Pankaj Mishra’s first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India (1995), was a travelogue and his second, The Romantics (1999), was a novel, but for the last dozen or so years he has been known primarily for his literary and political writings, in both the long and short form. His most recent book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in the UK, won the Crossword Book Award for nonfiction in India, and is the first book by a non-Western writer to win the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding in Germany. He is a fearless critic of imperialism and neoliberalism in his articles for a number of journals and magazines, including The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The London Review Of Books.
In 2012, he became involved in a controversy concerning the Chinese writer Mo Yan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—a decision which met with considerable hostility from other writers, including Salman Rushdie, who described him as “a patsy” for the Chinese government. One of the few voices speaking out against the hostility was Pankaj Mishra. Writing in The Guardian, he took to task the sinologist Perry Link who said that, “Chinese writers today, whether ‘inside the system’ or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government.” Mishra’s response to this was: “Do we ever expose the political preferences of Mo Yan’s counterparts in the West to such harsh scrutiny?”
I spoke to Mishra via email while he was in Pondicherry and I was in London about the Mo Yan case, and our conversation branched out into a discussion of whether “the asymmetries of power that have shaped relations between the West and the rest of the world also exist in the realm of literary criticism,” a reconsideration of Dickens as a literary and political figure, and why the NSA surveillance revelations are “the least shocking among the many recent flagrant subversions of democratic values.”
—Kamila Shamsie for Guernica
Kamila Shamsie: The decision to give the Nobel Prize for Literature to Mo Yan was heavily criticized by many writers, not because of his work’s literary merit, but on the grounds that he had refused to sign a petition calling for the freedom of Liu Xiaobo, a fellow laureate. The criticism grew even stronger when Mo Yan defended censorship, comparing it to airport security. You’ve always been politically outspoken, and have expressed your frustration with writers who remain quiet over political issues. You might have been expected to join the chorus of disapproval. Instead you turned around and criticized those who were criticizing Mo Yan. Is there a contradiction here in your own position?
Pankaj Mishra: I should say right away that at no point did I defend Mo Yan’s political positions, and that in fact made clear my own strong disagreement with them. What I objected to was the attempt to delegitimize his literary achievement through some selective reference to his political choices, like his refusal to sign a petition. If we were to take that narrow measure to many of the canonical figures of Western literature—from Dickens with his bloodthirsty writings during the Indian Mutiny, to Nabokov, who adored the war in Vietnam—those writers would have to be dismissed as worthless.
The other point that got lost in the rush to condemn Mo Yan was that we need a more complex understanding of writers working under authoritarian or repressive regimes. Something to replace this simpleminded, Cold War-ish equation in which the dissident in exile is seen as a bold figure, and those who choose to work with restrictions on their freedom are considered patsies for repressive governments. Let’s not forget that most writers in history have lived under nondemocratic regimes: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Goethe didn’t actually enjoy constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech. And let’s not forget also, alas, that freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee great literature.
The recent past is full of diverse examples of writers—Mahfouz in Egypt, Pamuk in Turkey, and more interestingly, Pasternak in the Soviet Union—who have conducted their arguments with their societies and its political arrangements through their art in subtle, oblique ways. They didn’t always have the license to make bold pronouncements about freedom, democracy, Islam, and liberalism, but they exerted another kind of moral authority through their work.
Kamila Shamsie: And Mo Yan’s work should be read and examined in the light of this tradition?
How many writers in Anglo-America who, unlike Mo Yan, enjoy untrammeled liberty to say whatever they want on political issues, have actually made use of their privileges?
Pankaj Mishra: It should. Indeed, [his work] shows evidence of resistance to and subversion of the official myths and histories of his society. But instead, he was attacked for not assuming an explicit and harshly critical position against his government—a government that, not uncoincidentally, some powerful elites in the West fear, dislike, and distrust.
You have to ask: How many writers in Anglo-America who, unlike Mo Yan, enjoy untrammeled liberty to say whatever they want on political issues, have actually made use of their privileges during the last decade of violence and mayhem unleashed by their governments? They are of course fully entitled to remain silent if they wish to, and even provide intellectual armor to their warriors, but then why attack Mo Yan for being pusillanimous? It’s then that you begin to suspect that the asymmetries of power that have shaped relations between the West and the rest of the world also exist in the realm of literary criticism.
