The Global Novel: Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, Jim Crace, Maaza Mengiste, Xialou Guo, Moderated By Chandrahas Chaudhary

Literary critic Chandrahas Chaudhary opened the discussion by declaring that the novel had always been a global phenomenon because the art of storytelling has been with us forever. Pulitzer Prizewinner Jhumpa Lahiri explored the difference between the terms ‘global’ and ‘universal’, stating that the former was a term best reserved for market oriented jargon writers, whereas the latter reflected the ultimate goal of serious writers: to try to portray shared experience and emotions through their stories: “Great books do communicate something that is comprehensible, resonant and transcendental”.

Jonathan Franzen wryly observed, “the worst way to be universal is by trying to be universal”.  Maaza Mengiste, the author of widely acclaimed Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, shared a warm story about one of her university students, thrown into prison during the Ethiopian revolution of 1974. The student somehow sneaked in a copy of “Gone with the Wind,” which he shared with his fellow prisoners, translating each line for them and writing them on cigarette packets. Menzinge said that she had never thought of Margaret Mitchell as a ‘global’ writer, but this incident showed that her book had universal resonance.

Jim Crace, shortlisted this year for the Man Booker Prize, agreed that certain great books had the ability to take us beyond our own cultural boundaries, and introduce us to a very different kind of world. He gave the example of Chinua Achebe and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose books had opened him up to the viewpoint of the colonized.

Novelist Xialou Guo, who writes in Chinese and English, said she regarded writing as a medium in which she could vent her anger about issues such as ‘how capitalism has stolen the reading habit,’ and the publishing industry’s stronghold over creativity. She spoke at length about the significance of literature in translation, if novels were to have global reach in real terms.

Jim Crace observed that the ‘bouldering English language’ held considerable power over other languages, and thereby over global narratives. He recalled an incident of a meeting he attended with twenty young Maldives writers, all of whom wanted to write in English since they believed that writing in their local language would be “professional suicide”.

Lahiri agreed that the ‘undue power’ of the English language was ‘distressing’ and notably undermined the concept of a global novel. Chaudhary too observed that it was a great loss that people were not able to access great books written in many different languages of the world. Crace countered that what ultimately mattered was that the medium of storytelling itself survived.

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