As I mentioned earlier, I participated in the Festival of New French Writing that took place in NYC a couple weeks back. It was a great festival, and I had every intention of writing up most of the panels . . . but, well.
Thankfully, freelance writer and audio engineer JK Fowler1 interviewed a couple of the French writers and put together some nice write-ups about two of the panels. These are available in full over at The Mantle, but JK offered to let us run long excerpts here as well. I thought I’d put these up in two posts so those who couldn’t attend could get a sense of the festival.
First up is the panel with Atiq Rahimi and Russell Banks, moderated Lila Azam Zanganeh. Most everyone knows of Russell Banks, but here’s a bit of info on Rahimi:
French-Afghan writer and filmmaker, Atiq Rahimi fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and relocated to France. After studying at the Sorbonne, he joined a production company and made several documentaries for French television. He began writing in the late 1990s, with his first novel, Earth and Ashes (Other Press), written in Persian, becoming an instant bestseller in Europe and South America. The film version of Rahimi’s book has won 25 awards, including the Prix du Regard vers l’Avenir at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. In 2008, Rahimi won the Prix Goncourt for Syngué Sabour (translated into English as The Patience Stone (Other Press)), his fourth book but first written in French. Rahimi returned to his native Afghanistan in 2002. As Senior Creative Advisor for that nation’s largest media group, Moby Group, he developed programs and genres for its various media outlets, and helped develop and train a new generation of Afghan filmmakers and directors. Rahimi is currently in pre-production of the film version of Syngué Sabour, which he will direct from his screenplay.
This was a pretty good panel—Rahimi has a very interesting life history, and Banks is pretty accustomed to presenting to crowds—but the most interesting part of the panel (in my opinion) was when a woman in the audience asked the two writers about writing “the other,” specifically how they construct their female characters. Here’s some of JK’s notes:
What does it mean to be deterritorialized as Deleuze writes of? To write from a different space for Banks, to re-think space-time. In traveling to Jamaica from his New England town at a young age, Banks began to see the world from the outside, noticed its ideologically-driven machinations, his work reflecting this gradual awakening. These deliberate movements, deliberate displacements etched the tales of morality when approaching the voices of the “Other” so present in his works. This search, this going-beyond oneself, the breaking of one’s comfort zone to explore the voice of the “Other” led him to realize our own, as Americans, identity of the exile, as outsiders embedded in a country to whom none of us belong. To Rahimi, this travel of the physical body forced encounters between his self as pre-developed and new logics, new forms of thinking about life. To travel then, to move is to breed an authenticity bred from unease. Zanganeh asks if Rahimi ever fears of being exoticized. In France, says Rahimi, he is Afghan. In Afghanistan, he is French. Forced to exile, he exists within the boundaries of no country.
“To exile or be exiled, upon the edge of the world looking in: this must be the acquired position of the writer.” (Russell Banks, Festival of New French Writing 2011)
To adopt the voice of the “Other” as problematic, Rahimi and Banks take divergent approaches. Banks underlines the importance of respecting difference, that he will not write that which he cannot hear being said to him. Writing, Banks states, “is a visual and auditory process of hallucination.” Through the approach that the semantic landscapes he builds are not reflections of the real world but the world of the possible, Rahimi sees no limits. Led by the question, “Is it true or is it not true?” Rahimi rides the imagination which allows him to move beyond the limits of a structured reality to the realm of the “could-be”.
Following this event, JK interviewed Rahimi for an hour. Here are a few highlight. First, about Afghanistan:
JK: I am interested too in more personal memories that you may have of the Afghanistan from your childhood versus the Afghanistan after the series of invasions. What changes did you see in people’s faces or in the spaces of Afghanistan?
AR: Ah, you know, this is going to be an anecdote but in 1980 I was a student and at this time I worked as a journalist on vacations for a magazine and I went to the North of Afghanistan alone. It was the beginning of war in Afghanistan and I was to make a report on the carbon mine in Afghanistan about the workers in this mine. And one day I had forgotten my camera in a local tea house. One week later, I came back and this guy said, “Oh, Mister!” I was a Mister for them, you know [laughter]. Maybe because of my blue eyes, etc. He told me that I had forgotten my camera here. It was one week later and he gave me my camera back. This explains the mentality of the people. This guy was poor. He was not a rich man because it was a very small tea house in the village and for them a camera was not very cheap and he could have taken it very easily but he wanted to give it to me. This is important for me, you know? But in 2002, after eighteen years of being away from Afghanistan, I went back. The first thing that I noticed was that the walls of each house were very high. The windows were all closed with brick and everybody would watch you with incertitude. Nobody talked with you.
