by Neelanjana Banerjee
Whether Salman Rushdie shows up or not, the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival remains the biggest literature festival in the Asia Pacific region. As the festival gets under way today at Diggi Palace in Jaipur, Neelanjana Banerjee has eight questions based on her experience at JLF 2011. Republished from HTMLGiant.
1. Do glamour and literature make good bedfellows, or should they stop hooking up?
Jaipur is a city on the edge of desert. It is a few-hour or half-day drive from New Delhi (depending on who you’re asking), which is India’s publishing and intellectual capital. I’ve never been to The Hamptons, but Jaipur feels like it could be an equivalent, except the white linen and Bentleys are exchanged for multicoloured, mirror-work, ethnic wear and camel carts. It is also the bastion of very old money, meaning the town is populated with the offspring of an 11th century clan of feudal rulers known as the Rajputs, who built hundreds of opulent palaces, most of which have been turned into tourist attractions or guest houses.
Hearing writers speak under grandly decorated tents at a Rajput mansion built in the 1860s gives all of the Jaipur Literature Festival’s events (even a panel named “The Return of Philosophy”) an inherently glamorous feel. Glamour is defined as “the quality of fascinating, alluring, or attracting, especially by a combination of charm and good looks,” and it is the preposition that makes me suspicious when it comes to the literary scene. But maybe, just two months in to a year of living in India, I’m just not used to it. Because in my experience, book events in America are held in convention center rooms under florescent lights, or in the children’s section of a bookstore set with uncomfortable folding chairs, or in the usual stronghold of American literary glamour: the grimy bar.
The Indian English book market is supposedly outdoing America’s nine times over, which would seem a veritable reason for massive celebration. Maybe this is also why corporations such as infrastructure company DSC Limited bankrolls the event, along with sponsors like Merrill Lynch, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs and Shell, among others, but along with the fancy parties and voluptuous meals for writers — they also kept the daily events free for the masses, which included large groups of school children dressed in shabby blazers.
At a panel entitled “Migritude”, a term coined by Oakland-based poet Shailja Patel and having to do with migrants with attitude, Guyanese-born British writer and actor Pauline Melville opened by drawing the connection between forced migration and some of the more nefarious sponsors.
“This festival is for writers, people who are genuinely interested in the human condition, but behind us are the logos–staring at everybody–of the most pernicious organisations in contemporary finance,” Melville said. “Even as I speak, I’m half expecting to get a bullet in the back.”
2. Is there anything more glamorous than controversy?
In the weeks leading up to the festival, Open Magazine (kind of a cross between Newsweek and Salon.com) writer Hartosh Singh Bal penned a piece that pointed out India’s continued deference to British literary arbitrators, the foremost of whom is Jaipur Literary Festival co-director William Dalrymple – who in terms of basic attire (polo shirts, khakis and sneakers) was entirely non-glam by Indian standards for the entire festival. Dalrymple shot back an angry response calling Bal racist, which earned another knocking for throwing around the weighty word. (I had a sneaking suspicion that Open Magazine, whose banner flew outside the gates of the festival inviting their readers in, was in cahoots with Dalrymple to strum up media, but my idea was shot down by a foreign correspondent at the NY Times who obviously has no sense of the glamour of conspiracy theories.)
3. Is glamour bad for the aspiring writer who needs to learn to fail?
Junot Diaz, who Indians found incredibly glamorous, spoke at length about how the need for approval was the young writer’s worst enemy–a subject he has been adamant about since winning the Pulitzer.
All of us are trying to do what the Latin teaches us the root of author is, which is to augment. Author: augmentus. You’re trying to add something, no matter how slight…Artists, by their nature, we’re kinda pain-in-the-asses. If you’re an artist because you want more friends, you’re like an evil artist. For real, you’re like a bad Jedi…The good artist, of course, is not looking to make friends. In general, the good artist is going to do something that will discomfit. The very nature of the new is that you are going to make less friends than you would if you were just trying to gain approval. Because we have a society that so encourages everyone to seek approval, there isn’t much space for people to form an artistic personality because we spend our entire lives in a society that tells us: ‘Do the monkey dance, so we can clap for you.’ So many of my young artists that I work with, they are wonderfully talented, but they are so desperate for approval that they are never going to produce anything of worth that we need, not because I am the final judge, but because we know we need less applause and more conversation.
Of course, this was met with wild applause.
Watch video of what to expect at this year’s Festival
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