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A few words on the 22/7 attacks

I know that most of you are aware of the terrible tragedy Norway has suffered the past days. The editors of New Narratives, along with the rest of you, grieve over the loss of the 76 people who died (so far) as a direct result of the terrorist attacks. Our thoughts are with the deceased and those personally affected.

As a promoter of multiculturalism working in Oslo, the heart of the attacks, I felt it necessary to say a few words concerning the tragic event. The fact that so many people have stood together and shown solidarity in such difficult times gives me hope for a better tomorrow. Although right-wing extremists such as Anders Behring Breivik spew hatred and the belief that the West and Middle-East are at war, Norwegians have chosen to attempt to stand together as a nation. This makes me incredibly proud.

Breivik murdered followers of a political party because he felt it supported multiculturalism to the point that it was destroying a nation. Although most of us will agree that immigration has not been without its challenges, what he claims is far from the truth. It is true that Norway could work on improving its immigration and integration policies. It is also true that Norway could work on accepting cultural differences so it can change and grow as a nation as a result of this. But the most important fact is that we are trying, and will try even harder after the attack to prove Breivik and other right-wing extremists wrong. New Narratives will work to increase its efforts to embrace multiculturalism and distance itself from extremists, and hopes you can help be a part of that change.

What is multiculturalism? Olav Kobbeltveit examines this thought here. He describes it as being two things: integrating and assimilating other cultures into our own, yet celebrating cultural differences and recognizing that we can all learn from each other. “More cultures gives us a richer society,” Kobbeltveit writes. This principle is what we should draw on for inspiration.

Where do we go from here? In an excellent article, Ahmed Moor writes about where the dichotomy really lies. “The combatants are not Islam and the West. Instead, the war is between the normal, sane people of the world and the right-wing zealots who see doom, destruction, hellfire and God’s Will at every turn […] Anders Behring Breivik, Mohammed Atta and Baruch Goldstein are all cut from the same rotten cloth. Anwar Al-Awlaki and Glenn Beck – the peddlers of the faith – all share the same core afflictions,” Moor states.

Aslak Sira Myrhe, the director of the House of Literature in Oslo, has penned a piece for the Guardian about the recent terrorist attacks in Oslo, and how experts and the media were quick to blame “the Other” – Muslims. Challenging state leaders to act, he writes: “When the world believed this to be an act of international Islamist terrorism, state leaders, from Obama to Cameron, all stated that they would stand by Norway in our struggle. Which struggle will that be now? All western leaders have the same problem within their own borders. Will they now wage war on homegrown rightwing extremism? On Islamophobia and racism?”

So in a strange space of grief, regrets, and thoughts of improvement, I ask you all to think of where you stand in all of this. Will you be helping rebuild Norway into a renewed land of peace and democracy, or stand on the side of the hate-mongers?

Talking about Bee Rowlatt in Oslo

At Idefestivalen on June 18th, the University of Oslo was lucky enough to host Bee Rowlatt, a BBC journalist who came to talk about her newly published book, Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad.

Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is a modern epistolary novel, and one of those rare books that focuses on the other side of a story. It’s a collection of emails between Rowlatt herself and an Iraqi professor she contacted by chance. Through the letters between Rowlatt and May Witwit, an Iraqi professor of English literature, we get to hear the grim realities of everyday life in Baghdad versus the chaotic life of a mother of three in England. Witwit describes bombing and death threats as part of her everyday life. Soldiers constantly bursting into her house, Islamic extremists threatening to kill her if she teaches human rights, and in the midst of it all, her electricity disappearing every time she turns on her computer. It was a miracle that the correspondence even took place. And once it did, Witwit’s emails brought a shocking message: life was good before the invasion. Witwit tells: “Baghdad is like a mosaic of different cultures and beliefs with Sunnis, Shi’ites and all the different types of Christians, Arabs, Kurds, Turcoman Amernians and others living in one city. All these groups seemed to live peacefully together until the US ‘democracy’ ignited all the differences that we see today…” We are introduced to a country in chaos, people suffering and dying at every corner — wistful thoughts to the days “before the invasion.” The situation becomes real to those of us who have only heard stories and read cold facts.

“My feelings changed after talking with May,” Bee Rowlatt explains in her talk. “As a journalist, I was aware of what was going on in Iraq. Much of journalism capitalizes on misery — the larger the body count, the better the news. But with May it was different. I cared about her, and suddenly when you heard about a new bombing in Baghdad, it meant much more.”

I believe this is what this books sets out to do, whether intentional or not. It humanizes a people. These are ordinary people, trying to live their day-to-day lives. May’s only desire is continue teaching literature at the university in peace. Yet, Rowlatt must ask: “how can you teach Jane Austen in Baghdad?” “How can [your students] make sense of it?” Literature takes on an entirely different role in this text. There are women risking their lives to come to class to learn about Dickens and Chaucer. Literature isn’t entertainment, it’s a form of escape, or as Rowlatt describes, a “transportation to another world.”

