(Venice, Italy) The fourth edition of Crossroads of Civilization, Venice's literary festival, was, for me, like going home, surrounded by my own kind. Listening to fiction writers attempt to describe their creative process to an audience always makes me smile. Unlike journalism and other forms of non-fiction, creating literary works of the imagination is such a strange process, even to an author, that it is difficult to explain in practical terms. There is a strange communication between the subconscious mind and the fingertips that often doesn't reach an author's consciousness until after publication, or even years later. Nathan Englander, one of the speakers at the conference, (and the only American) said, "We are working as an innocent. We don't know what we are writing about." Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul said, "Writing is a kind of magic. Since we are in [Venice] the land of glass-making, it's similar to blowing glass. You don't know how it's going to come out. It's true of writing, too." The late Norman Mailer wrote a book about the process and called it "The Spooky Art." Here are my own thoughts from a recent Facebook conversation:
As a novelist, the thrill is to watch the characters become individuals. I can't force them to do anything they don't want to do. It's something magical. I think God is like that, and is bored by sameness. Otherwise, why do we exist? To me, the only other reason would be: to be a slave and do the boring work that a god doesn't want to do.
Connecting minds through writing and reading is an intimate liaison; the mind processes information it receives by reading in an entirely different way than watching a film or listening to music. Until Incroci di Civiltà, which connected writers from different parts of the world, I don't think I quite comprehended how powerful that connection can be, and why strong voices continue to be suppressed by totalitarian governments. The Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, and the American poet, Ezra Pound, both of whom were institutionalized by their respective countries, are buried here, adding their voices to a chorus of writers throughout the centuries who gathered in Venice and suffered to be heard -- a fertile foundation for a fledging international literature festival named Incroci di Civiltà.
There was a wonderful spirit of collaboration between the different venues that participated in Incroci di Civiltà. It was the first time I had attended the literary conference, but I am very familiar with the venues, which are some of the most distinguished settings that Venice has to offer. The Malibran, the Santa Margherita Auditorium, the Punta della Dogana, the Palazzo Ducale, the Querini Stampalia, the Giorgione Theater, the Casinò, the Ateneo Veneto and Ca' Foscari University all opened their doors and let in a breath of civilization. In addition, almost every major organization in town was a partner or a collaborator, with roots that reach to France, England, Italy, Venice, Germany, Spain, the US, Greece, Iceland, China, Poland, Cypress -- even Europe itself was represented by the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation. In case I missed someone, click HERE to read my Crossroads of Civilization - International Literature Festival in Venice blog to read the line-up, and who collaborated with whom.
Photo: Eamonn McCabe
At the end of each writer's talk, they were asked what they thought of the term "Incroci di Civiltà," or "Crossroads of Civilization." V.S. Naipaul said it was European with an Eastern flavor, and that it was too "romantic," which seemed to disappoint one of the organizers. I thought, "Well, somebody has to be romantic in the world today. And Venice is the most romantic city on earth. Of course a Venetian literary festival would be romantic!" Afterwards, I read Naipal's In a Free State, which won the Booker Award. The character Linda says: "I always thought you were a romantic, Bobby," to which Bobby replies: "You chose the wrong man."
More thoughts about "Crossroads of Civilization from other writers:
Wladimir Kadimir - Russian Jew living in Berlin who writes in German.: "An opportunity to transform the charm of Europe to the future. I don't know if Europe is ready for this charm."
Dubravka Ugrešić - Yugoslav Croatian writer living in Amsterdam: "Beautiful fusions, ideas, concepts, food, music..."
Etgar Keret - Israeli writer living in Tel Aviv, Israel: "Times are very special. Reality is not very normal. It will get crazier and crazier. A violent and dangerous meeting point."
Jón Kalman Stefánsson - Icelandic writer living in Iceland: "A place to share art. In a world of hatred and negative things, art can make the difference."
A.S. Byatt - English writer living in Sheffield, UK: "Like a temptation. A world culture."
After Ezra Pound was set free from nearly thirteen years of internment at St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital in Washington D.C. (now set to be the new home of the Department of Homeland Security), he was interviewed in 1960 by Donald Hall for the Paris Review. Pound said, "I am writing to resist the view that Europe and civilization are going to Hell. If I am being 'crucified for an idea' -- that is, the coherent idea around which my muddles accumulated -- it is probably the idea that European culture ought to survive, that the best qualities of it ought to survive along with whatever other cultures, in whatever universality. Against the propaganda of terror and the propaganda of luxury, have you a nice simple answer?"
