Festival of New French Writing 2011: Atiq Rahimi, Russell Banks, Lila Azam Zanganeh

Monday, March 7, 2011

By JK Fowler

 

Event: Festival of New French Writing
Date: 02/25/11
Time: 7:30PM
Panel: Atiq Rahimi, Russell Banks. Moderated by Lila Azam Zanganeh.
Location: 100 Washington Square East, Silver Center
Website: http://frenchwritingfestival.com/

New York City: Silver Center, NYU. Event 5 of the Festival of New French Writing.

"I will tell you a tale. A very good tale. Do you know Mullah Nasruddin? This is a very legendary character in our culture. And he said that one night, a man saw Mullah near a streetlamp looking for something. And he said, 'Mullah, have you lost something?' 'Yah! I lost the key to my house.' 'Can I help you?' 'Sure.' And this man looked for the key to Mullah’s house. Five minutes later, he had still not found the key and asked Mullah, 'Are you sure you lost your key here?' And Mullah said, 'No, I lost it in my home.' Surprised, the man said, 'Then why are you looking for it here?' And Mullah said, 'Because in my home there is no light.' (Interview with Atiq Rahimi and JK Fowler 02.25.2011)

A reading by Robert Adrian from the The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, the undulations of a woman given voice rolling across the internally-furrowed brow of a comatose patriarch forced to listen to things very few men would ever wish to hear. Lila Azam Zanganeh leads the discussion with fervor down the trails of war, of politics and literature, of how territory affects writing. The post-9/11 journal that logged the seemingly disparate voices of Rahimi and Russell Banks for one year and then, upon meeting, the men realizing how similar their humanitarian perspectives expressed were.

On the notes of a mother tongue and home, Rahimi states that upon the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan in his youth he had looked back one last time, bid adieu to the physical territory of his homeland to step onto a new page, a new beginning, the linkages to home country remaining through Farsi, through imagined territories of childhood. On a trip back to Afghanistan after 18 years had transpired in France, he loses a bag filled with his cameras and a journal of recollections and observations of his trip written in Farsi, the beginnings of a new novel. He was forced to rethink his trip once returned to France, in French.

"My home was in the dark of terror, the dark of war. It was in the darkness of fundamentalism. Darkness everywhere. And there in my house, I lost the key to my identity, my liberty, the key to my independence. So I went somewhere where there was light, where there was liberty, where there was independence. France. And I was looking for my key. But of course I could not find it because I left it in my country.  But I created it in my imagination. Writing about Afghanistan is like creating my key." (Interview with Atiq Rahimi and JK Fowler 02.25.2011)

Banks speaks to the visibility of Rahimi's work, speaks to the visibility of his own. He will not write that which he cannot see, gains a sense of rootedness from this perspective, from the intense and momentous visible experience to the everyday. To see, as he has seen, is in a particular way. The epic arrivals to the Caribbean, West Africa, Canada, the Northeast; such locales bear great emotional weight, resonate with his self, that vibrating identity, that which is given form through dialogue with territories real and imagined, that through chaotic introductions find solace within the ordered surroundings of an open wilderness or a setting completely foreign.

"Chaos invites reaction and writing is reaction." (Russell Banks, Festival of New French Writing 2011)

Zanganeh opens order, the heightened sense of reality for discussion. Rahimi states that it is the role of the artist to deconstruct the order that the politician laboriously attempts to construct. The deconstruction of reality which is born through reality itself, the cycle, the circle, the closed loop. To deconstruct is to understand what is inside of the human being.

They turn then to the universal, Rahimi stating that while rooted in particular communities, the detailed local of the inner eye is made to seem universal through the interwoven hopes and dreams of the fiction writer. The reader then experiences this personally, privately. To the mourning present in their works, Banks explains, there lies within a universality to the experience of loss tightly-silenced.

"When you lose your confidence, you are afraid of everything, you don’t believe in anything and you don’t have any confidence in yourself. And this is the beginning of the destruction of the culture, of identity; when you don’t believe in you, you don’t believe
in your country, you don’t believe in your identity. So this was the big change: losing the identity and confidence in oneself." (Interview with Atiq Rahimi and JK Fowler 02.25.2011)

The original wound so present in Banks' works, the Muslim being washed of sin already and the different relationships between a land and place that this produces. Banks as self-described atheist notes that wounds, sin, redemption, the transcendentalism of Walt Whitman as God is everywhere, states that he longs through his trails of words for transcendence, a transcendance doomed to fail. Rahimi boldly pronounces his love for sin, his leanings towards atheism as well, the politicized religious control of the Koran in
Afghanistan and notes that the critical examination so prevalent in Western societies is key to the survival of Afghanistan and its peoples.

