Words have power, Margaret Atwood stated in her keynote speech for the Jaipur Literary Festival 2016. A speech that was sprinkled with her dry brand of humour, her personal recollections about literary festivals and wonderful insights about writing, writers, readers and the nature of storytelling.
"A book is a musical score."
The words in a book are mere black markings on a page until a reader reads them, interprets and re-interprets them and keeps them alive. The writer and reader are thus two halves of the same person. This is why literary festivals ("you don't need an orchestra, just the writers, their books and voices") will continue to proliferate, according to Atwood. She went on to refute the theory that people are reading less or that books are becoming steadily irrelevant. The only thing that has changed is the medium through which people read and interact. With so many online platforms available, there is no dearth of reading material or any shortage of audiences for newer, upcoming authors. This is particularly true in areas where books aren't as accessible or affordable as a phone with an internet connection.
The writer and reader are two halves of the same person. This is why literary festivals will continue to proliferate.
Passing on a story through word-of-mouth is a very basic human tradition, as is the need to dissect and analyse which grew more as language, discourse and literature did. This year's theme for JLF 2016 was fittingly "a sea of stories", addressed by many writers whose sessions we attended throughout the week.
Colm Tóibín said that he wrote about things that are lost or gone because that was his way of recovering them, preserving them, reclaiming them. Similarly Cornelia Funke, when questioned about why she uses the medium of fantasy in her books, stated that fairy- and folk tales are all lost stories preserving memories of forgotten times, people, places and gods, and that remembering them makes it easier for us to cope with and live in a world that is by all means very strange. Atwood echoed this sentiment by calling writing a tool to bring to light the unknown and the obscure.
Using literature to understand and question our reality is not a new concept, and yet it is responsible for the relatable nature of so many of these stories, transcending boundaries of race, culture, language, place and time. When you think about it, that's one of the foundational basics of literature. Recording the human experience and emotions in all their multi-layered and complex facets, but also questioning that very reality and life. A panel session on "The Global Novel" (featuring Margaret Atwood, Colm Tóibín, Aleksandar Hemon, David Grossman, Sulaiman Addonia and Sunjeev Sahota) led to a conclusion from Israeli writer, David Grossman that perhaps we shouldn't look for global novels but universal ones, because without them we would not be the persons we are, even if we haven't read them.
Words can be dangerous, lethal even, as Atwood warned in her keynote. Dangerous because.... knowledge and ideas are power and they can be used to influence or manipulate...
When it comes down to it, what is reality? As Funke pointed out, we are on a planet that is spinning at a very fast speed around an extremely big, fiery ball of gas that is our main source of natural light. Our world is fantasy, our universe is fantasy. And only by imagining other realities and worlds can we question this one and our own existence. We may not get the answers we are looking for, but that isn't the point of stories. For the writer it is about telling a story they believe in, about understanding all the different people and personalities inside them and being allowed to make sense of the world through a medium of expression they are comfortable with. For readers it is the joy of being able to escape their realities into other worlds, places and times far away from their own, however similar or different; a way to be able to deal with their own lives better through the stories of others.
There is however a flipside to this power and reach of words, as with everything else. Words can be dangerous, lethal even, as Atwood warned in her keynote. Dangerous because of content, forbidden or inflammatory, dangerous because knowledge and ideas are power and they can be used to effectively influence or manipulate a large number in a short span of time, sometimes even without their conscious self picking up on it. In the modern connectivity-saturated world, this power also takes another form through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter (as the fabulous Stephen Fry pointed out in his session, the word twitter actually means irrelevant, nonsensical chatter and in effect we shouldn't be taking ourselves or our words too seriously when we "tweet") where keyboard warriors are rife and "the right to free speech" abused.
But what matters ultimately is that writing is by its very nature an optimistic and isolated act -- sitting with your pen and paper or typewriter or laptop in a world of your own and hoping that what you are creating will resonate with readers. By the looks of a festival like the JLF, the largest free literary festival in the world, that continues to grow and share this evident love for words year after year, it is safe to say that stories and storytellers are safe, that they will always find an audience and fulfill a primitive need for shared, communal experience.
"All over the world, writing has been the means whereby light is shed on darkness, whether the darkness of oppressive regimes, of lives lived in poverty, of the oppression of women as a gender, or of discrimination of so many kinds. There are many darknesses, but there are also many voices and lights." (Margaret Atwood)
A big kudos to the organising team and all the volunteers; you can read my experience of individual sessions that I attended and general festival information on my blog.
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