Kamila Shamsie: Dickens’s infamous line after the 1857 Mutiny or War of Independence was: “I wish I were the Commander in Chief in India… I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested.” As a reader and critic, are you always able to—and do you think it is necessary to—separate literary achievement from political choices? Dickens and Nabokov are very different cases, in that Dickens’s work was so deeply tied up with ideas of injustice and oppression and Nabokov’s wasn’t. If there were a Dickens-like figure today, who railed against social injustice in his own land while wishing he could exterminate an entire race somewhere else—would it be possible for you to keep the knowledge of that double standard outside of the experience of reading the novels, or judging the literary achievement of those novels?
Pankaj Mishra: You open up a Pandora’s box when you wonder about the discrepancy between Dickens’s sensitivity to injustice at home and his advocacy of brutality against Indians. As a reader who loves both Dickens and Nabokov (some of the latter’s work, at least) I am fully prepared to see them upholding the political prejudices and clichés of their time. And I think our conception of literature should accommodate not only apolitical writers but also those whose political opinions we find unpalatable. Fiction after all comes from a different, less rationally manipulable side of the brain. I am personally very attached to reactionary figures like Dostoyevsky, Hamsun, and Céline.
Kamila Shamsie: You say fiction comes from a different side of the brain than politics, but doesn’t the overtly political novel demand we engage both sides of the brain at once?
Pankaj Mishra: I think overtly political novels—those that never transcend or contest their author’s conscious intentions and prejudices—are problematic. This is not just true of the innumerable unread books in the socialist realist tradition, but also of novels that carry the burden of conservative ideologies, like Guerrillas, Naipaul’s worst book, where the author’s disgust for a certain kind of black activist and white liberal is overpowering. It forces him into drawing facile links between the sexual and the revolutionary instinct—which is also the central flaw in much post-9/11 fiction by Anglo-Americans—and a serious imaginative failure occurs. John Banville has written very well about another ideological narrative overdetermined by fear and distaste: Ian McEwan’s Saturday.
On the other hand, it was a self-declared Stalinist—Christina Stead—who wrote the extraordinary The Man Who Loved Children. I think a more complex idea of fiction—and the human self’s relationship with the world—emerges when we abandon this philistine equation between literature and liberalism and human goodness, and pay some attention to the darker, ambiguous, and often muddled energies and motivations that shape a work of art. If we do this, we can appreciate a writer like Céline or Gottfried Benn without worrying whether they conform to existing notions of political incorrectness.
Incidentally, I am intrigued by how many European and Latin American writers expressed their political views in the columns they routinely wrote or write in the popular press, like Saramago, Vargas Llosa, and Eco. This strikes me as one way of avoiding opinionated fiction, and allowing your imagination a broader latitude. Similarly, fiction writers from places like India and Pakistan are commonly expected to provide primers to their country’s histories and present-day conflicts. But we haven’t had that tradition in Anglo-America.
Kamila Shamsie: So political views should be confined to the seven hundred words of an Op-Ed column because, when they try to work their way into a novel, you end up with “opinionated fiction”? I’m raising my eyebrow at that… At the risk of being branded a philistine I’d like to suggest that the novel is a form suited to empathy, enquiry, and a deep immersion in the lives of others, which isn’t something you can separate from political views.
Pankaj Mishra: You are of course right about the novel’s capacity for empathy and the recognition of otherness. I think we probably agree that a sustained engagement with the world, a sense of how it was and how it ought to be, and what has been lost, is imperative to good writing—I just don’t know how you can be a serious writer without it.
But I don’t think this makes it easy to settle the question of how individual moral values can be affirmed in such a dialogical and ironic art form as the novel—a form where all convictions, no matter how impeccable, ought to be contested. That’s why I am wondering if it’s better to get the beliefs and convictions out in the seven-hundred-word Op-Ed, and then use the broader imaginative space of the novel to challenge them!
