Each year, the International Forum on the Novel in Lyon, France, invites authors to write about a “keyword” of their choice. The following texts are drawn from this year’s forum, presented by the Villa Gillet and Le Monde in partnership with France Inter and Les Subsistances (Lyon). The full list of participating English-language writers and keywords can be found at the website La clé des langues. Featured participants in this year’s forum are:
—Mohammed Hasan Alwan: Dam (Barrage)
—Aurélien Bellanger: Structuralism (Structuralisme)
—Filippo D’Angelo: Vandal (Vandale)
—Ma Jian: Empty (空 “Kong”)
—Noémi Lefebvre: Dog (Spirituality of the Dog) (Chien [Spiritualité du chien])
—Érik Orsenna: Curiosity (Curiosité)
—Lionel Shriver: Belligerent
—Joy Sorman: Monster (Monstre)
—Dana Spiotta: Identity
—Adelle Waldman: Morality
Mohammed Hasan Alwan
Beavers build dams because they’re wary of rivers. This wariness costs the forest hundreds of trees. Beavers can’t resign themselves to live in a burrow, a den, or a nest. Their atavistic fear of rivers (they never know what they will carry) and of winter (they never know what it has in store for them) incites them to shield themselves with such fortifications.
Man builds houses because he’s wary of his neighbors. This wariness costs the earth tons of wood, cement, and asphalt, to say nothing of the electricity cities are forever siphoning. Man can’t resign himself to live among his peers without raising walls between him and them. He needs to protect himself from their gaze, from their thoughts, from their schemes.
Dams are a symbol of our shaky faith in the world. They are the means by which men and beavers put a halt to life’s course when circumstances make them fear what’s to come. And so they strain to subdue nature, wishing to provide their own with refuge and food, or reserves of water and power.
Unfortunately, the earth doesn’t appear to be made to house so many dams. Since there will never be enough trees for all the beavers and walls will keep multiplying, we might very well be running the risk of suffocating from lack of air or freedom. Everyone knows it: forests would stand taller if beavers were less distrustful, and we would feel less tight if humans pulled down the walls they raised.
Of course, seeing wiped-out forests and a suffocating world makes us sad, but we cannot renounce our dams. Even if we decided to fight our instincts for more expansive horizons and wider rivers, a question would still remain: on what could we grind down our teeth to make sure they don’t keep growing and growing forever?
Translated from the Arabic to the French by Emmanuel Varlet. Translated from the French by Janet Lee.
On bad days, I picture the novel as a little skateboard, the most useless and energy-consuming means of transportation, the smallest room you can get: you can hardly do anything but stand on it and, from time to time, hit the ground with it. On good days, I picture it as the hammock of an anthropologist lost in the Amazon rain forest and sufficiently far away from his notes to invent a complete new cosmology.
Traditional anthropologists need the docile sway of primitive societies. Novelists prefer to place their stories in the midst of the fractures, multiple planes, and uncertain convergence lines of industrial societies—ideally, the urban landscape itself will serve as the plot.
Anthropologists and novelists deal with ontology: they establish what the conflicting forces are and decide on the fitment of the world. Nothing heroic here, it’s the basic task of the human mind. The main thing is to separate ontology from the noise that is added to it—ontology is extremely adhesive. The anthropologist’s technique consists in going to the farthest possible places to study ontologies, if they exist, that are still slightly native, not yet hybrids. The novelist’s technique consists in nursing his writing, in order to play with his own mental plasticity and ability to freely cut out reality, over and over again.
The structuralist anthropologist Philippe Descola came back from the Achuars’ country with a complete catalog of ontologies, each corresponding precisely to an instinctive way of cutting out reality in order to make it legible. These ontologies look at how we articulate the inner nature of our minds with the sensitive world.
On bad days, I picture the novel as a little skateboard, the most useless and energy-consuming means of transportation.
Rather than the nature-culture dualism, which novelists have never succeeded in taking seriously, he proposes four main types of ontologies that define the whole spectrum of reality’s possible cut-outs—a spectrum that novelists may have always traveled along, thus taking part in structural anthropology without knowing it and escaping, once in a while, when they write, the dominant social determinants.
