Finding the Words: Writers on Inspiration, Desire, War, Celebrity, Exile, and Breaking the Rules. Emblem Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Introducing this collection, Jared Bland observes that words have the potential both to be banal and to shake the foundations of our lived experience; “they are at once capable of altering the course of the world we inhabit and changing the amount of sugar in our coffee.” The thirty-one contributors to this volume—a project undertaken in support of PEN Canada—almost do run this gamut in their meditations on the ways in which language implicates us, its speakers, whether by its presence or its absence.
Many of these authors, mindful of the volume’s stated objective, to fund PEN’s work defending writers around the world whose language has been silenced, have meditated on the nexus between words and political realities. Several powerful contributions stand out. Richard Poplak, for example, examines Afrikaans as a rich idiom, “a poet’s plaything. . . . But strip it down, and it becomes the cudgel with which some of history’s vilest laws were bashed into being.” He explores the linguistic struggles of Solomon Plaatje, one of the founders of what would become the ANC, who experimented with IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet, as “a final dalliance in his love affair with European culture.” Madeleine Thien movingly meditates on the relative lack of words in the exhibition of photographs from Cambodia’s infamous Tuol Sleng prison at the Museum of Modern Art in 1997: “In MoMA’s brief exhibition text,” she notes, “there was little context and almost no history.” She cites journalist Nic Dunlop to the effect that the subjects of these photographs “are presented as the Khmer Rouge saw them: without a name, without family, without an identity or country.”
David Chariandy explores the way in which place (like photography) can conceal a history that needs to be re-spoken. During a conference in Berlin, he was put up at a luxurious guest-house overlooking the lake, where he treasured a chance to write undisturbed. Only after his German publisher’s representative asked him how he felt to be staying “here” did he search out the words behind the lovely landscape; he discovered that he was staying at Lake Wannsee, the site of another conference at which Heydrich, Eichmann and other top Nazis met to address “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” In that seemingly idyllic setting, Chariandy recalls, he “had failed to read the history. I had not drawn the link between a landscape and its story.”
One of the most moving examples of bringing suppressed stories into words is Globe and Mail correspondent Stephanie Nolen’s recollection of reporting on mass rape as an instrument of warfare in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She had been warned that women would not wish to speak to her about their traumatic experiences, but she found, on the contrary, that women were lining up outside the Catholic rectory in which she was staying to tell her their stories, even though, as Nolen admits, “I could give them nothing but the sight of those words being recorded.”
Another major thread of the collection is the challenge facing the writer in an environment that seems taken up with other, newer media. Stephen Heighton laments the loss of boredom, which he sees as a precondition for creativity, caused by widespread digital means of passing one’s time. Karen Connolly basically agrees with Heighton, deploring what she sees as a digital inundation, “not waving but drowning in a mass of language from which there is no escape.” Such lamentations are familiar cultural territory, and while to some degree they rest upon a questionable distinction between digital and previous media revolutions (one thinks of earlier writers bemoaning the inundation of printed materials clamouring for their attention and competition), there are aspects of the digital environment that do pose pressing questions for writers. Guy Gavriel Kay identifies some of them, in his contribution to the volume, especially the growing pressure placed upon writers to market themselves online. He is savvy enough to realize that “the book trade has always had an element of writers performing jigs,” but he argues nevertheless that the blurring of distinctions between the work and the artist has its dangers: “There’s a value to keeping how one looks at a work of art separate from one’s sense (manufactured or otherwise) of the artist who made it.” Though he does not use the terminology of celebrity, what Kay describes here are some of the implications of celebrity literary culture in the digital age, and they are worth thinking about.
Words—their absence, loss, commercial uses, overabundance, danger, beauty—are inexhaustible, as are the writers who struggle to bring them into being.