The Global Novel: Margaret Atwood, Colm Toibin, Aleksandar Hemon, David Grossman, Sulaiman Addonia, Sunjeev Sahota in conversation with Chiki Sarkar

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The sun was shining brightly during a particularly chilly winter morning when a large number of readers gathered at the JLF’s Charbagh tent. Some tweeting, some clicking selfies, some reading, and everyone waiting with racing heartbeats for their literary idol – Margaret Atwood. And finally, there she was!

As Chiki Sarkar introduced the panel which was to speak on ‘The Global Novel’, she started by saying, “We have a lot of hyphenated novelists here.” making them a suitable set of authors to discuss the agenda of the global appeal of the novel form.

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Chiki Sarkar started the session by asking the authors – Colm Toibin, Aleksander Hemon, David Grossman, Sulaiman Addonia, Sunjeev Sahota, and of course Atwood – when and how did the novel form become the popular form of literature? Colm Toibin gave the audiences a great statement on this saying that the primary reason why the novel rose was because it’s in a hybrid form, and has a bit of all literary manifestations, be it plays, religious text or poetry.

“It includes many matter without excluding anything. It arose at the same time as the sense of the self-arose. A self that could confront destiny, choice, chance. It’s a secular space.”

Adding to this point, Toibin remarked that novel is a cold place for religion. He added, “It’s not good to deal with miracles, god doesn’t come down to rescue the characters. Novel began in the time of secularisation.”

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Since there is no single way to write a novel, or for that matter, no single way to read a novel, it was able to the taste of multiple people. “It can include multitudes,” as Colm put it.

Taking the conversation forward, Atwood stated, “There were so many novels written in the 18th century that people became addicted to it, and by the end of the nineteenth century, novels were preached against by religious people. It was considered as a lower form of writing for young ladies to read too many of them. It was only with the age of Henry James that novels became an art form. Before that, it was poetry that was considered the highest form.”

Coming to David Grossman, he was quite clear that the novel form hadn’t declined, proof of which, he said, “was the scale of the festival and the crowd sitting in front of them.” Grossman spoke about the current world which is dominated by mass media, which he thinks is a tricky term, as we think mass media as a medium for the masses, but actually, it turns a human into mass, and “sometimes mob”. In this atmosphere, David thinks, we “need literature to fill the need to feel unique.”

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Sulaiman, who grew up in Eritrea, Africa, started his account on a very interesting note, saying “I was exposed to the cinema before I came to read books. There were no books, no libraries where I come from.”

A novel for him was not a straight forward thing, adding “we had to take risks to read novels. We had to go to smugglers to get the books that we wanted, and sometimes fight for it. Religious politics of the place made the access to novels difficult for Addonia. This precisely shows the global acceptability of the novel form.

People go to novels as it does story-telling better than any other literary form. “When I started reading novels as a teenager, I used to think there are people in the pages,” prompted Sarkar.

Putting his point of view forward, Aleksander Hemon said “I am fully committed to literature, including writing novels, as I believe that the power of language and the power of imagination are a part of people’s life and how they live. But its ability to engage people’s lives is diminishing, partly because of the rise of visual forms, like television and films.”

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Disagreeing with Hemon on this point, Atwood suggested, “Novels can take you into the reality of the times it is recording for a much longer time into the future than any TV show could.”

Reading novels can give you a black and white description of the world. It’s a “very good medium to understand what lies beyond your immediate world” conceded Sulaiman. Growing up someplace where there was a disparity between black and white, novels, for Sulaiman was the only medium to make him understand that all are equal. This is a “powerful example how novel in itself is a global form of written literature.”

While the panel spoke eloquently on how the novel form has a global appeal, one question that remained unanswered was what makes a novel global.

We hope to find an answer for this someday!

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