The Telegraph
Thursday , December 4 , 2014

Of literature, loss and 'out-of-nation' feeling

Being a Croatian writer living in Amsterdam is the sexiest thing ever, Dubravka Ugresic says, only to mean that it is not so. She left Croatia in the early Nineties after her strong anti-war, anti-nationalist views turned her into "an enemy" of the nation, "a traitor", "a witch".

Or did Croatia leave her?

Mixing wit and despair, award-winning novelist, scholar and essayist Dubravka was speaking of loss and pain on the second day of the three-day literary activism symposium organised by the University of East Anglia in India and hosted for the first two days by the Centre of Advanced Study, department of English, Jadavpur University.

On Thursday the event will be held at Presidency University.

Literature is a country, perhaps like the one she has left. Or the one she lives in. Dubravka's talk was titled Crossing Borders with a Non-Valid Literary Passport. "The idea of literature without borders rings pretty phony," she says. She lives outside, the resident of the "O.N. zone", the "Out-of-Nation" zone. That status is compounded by her gender.

The male author fares better. "In the literary train the literary customs officer helps him (let's call him Dexter, because I like the name) to travel. Not so for the self-estranged female," says Dubravka.

She has to answer too many questions: she is female, Croatian, living in a foreign country. "Literature knows borders. We readers are the literary customs officers."

When she lost her homeland, she also lost her language. She writes in Croatian, but it is not the same any more. Croatia has changed, the country has been distorted and reconstructed by the new nationalism, and so has been its language.

Her works now depend on translators. "Translators keep me alive." It could mean that she was reaching out to a greater audience, but the rupture makes her self-estranged. "Translation is a kind of refugee shelter," she also said.

She is in exile. And literary activism the very act of writing.

The day belonged to translation - of texts, contexts, if not personalities. Jamie McKendrick, the poet whose recent book Out There won the Hawthornden Prize, translates twentieth century Italian works.

He has translated a novel by Giorgio Bassani and the poems of Valreio Magrelli and is the editor of an anthology of twentieth century Italian poetry translated into English.

The anthology does not come with biographies of the poets, who are certainly not household names in every part of the world. But McKendrick said it had not really occurred to him to provide biographies. The poetry should speak for itself. Translation is also an act of love.

Laetitia Zecchini has performed a great literary enterprise. She has introduced Arun Kolatkar, the enigmatic, reclusive poet from Mumbai who wrote in English and Marathi, to the French.

A permanent research fellow at the CNRS in Paris, she has published a monograph on Kolatkar and also a translation of Kolatkar's Kala Ghoda poems into French.

It was wonderful to listen to Zecchini about Kolatkar's ambivalent position: between invisibility and exposure, because though he did not appear in public as a poet, he was part of a "poets' conspiracy" - a group of poets who were published in little magazines and were not "just marginalised, but chose to right from the margins". The French will read him before many Indians.

Amit Chaudhuri, novelist, scholar and musician and the driving force behind the symposium, spoke about his experience of proposing the name of poet, critic, and essayist Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, a contemporary of Kolatkar, for the post of professorship of poetry at Oxford in 2009.

Chaudhuri felt that Mehrotra challenged every idea of what a postcolonial or Indian writer might be and his criticism was also anomalous like his poetry.

It was not to win the elections. Mehrotra did not win. But the event provided an opportunity to revisit, in Mehrotra, the notion of the cosmopolitan writer.

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