Over a dark and quiet empire
alone I fly-and emvy you,
two-headed eagle who at least
have always yourself to talk to.
– Andrei Voznsensky
Whatever the concerns of seeking writing of substance in litSA pages, it still leaves unanswered the crucial and oft-neglected question about south asian writing in English: who, or rather, where is the reader? Would comparison between Latin American literature and the more recent south asian literature in English prove fruitful? Only perhaps to the extent (with deference to their un-shared histories, different colonial pasts, the status of Spanish as the lingua franca of the region) of their respective entries into world literature.
All are agreed on the point that south asian literature in English is, to requisition a phrase from the past, of recent vintage. By contrast, before its ‘discovery’ by the English-speaking world, the literature of Latin America already enjoyed immense popularity with readers in South America and the writers (such as Borges, Neruda or Paz) themselves were already distinguished by their publications in the original Spanish. The project in bringing Latin American literature to global consumption was thus mostly preoccupied with the problems of translation of the original works into English.
Not so however in the case of literature south asia in English; barely a decade and a half old in terms of successful commercial publication (as evidenced by the huge advances to authors) as well as international recognition in the form of awards, prizes and screenplays, writing in English has been almost the exclusive preserve of the literate south asian in a land where literacy is at a premium. And as Rushdie rightly pointed out, inevitably such writing has been concerned with themes urban and elite. A matter further compounded by the fact that a great number of writers are working from the diaspora, sometimes addressing an immediate audience more often than not obsessed with the idea of an exoticised ‘East’, and often themselves caught up in nostalgia for a homeland they–for whatever reasons—left behind.
Others, caught in the call-and-response bind of certain forms of cultural theory and migrant writing feel compelled to address themes of exile and dislocation. Indeed some of the international book-reading public organises itself down into cyberlists of south asian literature-watchers. Wherein it is observed that a dichotomy is drawn, often overtly, between diaspora and non-diaspora writing. Anxiety detected in the matter of representations of the country of non-residence to the outside world, is manifested in the form of, say, a spirited rally to the defence of Rabindranath Tagore against his critics and detractors on one of the lists.
Meanwhile, readers back home, shut out from compatriotic literatures by the sheer inability to master a vast number of languages, take recourse to the scanty and largely ineffectual translations in English from the vernacular. Having said that, let it go on record here that whilst the debate rages on about the musicality (or the lack of it) of the English language, litSA stands firmly committed to the publication and collection of translated poetry and fiction which is as important to south asian literature in english as original works. To return to the theme of the reader, what is missing perhaps within and without the subcontinent is the space to create a substantial readership favourably disposed to the somewhat
old-fashioned notion of a good read in the first place; a readership given to the eager anticipation of the arrival of stories that escape over barbed wire and minefields, over the death-filled lagoons and high glaciers. Perhaps litSA will, in some measure, fill that role.