For naturalists, beings have distinct inner natures—not all of them conscious—but they inherently share the same physics, they are profoundly alike. That’s the behaviorist charm of old thrillers or of the nouveau roman.
For animists, inner natures are all the same: things and human beings, if their physical appearances differ, have nonetheless equal intentions. Generalized free indirect speech, understood almost as an ironic form of naturalism, is animistic in essence.
In a totemic regime, inner natures and physical attributes are the same, the human and the non-human intermingle, things become inexplicably fantastic, like in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where Gregor’s transformation is too obvious to be allegorical.
Finally, in an analogical regime, everything is singular: metaphors, by default, prevail—the only valid cognitive tools.
Translated from the French by Maria Betances.
As a child, I was a vandal: I enjoyed destroying the things around me for no reason. This inclination expired on the threshold of puberty, the day I was taken to the police station for throwing rocks and shattering the stained-glass windows of a church. I had done enough.
In adulthood, this vandalism reappeared in my writing: words like rocks being thrown, but rocks whose preferred target would be none other than the person throwing them. Rocks being thrown like boomerangs. If the act of writing had to be represented by a myth, it would be the story of an author who, when writing, sacrifices a piece of her body with each word she uses, until she falls ill and withers away. The act of writing [is] like a magic skin [une peau de chagrin], inexorably shrinking in preparation for the painful birth of an ink and paper being.
I would love, though, with all my heart, all my body, to engage in a calm form of writing, a joyful writing, one that would convey happiness. What is keeping me from achieving this, besides my lack of inspiration, the shortcomings of my talent, the flaws from the child I used to be? Sometimes I absolve myself by saying that it is because of the vandalism of the world itself, a world that resembles more and more “an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.”
Another myth, this one well rooted in our imagination, says that Jacob wrestled and fought all night with an angel until he received the desired blessing from him. I like to think that my situation as a writer is not really so different from that of Jacob, and that, were we in a world that was no longer an oasis of horror, I could use my blows to obtain the necessary blessing to write a book of joy. While I wait for this world to emerge, I continue my fight with words, still a vandal, but perhaps the blessing will come before the end of the night.
Translated from the French by Grace McQuillan.
To have to choose from among 50 thousand Chinese characters one keyword that encapsulates my literary work and my life as a writer may seem daunting. But as soon as I attempt to do so, one character immediately comes to mind: “kong.” This single character encompasses a multitude of meanings, including: empty, nothingness, spacious, hollow, desolate, deserted, vacant, vacuum, void, illusory, sky. It is a word that is simultaneously philosophical and mundane, temporal and spatial, and can describe feelings of both nihilistic despair and enlightened bliss.
One of the reasons this word came to mind so quickly is probably because the title of my first book, which changed my life forever, was “Stick Out Your Tongue; or, Absolute Void.” It was written in 1987, after I returned from a three-year journey through the remote regions of China and Tibet. Independent travel was illegal at the time, and for most of the three years I felt more like a fugitive than a traveler. I roamed the country with empty pockets, yearning to empty my mind of the lies, propaganda, and political jargon that had overwhelmed me in Beijing. I was also a Buddhist, so the final stage of my journey to Tibet was in part a religious pilgrimage. However, when I finally reached Lhasa, instead of experiencing the revelation I hoped for, I suffered a complete loss of faith. The “absolute void” (“kongkongdangdang”) in the title of the book I wrote on my return refers to my feelings of spiritual emptiness. Every story in the book is imbued with this feeling, and the quest for individualism that follows on from it.
Perhaps it is the fate of every artist to feel like an outsider in their own country.
Any espousal of individualism terrifies the Chinese government. Days after the book’s publication, the authorities condemned it as a “nihilistic, obscene work of Bourgeois Liberalism.” They confiscated and destroyed every copy, and placed a ban on all future publications of my work. The hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party were back in force and wanted to tighten ideological control over the arts and drive out what they viewed as corrupting, Western ideas. Ever since then, my name and words have been erased from the Chinese mainland, and for the last three years I have been denied the right to return. Disconnected from my home and homeland, my understanding of emptiness has inevitably deepened.
