Can Literature Trump Culture?

My initial years as a TCK were not kind to me. In retrospect, I wonder why my parents hadn’t given me a big fat disclaimer on my first day of school. Warning: shit is going to hit the fan.

I was probably the only foreign-born kid in primary school and definitely the only kid who had lived his entire life overseas. To top it off, I wasn’t a vanilla emigrant. I wasn’t Italian, Greek, Macedonian, Vietnamese, or another such nationality that had been migrating to Australia for a few decades, familiar enough to the average Australian to not raise eyebrows or turn heads. The questions didn’t stop: Where are you from? Why are you here? Why do you look funny? Why do you speak funny? It wasn’t the fault of these kids, they didn’t know better. In fact, they didn’t know at all, so they just said what came to their minds.

The years passed, and even though I acclimatised myself to Australia, I kept going back to those early years and asking myself — would I have done the same if the shoe was on the other foot? Would I have picked up the lowest common denominator and just asked them why they are the way they are? Or would I have had the wisdom and temperament to ask questions — questions that drew someone closer, rather than pushed them away. This troubled me greatly, and I yearned for an avenue to give justice to the situation.

One day my mother passed me a book. I wasn’t much of a reader at the time, but I reluctantly humored myself. It was called ‘The Harafish’ and written by the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988). In short, it tells the story of the tumultuous generational rise and fall of the al-Nagi family, whose members struggle to recover their family honor and live up to their glorious past. I picked up the book and only put it down once I completed it. The story transported me to another time and place and gave me potent visuals that have stayed with me to this day. That was when my love affair with literature started.

I ferociously went through books by writers from all over the globe. After ‘The Harafish,’ every book I read from a foreign culture, I read more attentively. I concentrated on the descriptions, utilised visual imagery and juxtaposed what little I knew about the culture to begin with with the world that I had just been let into and continued to redefine what I thought I knew.

Still, at that point, I didn’t have my answer to the initial question — what if the shoe was on the other foot?

In the first year of my master’s degree, I walked into a new class. There was a group of international students from Mexico sitting away from the locals. One could sense the unease in the air. The class ended and on the way out, I spontaneously asked one of the Mexicans “[Gabriel Garcia] Marquez is Colombian, but he lives in Mexico City, right?” Her eyes lit up. Over the course of the semester, we spoke for hours about authors, books, genres, plots, sub-plots, protagonists and antagonists. She introduced me to Carlos Fuentes (his book ‘Happy Families’ is one of my all-time favourites), and I told her about Muhammad Hanif and Aravinda Adiga, who I believe are some of the best authors the subcontinent has to offer. I now live in Karachi, and she lives in Mexico City, but we exchange books in the mail religiously. That’s our cross-cultural bond and the unwritten rule of our friendship.

From then on, whenever I meet someone from a foreign culture, I try to use literature as my binding tool. With friends from Japan, I have Haruki Murakami; with Nigerians, I have Chinua Achebe; with the Turkish, I have Orhan Pamuk; and with Chileans, I have Isabel Allende. The list goes on.

More often than not, the discussion on literature turns their unease into comfort. At that point, I know I have done what little I can to make them feel that they aren’t as alien as they think they are. Because I have been transported into their worlds through their authors, even if temporarily, I understand and appreciate the beauty of their culture, and make that the basis on which I want to know more. That’s the power of literature, especially for a TCK.