The Kathmandu Literary Jatra is in town. The glorious courtyards of the Patan Museum are set to play host to unprecedented intellectual discourse over the weekend. Three score and more national and international writers will hold forth on languages, minority voices, journalism, politics, history and books, books, books. The cynic may deride such events as mere celebrity chaff, but this is as much about bringing writers to their audiences – for intellectual interaction – as anything else. For Nepali audiences keen to get a grip on how their many-hued country is being represented in these crucial times of uncertainty, the Jatra may provide some answers.
For writers of fiction, questions of representation have always been tricky. This is especially the case for those using languages that don't originate in the societies that they are describing. Take a Nepali writing in English about Nepal: who is the writer writing for? Locals or globals?
In Nepal, if a writer's compatriots are not full of praise for her latest work, they are liable to be attacking her for having misrepresented the Nepali culture, as if there were ever such a monolithic culture beyond the outdated, state-sponsored notions of dhaka topi and dalbhat. So when Samrat Upadhyay debuted with 'Arresting God in Kathmandu' (2001) and dared to allow his characters to indulge in carnal relations, there was something of an outcry. While no one could deny the fact of Nepalis having sex (otherwise we wouldn't be here at all), many felt that it was unnecessary to dwell on the fact. It was smutty, it was not representative of Nepali culture, they said, why exaggerate?
Many more words have flowed under the Bagmati Bridge since, and the river ain't getting any cleaner. Or perhaps it's just the stodgy nature of some Nepali readers. Ten years on, I published, and was predictably criticised for apparently dwelling too long on Kathmandu's indolent youth, who couldn't possibly spend all their time on smoke, sex, and swearing. Just because you're an upstanding citizen who disapproves of your sons and daughters doing the same, I wanted to tell them, don't imagine everyone else is.
But the flip side to excessive (thus supposedly unrealistic) reality is exoticisation. We've all heard about Orientalism, but what about Self-Orientalising, whereby a writer internalises Western notions of the East, and imbues her fiction with an excess of spirituality or exotica? Take Upadhyay's debut again. Does the juxtaposition of 'Gods' and 'Kathmandu' in the title not invoke the idea of Shangri-La, never mind that 'arresting' them speaks of a more mundane reality? Again, before the publication of my own book, the publisher and I spent quite some time debating the title, cover and the blurb on the back. It was important to represent it a certain way, and needless to say, we disagreed. Come the next round, I almost dare not dwell on steaming cups of tea, spices, arranged marriages, gods and demons any longer than is necessary, lest I be accused of exoticising my own culture, either out of romanticism or a calculated eye to the bottom line.
'Selling out, or telling it like it is? Getting real in South Asian fiction' is the title of the session I will be moderating on the final day of the Kathmandu Literary Jatra (replacing the one on biography with Patrick French). It will feature Indian writers Namita Gokhale and P Sivakami and Bangladeshi writer Shazia Omar, and will attempt to apportion blame between writers, publishers and dear readers. This session, along with 30 others, will attempt to get at the story behind the story, literally and literarily. This, we hope, is what the Jatra is all about.
Patan's literary jatra
A pen between her toes, THOMAS BELL
The singer of the hit song Phoolko Ankhama, is coming to Nepali readers as a writer
Collection of Wayne Amtzis poetry looks at Nepal's war in the context of the unhappy peace that preceded and followed it