I didn't get to experience every writer, but the conversations I did attend were fascinating, especially because of the different, yet similar, points of view, based on the writers' personal experience. Dubravka Ugrešić was born in 1949 in Croatia, the former Yugoslavia, living in Amsterdam. To add to the mix, her panel was in collaboration with Palazzo Grassi, owned by the Frenchman, François Pinault, and Wake Forest University in North Carolina, USA. The history of Yugoslavia itself is complex; click Wikipedia to learn more. Tito said of the country he ruled, "I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbours, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities."
Ugrešić lived in Berlin and Boston before settling in Amsterdam. She expressed nostalgia for the Yugoslavia she knew before it fell apart, and said she was Yugo-nostalgic when it was dangerous to have that label because it implied you were a communist, "which is stupid." After the war, she said there was a time when they were creating a totally new state and you could not watch movies or television; it felt like "somebody is forcing you to forget your life." She said she wrongly believed that the past was going to be deleted, and that they would no longer be able to see films from the fifties. Instead, Yugo-nostalgia became commercial -- there is wine with Tito's signature; socks with Tito's image; Tito's Favorite Meals cookbook. Now she does not feel nostalgia, but tremendous anger. "Why did the war happen? All that is put aside because these are the most painful questions. Now it's like everything is okay, which it certainly is not." Serious discussion about what the war was is dangerous. She feels cheated and robbed because the war was not for democracy or a grand idea, but a business project. Twenty years later the people live worse and worse rather than better and better. She said she witnessed the construction of new identities. There were TV commercials that asked: "Do you have an identity?" They were required to say what nationality they were; what religion they were, etc., for an identity card. She said that twenty years ago more than a million and a half Yugoslavians, Serbs, Macedonians, Croatians, Bosnians, etc. did not want to be anything in particular. They were happy to be simply Yugoslavian.
Etgar Keret was born in Tel Aviv in 1967. He writes short, dark stories that can be read on a bus and wants to write a novel, but "doesn't know how to explode slowly." He is a self-proclaimed control freak since both parents were Holocaust survivors and he grew up wondering if the Nazis were going to turn him in. He writes to lose control and express the irresponsible part of himself. "Nobody in real life gets hurt; the real world and your self are not in danger." He said that after reading his stories, people expect him to show up in leather on a bike, and are surprised: "You are a nice boy!" He said he felt like a spy in real life. His wife does not like that he invites taxi drivers into their home to use the toilet, but he can feel when the driver needs to use the toilet, and where else can he go? He says he glued his wife upside down on the ceiling in a story to be able to communicate with her and have gravity give her a smile. "The earth is against a smile."
He said that Israel is a paradox. There is a strong affinity to religion, but they are open-minded and gay-friendly with a liberal Supreme Court. Yet right next door there are territories where people have no rights. He said they are told in Israel they have the best (as in moral) army in the world. He said it was like saying you are the best pizzeria in Germany. "You are an army!" He said when he takes his toddler to the park to play with the other children that the conversations are about what they are going to do when the tots are eighteen-years-old and have to join the army. One would leave the country. Another would get a medical exemption. He said it was not a natural situation.
When asked about the Middle East, Eget said, "I don't know. Writers don't know how to fix situations. The Jews and the Palestinians both have a history of persecution. It's more like a contest about who has suffered more, who is the bigger victim." He said he was a compulsive optimist. "Now is not the time to sit back and let history take its course. Every person who wants to see a better world has to do something about it. The people must help create the world in which they want to live."
Wladimir Kaminer is a Jew born in Moscow in 1967, who now lives in Berlin and writes in German. He is also a well-known disc jokey. When asked about German Chancellor Angela Merkel's statement: "Multiculturalism is a total failure," he said that something more is required than simply lifting the borders between nations. He called Germans "true representatives of enlightenment," and that what is needed are clear ideas. He said that Berlin was not Germany, and was in danger of succumbing to the same fate as Venice -- becoming a tourist attraction -- and that the "inhabitants don't want to be animals in a zoo." He said that after the war, the Germans as victims were the real winners, and proved that traumatized people can rise from the ashes. "Russia cannot go on living as if nothing happened. They must acknowledge the concentration camps and what Stalin did. Trauma can bring advantages -- to learn from history and not participate in conflicts; not take part in wars." He said that "citizens have to develop a sense of responsibility. Politicians are obsolete. No politicians can solve problems."