JK: There were issues with trusting one another?
AR: Yes, there was no trust. They couldn’t believe in liberty, they couldn’t believe in those other things that I mentioned before. The second story I will tell you is that two years ago I was in a restaurant in Kabul and I had a sack with two cameras and everything else in it. I set it on the chair, had a drink, ate and 10 minutes later, my sack was gone! [laughter]
JK: A clear indication of the change, huh?
AR: You know, of course this is only anecdotal but for me it explains everything in this country, you know? Why? Because in thirty years of war, everything changed: the mentality and the confidence of people. Everybody had confidence before but no more. When you lose your confidence, you are afraid of everything, you don’t believe in everything, you know and you don’t have any confidence in yourself. And this is the beginning of the destruction of the culture, of identity; when you don’t believe in you, you don’t believe in your country, you don’t believe in your identity. So this was the big change: losing the identity and confidence in oneself. It’s very important and we do not have that now.
And then back to that whole “other”/writing from a woman’s p.o.v. thing:
JK: Now in The Patience Stone the woman is given voice and the man has his voice taken away. I want to ask you something (and I know that you have been asked this before) but do you ever ask yourself, “I wonder how I can give voice to a woman? Is that okay?”
AR: [Laughter] Well, first to give the voice to the woman, we had to paralyze the man [laughter]. This is the unfortunate thing. But in countries like Afghanistan, Iran, and other dictatorships, voice becomes very important. So in Europe or the United States, the question is “to be or not to be?” But in Afghanistan with a dictator, the question becomes, “to say or not to say?” Because the voice does not exist here. You cannot love your life and say things opposite to government opinion. And for me, to give voice to women we had to paralyze this patriarchal right from the beginning. And for this woman, it is very important to talk. As a writer, I know that words are very important. In the beginning it was the verb. I believe that because if you don’t have voice, if you cannot explain everything you do some things to express yourself and take what is bottled inside and let it outside. Why is there all of this violence in Afghanistan? Because we don’t have voice. This is a very human characteristic. When children cannot say things, they become very frustrated. And if we don’t talk we do violent things. To change the combat to debate, this is the voice.
JK: I guess what else I was trying to get at is that a lot of writers are criticized when they take the voice of the “Other”, someone they are not. Did you ever question whether it was okay to use the voice of a woman as a man? I picture the old man with the image of the woman in his mind and I am wondering what the difference is between that and writing in the voice of the woman?
AR: Ah! Well, in the beginning I wanted to be inside this man. I wanted to write about what this man thinks when his wife tells him everything because she is not a good character, Parwaneh. She tells him too much sometimes, you know? She tells him the children are not his, that every time he was not there she was sleeping around and betraying him. Why? Because she cannot express herself and if you do not have access to voice these types of things will happen. So I wanted to think about how, if I was a man and I had to listen to everything like this what it would be like but when I started writing I could not do it. I was possessed by this woman and every time I wrote the woman came inside of me and would enter my head, my heart and tell me that she wanted to talk about herself, not this man [laughter]. And because I don’t really like all the Afghan traditions, it was this woman that I wanted in Afghanistan. To be, to be present.
JK: What was the reception of The Patience Stone in Afghanistan? What did women say?
AR: Yeah, some women liked it very much and thanked me. One woman really did not like it and asked how I could present all Afghan women as prostitutes and all Afghan men as helpless or powerless. Impotent. And in Europe all the time people said they didn’t believe in this Afghan woman because Afghan women cannot be like her. But when you read Madame Bovary do you think to yourself that all French women are like this? Or if I see a film of Scorsese like Taxi Driver, can I say that all taxi drivers are like that? Every time we make our image the stereotype unfortunately. As if by talking about this Afghan woman, I am talking about all Afghan women. No, this is one case. One novel. But this is my hope.
Next up: Pascal Bruckner.
1 JK Fowler is a freelance writer and audio engineer currently living in Brooklyn, NY. He is a writer and audio engineer for The Mantle and maintains a site of flash and short fiction, poetry, and academic papers at JK Fowler.com as well as a compilation of past and in-process works, photography and audio interviews at Roaming Hills.
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