For all its flaws, the film Shakespeare in Love has always had a special place in my movie library. According to the script, written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, young Shakespeare,(Joseph Fiennes) who is always broke and in search of inspiration falls in love with Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant who is betrothed to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). From the ill-fated romance, Shakespeare goes on to write Romeo and Juliet and a literary star is born.
But it isn’t the plot that interests me. One of the more interesting subtexts, a conflict among political, mercantile, and artistic forces, appears in various guises throughout the film. And although it may be argued that the artist finally “wins” by writing a masterpiece, the action of the film is driven by a strange alliance between the theatre manager Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) and loan shark Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson). And Shakespeare’s dalliance with Viola, which is fraught with class conflicts, is resolved with the action of Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench). It’s the classic struggle of money and power with the artist caught in the middle.
Which leads me to the Jaipur Literature Festival and the row between Hartosh Singh Bal and William Dalrymple. Observing the fracas from afar, three issues become readily apparent:
· White privilege
· Commerce or what sells
· Post-colonialism and its effects
In the red corner and hailing from Scotland, is William Dalrymple, who has lived “off for more than 25 years in India.” According to Dalrymple, one of the main organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival, “I conceived, co-founded and co-direct the DSC Jaipur Lit Fest, which is now the largest in the Eastern half of the globe, and brings fine writers together in 12 of India’s 22 official language.” The event, which takes place in an area that sorely needed the assistance, has brought extra income and tourism to the area. Dalrymple should be congratulated for his vision and skill in creating the festival.
In the blue corner and hailing from India, is Hartosh Singh Bal, Open Magazine’s political editor. Bal’s critique of the festival, provocatively titled, The Literary Raj, traced the history of White privilege in India and by association linked Dalrymple to “inheritors of a Raj that still lingers.” Bal detailed some of the derogatory effects of White privilege on the Indian populace which included “fawning” for “British approval.” This tendency, which extended to publishing and book sales, is exacerbated by Bal’s claim about the exclusion of “local” writers from the Jaipur Literature Festival:
How did a White man, young, irreverent and likeable in his first and by far most readable India book, The City of Djinns, become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?
If Jaipur matters as a festival, it is because of the writers from Britain it attracts. When I talked this piece over with a top publisher at one of India’s leading publishing houses, the person, seeking anonymity ‘to protect the interests of the authors at the publishing house’ said: “Indian publishers and writers are peripheral to the enterprise. The list of authors that I send year after year is casually ignored—and that, I believe, is the case with most Indian publishers.
To many Caribbean writers, this is all too familiar. Barbara Blake Hannah raised similar concerns about “homed-based authors” and the Calabash Literary Festival:
We home-based authors thought a break had come with the Calabash Literary Festival, which we thought would give us access to international publicity and distribution opportunities. But over the years, we have seen that the scores of home-based authors do not get invited to read from our work at Calabash unless we line up in the sun for a "rush-the-mike" moment. The only "Jamaican authors" privileged to be promoted at Calabash each year are those who live abroad. Instead, the event gives headline and microphone space to a plethora of international authors, some of whom we have never heard of.
The “local” artists in Jamaica and Jaipur thought they would be better represented in the respective festivals. But money and power see things differently.
Ugly compromises are made in the organization of a book fair. It takes a lot of money to organize a literary festival. And if the organizers want to keep admission free, as Dalrymple did, in order to encourage readership and patronage, then they must make concessions to money and power. Organizers charge sponsors for space to sell their goods and/or a percentage of the book sales. But before sponsors invest any money, they will want certain “guarantees” in return for their investment.