Nathan Englander was born in New York in 1970, where he returned after living in Jeruselem for about six years. He wrote The Ministry of Special Cases set in Argentina in 1976 on the day of the coup because he wanted to write a novel about how politics invade one man. He said, "Nothing has to happen is my view of the world." He said he grew up as a fifth-generation Holocaust survivor in what he considered a very American family in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. "Normal people to me were Jewish people." He moved to Jerusalem and wrote his acclaimed collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. "Israel was the first place where I wasn't Jewish. The good guys and the bad guys were all wearing yarmulkes. I got to be an American for five or six years." From a 2001 interview with This Year in Jerusalem, compiled by Ken George called, "Lost and Found in Jerusalem:"
Englander discovered the city as a college student and nostalgically recalls mountain biking down dirt paths and fields through Jerusalem suburbs. He bemoans the frenetic urbanization that is forever altering a familiar landscape: bike paths are now paved highways; hills have been shorn of their peaks to accommodate new neighborhoods.
More distressing to him is the violence. Israeli commuters on those paved highways are now snipers' targets; daytrips to Englander's favorite Palestinian villages are no longer possible because of closures and reprisal shelling by Israel.
The end of the peace process is what will ultimately cause Englander to abandon the city he loves. "If they want to turn this into the Balkans, I'm gone," he says.
Jón Kalman Stefánsson was born in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1963, where he lives. He spoke about the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, "the volcano with the unpronounceable name." He said that nature reminds us that she is in charge when a minor eruption of a volcano in Iceland had such a great impact on the world. He said, "We are all part of Mother Nature and we should listen. Within five years, this eruption will be forgotten." When it comes to the Icelandic language versus English, he said that English threatens English. He said, "English will die because everyone speaks it badly," and the question is shall we switch to Latin or shall we go on killing English? In 2008, during the crisis the Icelandic economy collapsed overnight. The people in Reykjavik took to the streets with pots and pans, which was dubbed the "Household Revolution," and knocked down the government. From The Times, January 27, 2009:
The global economic crisis claimed its first government yesterday when Iceland’s ruling coalition collapsed amid a cacophony of popular protest. The Government of Geir Haarde, the Prime Minister, resigned en masse after days of mounting anger over the country’s financial meltdown.The protests, which began peacefully after the nationalisation and overnight bankruptcy of Iceland’s three main banks, turned violent last week with the nation experiencing its worst riots in 60 years. At their height 32,000 people — more than 10 per cent of Iceland’s population — took to the streets of Reykjavik banging pots and pans in what came to be known as the “Household Revolution”.
Stefánsson said that books are highly regarded in Iceland, and that "literature overcomes our 'no way out' situation. "Literature is a fight against materialism to be free without any limitations. The more we write good literature, the less materialism will rule." He said it was dangerous when America, the most powerful country in the world, seemed to have no desire to know other cultures, which creates a narrow-minded vision. When asked what his greatest influence was, he said, "The Beatles." He said his oldest sister gave him the Beatles music in 1974 when he was ten-years-old, when they did not play together any more, which made him sad. He felt his mission was to bring the Beatles back together. He wanted to go speak to them, but then John Lennon was killed. He bought a guitar, hoping to join the band, but then George Harrison died, too, and he had to give up that dream.
"I like inventing imaginary works of art that I could never make." A.S. Byatt
"The minute the world changes, something else comes up." V.S. Naipaul
"Ego surfing on the Internet is one of the worst disorders that affect writers." Alessandro Piperno
"Everything has been said but no one is listening, so we have to say it all over again." Joann Sfar
"All artists are eccentric. You need solitude." A.S. Byatt
"With a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, I am the son of two enemies." Allesandro Piperno
"With a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, I am the son of two enemies." Allesandro Piperno
"As a writer, I am responsible for the past. I do not consider visions for the future." Wladimir Kaminer
"Traveling is a human right." Igiaba Scego
"My ancestors were potters. Making objects is one of the most interesting things human beings do, and one of the least dangerous." A.S. Byatt
"Tragedy is a blind alley. Learn to laugh. Take it with humor, then you can find a way out. When a situation is not tolerable, people tell jokes." Wladimir Kaminer
"Why should I be pinned by ethnic identity? I am a representative of literature." Dubravka Ugrešić
"I was very proud of the separation between church and state before we started dismantling basic democracy." Nathan Englander
"I don't make the world. I just observe it." V.S. Naipaul
"High Hebrew was a written, not spoken, language for 2,000 years before they took it out and defrosted it. There is no word for 'car,' no words for modern inventions. A sentence can switch from high Hebrew to slang and back again. It's like the King James Bible and rap in the same sentence." Etgar Keret
"I do not think we will save the planet." A.S. Byatt
"A hundred years after the Heart of Darkness, we are still there. What are we to do?" V.S. Naipaul
"We have a right to say how we would like the world to be." Joann Sfar
Ciao from Venice,
P.S. After publishing this blog, I received a kind invitation to view Contemporary Literary Horizon, an "INDEPENDENT, BILINGUAL AND MULTICULTURAL MAGAZINE OF CONTEMPORARY CULTURE AND SPIRITUALITY"