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Arun Gupto: Nepali literary works need to be globalized

Arun Gupto: Nepali literary works need to be globalized

Arun Gupto is a Professor of English, culture critic and author. His book ‘Goddesses of Kathmandu Valley’ as well as the edited book ‘Literary Theory and Criticism’ have been published by Routledge. His latest book in Nepali ‘Sanskriti Chintan,’ a collection of essays and interviews, has garnered acclaim among Nepali readers and thinkers for his distinct ideas on nationalism, patriotism, identity and culture. In an interview with Ken Subedi,  Gupto talked about his fascination towards books, literature, culture, tradition and art. Excerpts:

As an author and long-time reader yourself, what are your favorite books, particularly fiction?

I will have difficulty in naming my favorite novels. I love novels by the Bronte sisters of 19th century England. I prefer to read about strong women characters. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is one of my favorites. My daughter influenced me to read the works of these sisters carefully. I love to read British novels of the 19th century. The novelists of the time created intellectually vibrant female characters. The tragic vision of their lives in the stories express how suffering of the characters leads to wisdom on the part of the readers. Another powerful woman is Binodini in Rabindra Nath Tagore’s Chokher Bali.  She disrupts an ideal house like a pile of cards, and yet the reader seems to love her. I wish I had the opportunity to talk about Anna Karenina for hours.

You have devoted your productive years thus far to research and teaching in the realms of critical theory and Western tradition. Have you ever considered trying your hand at writing short stories or even a novel? What aspects of theories intrigue you that may differ from fiction?

I have written a novelistic memoir Cracks in the Wind, which I am trying to publish. I have recently completed writing a play, Racial Neck: The Middle Game. I have sent this to my professor in the US. I have written some stories and one more play which I am editing. I do not distinguish theory and literary creativity. Profound theories are like the philosophy of art and literature. I am reading and offering a course on the intersectionality of philosophy, art and literature as complementarities. I do not belong to the school of generic divisions when it comes to the ideas like reason and imagination, creativity and critical thinking, philosophy and fiction as separatist domains. Doing so is a hasty generalization.

I heard that in your initial years as a lecturer at TU, you were influenced heavily by post-structuralism/deconstruction theory, especially of Derrida and Foucault. You also seem to be fascinated with ideas of irrationality, surrealism, absurdism, différance, arbitrariness, hybridity etc. Why are they so close to you?

I have read Plato’s dialogues extensively, not all thought but many with intensity of reading and discussing. Derrida comes out of such Socratic discursive tradition and then comes Spivak. Foucault’s line of thought is more on reformulating historical knowledge and Derrida focuses on the methodology of meanings. They are known as post-structuralists. You have correctly suggested that they have led me to discourses of double binds, différance, and irrationalities. Double binds keep you near to the child’s innocence. Too much logic is a menace and they lead you to think like an atrocious dictator. Whom would you choose, the innocent child or the fire breathing logicians?

Salman Rushdie, in one of his interviews, said, ‘Literature should be about breaking rules, not doing conventional things, pushing boundaries and taking risks.’ To what degree do you agree with it?

Unless literature threatens the society, it becomes a hypocritical moral tale. Rushdie is perhaps talking about how you begin to hate your system because you love it. You question everything. Is white white? Such writers save the world by refining consciousness in strange fictional ways, in the modes, which Fredric Jameson calls the political unconscious, which Marx is nervous about literature being the slave of ideologies, which Socrates prepares us for dialectical thinking. If you analyze keenly, Rushdie is talking about a long tradition of what literature, art, philosophy has been doing, that is, “pushing boundaries” as you have said. Read Marx on ideology and one will know what “pushing boundaries” is.

There are also books which are not radical but instead focus on forms and realist storytelling. While you pick literature, do you look after its form and style or are you inclined to seek the radical themes the book has raised?

I look for the themes of radical, bold, strong, and ideas with the intensity of pushing boundaries. If your themes and characters are strong, they shape the form and design of the work. Anna Karenina, the legend tells, would appear in front of Tolstoy and dictate to him how to write about her and her life. This is a metaphor of what and how about creativity. The person is the form, Tolstoy realized. Form is embedded in themes. Yeats asks: How can we know the dancer from the dance? Is a novel novel because it is a form or content? 

There is no realism, no realist narrative. All works of art are perspectives, even historical accounts are perspectives, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes. Realism as a concept has been both elitist and bourgeois ideology. There is no nature in front of you but human-cultural perspectives on nature. Nature does not exist for us because we are the subjects of ideologies.  As soon as you narrate and describe nature, it is human perspective. Realism is a beautiful lie, formulated, designed to give constructed values to art. It rules our literary tradition and my student-friend Bishnu Sapkota, hence, loves Oscar Wilde. It is imperative to refer to him if you engage in further discourse.

In your view, why publishers are less interested in short story collections compared to novels? Is it because novels proved to be more salable?

It seems but I am not sure. After all, the market is the one who decides. We may dislike commodity culture but it helps us survive through competitions, not always though. We have to abide by the master’s rules of the game. The cultural logic of late-capitalism, for Jameson, is also about the dominance of what is circulated is what is value. Philanthropy is capitalism’s subsidiary gesture, it needs to pile up profits first. Hence, if a novel is salable, short stories have to wait.

Your analysis of the book Shirish Ko Phool and Suyogbir as a villainous character has been praised critically. The book is quite dear to you. What other Nepali books are close to your heart and can you name a few Nepali books that deserve translation into English?

The contemporary writings of Nepali women poets have to be seriously taken for translation projects. There are many who in recent times are rich in ideas with contemporaneity of themes with the quality of language which are suggestive of their social realities. What method and why I am interested in such projects at present has my own critical reasons.

The classical Nepali writers have to be read with the present ones, not in isolation as Devkota, Motiram, and Siddhicharan. Synthetic criticism is what I am thinking about. For instance, I will critique how Devkota’s Prem Pari is placed within the structure of poetic meaning of Sima Abhas’s Ma Stri Arthat Aimai. As an example, I am referring to the concept of Dhvani by the 9th century author of India Anandavardhana. The synthesis I am talking about is reading the classics in the context of contemporary writers, not the Arnoldian “touchstone” method of comparing the present writers with the greats of the past. Synthesize Devkota’s poems on women with works of Jhamak or Sima. I am bringing critics, some from the past and some from the present, in the light of Sanskrit poetics, which I have to read in English, and discourses on tropes by writers like Paul de Man and so on. 

I cannot produce a list of names but we need to read and plan. The process of translation must be done with a team of serious academics and media people only after a serious reading of the recent novels, plays, and poems.

Do you agree that the number of Nepali writers writing in English, particularly fiction, is still few? Does it have any link with colonial history?

Nepali writers writing in English are fewer than many South Asian countries. But whoever is published in the Anglophonic world is good and powerful. Nepal did not directly and conspicuously bore colonial experience, I mean institutionally, and therefore English is not an internalized language. I think writing in English or translating Nepali or vernacular literary works into English is necessary because Nepali works need to be globalized. Globalization in this context is participating with world literature. Once we participate, we will be tested in a wider context. There is no easy road to recognition and fame.

You also taught art where you discussed artworks by Proust to Picasso and Gericault to Dali. Personally, which genre of painting do you prefer?

The impressionists, the cubists, surrealists, and abstract expressionists are the ones who cut across the comforts of realism of the 19th century. The crises created by human factors can only be expressed through the flicker of perspectives of the impressionists, the reduction of fake-humanism into lines and figures of the cubists, dream consciousness of the surrealists, and the language of the color of the soul by abstract expressionists. They were overwhelmingly radical in ideas and expressions.