Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Why Salman Rushdie should stick to holding Obama to account

Pankaj Mishra replies to Salman Rushdie's criticisms of Mo Yan

Mo Yan
Mo Yan … subject to higher demands? Photograph: Yan Bo/EPA

Salman Rushdie (Letters, Guardian, 16 December) helpfully clarifies that he approved of the assault on Afghanistan since he saw it as simple retribution rather than, as I incorrectly if charitably implied, an attempt at democracy-promotion. But my article was not about Rushdie's strenuous justifications of his government's fiascos. It did not propose a "moral equivalence" between what he calls "free" and "unfree" societies. Nor did it advance the preposterous argument that, as the estimable Perry Link puts it, "if A is a citizen of country Y, he or she should shut up about country X."

I actually wrote about the perennially ambiguous relationship between writers and power everywhere, and the unreasonably heavy burden of political obligations placed on fiction writers in non-western countries, particularly those – China, Pakistan, Iran – feared and disliked in the west. I tried to point out that writers in the west are not rated by their willingness to visibly denounce the violence and injustice perpetrated by powerful institutions and individuals in their "free societies", or expected to address them explicitly and exclusively in their fiction.

Also, no figures of comparable influence in the non-west hold them to account, or point out the correct path to moral redemption and literary glory. Such are the imbalances of geopolitical power that it is hard even to imagine Mo Yan, or any writer in China for that matter, attacking Perry Link and Salman Rushdie for failing to be sufficiently critical of Barack Obama's routine executions using drones (which have killed many times more children than have died in random domestic massacres by crazed gunmen).

In fact, when Salman Rushdie, in his early incarnation as a radical, protested the general indifference among American writers to their country's "immense power in the world", he earned a severe reprimand from Saul Bellow. "We just have inspirations," Bellow declared, "We don't have tasks," adding that "tasks are for people who work in offices". Fair enough. Nonetheless, the extensive condemnation of Mo Yan in the west assumes that writers in the "unfree" world should devote themselves to specific "tasks", most importantly, human rights abuses by their governments – a peremptory apportioning of literary duties that is worthy of Marshal Zhdanov, the hatchet man of socialist realism.

Full piece.

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