Writers are cheap dates: Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood delivers keynote address at JLF inauguration


Margaret Atwood at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo:  Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Margaret Atwood at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

“Why are literature festivals proliferating? Because writers are cheap dates,” said novelist, poet and critic Margaret Atwood in a witty, articulate keynote address that launched the ninth edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) on Thursday.

Her speech, for which an enthusiastic crowd had assembled, explored the genesis of literature festivals and highlighted how the centres of literary conversations had moved to places that were never the centres of imperial power—“we are all ex-colonial, publishing somewhere else”.

Atwood, 79, started by thanking the JLF organisers for inviting her to deliver the keynote address, saying that this meant that she was “either very important or very old; and I suspect it is the latter”. That she was old, she said, could be gauged from the fact that she had visited India three times, with the last coming 27 years ago. Besides, her remembering that the idea of literature festivals had taken root with the Adelaide writer’s week was another indication.

As for why such festivals have proliferated, she said, “You don’t need an orchestra, just the writers, their books and voices.” In short, cheap dates.

Atwood emphasised the relationship between writers and their readers, who she said were “joined at the hip”, equating readers to musicians reading scores. A book is like a score, she said, mere black markings on a page until the reader reads it, interprets and re-interprets it and keeps it alive.

Atwood, who has long openly supported digital books, said that the Internet is a plus for writers, as it helps increase the reading habit rather than diminish it. “There may be places without books, libraries, schools, but it may have the mobile phone. If there are no readers, there will be no writers,” she said.

A writer, she added, throws a tiny book into the great unknown, the universe, and hopes that someone finds it, reads it, and understands it.

Her address done, what could not be ignored was how jam-packed Diggi Palace, the festival venue, was. While chief minister Vasundhara Raje’s offhand remark during her speech at the inauguration did bring this up, the organisers were put through a fair bit of tension earlier, with the Rajasthan high court on Monday admitting a petition seeking a change in venue, citing security and congestion issues.

Fortunately for the organisers, the court on Tuesday allowed the festival to carry on as usual. Sanjoy K. Roy, a co-organiser of the festival, said that a hunt had begun for an alternative, but they would continue with Diggi Palace till they found the perfect venue, one that could accommodate large numbers as well provide the appropriate atmosphere. “It’s not like setting it up in a stadium,” he said. The reluctance to shift had nothing to do with loyalty to Diggi Palace, he added. “As a festival grows, it’s about practicalities, not loyalties.”

In any case, this year, for those who do not care to join the crowd, JLF has introduced live streaming from all six of the venues within Diggi Palace where sessions are held.

JLF, certainly the biggest and most high profile literature festival in the country, has a stellar line-up of international and Indian writers this year. Man Booker nominees alone include Atwood, Sunjeev Sahota (shortlisted for The Year of the Runaways), Anuradha Roy (who won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2016 for her novel Sleeping on Jupiter), and Marlon James (this year’s Booker Prize recipient for the novel A Brief History of Seven Killings).

Other star attractions include writer and journalist Colm Tóibín, occasionally referred to as Ireland’s national treasure; French economist Thomas Piketty; American artist Molly Crabapple; Dalit activist Bant Singh; Alexander McCall Smith; Stephen Fry; photographers Don McCullin and Steve McCurry; and Hindi film producer Karan Johar, whose biography written by Poonam Saxena will be published soon.

The 2016 edition of JLF sees a focus on bhasha literature, while at the parallel Jaipur BookMark, a two-day festival on the business of publishing taking place at Narain Niwas, the main thrust of the discussions will revolve around translations and creating a market for South Asian literature.

After all, “The twin aim of JLF is to bring Indian literature to the world and world literature to India,” Dalrymple had said during a Twitter chat prior to the festival’s opening.

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