Innovationen und Reproduktionen in Kulturen und Gesellschaften (IRICS) Wien, 9. bis 11. Dezember 2005

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Crossing the Divide: the Lines of Cross-Cultural Narrative

David Clark ( Montreal, Canada)


One of innovative tendencies of rethinking the images of Central Asia in western literature is 'digging deeper' in realising psychological specifics of the diversity of cultures of that 'unknown land'. While writing a series of essays on my experiences in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, I found myself researching that tendency having to confront the dilemma of importing the east to the west, as it were.

The essays were to have been a collection of impressions, reflections, and advice for fellow travellers. And therein lies the paradox: any attempt to map the east on the page (to sieve through and filter the 'eastern experience' for narrative purposes) run into difficulties. These difficulties are not linguistic, racial, religious, or even cultural - all for the very good reason that any writer of talent has the capacity for absolute empathy. Simply put, the difficulty lies in the different ways in which the east and west perceive their respective histories and philosophies. This way of perceiving transcends linguistic, racial, religious, and cultural differences; it fits tighter than skin.

So when a westerner sets out to create a narrative about the east, there's usually a bit of trouble. It's like thinking in three dimensions, but writing in eight.

Thus, having arrived in Tajikistan, I found I was not really in a position to give advice about living there. All forms of narrative tended to veer off-course. And make no mistake about it, advice is a form of narrative. What you're really saying when you start a sentence with "I think you should..." is "let me tell you what I did in similar circumstances -" and whether those circumstances are real or not is beside the point. It's the most common form of oral storytelling, and just about the only one left to us.

Of course, there are other problems facing the writer in Dushanbe. It's an unmapped city, for starters, and writing without maps is a perilous enterprise at best. If a tree falls in the city and there's no consensus on its location, then it doesn't really matter where you're listening from, does it? Add to this the colossal amount of narrative magnetism on the old Silk Road, and you have a recipe for disaster.

To take a superficial example: there's so much history in Dushanbe that one thinks nothing of airily tossing off a reference to a great-great-grandfather. In the west, however, you usually have to go digging for your information. You have to consult registers, whatever those are, and visit graveyards, and hunt up old microfiches at the library. No oral tradition is what I'm trying to say. Even if there were, westerners have an innate prejudice against listening to their elders (now there's a word that's become unfashionable) anyway. It goes against the individualist grain.

All this is to say that the linear narrative form went missing in action while I wrote these essays. The fundamental question is: why?

There are certainly any numbers of Central Asian artists who have brought the Central Asian experience to light through what we might call traditional western narrative. Two of the more astonishing examples include Backstay Khudojnazarov's film 'Luna Papa', and Khaled Hosseini's 'The Kite Runner' (the Observer called this " the first novel to fictionalize the Afghan culture for a Western readership .") Both draw upon the use of magic (or divine justice, which is essentially the same thing) in order to resolve key plot lines. This is the line of thinking I pursue: that in order to fashion the mirror in which eastern culture appears to the west, it is necessary to suspend the ordinary laws of three-dimensional physics, and to embrace the uncertain laws of multidimensional worlds.

I intend to examine the question from the perspective of an analysis of methods of understanding narrative, history, and philosophy. Aristotle and Avicenna/Ibn Sino are key threads in this tapestry, as well as Stalin, the Shahnameh, and the Shashmaqam.

Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies
(IRICS) Vienna, 9 - 11 december 2005

WEBDESIGN: Peter R. Horn 2005-11-08