"As a writer, I know that words are very important. In the beginning it was the verb. I believe that because if you don’t have voice you cannot express yourself...Why is there all of this violence in Afghanistan? Because we don’t have voice." (Interview with Atiq
Rahimi and JK Fowler 02.25.2011)

What does it mean to be deterritorialized as Deleuze writes of? To write from a different space for Banks, to re-think space-time. In traveling to Jamaica from his New England town at a young age, Banks began to see the world from the outside, noticed its ideologically-driven machinations, his work reflecting this gradual awakening. These deliberate movements, deliberate displacements etched the tales of morality when approaching the voices of the "Other" so present in his works. This search, this going-beyond oneself, the breaking of one's comfort zone to explore the voice of the "Other" led him to realize our own, as Americans, identity of the exile, as outsiders embedded in a country to whom none of us belong. To Rahimi, this travel of the physical body forced encounters between his self as pre-developed and new logics, new forms of thinking about life. To travel then, to move is to breed an authenticity bred from unease. Zanganeh asks if Rahimi ever fears of being exoticized. In France, says Rahimi, he is Afghan. In
Afghanistan, he is French. Forced to exile, he exists within the boundaries of no country.

To exile or be exiled, upon the edge of the world looking in: this must be the acquired position of the writer. (Russell Banks, Festival of New French Writing 2011)

To adopt the voice of the "Other" as problematic, Rahimi and Banks take divergent approaches. Banks underlines the importance of respecting difference, that he will not write that which he cannot hear being said to him. Writing, Banks states, "is a visual and
auditory process of hallucination." Through the approach that the semantic landscapes he builds are not reflections of the real world but the world of the possible, Rahimi sees no limits. Led by the question, "Is it true or is it not true?" Rahimi rides the imagination which allows him to move beyond the limits of a structured reality to the realm of the "could-be".

"AR: It was my first experience in exile and to travel alone. I can say that I met myself at this time.

JK: In the road.

AR: Yes, in the road." (Interview with Atiq Rahimi and JK Fowler 02.25.2011)

It ends with the click of a microphone, voices cut, reverberations of the discussion ebbing and flowing along the contoured walls of Silver Hall, through the entrails of the mind. I exist upon the cusp, upon that outside lip looking in, to observe and notate the becomings and goings of the final event of the night at the Festival of New French Writing. To leave with one thing from this event would be to leave with the following: that to live upon that edge, ever-changing, by force or by choice, opens one eyes and mind to our collective identity of the exiled.

Hour-long interview with Atiq Rahimi: click here.

Bios

Atiq Rahimi: French-Afghan writer and filmmaker, Atiq Rahimi fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and relocated to France. After studying at the Sorbonne, he joined a production company and made several documentaries for French television. He began writing in the late 1990s, with his first novel, Earth and Ashes, written in Persian, becoming an instant bestseller in Europe and South America. The film version of Rahimi’s book has won 25 awards, including the Prix du Regard vers l'Avenir at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. In 2008, Rahimi won the Prix Goncourt for Syngué Sabour (translated into English as The Patience Stone), his fourth book but first written in French. Rahimi returned to his native Afghanistan in 2002. As Senior Creative Advisor for that nation’s largest media group, Moby Group, he developed programs and genres for its various media outlets, and helped develop and train a new generation of Afghan filmmakers and directors. Rahimi is currently in pre-production of the film version of Syngué Sabour, which he will direct from his screenplay.

Selected Works

Written in French:

Syngué Sabour. Pierre de patience, P.O.L., 2008
(The Patience Stone, Other Press, 2010)

Written in Persian, French translations:

Terre et cendres (Khâkestar-o-khâk), P.O.L., 2000 
(Earth and Ashes, Vintage, 2003)
Les mille maisons du rêve et de la terreur, P.O.L., 2002 
(A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, Vintage, 2007)
Le Retour imaginaire, P.O.L., 2005

Russell Banks: Russell Banks’ work has been translated into twenty languages and earned numerous honors and awards including the John Dos Passos Prize for fiction and the Laure Bataillon prize for best work of fiction translated into French. His titles include The Sweet Hereafter, Cloudsplitter, The Angel on the Roof, Rule of the Boneand Dreaming Up America, among many others. A member of the International Parliament of Writers, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and former New York State Author (2004-2008), he is also the founder and President of Cities of Refuge North America. Banks has contributed poems, stories, and essays to The Boston Globe Magazine, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Harper’s and numerous other publications. Two of his novels, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, have been made into award-winning films. Banks’s novel The Darling will be directed by Martin Scorsese and star Cate Blanchett. His latest novel, The Lost Memory of Skin, will be released in fall 2011.

Selected Works

Trailerpark, Harper Perennial, 1981
Continental Drift, Harper Perennial, 1985 
Affliction, Harper Perennial, 1989 
The Sweet Hereafter, Harper Perennial, 1991
The Darling, Harper Perennial, 2004 
Dreaming up America, Seven Stories Press, 2008
(Amérique notre histoire, Actes Sud, 2006)
Lost Memory of Skin, forthcoming 2011

Lila Azam Zanganeh: Born in Paris to Iranian parents. She moved to the United States in 1998 to teach literature, cinema and Romance languages at Harvard University. Since 2002, she is a regular contributor to Le Monde and has been published in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Nation, The Paris Review, and La Repubblica. In 2006, she edited a collection of narrative essays on Iran. Her first book, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, will be published in 2011 by Norton in the United States, Penguin in England, L'Olivier in France, and Contact in Holland. Lila is fluent in six languages and serves on the Board of Overseers of the International Rescue Committee.

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J. K.