Although emptiness is associated, particularly in the West, with existential despair, in the East it describes the state of mind achieved during Buddhist and Daoist enlightenment. In Tibet it dawned on me that religions can oppress the individual as much as the political dictatorship I was trying to escape, and so I renounced my faith in any omnipotent God. But the spiritual emptiness I was left with filled me ultimately not with despair but with a sense of liberation. From then on I knew that to find meaning in this world I would have to look inward, and at the lives of the people around me. And although I distanced myself from gods and religion, my fear of, and desire for, emptiness have remained with me.
Perhaps it is the fate of every artist to feel like an outsider in their own country. Now that my exile has become a state-enforced reality, I sometimes feel like one of T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men, marooned on the shores of a “tumid river,” yearning to cross to the other side. This sense of dislocation and emptiness can be beneficial to a writer, though. I too often feel: “The eyes are not here / There are no eyes here.” But since my tongue was metaphorically severed in 1987, I have grown accustomed to closing my eyes and looking inward.
The Chinese character for emptiness is composed of the semantic radical “xue,” meaning cave or hole, and the phonetic radical “gong,” meaning to work. As such, it seems an appropriate word to describe the act of writing, which to me often feels like toiling alone in a dark cave. Every day before I begin to write, I have to clear my desk, disconnect myself from reality, and render my mind a “kongbai”—an “empty whiteness.” Only then can I begin to face the emptiness of the blank page. Emptiness—in my surroundings, in my mind, and on the page before me—is the starting point for every story that I write.
Moreover, as soon as I begin to put pen to paper, I need to construct a “kongjian”: an empty space in which to insert my characters, whether it be the shade of a tree in a dusty lane of Beijing, a deserted corridor of a public hospital, the snow-covered steps of a stone bridge. I work away at it all day in my empty study, filling one empty scene after another, only finishing when I feel drained of all thoughts. The next morning, I begin again, my blank mind facing a new blank page.
The Chinese character “kong” appeared in my novel Beijing Coma 265 times. When one character is combined with a second in Chinese, its meaning amplifies. So “kong” can become “kongqi”: air; “yekong”: night sky; “kongkuang”: expansive. My favorite two-character word in the book is “kongjing,” which means spacious quietude. It appears in the sentence: “There was an empty silence to the winter’s night—even the sound of the bicycles in the street behind seemed to disappear into the cement pipes.” A feeling of spaciousness and quiet is difficult to experience in today’s modern cities. But it is only during such moments of vacant solitude that it is possible to close one’s eyes and reflect on life. So much of our lives are a frenzied forward rush, consumed with making a living, raising a family, living for others. Empty quietude provides a private space in which we can look inward and backward, and attempt to make sense of our lives, even if such an attempt is as futile as drawing water with a bamboo basket.
it is only during moments of vacant solitude that it is possible to close one’s eyes and reflect on life.
Dai Wei, the protagonist of Beijing Coma, is a student who is shot by the army during the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and falls into a decade-long coma. While his contemporaries continue with their lives, blinded by money and political propaganda, Dai Wei’s coma cuts him off from the madness of the real world and gives him the empty time and space in which to think. By the end of the book, it is clear that although his body has slowly rotted away, he is more alive and enlightened than any of the “living corpses” walking through the streets of Beijing.
One of my favorite literary characters as a child was Monkey King from the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West. In Chinese his given name is Wukong, which means “awakening to emptiness.” I loved following this mischievous, violent, impetuous character on his long and arduous journey to enlightenment. I loved how the book explored deep philosophical questions about destiny and spiritual salvation in a playful, comical way.
My favorite line in the Qing Dynasty classic Dream of the Red Chamber also includes the two-character word “wukong.” The Daoist sage, Kongkong, or “Empty Emptiness,” copies out the book’s 120 chapters from a sacred stone and bestows it on the world. In so doing, “beginning from emptiness, he beheld beauty; from beauty, love was born; telling of love he entered into beauty; from beauty he understood emptiness.” This line taught me that all great fiction is about love and beauty, but begins and ends with emptiness.
