Writing Local Culture for Global Readers

Literature, like music, painting or sculpture, is ultimately another vehicle for communication. Therefore, its most important function—above and beyond anything else—is self-expression. Like any means of self-expression, literature has its inner workings, its set of codes and tools that make it most appropriate to deliver a certain type of message at an infinite variety of levels. Therein lies the difference between literary genres, for instance, a matter, after all, of subtle degrees. Therein lies, too, the difference between spoken word and written word, or even literature and plastic arts. They are all in the end methods of communication which look, behave and work like any other language. Literature is there to express with a certain amount of clarity concepts, ideas and emotions such that we can share them with others. In some sense, then, literature—like any other language—is an exercise in translation, a relatively neutral, see-through conduit for us to evoke in others something similar or at least akin to what we experience.

 

At this stage I feel it is important to clarify that no reader is truly global. Any one reader is always and necessarily individual. And with very few notable exceptions, individuals are always local somewhere. The issue at stake today refers to the obvious problem when the specific locality of the culture doesn’t coincide with the specific locality of the reader. In other words, when the “local” in reader and culture refers to different places.

 

Such issue becomes more evident and more relevant when the radius of action of the local culture in question is as reduced and little known as Anguilla’s. And yet, while the issue might become more evident, the problem is neither greater nor smaller than when writers set their aim on more familiar topics—nor is the solution any different. Speaking specifically in terms of the modern novel, the two key elements which set in motion the mechanism of successful communication are character and context. Novels are built around characters and the context from which they come and in which they act makes them available to us. We laugh and cry, hate and fear characters and the situations in which they find themselves. But to me it seems no harder to convey the inner world of a sociopath in Saint Petersburg or the struggles of a brilliant but schizophrenic mathematician from Princeton than it is to contextualise the Anguilla revolution or to portray the total sense of awe inspired by the staggering beauty of this island.

 

The only difference is admittedly that I might well have access to a smaller pool of readily available readers, simply because for some reason Princeton is more popular than the Caribbean. But that is why I have a wonderful group of people working day and night at Akashic Books to help me reach as many people as possible.

 

 

 I delivered this brief speech on May 19 during the morning session of the 2016 Anguilla LitFest.

 

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