Let me also mention this other problem in giving an ideological function—moral or political—to the novel. The questions, “Whose morality?” and “Whose politics?” still have to be answered. For instance, once you get past the grand normative claims made in the West for literature, especially the novel, in the post-Christian era—that it is a secular substitute for religion, hallmark of modern civilization, a priori liberal and cosmopolitan, with authors appearing to implicitly embody such pious ideals—you encounter a less agreeable reality: parochialism, blinkered views, even racial prejudices of the kind the bourgeoisie have held everywhere. The same thing happens when we examine the claims made for Western liberalism as a universalizing ideology of tolerance, human dignity, equality, and compassion. The fact is that the patron saint of modern liberalism, John Stuart Mill, thought that barbarian peoples like the Indians were unfit for self-rule.
Despite all the boosterish talk of globalization breaking down barriers, most writers in Anglo-America are still working within the nationalist assumptions of their traditionally powerful societies, and this is evident whether we are talking about Mo Yan or the NSA. Dave Eggers has a piece in The Guardian about how American writers ought to stand up against the NSA’s assault on everyone’s private lives. This is laudable, and Eggers has been bolder in both his fiction and nonfiction than most of his peers, but someone could ask why American writers shouldn’t have spoken earlier, when their government was reducing large parts of the Middle East and South Asia to rubble, and destroying hundreds of thousands of lives. For that matter, Indian writers are not exactly known for their outspokenness on India’s military occupation of Kashmir.
No one is obliged to take a position on the urgent issues of the day, but there are times when our impoverished public sphere could do with some occasional assertions of literary and moral authority.
Kamila Shamsie: No self-respecting feminist could argue with the claim that the novel is more likely to accept existing power structures than not. But there’s a vast difference, surely, between Dickens saying Indians should be exterminated and a Dave Eggers writing eloquently about the NSA, but not being as outspoken on American military power abroad.
I’ve written myself about my frustration at American novelists’ silence on their country’s foreign interventions, but Eggers has always struck me as one of the most politically committed writers of his generation, with an imaginative reach that extends beyond other Americans. I’m finding it hard to pin down if you expect too much or too little of writers. When you talk about your desire for assertions of literary and moral authority, I wonder if there is a romanticism about writers battling against a more world-weary viewpoint. Or perhaps it’s more basic than that. Are you simply saying, “Well, Mo Yan should be judged only by his novels but you writers in America and India, you should be speaking out against your countries’ manifold injustices”? I prefer the idea of you as the romantic in denial.
A novelist today cannot plausibly claim ignorance of his society’s manifold connections with the wider world, the fact that prosperity and security at home, for instance, often depend on extensive violence and exploitation abroad.
Pankaj Mishra: I am happy to accept that badge of ambivalence if that means some progress in dismantling this false opposition: writers boldly using their privileges of free speech in the morally superior West versus pathetic wimps in repressive countries we don’t like.
I should stress again that there are some serious limitations in Mo Yan’s situation as a writer in China today—just as there are for Jia Zhangke, one of the world’s greatest film directors. He can only phrase his dissent obliquely, in his art, and I think he does that. Writers in “free” societies labor under no such constraints. They can write more or less whatever they want in both their fiction and their commentary. Yet so many of them look oddly inhibited, even timid, and depressingly a couple of prominent figures actually positioned themselves to the right of their governments, intelligence agencies, and corporations.
I guess I am nostalgic for a time—the nineteenth century and early twentieth—when writers were, to use Stefan Collini’s phrase, “public moralists” and politicians, plutocrats, bankers, arms dealers, and experts and technocrats were not solely defining the moral norms as well as the political lives of our societies. We do have some writers claiming to be public moralists, but, as I said, they have actually been more jingoistic than even the henchmen of Bush and Blair. The nostalgia is really hard to avoid also because we have so few unaffiliated public intellectuals now—people who are not beholden to a think tank, corporate-owned media, or academic department—and even many literary writers look and behave like young urban professionals and canny careerists.
In the end, of course, all novelists will be judged by their novels, but let’s not forget that we will also need new ways of assessing the latter. There are people who will continue to write nineteenth-century novels in the early twenty-first, and even win major prizes for them, but that’s not very interesting, intellectually or emotionally.
