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Art is stronger than propaganda

How European literature can help the migrant crisis

Anthony Gardner | October 29th 2015

The small Austrian town of Spitz, overlooking the Danube, has such exemplary signposting that it is doubtful whether anyone has ever got lost in it. At every turn, sheaves of neat yellow and green arrows point you along the cobbled streets to the pretty Baroque church, the 16th-century castle, or one of the vineyards which slope down almost to the doors of the pink-, cream- or pistachio-coloured houses. So there could not have been a more appropriate meeting place for the writers and publishers who assembled there last weekend to discuss the current direction of European literature.

The name of the annual conference, European Literature Days, may be vague, but its theme for 2015 was sharply focused and highly topical: “The Migrants”. This was also the title of the keynote speech given by the Scottish author A.L. Kennedy on the opening morning at the hilltop Schloss zu Spitz.

Dressed in her trademark tweed suit with Nehru jacket – neatly symbolic of a Scot open to wider influences – Kennedy sounded a call to arms for writers, whose duty, she argued, was to remind the world that migrants are human beings. “When art fails,” she declared, “there is cruelty, because cruelty is caused by a lack of imagination.” For her, the enemies were not only callous governments, but media that deaden the mind with celebrity trivia and promote migrant-hating, right-wing commentators – among them the MailOnline columnist Katie Hopkins, peddling “a nightmare of alien rapaciousness”.

Kennedy, meanwhile, was peddling a nightmare of her own, and it was a place called Britain: a parochial, xenophobic country with a callous, war-mongering government and an institutionally racist police force, whose “sunburnt and shouting” people spoke only one language and couldn’t be bothered to wish shopkeepers good morning – or as she summed it up, “my little tiny culture which has nice things but isn’t very well at the moment.” Quite why so many outsiders should want to move to this hell-hole was not a question she addressed. The one hope, she suggested, was a resurgent Scotland, which offers a model of unaggressive nationalism. In her country, she went on, “there has been an attempt to expand an idea of national identity to truly include simple, voluntary residence.” Though whether anyone involved in the recent referendum would recognise this description is uncertain.

Her closing remarks were less political, and easier to agree with. “As artists and writers we have experienced the fact that art is stronger than propaganda, that love is stronger and more sustainable than hate, that self-expression can mean more than self-indulgence…Let us, together, imagine the future – if we don’t, it will happen without us, and may kill us along the way.”

A sub-theme of the conference was the writer as exile – voluntary or involuntary, literal or metaphorical. The Hungarian-Slovenian novelist Ilma Rakusa quoted the words of Marina Tsvetaeva, a refugee from the Russian revolution: “Every poet is an exile”;  the German-based Iraqi novelist Najem Wali explained that after fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime he wrote in Arabic “because I had been robbed of everything else”.

One of the most eloquent speakers was the Anglo-Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub (pictured), who claimed to exist in “a twilight world” between two cultures. “The condition we call ‘exile’ is more and more universal,” he argued. “We’re all distanced from the world around us, because it changes so rapidly.” But the word “exile” should be used with care: “We tend to romanticise it, and we need to get over that.” Like the United States, he added, Europe should see migrant writers as an integral part of its culture, rather than exotic outsiders.

Oscar Wilde famously told a customs officer that he had nothing to declare but his genius. He would certainly have approved of Atiq Rami, a writer and film-maker who had migrated from Afghanistan to France via India: when presented with an application form for political asylum, he had crossed out “political” and written “cultural” instead. But, he warned, “The term the French use – naturaliser – also means to stuff an animal. I have only one country, and that’s the Earth.”

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