European Literature Days, the annual literary festival held in the small Austrian town of Spitz, goes from strength to strength and always manages to tackle topical and urgent subjects. Last year, the festival's theme was 'The Migrants' and focused on various writers who have left their native countries and write in an adopted language. This year's theme was 'The Colonisers' - how do writers approach writing about the 'other', who are the colonisers now and what does it mean to be voiceless or to be given a voice by the privileged?
One of the most interesting discussions was about cultural appropriation and, conversely, how political correctness can serve to censor a writer's imagination. Petina Gappah, a Zimbabwean lawyer and author who writes in English was an inspiring speaker. Her latest collection of stories, Rotten Row, is just out in the UK and is receiving favourable reviews. Justifiably, she expressed concern that in contemporary literature there continues to be more interest in a white man's story than that of a black woman. But rather than rejecting privileged viewpoints, Gappah argues, it is more important that writers approach stories of the 'other' with empathy and humility and understand their responsibility to be truthful.
Cuban writer Yania Suarez Calleyro raised the issue of free expression and observed that political correctness and ideological narratives are the biggest enemy of literature. Those outside Cuba who supported the Revolution often don't want to see the reality today for many ordinary Cubans, she claims, and misguided notions of 'authenticity' are the biggest enemies of literature. We all have multiple identities, she concludes, and that's what should inspire writers and readers alike.
Priya Basil, born to Indian parents in London, grew up in Kenya and currently lives in Germany, is founder of Authors for Peace. She suggests Britain is still in denial over the brutality of its colonial past and that there remains an 'historical blankness' over certain episodes such as the 1943 Bengal famine and the concentration camps set up during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya from 1951 to 1960. She posited an interesting question: Can setting the record straight in fiction ever make amends for these atrocities?
This year's theme was of particular interest to me as I have recently published A Country of Refuge, an anthology of writing on asylum seekers. I used the work of renowned British and Irish writers to explore the experiences of refugees and migrants. My aim was to generate more positive perspectives, to directly challenge the negative press, and to cast a more positive light on a situation that, for many, is a living hell.
The fact that I had asked well known writers to imagine life as a refugee today provoked similar questions to those raised at the festival. Some of my authors come from migrant or refugee backgrounds; others do not. So, do they have the necessary perspective to write about refugees' experiences? Why did I choose them over refugee voices?
I believe writers can influence and inspire. They are also uniquely placed to challenge pre-conceived ideas and stereotypes because of their understanding of the power of words and ability to articulate truths. Returning to Petina's contention - it is all about a writer's approach and level of empathy and humility. Like Priya, I don't think creative works can ever make amends for past atrocities but fiction can educate and change minds. In so doing, literature demonstrates that art is stronger than propaganda, and embracing the unfamiliar or foreign is a more compelling force than distrust.