In colloquial Chinese, “kong” can also refer to free time or free space. If someone asks if you have any “kong,” they are not asking whether you have awakened to emptiness, but whether you have any spare time to help them put up a shelf or go to the cinema, or whether there is a spare seat for them in your car.
Increasingly as I write these days, I am interested in the emptiness, both temporal and spatial, between clauses, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, just as much as the words that end up on the page. I am interested just as much in what is left unsaid, what is absent or implied, as what is explicitly stated. In my most recent novel, The Dark Road, the gap between some chapters was a matter of minutes, others were separated by 12 months. The empty spaces give the reader freedom to move through the novel in time and space, and to fill the gaps as they wish, with their own thoughts, memories, or interpretations.
When I write in my empty study, cut off from the world, engrossed in a private dialogue with my characters, I give little thought to who my readers might be or how they might react to the text. But once the books are published, I always hope that the words will give readers the same feeling of “kong”—expansiveness—that they gave me, and that in the empty spaces in the text the readers can become engrossed in their own private dialogues with the characters I have created, or, better still, with other characters that they know already or have created themselves.
(CHIEN[SPIRITUALITÉ DU CHIEN])
If dogs don’t know how to speak or write, it has nothing to do with spirituality. Even the least spiritual beings can write and speak, whereas illiterate mutes can be highly spiritual. So language has got nothing to do with it. Spirituality is not an idiom, but an attitude, and an attitude not too far from indifference, or even from a “fuck everything” attitude. Dogs are spiritual in a dog way; they know very well, for instance, how to act in a dog way. When asked to act like dogs, they do. If asked to act like apes, they don’t; but like dogs, yes. Whereas apes can act like both dogs and apes, dogs can act like dogs, not apes—because the most a dog can do is to act like a dog, or sometimes a good little doggie. Ninety-pound dogs that are nearly three feet tall can act like good little doggies to get a treat, they can “shake” and “sit,” and after that they all end up, sadly, being put to sleep. Just the same. No reason to believe that a dog shouldn’t have some minimal spirituality, in an uncertain, abstract form, and finally altogether useless—a dog way of laughing at everything and loving boundlessly. Or, take the horse, the donkey, the camel, all of man’s mounts; or even all of Creation, as it’s called in the Bible; the frog, for example. There’s spirituality there, seriously, in the frog’s song, in a pond in summer. So what is it exactly that bothers men, in the sense of humans? That “If Beasts had a spiritual soul, their soul would henceforth be immortal and free, and they would be capable of proving worthy or unworthy, deserving of reward and of punishment; they would need a Heaven and a Hell, and Beasts would henceforward be a kind of Man, or Men a kind of Beasts; either of which is untenable according to the principles of religion” (Amusement philosophique sur le langage des bestes [A Philosophical Amusement on the Language of Beasts], Guillaume Hyacinthe Bougeant, 1739)? Like this amusing Jesuit is basically saying: when it comes down to spirituality, man, at times, is a real ass.
Translated from the French by Mark Iosifescu.
The word “curiosity” comes from the Latin cura, cure, as in “curative.” Curiosity therefore is not a defect: just the opposite, in fact. A curious person takes care of the world. And the most serious illness of all is indifference.
Translated from the French by Alyson Waters.
Adj. Resembling both work and demeanor of certain fiction writers, most notoriously the cantankerous Lionel Shriver. Author does not play well with others. Insists on crafting characters who are unpleasant if not obnoxious, causing readers to object that protagonists are “unattractive.” Author selects perverse subjects about which no sane person would wish to read for leisure enjoyment—e.g., demography (please), failure (but we want ROLE MODELS!), economics (z-z-z-z), or the American healthcare system (you’ve got to be kidding). Though female, author adopted Lionel at age 15, yet claims to have “zero interest” in the Fifty Shades of Gender Identity currently available for self-classification on Facebook. Self-destructively, said novelist refuses to participate in “time suck” social media, so only knows about Facebook from frumpy old newspapers. Author can be scathing about literary festivals, dismissing such gatherings as “a big wank,” yet illogically continues to attend them, if only to enjoy finding them annoying. Belligerent authors are prone to react badly to assignments to select a “keyword” that summarizes their entire ooooooou-vre, often expressing dismay that the exercise feels pretentious and artificial. The belligerent author can be dangerous, and should be approached with caution. Synonyms: quarrelsome, uncooperative, truculent, difficult, ungrateful, pugnacious, unlikeable, grumpy, misanthropic, secretly-not-very-scary-really, and all-bark-and-no-bite.
