for many of China’s most interesting writers today—Yu Hua, Mo Yan, and Su Tong, this year’s winner of the Man Asian prize—was their break with socialist realism, often through avant-garde experimentation in the early 1980s (the most exciting time for Chinese arts in general).

Leonardo Padura: Though a bestseller in Cuba, Padura’s new fiction is unlikely to find as many readers in the West as his mystery novels {{name}}

It is also true that national power alone doesn’t ensure great literature. Many writers from the suburbs of history, such as Ireland and Argentina, produced more original work than their counterparts in the United States; they still seem to. Post-war—as distinct from pre-war—America produced few world-class writers. The Soviet Union, another major superpower in the long cold war era, was mostly notable for its dissidents who periodically migrated to the West (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky), or languished in a state of internal exile (Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova).

But there does exist, in the western metropolis, the kind of cultural power that not only inflates the merit and value of locally produced art but also determines the artistic worth of, and, more importantly, confers commercial value upon, work from places peripheral to the West. Paris, with its cultural institutions, publishers and critics was the great arbiter in the past, before being replaced by London and New York, whose concentration of corporate publishing houses, magazines, markets, and critics gave them a cultural and intellectual edge over other centers of Anglophone cultures such as New Delhi, Toronto, Sydney, and Cape Town.

This inequality in the world of letters is rarely perceived, if at all, by writers and critics in the West themselves, who generally assume, without examining the matter much, that there exists a ‘level playing-field’ for all writers; but that error has important ramifications for the still surviving national literatures.

For local markets for literary fiction outside the West remain underdeveloped. Publication in Berlin and Paris and Milan can help; but London and New York often hold the only real possibility of a professional writing career. The metropolitan West, however, has its own expectations from non-Western fiction. Last year an Egyptian writer in Cairo told me that international publishers were mostly interested in books that dealt with the treatment of women in Islam. They were particularly interested in veiled Muslim women; books about other aspects of Egyptian life seemed too alien. A writer I met in Havana said he had been informed by one of the international publishers and agents who regularly visit Cuba that his work was not Cuban enough: in other words, it did not have enough steamy sex, salsa or Mojitos.

Actually, the writer in question was, along with many of his students, an admirer of William Gibson, the exponent of cyber-punk; but this was far from being a sign of literary cosmopolitanism for his foreign interlocutor. The steady globalisation of national literatures can subtly distort both their production and consumption; and travelling to Hong Kong to judge the Man Asian Prize for the second year in succession, I found it hard not to wonder whether the prize was meant to promote literature from Asia to Western readers, or to create a space within Asian countries, many of which are still forming their modern literatures, for literary themes and modes that are not commercial or globalisable.

That space seems necessary simply for the eco-diversity of ideas, for the flourishing of intellectual and cultural life outside the well-worn grooves of the West. For much of the previous two centuries the West dictated intellectual and literary trends around the world and shaped the cultures of many countries; but there now seems to be, along with the unavoidable awareness of geopolitical decline, a general sense of exhaustion among the old metropolitan arbiters. Not surprisingly, the most vital works and ideas for some time now have come from the suburbs of history.

Behind the new consumerist glitter of Beijing, Manila and Jakarta, there lies a growing, if much less visible, intellectual ferment of artists and thinkers freshly reckoning with their place in the world. Last year’s winner of the Man Asian was an unpublished manuscript by Miguel Syjco, a writer from the Philippines. It is soon to be released in several languages around the world; but the encouragement given to writers and artists in the Philippines will count for more in the long run.

Su Tong: The formative moment for Su Tong, 2009 winner of the Man Asian prize, was his break with socialist realism.


Some of these writers will be occasionally successful internationally, profiting from the diversification of cultural palate in the West. It is likely that exposure to the crudest of Western metropolitan expectations—more sex and veils, please!—will compromise the integrity of the artistic and intellectual convictions they have developed out of a steady engagement with their part of the world. But this is far from inevitable. Preparing for my visit to Cuba, I was intrigued to discover the work of Leonardo Padura, author of literary mystery novels, whose belief in socialist values sets him apart from the kind of anti-communist dissident long admired in the West. Resident in Cuba, and often critical of the Cuban regime, he has created a degree of independence for himself through his affiliation with international networks of publicity and publishing. At the same time, he hasn’t had to abandon themes that would baffle or alienate many among his Western audience. His new novel, for instance, describes the betrayal of the Soviet revolution by Stalin.

Padura is a rare case. The pressures of the advanced global market combined with the inadequacies of local markets can overwhelm even the most talented of artists. Su Tong, this year’s winner of the Man Asian prize, is an instructive case in this regard. Like many of China’s best-known writers, he started off as an avant-gardist in the 1980s. But he had few readers and he eventually took to writing historical romances of the kind that the most promising Chinese directors of the 1990s—Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige--now hectically work up into blockbuster exotica. The Dawn of Redemption, Su Tong’s new novel and the Man Asian winner, represents a return to a less lucrative genre.

Though a bestseller in Cuba, Padura’s new fiction is also unlikely to find as many readers in the West as his mystery novels. But his refusal to cater to the aesthetic and ideological prejudices of a globalised audience is heartening. Perhaps, one day soon a Chinese novelist aspiring for an international reputation will be able to steer clear of the misery of the Cultural Revolution or the massacre in Tiananmen Square (perennial publishing favourites in the West). Certainly, the Man Asian Prize will find its strongest justification in facilitating this creative and intellectual autonomy within countries where the idea of a national literature, or an independent public sphere, still remains vital and urgent.