In order to create and sustain a viable product, organizers face a stark financial question: What sells? Will readers come out to hear “foreign” writers XYZ or “local” writers LMNOP? We know the answer. Without the support of the “local” readers, money and power talk. Hence Bal’s assertion: “If Dalrymple appears central to our literary culture, it says something far more damaging about us than about him.” Namit Arora echoes a similar sentiment:
Sixty years after political independence, we still carry an inferiority complex about our literary culture. Our English language literati, chronically insecure and hungry for external validation, pursue British publishing venues and accolades over Indian ones. Yes, target markets and economics explain many things but there is more—it is as if we accord a higher caste to the British and subconsciously elevate and mimic their literary culture. It is one thing to admire and be inspired by other literary cultures, but our attitude here is one of deference, lacking the self-confidence of equals. Nothing like Bookers and Oscars, or reviews, endorsements, and fat book deals in Britain (also increasingly in the U.S.) to turn our heads. Indian novels that "make it" in the Anglophone West are then taken seriously in India—not vice-versa. Do we ever grant the same cachet to books that win Sahitya Akademi and other awards in India? Or crave translations of our best non-English books?
British colonialism has cast a long shadow over the psyches of Commonwealth citizens. It is the great project about which Ngugi wa Thiong'o wrote in Decolonizing the Mind. In the Caribbean, artists and writers such as Rex Nettleford and Kamau Brathwaite and many others have dubbed the effort as creating somebodiness in “our people.”
But are “our people” in the Commonwealth listening? There is a story about Bob Marley and the Prince of Wales that Lorna Goodison told at a recent conference in New York that is relevant to the discussion:
Another way in which he helped us to shape a new kind of identity was by his insistence on always being his authentic self, for it is clear that Bob never saw himself as less than anybody. There is, for example, a story about Bob and the Prince of Wales both finding themselves in an African airport on their way back from the independence celebrations in Zimbabwe. According to people, some of whom claim to have been there, Prince Charles heard that Bob was in the airport and dispatched an equerry to him to say he’d be delighted if Bob would come and meet with him. And Bob told the equerry that if Prince Charles wanted to see him, he should feel free to come himself.
Although Bal was confrontational with the use of phrases such as “pompous arbiter of literary taste,” the failure of the Indian literati to envision such a project seems to be the crux of Bal’s argument. Or to put another way, why should it take British approval to recognize Indian genius? For as Karan Majahan concludes, “Dalrymple's success may carry a whiff of colonial advantage.”
In the case the Jaipur Literature Festival, Dalrymple, who seemed to have been genuinely offended when Bal voiced his “inconvenient truth,” could learn from White entrepreneurs like Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. Mr. Blackwell, who traded on his White privilege, was thoroughly aware of the legacy of colonialism in the Commonwealth. As a result, there are only a few photographs of Blackwell and Marley, which were taken only when Bob learned he had terminal cancer. Neither Blackwell nor Marley, who were aware of the sensitivities surrounding their relationship, ever wanted to give the impression that Blackwell was Marley’s White overload. With Marley and Blackwell, there was mutual respect and a balance in the recognition of money, power, and talent. Both Marley and Blackwell had a tacit agreement about the optics, which served both parties well.
Dalrymple should also realize that he may be just a foil for Bal's ire Frank Collymore, a pioneer of Caribbean literature who also happened to be white, faced similar kinds of criticism, yet he was instrumental in launching the careers of writers such as George Lamming, Derek Walcott, and Edgar Mittelholzer.
Book fairs in the Commonwealth have not reached that level of sophistication where there is a balance of the “local” and “foreign” writers and these dramas are played out in the public arenas. Unfortunately, moneymen only understand money and they will get their money one way or another. In Shakespeare in Love, the “negotiations” between Henslowe and Fennyman take place over hot coals. I’m not saying it could get as ugly as that scene, but if sponsors think they can make more money from “selling “foreign” authors over “local” authors, they will continue to pressure organizers for time and space. Organizers, who are always critically underfunded, can only compromise. And don’t blame the writers, they have to eat.
Part of the solution is political. But I am not advocating government involvement. This calls for reader to vote with dollars. But I suspect for as long as “our people” continue to devalue “our authors,” book fairs in the Commonwealth will continue to experience these kinds of challenges.
*Bangarang (For the Patwa Challenged): A hubbub, uproar, disorder, or disturbance.