A Case of Exploding Markets: Latin American and South Asian Literary “Booms” in a Comparative Perspective
This excerpt is taken from an interview with Professor Kantor and Dr Fatima Burney about Kantor’s upcoming book Even If You Gain the World: The Rise of South Asian Literature in Light of Latin America. You can listen to the full MULOSIGE podcast with Professor Kantor here.
FB: Hello and welcome to MULOSIGE’s podcast series. My name is Fatima Burney and I’m sitting with Roanne Kantor to talk about a talk she recently gave for us at SOAS and her upcoming book, Even If You Gain the World: The Rise of South Asian Literature in Light of Latin America. Thank you Roanne for being here.
My first question for you will be: where did you come up with this title? It’s such a beautiful, evocative title.
RK: Well, first of all, thank you for having me, I really enjoyed giving this talk. I’ll answer the title question in two parts because of course it has a main title and then a subtitle. Some of you may actually recognise the main title “Even If You Gain the World”, it’s a particular translation of “Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye to Kya Hai”, the old song from Pyaasa. If you remember that film there’s this incredible scene in which the poet walks into his own memorialisation service, having become a sort of posthumous, or ersatz posthumous, star with his poetry – poetry that he couldn’t give away during his lifetime. He sings this song as a way of condemning the kind of commercialisation of his social poetry. So I think that this move of condemning what looks like on the surface to be success, also characterises what so many of us are feeling about South Asian Anglophone literature now. Yes, we have succeeded, we have “gained the world” but we’ve also lost something and the thing that we’ve lost is hard to articulate – and that’s the arc of the book.
Now the second part, the subtitle, in light of Latin America, is a re-appropriation of the translated title Octavio Paz’s Vislumbres de la India. Now Vislumbres de la India interestingly enough does not mean “In the light of India”. It’s sort of a mistranslation. It means “glimmers of India”, as if India is a light source from which we get little tiny threads of light. Instead, “In light of India” seems to suggest that India is a lightsource that sheds light onto something else, so I wanted to reverse that because I think that the project in general is, in a sense – certainly this talk in particular – is about Latin America instead, shedding light on a phenomenon that emerges out of India and other parts of South Asia.
FB: That’s really beautiful. So both parts of the title are shining light onto each other.
FB: I think you’re right, I think it is tricky to think about the commodification of literature and markets for literature in literary studies. It can become contested terrain because so often what we think becomes canonical – what stands against the tests of time – is what stands against the markets.
So, what brought you to this project? What motivated you to think about representations of markets and the effects of markets?
“There is no authentic way of dealing with a market. So we’re invoking that term even when we don’t use it.”
RK: That’s a great question. Actually again it was the first part of the project that brought me towards this later discussion of markets because what we forget is that these earlier connections that I look at (at the beginning of the book) between individual authors who are travelling for the first time to new geographies that they did not have a previous connection to, these authors were not travelling out of personal interest. They were travelling for political reasons and often for economic reasons. They were working and that’s what brought them into these new atmospheres and opened up these new possibilities for their writing. So there has always been an economic aspect to these kind of circulations but it happened previously at the level of the individual. How does an author make money in a context where you can’t have just a literary job, you have to also have a day job.
FB: What a timely question.
RK: Oh exactly! And then in later years that question becomes what happens to your writing and it’s authenticity perhaps, when in fact you can make all your money being a writer, when you can make a lot of money by being a writer! Where you can have new stories just about how much money you made in your advance. So, that is a different question but a related question.
FB: So I’m glad that you brought up the term authenticity because it seems to me that it is at the heart of some of the anxieties around talking about the market. Can you say a little bit more about how you’re playing with the word authenticity? What does that mean for this project and for these writers?
RK: Sure. I think very much like the title of this talk – like booms – authenticity is a word that we don’t want to use. We actually feel very uncomfortable with a word like authenticity for good reasons but we’re often talking around a concept that looks a lot like authenticity when we’re talking about how authors address the market now. How they make hay out of a booming market and automatically how whatever it is they do in order to take advantage of that market is inauthentic. There is no authentic way of dealing with a market. So we’re invoking that term even when we don’t use it.