Like any city with a reputation as a capital of the arts, Paris has been enshrined in literary memory as both the pinnacle of creative ambition, and the graveyard of young hope. Reading the dyspeptic Flaubert on the condition of artistic aspiration, for example, can make it seem like Paris is where nineteenth-century dreams came to be ossified in the catacombs of urban distraction. Remember Pellerin in Sentimental Education: “Tortured by a longing for fame, sating his days in argument, believing in countless ridiculous ideas, in systems, in critics, in the importance of the codification or the reform of art, he had reached the age of fifty without producing anything but sketches. His robust pride prevented him from feeling any discouragement, but he was always irritable, and in that state of excitement, at once natural and artificial, which is characteristic of actors.”
I quote this both because it is hilarious, and in direct counterpoint to the sense of creative purpose with which ten unpublished novelists and poets read from and talked about their works in progress on Friday morning. The writers presented their work at Reid Hall, an eighteenth-century porcelain factory that became a boys’ school, a girls’ school, and a military hospital during World War I, before assuming its contemporary avatar as the site of the Paris chapter of Columbia University’s Global Centers.
Five of these writers live and work in India, and were selected for the programme through a competition conducted by The Caravan. Five others are students of Columbia University’s MFA writing programme. (Full disclosure: the Columbia university professor Susan Bernofsky and I, who moderated the session, were both part of the jury that selected the five writers based in India.) At the session, called ‘A Writer's Path,’ they were in conversation with four Indian writers participating in the festival—Jeet Thayil, Vikram Chandra, Sudeep Sen and Geetanjali Shree—both about writing and the business of being a writer.
“Can you call yourself a writer if you haven’t been published?” one of the new writers, Dharini Bhaskar, said in a closed-door workshop before the session. The label did not seem to matter as much as the act of writing seriously and self-critically. The writers’ work ranged from Aditi Rao’s poem titled ‘The Little Mermaid Was Indian,’ to Syed Irfan Muzammil’s reading from a portion of his novel set in Pakistan, in which a man washes a dead body, as well as other writers’ scenes set in Iceland, Nigeria, Delhi, Mumbai and New York.
The conversation with the festival’s participating writers touched on some common anxieties. How should a writer read? (Serious writers could do worse than reading a good poem before you begin, Jeet Thayil said. “It is the most sophisticated form of communication we have, after all.” “In short, read other writers,” Sudeep Sen said.) What is the importance of location in writing? (Geetanjali Shree described a need for a mixture of “immersion” and “distance,” best arrived at individually, in which removing the writer’s self from her familiar milieu would allow her to see and shape the material more clearly.)