In March of this year I got to have this amazing conversation with these two blokes at the NZ International Festival of the Arts. The conversation between them was so dynamic I often got to just sit back and listen - and their words have stayed with me ever since. Here are a couple of my favourite moments from the conversation. (This has been recorded for Radio NZ so I won't quote too extensively. Hopefully the session will air at some stage).
Juan Gabriel Vasquez: Since I began writing I’ve always been obsessed with this place where individual destinies and private stories cross what we call a public world, or history with a capital H, or big events, and this is what my fiction deals with. History and Politics are very difficult things to write fiction about. There’s this sentence I love by Milan Kundera who says that the novel’s sole reason for being is telling things that only the novel can tell.
So this is the first problem for a writer dealing with historical known facts – that his obligation is not to be redundant. To tell a story about, let’s say, the French Revolution, and tell readers what they already know through Simon Schama’s book about the French Revolution, through documentaries, through myth… it’s just stupid. It’s a waste of time. I mean in order for a novel to be worth my while as a reader, it has to tell me things I can only thereafter find in that novel. This is what Tolstoy does. We can read a thousand books about the Napoleonic Wars, but they will never tell us about what we can learn about in War and Peace. That obligation not to be redundant, to give you something else, to make yourself indispensable. It’s a quite arrogant thing to say.
This is the first thing, and then the other thing is politics. Mario Vargas Llosa said politics and sex are the two most difficult subjects for a writer. Perhaps the reason is that if you’re writing about politics you run the risk of your language becoming political. When your diction becomes political diction, the novel is lost, because political diction and political language and novelistic language are as opposed as you can get. Political language almost always is incapable of illumination, it’s incapable of saying something new. When politicians speak, they want to tell you something you already know, or they want to simplify things. Whereas a novelist wants to make things complicated, wants to tell you things are not as easy as you think. So there’s a tension.
You can have good political novels. Some of my favourite novels could be thought of as political novels, but it is because they assume another diction, another language. They don’t carry messages obviously. They don’t break the essential contract between the reader and the writer, which is – I shall not try to convince you of anything. The writer should say: this novel is not a way of talking you into anything. Whereas obviously with politics, that’s the only thing that matters.
Kim Scott: Perhaps one of the strengths of literature and fiction is – Vladimir Nabokov talks about the importance of enchantment in literature, in the reading and writing relationship, and I think that’s the precious part. One is inevitably political if you’re dealing in the sort of stuff we deal with I think. And people are very keen to put you in one camp or another and to tell you off if you haven’t met their political ends, or if you haven’t been accurate in your social history.
My concern is the possibilities of intimacy and enchantment and emotional engagement, without being soft and sloppy and self-indulgent… So again that enchantment thing - in many ways that’s what I want to get. That’s what I think is special, that’s what I value when I’m reading, and the complexity of that special relationship, as you were saying. It can’t be reduced to a political or power game. Also through doing that you can provoke people to decide their own position politically, or to go and find out more about the history of a certain situation.
Often I find in my writing, you find the juice in a political situation. So in Benang – when I came across an historical tract that talked about the need to uplift and elevate a despised people, and to breed out all signs of Aboriginality, and to create the first white man born in the family line - when I used the phrase I may well be the first successfully white man born in the family line – the political energy that came from using that phrase... I thought, oh I don’t want to say that, I don’t want to use that. But just to use that energy touched all sorts of historical and political buttons. To unpack and sort that kind of energy, and that motivation, not knowing where you’ll end up, or who you might or might not appease, that’s what interests me.
If you haven't read Scott or Vasquez, go now and find some! (not that I'm trying to convince you of anything...)
Kōrerorero - Conversations
From time to time I'll post things here that haven't found a home anywhere else, or have been used in other formats. Occasionally I might even blog...