No Right To Be International

View of Edinburgh's old city from Princess Garden park. (Jean-Loup Gautreau/AFP/Getty Images)

By Simon Tay

I was in Edinburgh, chilly despite the summer, and wondering why much of the world was congregated in this Scottish city. With globalisation, travel anywhere is possible, but some places and events attract many more people than others.

Through August, all types of art come to Edinburgh - from ballet and classical music to buskers, jazz, visual arts and writers. The different, overlapping programmes are not organised by a single authority. But collectively, they make the city buzz.

Nearly half a million visitors come during the festivals, doubling the population. As one festival slogan says it is like, "The World in a City."

I went for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. With poet Edwin Thumboo and novelist Suchen Lim, we were the first Singaporean writers invited. I read from my recent novel, City of Small Blessings, as part of a Singapore season that included the Theatreworks drama company, jazz musician Jeremy Monteiro and others.

After my reading, some from the audience came up to talk a bit. Several even bought copies of the book. One kindly suggested that I distribute in the United Kingdom and become an "international" writer.

This sounds tempting. But should artists and writers become international and produce their work for overseas audiences? Or should they remain distinct even in a "world in a city"?

In Singapore, we like international markets and overseas acclaim. And I do think our city would gain from assembling something like the Edinburgh festivals, if we could do it. But the ambitions of a city do not always translate at the individual level.

A festival can be international but it may not be right for the writer to internationalise himself. I glimpsed this at readings by two writers.

The English novelist Margaret Drabble spoke about her new work, part memoir and part non-fiction. She described her visits around London researching the origins of the jigsaw, which she claims is an English invention from the 1760s.

Ma Jian from China spoke about his new novel, Beijing Coma, in which the narrator is paralysed after being shot during the June 4 events in Tiananmen. Ma Jian spoke in Mandarin, was translated for his English-speaking audience, and admits he may now have trouble going back to China.

These two may be opposite ends of a wide spectrum. Drabble seemed quintessentially English, writing and speaking about a personal and almost idiosyncratic question with self-deprecating wit and sharp intelligence.

Ma Jian in contrast was the iconic writer in exile: Foreign, translated and controversially political. He even wore all black and had long hair, like a dissident in a movie.

There is no melting pot for writers, even if their works are sold and read in different countries. They don't seek to appeal to some imagined reader faraway or in transit at an airport book store. Instead, their works draw from who they are and the societies they come from.

The specifics a writer offers can be unique and special. A Jewish writer in New York like Philip Roth does not apologise for the words and situations that derive from his culture. He does not explain too much, as if constantly translating things for a tourist. Nor is the story made purposefully exotic by adding artificial colours. But, at their best, the specifics tie back to universal themes.

Parochialism is to be avoided. But going international too often means trying to provide a standard product that can appeal across different markets. This works for industrial products and fast food. But writers and artists may be better served to remain true to themselves and distinct, even when other societies start to take interest.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society.