Literature: Our Common Inheritance

Fiji leading writer Satendra Nandan’s fourth book of essays, Dispatches from Distant Shores, will be published this year. Brief Encounters came out  last year.     A few years ago, in
12 Sep 2016 08:44
Literature: Our Common  Inheritance
Satendra Nandan

Fiji leading writer Satendra Nandan’s fourth book of essays, Dispatches from Distant Shores, will be published this year. Brief Encounters came out  last year.



A few years ago, in Canberra, I saw  a production of King Lear. In my opinion it is the greatest play of Will Shakespeare.

For the first time I understood that King Lear was all about a journey from madness into sanity, from hollow power to the power of love for all unaccommodated creatures, not the other way around as I was taught in my English Literature class.

We also planted then in a Writers Park, a tree for six journalists killed in East Timor, next to the two trees we’d planted for Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer killed by the then dictator, and Robert Walker, an aboriginal poet who died in his cell in Western Australia.

This park is next to the Commonwealth Avenue over which is the Commonwealth Bridge across the Walter Burley Griffin lake: Burley Griffin is the creator of Canberra, the Australian capital; the alternative name suggested for the new national capital was Shakespeare. Burley Griffin, the great architect, is buried in Nishatgunj in Lucknow, India.

Last week a poet-friend wrote from Lucknow to say every time he visits Griffin’s grave, he remembers me for when I’d visited Lucknow, I’d given him something special – a bottle of red Aussie wine.

Adjacent to the Writers Park is Albert Hall where Lifeline in years past held its annual Book Fair. Having lost my lifetime’s collection in the two coups in Fiji in 1987, I often go to the Book Fairs to replenish my lost library.

Imagine my joy when among the books and book-lovers, I chanced upon a copy of Commonwealth Literature, edited by John Press, which contains the proceedings of the first Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) conference held in Leeds in September 1964 with 68 delegates, including a dozen barely known writers.

It was a copy of this book, discovered by chance in the USP Library shelves, that had catapulted me to study at the University of Leeds in the early 1970s.

One of my Masters was in Commonwealth Literature — at that time the only university in the world that taught it at postgraduate level.

When I read the volume, much to my delight, I found the issues explored in those pages with a gentle lucidity in a language even I could comprehend. It gave me a sense of freedom of understanding: a basic freedom, I feel, of writing and reading.

Since then Commonwealth Literature has morphed into postcolonial writing, World Literatures in English, and many other incomprehensible mutations in theoretical studies. It’s now read and studied world-wide.

In the ‘Introduction’ Professor Norman Jeffares, who pioneered Commonwealth Literature in Leeds University, refers to ‘the vitality of the Commonwealth  to be found in the growth and diversity of literary traditions in the English language throughout the many communities which compose it’.

It is the ‘task of literary ecology’ to discover it and a deeper general understanding and appreciation of Commonwealth literatures, and what they have contributed, and are contributing, to our common culture through their own unique conservation and creation of traditions, attitudes and ideas . . . Literature shapes dreams and is shaped by them: but it also shapes education, stimulates thinking, and crystallises the self-awareness of regions and nations and of the individuals who make them up. We need to develop supranational qualities.’

‘Good writing’, he concludes, ‘is something which transcends borders, whether local or national, whether of the mind or the spirit. Good writing is possessed of human and universal qualities and it is for these lasting qualities we value it. It is for them that we pay homage to those who create for us this way into an imaginative understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live.’

Norman Jeffares is no more and some years ago, before his death, I contributed an essay in the festschrift in his honour, published in Denmark and presented to him. He sent me a warm note with fond remembrances.

Commonwealth Literature was his gift to a generation of students like me. For me personally, it is Commonwealth Literature that gave an awareness of my history and politics, memory and writing and the protean value of literature itself. Writers like Mulk Raj Anand and Chinua Achebe, Naipaul and Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka and Patrick White, gave us an understanding of the profoundly personal and the political: the poetics of which consisted in making the faceless visible, the voiceless audible, the dignity of the ordinary men and women inviolable; in short, it made even our lives valuable.

While many indigenous regimes needed tanks and guns and grenades, (most manufactured in the western arsenals), the writers and thinkers had another western weapon: a western language, English, which they used with lethal power, politically and poetically, critically and creatively.

And in their writings we discovered more than ourselves and realised how we shared these experiences.

One of the major strands in the works is, of course, the adventures of the indenture experience.

The Indian indentured emigration was started soon after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Next year is the centennial of its abolition.

Rabindranath Tagore understood its importance to the Indian experience:

To study a banyan tree, wrote Tagore, you not only must know its main stem in its own soil, but also must trace the growth of its greatness in the further soil, for then you can know the true nature of its vitality.

The civilisation of India, like the banyan tree, has shed its beneficent shade away from its own birthplace…India can live and grow by spreading abroad – not the political India, but the ideal India.

But the idea of the ideal is always fragile, vulnerable and exilic. New maps of the mind and memory have to be re-imagined from the ashes of history and the wishes of people in power.

This exile into the indenture experience was of course heightened by events; it affects not only the quality of our life, but the quality of our daily humanity.

The act of writing is perhaps the most revolutionary technology invented by the human mind.

Writing is revolution: from rock carvings of the Aboriginal people to our own scribbling on a blank page.

In the twentieth century the imprisonment of writers comes practically with every territory: you can hardly name a language or a country where this trend is exempted: from the communist Gulag Archipelago — to the Christian archipelagos where detention centres are created for the refugees in the South Pacific: as if history is catching up with geography.

The archives of memory then becomes a way into that world: to remember and reconstitute, to re-imagine the real where memory is the muse.

These thoughts came to my mind on the eve of  ‘Poetry on the Move’ symposium being held here in Canberra this week.

Here I met a poet who had studied in Moscow and in Australia. He mentioned to me that the 2015 Nobel laureate in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, a writer from Belarus, began her life as an ordinary journalist: but in her writings she lifted journalism to a new art form by collecting and publishing interviews with women whose sons had died in the many Soviet wars.

Her books—among them, War Has Not a Woman’s Face, Boys in Zinc, Voices from Chernobyl — are about people who are alive who remember their many dead.

My coffee companion’s reason for mentioning this is that a new genre of literature is both possible and desirable in our places where oral traditions have been in existence for millennia. Writing is comparatively new.

I’m scribbling this on Fiji’s Constitution day—a day worth celebrating. And yet we’ve been through so much together. There are men and women contemplating the landscape of their acts, good and ill, their rise and fall; ordinary folks whose sadnesses and losses should become part of our cultural folklore.

Imagine if a group of students and young journalists collected these living voices and put them in pages in books for our people to read. Or on films and audiotapes.

That would be some revolution in education. Our written constitution gives us all that creative freedom.

Svetlana Alexievich writings, until, recently were published by small, unknown publishers. Today she’s a world-wide phenomenon. No story or country is too small for a great journalist-writer. And every nation has its special epic.

All we need is the ‘inner light of imagination’ in the heart of darkness where both horror and hope are eternally present.

Sometimes we’ve to light those lost memories for the future and the past.

And begin to see the light in the very heart of life: the present.

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