Going back to the question of writerly engagement, Dickens didn’t have access to any other epistemologies other than those prevailing in Britain. But a novelist today cannot plausibly claim ignorance of his society’s manifold connections with the wider world, the fact that prosperity and security at home, for instance, often depend on extensive violence and exploitation abroad. We should admire Dave Eggers for throwing some light on this intricate web of our complicity with oppression and injustice. But we shouldn’t expect this from Eggers alone. Whether you are in the West, the East, the North, or the South, we should all feel pressured to attempt more, find new ways of outwitting ourselves, in our writing and thinking.
Kamila Shamsie: How would you place the Anglophone Indian novel in this discussion?
Pankaj Mishra: I think that Indian writing in English is a really peculiar beast. I can’t think of any literature—perhaps Russian literature in the nineteenth century comes close—so exclusively produced by and closely identified with a tiny but powerful ruling elite, the upper-caste, Anglophone upper middle class, and dependent for so long on book buyers and readers elsewhere. This has made for a narrow range of writing and vision, and, yes, a certain complacency you can also identify in other cultures of the elites, where writing emerges from a sense of entitlement rather than any deeply felt imperatives and becomes, certainly in some slick hands, an assertion of class and educational privileges and a showy display of craft and linguistic virtuosity.
But things have started to change. The older fiction writers are maturing, and starting to produce their best work; some very interesting young writers from different classes, castes, and regions—even volatile peripheries like Kashmir and the Northeast—are starting to publish, and there is a local readership for them. (Some great nonfiction writing has actually led the way here.) In the light of this ongoing democratic revolution, the landmark events in the history of this fiction seem to have been not Midnight’s Children or A Suitable Boy, but The God of Small Things. By abandoning a detached bourgeois mode of perception and apprehension, and opening up with such ingeniousness and passion the language of the elite to the lifeworlds of marginalized, vulnerable peoples—fatherless children, dispossessed single women, Dalits—the novel uncovered a wholly new emotional territory, and inspired and motivated innumerable other writers.
Kamila Shamsie: You recently drew my attention to a line from Zadie Smith’s story “The Embassy of Cambodia,” which seems to go to the heart of the question of writerly engagement: “Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?”
Pankaj Mishra: This is really a big question. Writers in the nineteenth century—people like George Eliot and Flaubert—were accustomed to addressing particular communities with which they shared not only linguistic meanings but also an experience and history. Walter Benjamin talks about this “ability to exchange experiences” as the basis of the storyteller’s art in the period before World War I.
Those communities have progressively split in the twentieth century, and grown more heterogeneous, and writers emerging from minority communities have found themselves addressing audiences closer to their experience and history—a phenomenon derided by conservative white men as identity politics and multiculturalism in the arts. Of course, if you are a member of a long-dominant elite in a powerful society like America, you can keep assuming, successfully, a knowable community as your audience—and that’s what I meant earlier by writers still able to work within nationalist assumptions. Even the Indian writer in English can still rely upon a large enough Anglophone elite to share his or her assumptions. But exchanging experiences with a whole community is not an option open—yet—to a writer from Libya or Nigeria or Pakistan, especially the writer in English. So writers from fragmented or incoherent communities find themselves, willy-nilly, addressing a global society of their peers. They are, in one sense, condemned to cosmopolitanism—their circle, to use Zadie Smith’s formulation, has expanded almost unmanageably.
This is not an admirable or welcome development in itself. For the most part, this kind of global citizenship imposes a certain shallowness of perception, and mostly helps a writer who has mastered the relevant codes and jargon to give the New York Times– and Financial Times-reading elites a pleasurable little frisson of otherness—and become an intellectually brittle spokesperson or critic of this or that country, society, and religion. On the other hand, the loss of the knowable small world can facilitate an acute insight into the human self in the new bewilderingly enlarged arena it finds itself in. So you can see in the work of writers like Witold Gombrowicz and the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali how the so-called crisis of the subject, the fragmentation of the self, the longing for wholeness, and proliferation of contradictory narratives—the themes of numerous modernist and avant-garde experiments in the West—become an urgently existential rather than an abstract philosophical problem.
