Thoughts on Writing and Politics in Kolkata

Yesterday I had the immense pleasure and privilege to teach a creative writing workshop with a group of students here in Kolkata at the British Council’s Teaching Centre. It was an absolute delight to spend a couple of hours working with students who had finished the British Council’s first two creative writing courses in the city, and I was hugely impressed by the students’ seriousness, their intellectual acuity, and their exuberance.

I find it is always good to teach outside of my home country, because it challenges certain assumptions that I have about what writing is or should be. And this was certainly the case yesterday. If there is one thing that stood out for me about the workshop, it was this: these were students many of whom had a very strong sense of what writing can—and perhaps should—do politically. At the beginning of the workshop, we did a short exercise on why writing matters. In response to this exercise, a large number of the students said that they were interested in using writing as a way of tackling questions of social justice, women’s rights, transgender issues, and so on. And what was particularly striking is that in many cases these were the first reasons that the writers in the group gave for writing.
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How Satisfied Are You With This Poll?

One evening last week, the phone rang. At the other end was a polite man who said he worked for Ipsos MORI, the market research company. He asked me if I would mind answering a few questions. Having nothing else to do, I agreed. Besides, I always wondered who this mysterious ‘British public’ was that ended up being polled; and realising that on this occasion I was one of them made me think I might as well make use of the opportunity.

The polite man on the end of the phone started asking all kinds of questions about my view of the political landscape in the UK. I answered the questions as diligently and truthfully as I could. Read more

Some Ceremonial Questions

I have a knack of being out of circulation for the deaths of major public figures. When Princess Diana died, I was on a Buddhist retreat in Norfolk, and by the time I returned home, the whole thing was over. And I heard about the death of Margaret Thatcher whilst down here in southwest France, where I’m spending a couple of weeks rewriting my next novel. So I have been a little set apart from all of the debate and discussion and rhetoric. I will, however, be back in the UK in time for the funeral, which we are told will be a Ceremonial, but not a State funeral; and whilst mulling over this, I found myself wondering something really rather simple. What is a Ceremonial funeral, and who decides who gets to have one? Read more

Mo Yan, Politics and Writing

Having heard this afternoon that Chinese novelist Mo Yan 莫言 had won the Nobel Prize, I thought that I would track down some of his work to have a quick read. I only know Mo Yan indirectly, through the film [amazon_link id=”B001BHTNAY” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Red Sorghum[/amazon_link], which was based upon one of his books, and for which he sold the rights for £80. This seemed not very much to go on, so by a bit of judicious rooting around online I managed to dig out a copy of his short story Soaring (翱翔) in both English and Chinese; and having picked my way through the story in the original, and then read it in English, I have to say that I was very impressed. It was an old-fashioned tale of village brutality combined with uncanny, unearthly happenings, the latter very much after the model of Mo Yan’s forebear in his home province of Shandong, the strange and wonderful seventeenth-to-eighteenth century writer [amazon_link id=”0140447407″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Pu Songling[/amazon_link]. The Nobel Committee called it “hallucinatory realism”, and it seems a fitting name for the genre. Read more

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