Literature and the world - Muneeza Shamsie - Thursday, March 03, 2011

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ALL good literature is trans-geographical and reflects the demand, both personal and political, for freedom, dignity and the right to speak, which has propelled the dreams and aspirations of humankind across the ages.

This was brought home to me while discussing threadbare the books that my two fellow judges and myself had short-

listed for the regional (Europe and South Asia) Commonwealth Writers Prize 2011. The winners are scheduled to be announced in Karachi today.

The prize is open to citizens of Commonwealth countries and is given by the Commonwealth Foundation with the support of Australia’s philanthropic Macquairie Foundation. The regional winners later compete with those from Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Canada and the Caribbean, for the overall prizes — Best Book and Best First Book. Many European and South Asian short-listed writers and their work reflect a universalism, so pivotal to the modern world. These authors include the award-winning British novelist Barbara Trapido who grew up in South Africa.

Her witty novel Sex and Stravinsky, which was short-listed for the Best Book, employs ballet, music and a dance of masks, as a central metaphor. She looks at race, identity and belonging in today’s world, through a family in Britain and another other in South Africa, who are interlinked through a complex narrative that encompasses a Lebanese mother, a Greek father, an Australian sister — and a black South African, who defies apartheid by acquiring a new identity.

Leila Aboulela, who lives between Scotland and Doha and is the daughter of a Sudanese father and Egyptian mother, recreates 1950s’ Sudan in Lyrics Alley which revolves around the conflicts between modernity and tradition in the wealthy Abuzeid family. However, the upstanding Abuzeid heir, Nur, is paralysed after an accident. He finds his sense of self, through his poems which make him famous. The story, based on Aboulela’s uncle, a popular Sudanese lyricist, links Nur’s struggle for a voice, with Sudan’s struggle for independence and asks profound questions about colonialism and nationalism, existence and the soul.

Struggle for survival and freedom also runs through Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, about slavery in 19th-century Jamaica, recounted by an elderly woman, who was once a slave, named July, on a sugar plantation. Levy, juxtaposes with great skill, July’s desire for empowerment amid limited opportunities, with that of changing pressures on the British, who evolve from slave-owners into cruel employers. Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal, set in Stalinist Russia, provides a terrifying comment on totalitarian regimes: the plot revolves around a skilled doctor, who treats a young boy with cancer, but the child’s father, an all-powerful official, refuses to accept that the doctor cannot cure his son.

Power and powerlessness are pivotal to David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which begins in 1799 in Japan. In this tale of heroism and valour, an upright, young Dutch official, Jacob, is punished for querying corruption among Dutch colleagues while Oriko, a well-born, learned Japanese woman, finds herself incarcerated in a bizarre shrine by a ruthless Japanese official. Their destinies are shaped by the declining power of the Dutch East India Company and the advent of British ships while the Japanese are determined to keep the Europeans at bay, yet acquire the new European knowledge. Avarice, ambition and greed also run through Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, an insightful portrait of the collapse of financial institutions in the US, told through the story of the ambitious and unscrupulous Doug, a one-time soldier in Iraq.

The CWP Best First Book award is given for the first work of fiction by a writer, regardless of age or previous works of non-fiction. Several short-listed first books portrayed ordinary individuals caught up in great historical events. Lisa Hilton’s The House with Blue Shutters, set in rural France, links up the conflicts of an unhappy, modern and sophisticated Englishwoman, with the poignant story of her neighbour, an elderly Frenchwoman, her handicapped brother and the German officer she loved in the Second World War.

Mischa Hiller’s quiet Sabra Zoo describes the daily life and concerns of its 18-year-old narrator in Beirut during the war of 1982. The son of a Palestinian father and Danish mother, he works as a translator for foreign doctors at the Sabra refugee camp where he witnesses many horrors. Max Schaeffer’s harrowing and explicit Children of the Sun combines fact and fiction to investigate the neo-Nazi movement in Britain of the 1970s and makes a telling comment on the links between sexuality and violence, and introduces a historical backdrop that includes Nazi Germany and Abu Ghraib.

Equally important are novels which describe an individual’s struggle for self, against the restrictions of family and society. Grace William Says It Out Loud by Emma Henderson provides a sparkling voice to the intelligent and endearing narrator, Grace, who has cerebral palsy and is wrongly confined in the 1950s to a British mental institution. In Anjali Joseph’s Saraswati Park, a young student, Asish, tries to cope with unrealistic family expectations, while his uncle a letter-writer, longs to become a great novelist. Dreams of upward mobility in a stratified South Asian society also run through Manu Joseph’s comedy Serious Men which lampoons notions of great scientific discoveries and childhood genius.

To me, the many different countries and cultures that these books have traversed, throw fascinating insights into our age and the historical impulses which have forged it.

The writer is the regional chairperson (Europe and South Asia) of the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2011.

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