An author who would be a pumapard, a cross between a puma and a leopard.
A novel that would be a zebonkey, an animal born to a zebra and a donkey.
A book that, on the surface of its life recording, would drop off fictional bubbles, worlds as enclosed as they are transparent—with elastic and supple membranes, bubbles born of a chemical encounter, which multiply, burst, and form again, housing strange, new shapes.
Literature like a dream of hybridization, like an organism born of a multitude of encounters between a variety of individuals, species, types, constitutions, materials. The author like a person of mixed race, a chimera, and, in the end, a monster.
I wish I were this monster, mutating with each book, morphing at the whim of her subjects and motifs; I wish I were the place and the object of these contaminations and these anomalies; I wish I could blend with butchers, cows, and bears, concrete, infra-sounds, and men. It is not only about being in someone else’s shoes, but about imagining, and sometimes furtively experimenting with, the dispossession of the self—not in the sense of forgetting or getting rid of oneself, but in the sense of multiplying and distorting one’s self. The monster as a rephrasing of one’s existence.
Writing to be at least + 1, one’s self + an omen—good or bad—experiencing distance and fusion at the same time. To write a book that would be the offspring of a coupling between the author and all the other realities her sentences give life to, between a body and its textual obsession. It is a fantasy, an attempt, and a project.
Translated from the French by Carrina LaCorata.
I read obituaries. I love to read about people who were notable for one thing—say, the woman who appears in a famous photo at Kent State. I am drawn to what people think of as failures: the guy who backed the wrong videotape format or the guy who lost an election after a tweet. I like to read about people whose lives took dramatic turns, like the guy who spent most of his life running an ice cream shop in New Jersey but secretly had a past life as a war criminal. I am fascinated by secret lives or multiplex identities. I imagine the day-to-day ordinary life, what it feels like over time. I wonder about consequences, guilt, and redemption. I wonder how your past shapes who you are. And I wonder about the life that takes shape around an event. How a fleeting moment can change you, or maybe not. Maybe you are you no matter what.
All people have deep contradictions, profound complexity, in them. I try not to judge but to discover.
As I write into a character, I start to interrogate the things that press on a life. So much of who we are, all of us, is shaped by things external to us: economics, language, nationality, technology, historical events, received ideas of gender and race. I imagine the solitary moments when we regard ourselves, the way our own internal narratives evolve and distort and accommodate. I see identity, in all its fragility, as a lens to view the wider culture. The current fear and rage, the income disparity, the velocity and fragmentation of the Internet. Mostly it leads to questions. If spending time online changes us, how exactly does it change us? I try to be precise. I try to push on something until it reveals its complexity, its contradictions. All people have deep contradictions, profound complexity, in them. I try not to judge but to discover. I think about the multiple worlds we all inhabit, and how fiction is a place where we can encounter other people in a deep way.
Two of my favorite authors, Jane Austen and George Eliot, are very concerned with characters’ moral lives. In The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., I look closely at how Nathaniel P. justifies his behavior to himself. Today, books or films about romantic relationships, or dating, are often seen as very light—mere amusements and escapes—but this is the area in life where most of us will reveal how we treat others: how kind we are to those we don’t (or no longer) love and how we respond when differences arise with those we do love. I wanted to write a book about relationships that was truthful without being escapist, and I wanted to look closely at how dating behavior reflects morality in the deepest sense. People respond very differently to the character of Nathaniel P.—some people think he is a terrible person, while others think he is just a guy who hasn’t yet met “the one”—and to a large extent I think that reflects different ideas as to morality. I wanted people to think about whether Nathaniel P. is cruel to Hannah and, if so, to see in his treatment of her behaviors that are far from exceptional but are rather very ordinary and familiar, that remind us of ways in which we’ve behaved to others or experienced at others’ hands. In this, I hope the book will make people reflect on themselves.