What if this is literature?
New work by Parwana Amiri
“New” in this case means new to me, the editor of the Polity of Literature series. In Chloe Ruthven’s companion piece, also titled “What if this is literature?” the character called “the editor” both is and is not me, the editor of this series. “The editor” in Ruthven’s essay has limited capacities and characteristics that serve the needs of the story even if I, the real editor in question, am largely incapable of performing the part faithfully. People are inconsistent and unreliable. The characters we base on them, less so. This kind of play, the ambivalence necessary to perform both as one’s self and as a character, holding the myriad truths we have known and any emergent possible truths as equally “real,” is common in literature. It’s a skill that writers develop, using language to organize our acrobatic multivalence serenely and coherently enough to persuade others—readers—that a story is true.
It’s no different for fiction or nonfiction. In both, the agreement among readers establishes truth. Nonfiction carries with it a codified external apparatus, much of it written down as law and jurisprudence, that guides our process of collective truth-making (and renders the judgements binding), while fiction is more forgiving. But in the case of any literary writing, the true story is the story that readers believe to be true.
Literary writing begins and grows where law and jurisprudence about truth leave off. Literature is, as this series has proposed, a politics—a set of negotiated relationships among persons (the readers of a text, including the writer)—not the expressive product of a solitary person (the writer) making a thing alone in the world. To find “new literature” we must leave old laws and jurisprudence behind and discover with others what new truths become possible in writing that is strange to us, writing that fails to meet our expectations. Even a cursory look at the historical usage of the term “literature” reveals a consistent pattern: from Balzac to Austen to Flaubert to Heine, Melville, Rimbaud and Stein to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Bob Dylan, new literature is found in the eddies and currents of whatever the mainstream rejects. [Including Bob Dylan is a deliberate provocation, an acknowledgement of contemporary writing’s conservative, moribund state and a nod to the puzzling necessity the Nobel Prize committee felt to, at that point in history, give the literature prize to a pop musician.] To make new literature is to violate the old rules of what “literature” can be. The term first emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries to serve exactly that function on behalf of the rising bourgeoisie. By 1800, Mme. de Staël would codify the artistic output of Europe’s ascendant class by calling it “La Littérature” and venerating it for departing from the old rules of belles lettres, that stronghold of the waning aristocracy. “Literature” began as—and has always been—a reputational category wielded by whichever social group needs to make their rebel yell of agency and ascendency.
But we live in punishing times. The strong have never been stronger. In the world of literature, as in global economics and politics, brittle old truths that ought to have fallen away long ago continue to shape and limit the emergence of anything “new.” In American literature even the most adventurous critics find themselves discussing Jonathan Franzen (meanwhile their colleagues in the astoundingly healthy culture of pop music get Lil Nas X…writers can only gaze and listen with envy) while urgent, innovative work takes decades (often decades after the writer’s death) to find a readership and take its place in the discussion of literature. English-language literature’s mainstream is embarrassingly narrow and repetitive. There must be a million reasons why, but the one of concern to the Polity of Literature series is the question of political power and agency. Who gets space? Who is heard? Who gets paid to write? Whose work shows up among strangers? Whose work is written about and extended by the smart, searching readers—the critics—whose job it is to make some of the writing around them become literature?
As a writer, I’ve never lived in a more conservative time. Our most urgent writing, the most challenging, falls (or is pushed) into niches, like falling into a chasm. I myself am a happy habitué of several chasms, the niches where I find great writing which remains largely unknown to the English-speaking world. I expect my own work to dwell in these depths and for the rest of my life to pass without sunlight ever reaching those of us feasting on the strange fruits of our tribe, way down at the bottom of our self-dug holes. It’s not a bad life. But now I’m interested in something more, a Polity of Literature, and the chance that by crawling out of my niche I might find the future by meeting strangers on equal terms.
In the polity of literature, we are face to face with our teachers, hitherto unknown to us. We are not their judges, measuring them against a vivid memory of some past literature. Reading new literature requires curiosity, sympathy, and a leap of faith. It’s a very big leap. We’re forced to leave behind the reassuring sound of our authoritative voices, our hard-won smarts, and the pleasure of showing them off by divining and “proving” the qualities of a work, passing judgements we learned long ago from teachers long dead who somehow still hold us in their sway. There’s something addictive about performing authority with one’s own voice, hearing the old rules intoned anew by oneself. It pleases the ego. However, as a way of engaging others or discovering anything it’s like trying to walk into the world by facing a mirror. It can only lead deeper into yourself. We enter a polity of literature by turning our backs on that one familiar, reassuring face—the face of our authority, our mastery—to face strangers who will lead us to truths we cannot yet conceive. The past solace of our expertise is a hindrance now, counterproductive. We face our teachers, naive as babies, and must pay attention to what we see.
This threshold is riddled with traps. Our own humanity is fragile enough that we feel threatened when we recognize humanity in a stranger. But the only way forward is by jumping into the traps. One, discussed in more detail in an earlier piece, “Prison Writing in the Time of Refugees,” is our tendency to infantilize the stranger, to prefer, for example, hearing children tell the story of refugee migrations, at the expense of adult tellings. Similarly, we often cast the stranger as other-than-human—whether by venerating them as Holy oracles of wisdom or denigrating them as charming animals or noble savages. To situate ourselves and our fragile humanity in relation to a dynamic source of change and growth is a challenge. I think we fear coming up short when faced with the huge capacities of the human heart and mind in a polity. Faith in our own humanity, fragile for very good reasons, will help us see clearly the persons facing us as persons, and not as children or animals or “others.”
Here is the work of Parwana Amiri. She spent more than a year migrating from Iran to Turkey and finally to Greece, before arriving in the notorious Moria Camp on Lesvos Island, as a teenager in 2019. She moved from Moria to Ritsona Camp shortly before Moria was destroyed by fire in September, 2020. Since her arrival in Greece in 2019, Parwana has written a blog she calls “Birds of Immigrants,” comprised mostly of her first-person telling of the stories of many different migrants in the camp. She favours the stories of women and children, but uses her “I” voice to speak for all, for every kind of person and stranger, male or female, young or old, migrant or European, also trees. In 2019 she wrote a fable called “The Olive Tree and the Old Woman,” which she showed to a Greek woman, Marily Stroux. Marily drew illustrations and helped Parwana turn it into a small pamphlet.
As an introduction to the larger body of work Parwana Amiri has produced during two difficult years in Greece, we’re reproducing the pamphlet here and making it available for sale in a printed, staple-bound edition from Publication Studio Guelph (a partner program to ArtsEverywhere, also supported by the Musagetes Foundation). Interested readers should follow Birds of Immigrants and view the “Why Borders?” exhibition (online and, currently, in person in various German cities), which includes some of Parwana’s poetry. She’s also on most social media as @ParwanaAmiri or @ParwanaAmiriOfficial. As we grow and learn from strangers, bearing witness to their humanity, art can open crucial capacities in each of us. Having now read all of Parwana’s work and spoken to her on Skype, I’m amazed to find that a short film Marily Stroux made this summer offers the most vivid and memorable view I’ve had onto this complex and compelling person. If you’re interested in Parwana Amiri be sure to watch Marily Stroux’s “The Olive Tree” (below), and thank Marily and Parwana for seeing each other clearly and helping us find our future.
— Matthew Stadler