A part of me doesn’t understand why we are so shocked and appalled by the excesses of the NSA. Have we forgotten about the Cold War and the innumerable hot wars, not to mention the numerous assaults on ordinary moral sense by the “free world”?
Kamila Shamsie: I’m interested in your reaction to the astonishing PEN America survey relating to NSA surveillance that Dave Eggers referred to in his Guardian piece, according to which 24 percent of those polled, from PEN America’s members, have avoided certain topics in email and phone conversations, and 16 percent have abandoned a project because of that project’s sensitivity. This is extraordinary—it’s what you’d expect in a totalitarian regime.
My question is: Where is the rage? It’s one thing to say writers don’t get worked up about what their nation is doing in the Middle East, but here we have writers not getting worked up about what the state is doing to their ability to write without constraint. Perhaps we should start demanding that every American writer who has ever quietly given up on a project that could have landed them in trouble must come out and talk about it, sign petitions about it, and—most importantly—go ahead and write those books.
Pankaj Mishra: Yes, this seems a consequence of the insidious new regime of total surveillance—self-censorship. But a part of me doesn’t understand why we are so shocked and appalled by the excesses of the NSA. Have we forgotten about the Cold War and the innumerable hot wars, not to mention the numerous assaults on ordinary moral sense by the “free world”?
Our tolerance of the intolerable found a low threshold as early as the late 1950s with the grotesque excesses of McCarthyism, which destroyed so many honest lives, and then with the insane nuclear arms race and confrontations. That’s when the Dr. Strangeloves first emerged, and the shape of the sinisterly invasive and the ferociously armed national security states people in the West live under today was fixed. No wonder that Václav Havel wrote, remarkably, while living under a repressive communist regime that Western Cold Warriors wishing to get rid of the political system he belonged to were like the “ugly woman trying to get rid of her ugliness by smashing the mirror which reminds her of it.” “Even if they won,” Havel said, “the victors would emerge from a conflict inevitably resembling their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.” And that the West would eventually construct its own Gulag “in the name of country, democracy, progress, and war discipline.”
Alas, Havel’s prophecy seems too close to the actuality of the free world today—Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition, torture, extrajudicial killings by drones. All this going on while the plutocrats at home grab a few more yachts and mansions. And the NSA actually is the least shocking among the many recent flagrant subversions of democratic values.
We’ve seen an institutionalized conservatism in most mainstream periodicals, if not small magazines, since the 1980s, and a general depoliticization everywhere disguised by the strident partisanship of politicians and lobbyists. It’s only in recent years with younger writers and magazines like n+1, The New Inquiry, The Baffler, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and others that some of those older traditions of American dissent have been revitalized. Otherwise, an ironic but superior knowingness was the hegemonic intellectual and literary mode for a long time.
Not surprisingly, despite all the immense cultural power accumulated in New York and London, which keeps so many of us fixated with Anglo-American writing, the writers who have radically expanded our ideas of literature and of the individual self and the world at large in the post-WWII era have mostly come from the “suburbs” or the “periphery”—Borges, Paz, Camus, Neruda, Miłosz, Szymborska, García Márquez, Lessing, Naipaul, Gordimer, Achebe, Atwood, to take some very different examples, and the evidence becomes even more formidable if you include Irish writers.
Today, practically every country outside the West is undergoing an intellectual, political, and cultural churning, from China to Bolivia, Egypt to Indonesia, but we haven’t really had, after the 1960s, a major oppositional culture in Western Europe and America. The Occupy movement was so startling and welcome partly because it was the first such eruption of mass protests in decades. That’s one of the many reasons why we, especially those of us in depoliticized and pacified societies, need to cast a colder eye at our self-perceptions, now and in the past, as sentinels and embodiments of Enlightenment virtues of reason, dissent, and skepticism. And it is this capacity for relentless self-criticism that should be—everywhere—the true measure of intellectual freedom and cosmopolitanism, not the entrenched cultural power and self-congratulatory moral rhetoric of some people in countries long accustomed to telling other societies what to do and how to behave.