JLF 2017 Diary: skipping to words

Iona Liddell | January 22, 2017

It started with poetry. Under a large tent beneath the Jaipur sun we gather on the opening day of the Jaipur Literature Festival – the stage was set for the Indian poet Gulzar to share his thoughts with the lit-loving masses, who in turn whoop and wah-wah at the thought-nuggets he offers up to the morning light. But like the speakers who are to follow him, Gulzar talks also of his own inner life as a writer, about his fear of being out of touch – as if the public’s cheers would lift him up away from the ground, which is the only place one can touch the dirt of life and be real.

Appetite whet and now hungry for more of the world’s words, I hurry off through the melee to another tent, where four women are discussing what one’s migrations (forced or otherwise) do to one’s writing. Belarussian poet Valzhyna Mort speaks of her family’s exile from a neighbouring hill as having more of an impact than her own later migration to the US. She finds she is still writing her grandmother’s stories – the woman who was forced to move hills. Lila Azam Zanganeh, French-born to Iranian parents, speaks of living between tongues – “I heard the names of streets I had never been to…I heard the names of harbours and summers I would never see” – and as a lonely 15-year-old her writing itself was born from a longing to create a tongue of her own. Lila’s teacher once told her that the wealth of the 21st century would be people like her – people who are both of a place and not of a place. These dislocated women locate themselves in words, all agreeing that their sense of longing provoked their writing, and that writing in turn provided a home. Valzhyna doesn’t feel like an immigrant, she says, just a poet.

But over in the big tent, headliner author Paul Beatty still feels lost. A black man in the US, he is permanently uncomfortable. Typecast as a writer of satire, he thinks instead that he is just writing from that point of discomfort – about frustration, about being lost. He says his novel, the Man Booker prize-winning The Sellout,is about him, but it is also a searing take on America’s race issues now. And on the eve of Trump’s ascension, he worries that the human ability to readily adapt may prove to be a weakness rather than a strength.

Next up, Patrick French helms a session on “The legacy of the Left”. Choppy seas at this time; I leave early to think of simpler things, like the sun through the colourful plastic flowers strung up over the paths, the taste of cinnamon ice cream on my tongue.

I meet people. A jovial bookseller from Sikkim with whom I share lunchtime wine and the history of his family’s bookshop. Friends banter nearby with a couple of festival organizers from Scotland. We spy the celebrated UK poet/musician/author Kate Tempest, and Nepal’s own word warriors Ujjwala Maharjan and Yukta Bajracharya chat with her under the sun. A young man and I spy much-prized empty seats and make a joint dash for them. Once in them we talk between sessions about his work as a rights lawyer-author, and the people we know in common. And again the world is small, and again it is in Jaipur.

But old ghosts are here too. Nabokov makes at least two appearances. Paul Beatty summons him up when he asks the predominantly Indian audience what their reaction to his own book has been – how does it translate into life here? One audience member suggests that it’s the stuff between the lines that can be “read” everywhere, leading Paul to recall Nabokov saying that in trying to tell a story, you are aiming to tingle the readers’ spine. Lila Azam Zanganeh, who has written a book on Nabokov, concludes with his notion that stories should not be moralistic accounts, but rather the rendering of observations onto the page.

Which leads to the last session, on poets and their muses. Kate Tempest is blistering, some other speakers are bland, but they all try to answer the questions of where their words come from. They end up agreeing only that when the words come one must write. And that writing is a way to work out yourself, as well as the world.

And with that it was over, the day that, like the best of bookshelves, was bookended by poetry. And as we leave I skip. I actually skip down the path from the sheer delight of having being surrounded by books, and by people who love books, and by beautiful fabrics and bougainvillea-clad yellow-washed walls, and garam chai in clay pots, and block-printed flowers creating a canvas sky – all of this beauty assembled for the love of books. And I know it’s ridiculous, but that’s ok. The child in me who relished libraries, now a skipping adult at a bookfest in Rajasthan, spine well and truly tingled.

Quotes of the day:

“I do whatever it takes to put my butt on the chair and write”- Paul Beatty

“Being a poet is done to you, you don’t do it. I actually don’t want to be a poet – I want to be a princess!” – Valzhyna Mort

“You must write what is closest to your heart. There are no three ways about it” – Lila Azam Zanganeh

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