To some, talking about literature in a war zone may seem trivial. But women like Witwit and Rowlatt know better. “It’s small rituals that make us human, like making tea,” Rowlatt reflects in one her many emails to Witwit. And although for some people, reading is nothing more than a minor ritual in their lives, sitting in a chair at night curled up with a good book may very well be one of the things that makes us most human.

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Bee Rowlatt was kind enough to talk to New Narratives during and after the talk. Here are some of the questions and answers.

Karina: “This is a story of incredible friendship. Without spoiling the book for those who haven’t read it, after 5 years of correspondence, are the two of you still friends?”

Rowlatt: “Yes, absolutely! We still have a great relationship.”

Karina: “Did you feel differently about America and Iraq after exchanging emails with Witwit?”

Rowlatt: “My feelings for America haven’t changed. Since I’m a journalist, I know what happened and what was happening in Iraq. I must say that May had a lot of interesting things to say about Iraq before the invasion. In my opinion Iraq used to be this great country for men, and not so great for women, but if May were here right now, she’d have a snappy comment that could contradict that.” (Laughs)

Karina: “Will Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad be translated to Norwegian?”

Rowlatt: “I don’t know. Are you bilingual?”

Karina: “Actually I am! Give me a call! On another note, I couldn’t help but notice that the title of your book is very similar to one that New Narratives wrote about: Reading Lolita in Tehran. It’s a memoir about a female professor of literature from Pakistan. Any particular reason why your title is so similar?

Rowlatt: I get that all the time. I don’t know why, but Penguin chose that title for us. Maybe it was so that people who liked Reading Lolita would buy our book? Like, “if you liked this book, then you’ll looove Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad“? Penguin said we could choose another title, but we couldn’t think of anything better, so it just stuck. They’re not really all that similar, because Reading Lolita is a memoir, and this is collection of letters.”

Karina: “In what way do you feel that Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is new or different?”

Rowlatt: “It’s different in that it talks about everyday life in two very different places. It’s a true story. One of the great things about it is how unselfconscious we were. We had no idea that we were writing for an audience, we were just two friends trying to stay in touch.”

Karina: “So would you say Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is a new narrative?”

Bee Rowlatt gave her thumbs up.

To conclude: it was a fun presentation with a lively author who managed to perk interest even in those who obviously hadn’t read the book. People were crawling to the front to meekly ask for copies of Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad after a convincing talk. New Narratives certainly recommends it. In fact, click here and you’ll find it too!

Zoran Živkovic and the plight of non-English authors

“They wanted to call me Donald Livingstone.”

On Friday, the 10th of June, Litteraturhuset hosted a special guest: Zoran Živkovic. Doctor Živkovic is a Serbian author, perhaps best known for his fantasy novels. He originally came to the event to discuss how to construct a universe. But before this began, he gave a very important speech, and I felt the need to write about a grave issue that many multicultural authors face.

“3% of all books in bookstores in America and England are translated works,” Živkovic begins. “Many are shocked to find out that ‘The Little Prince’ and the Bible were translated, and not originally English. Once I saw a bumper sticker that said: ‘If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.'”

Many of us laughed at this, but there was a painful grain of truth in it as well. English books are dominating the market — not only in English-speaking countries, but all over the planet. For English authors, this is great news. But for the rest of the world, clawing your way into those three percent is a life-long battle.

“When I lived in America, my publisher advised me to choose a more ‘American’ pen name,” Živkovic tells us. “But how can you possibly turn ‘Zoran Živkovic’ into an American name? I asked my publisher, and after a long etymological search, he concluded: Donald Livingstone. But I couldn’t change my name to something so different. It just wasn’t me.”

It is absurd to think that Serbian authors who write in Serbian would have to change their names as well when being translated. But the English world just isn’t interested in foreign works. So many authors end up having “non-sellable” names, such as Živkovic. But is this a malevolent move from a xenophobic English world, or are there other factors at play?

“I believe this a Catch-22 situation,” Živkovic says. “The publishing companies claim that they will publish what is marketable, but how can English-speakers know if they like foreign works if they’re never introduced to them? It becomes a vicious cycle.”

Norwegians can easily believe that this doesn’t apply to them. Most of us are at the very least bilingual and read a lot of translated works. But if we look closer, how many of these works are actually “multicultural”? According to Barnebokinstituttet, 60% of books read by Norwegian children were translated works in 2009. And of these translated books, a whopping 70% were translated from English, and 17% from other Nordic languages.1 This means that altogether, children read on average 8% non-English/Nordic authors. Živkovic´s statistics are almost equally grim in Norway.

Even if Norwegians read translated books, this by no means means that we are being multicultural. Perhaps something to think about next time you go to the bookstore?

References:

  1. Barnebokinstituttet