National Literatures Revisited
The city of Helsinki recently welcomed LAF's 2003 conference on contemporary European literatures. Migration, refugees, a traveling workforce, ethnic and minority groups within the barders of a state, the co-habitation of language: all this contributed to the discussion of national literatures today. Sigurbjorg Thrastardottir reports on what four of the writers present had to say.

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A South African Nation?
'[South Africa's] past [is] a paradise lost that nobody wants to go back to,' says Lewis Nkosi, a South-African writer based in Switzerland
Depite Mandela's 'Rainbow Nation', Lewis Nkosi, a South-African writer based in Switzerland, claimed that the people of South-Africa cannot be described as a nation. "The idea is so unfamiliar, so very astonishing even in contemplation, that the existence of a South African nation, rainbow-coloured or not, is like some rumour that has yet to be confirmed," said Nkosi. Referring to the past as a paradise lost that nobody wants to go back to, he quoted Jonathan Steinwand, who claimed that "nations make use of nostalgia in the construction of national identity" and pointed out that the South-African novel, for one thing, has traditionally been homeless and characterized by a striking lack of nostalgia. "Until now the principal expression of our South African literary culture has been a novel of refusal and resistance, apartheid its particular cross and its affliction," said Nkosi.

From Chile to Denmark
Nobody believed Rubén Palma could write in Danish, until, anonymously, he won an essay-competition held by prestigious newspaper Politiken.

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Rubén Palma's is a story of immigration. Born in Chile, he's been a resident of Denmark for the past thirty years. Palma described his entry into the Danish literary world after making the radical decision of pursuing writing in the 'step-tongue, Danish. Nobody believed he could write in Danish, until, anonymously, he won an essay-competition held by prestigious newspaper Politiken. 'Even after that, publishers were not convinced," said Palma. 'I went around Copenhagen's cafés and showed people some texts I told them I had written. Only that they were texts by famous, Danish writers. And people pointed to the texts, looked at me and said: 'Nooo, this phrase is no good. And that one is strange, too. A Dane would never write this way.' The experiment confirmed what I had already experienced. If a Dane writes it, it's creative. If I write it, it's wrong." Palma did not give up, though, and his carreer now boasts of short-stories, plays, musical, childrens' books. 'I believe the so-called immigrant literature is not only a tool to better understand the complex, multicultural world we live in. It can also enrich national literary landscapes.'

Don't let your brain fall out
'Multiculturalism is fine, but remember, one can have such an open mind that the brain falls out', thinks Slovenia's Ales Debeljak.

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Ales Debeljak, Slovenia, critizised the broadmindedness of multiculturalism, which often is tinted with both arrogance and "neoliberal myopy". Multiculturalism in that sense is patronising and self-congratulating, allowing different groups only to live side by side, but not together. What is needed, said Debeljak, is intercultural competence; the will and ability to look through the other's lense to shape a wider outlook on the world. Literature, he added, is one way of literally broadening the mind. "A good literary work transcends the borders and creates a new reality. Garcia Marquez's Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, not only chronicles the rhythm of everyday in a Latin-American context, it also transcends our everyday lives and can thus be read in Alaska and Australia alike." Debeljak stressed that cultural and linguistical differences, not to forget historical heritages, must be accepted and respected. Doctrines like internationalism, which is what was supposed to happen in communism when the proletarians would unite, regardless of different backgrounds and cultures, is useless in praxis, he said. Instead he proposed a more relevant approach, cosmopolitanism, which takes into account the cultural formation of every individual, but also encourages mutual understanding and the effort of gaining insight into different worlds. Debeljak said: "multiculturalism is fine, but remember, one can have such an open mind that the brain falls out."

Uniform Culture or Uniform Market?
'Some of writers fear to betray the expectations of the market,' argues Demosthenes Kourtovik of Greece.
Globalization does not promote a uniform culture, but a uniform market," said Demosthenes Kourtovik, a Greek writer and critic. "It does not fight cultural diversity, on the contrary, it wishes it. It wishes it, because it can trade in it." But in order to sell the local peculiarities, said Kourtovik, they have to be reduced to exotic and at the same time familiar images. "Images with a striking surface but little or no depth. In other words, stereotyped images." He took some examples from his own country, pointing out that Greek writers have plenty of themes to write about than the clash between mythology and the present, and a wider range of charachters to depict than Zorba and Ulysses, these often being the stereotypes of Greek literature. But some of the writers, he said, fear to betray the expectations of the market if they don't stick to "nativeness" or include something "specifically Greek" in their work. As a response to the crisis, Kourtovik proposed what can be called universalization. 'If globalization leaves the shell of local culture undamaged, but seals the content within, universality breaks the shell to relase the content.'

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