The Truth About JLF: Gap Year Week 27

Everything they say about the Jaipur Literature Festival is true. It’s crowded, sticky with people with minimal interest in books. Many speakers are hit-and-miss. And it’s the greatest literary show on earth.

I will admit I didn’t have a lot to compare it with. My lit fest experience was confined to cherry-picking speakers from the Singapore Writers Festival every year, and those are largely paid events. But JLF is entirely free (unless you forget, like I did, to register beforehand) and concentrates everything into five days of words on the ground of Diggi Palace. And that made all the difference.

JLF was the last leg of my India trip: I had been looking forward to joining my cousin and her friend there for months now. It was the only of hundreds of plans made together than have come to actual fruition, and I was still pinching myself as I flew from north from Vizag. In my luggage were three books I’ve been carrying with me from Bangalore; my cousin had brought fifteen more with us, all bought in one intense bookstore trip in January. We were prepared.

But what I wasn’t prepared for was arriving in the swarm of people and sitting down and hearing Colson Whitehead talk about his 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner The Underground Railroad. I’d read the book a few weeks earlier, not expecting the violent intimacy with Cora’s story the book brought. The tension strung out through the pages sharp as a dog’s teeth. Whitehead talked about how he had navigated through America in the story—how the railroad connected different towns but also different states of American possibilities. How nothing fit quite right. How hope always rises over the far horizon.

And as soon as that ended, Andrew Sean Greer and Anita Nair walked on the stage to talk about writing about writing—the 2018 Pulitzer and the Hindu Literary Prize winner respectively—discussing the relationship between sex and samosas and the luxurious self-indulgence of their work with humor and style and phenomenal hair. Then the next morning Jerry Pinto showing us how to laugh about your family, and then Markus Zusak talking about miracles, and then, and then, and then…

I’d read as much as I could to prepare. But reading, as writing, is solitary; it’s you and the words and the pages. Yet in the festival, reading had induced sociality: we were surrounded by thousands who had read, or would read, the same books, and faced the person the journeys we had all followed had brought us in intimate contact with. Where reading leaves all humanity to our imaginations, suddenly, there were people in the picture—sometimes too many of them.

And when there are people, it’s not just the book any more: it’s the things around it and under it and behind it. And when contextualized, a book becomes nothing more—or, rather, nothing less—than a way to say, I have a story to tell, and this story is important. Over the four days, session titles and speakers varied, but that’s what held true. I want to tell you a story I believe in. Over and over, authors affirmed the necessity of fiction: a self-preservationist argument, to be sure, but also, they argued, a more widely preservationist one. “Before we are, we dream,” said Yann Martel.

We spent a lot of time in signing lines during the festival. With the three of us, we developed complex systems for avoiding the maximum crowd and getting to the next session in time: the departure fifteen minutes early, watching the Q and A on the screens outside, navigating the fastest path to the bookstore to pick up the book we inevitably forgot to buy earlier. I was disdainful about signings before the fest—I mean, what did a scribble in front of a book really mean?

But there was something profoundly exciting about standing with your book clutched to your chest, listening to the conversations around you. Some lines got long and painful: Markus Zusak had a crowd that stretched three times around the building and ended up having four separate queues directed at the same person. Others we timed perfectly enough to be just at the front when the author arrived. Either way, I couldn’t deny a buzz of excitement whenever we reached the table. It meant more than I expected to stand face to face with the person who’d written the words—to physically exchange the book with them as a way of saying thank you, keep writing: this is important to me. We’d walk away afterwards, and open up the book to the page, tracing their name with our fingers. Behind us, one more person held the book out, and after them stood another, and another, and another. Sure, maybe some people were there because of brag or, far more importantly, selfie value. But nevertheless, the fact of devoting time to the effort was proof that the reader and writer wanted a trust together in those words and their power. This mattered enough to make a mark.

To share that fervent belief in the imaginary, in dreaming, in words, in what we can make up and what we can make true, was exhilarating. I want to be a scientist, which means practicality and objectivity—doing things for an expected result. In contrast, fiction feels self-indulgent—escapist fantasies that contribute nothing intellectually, dabbling in half-truths. But reading fiction is a reflection of the parts of ourselves and the world around we can’t see through a microscope. Its benefits accrue not in the solid facts and reasoning of non-fiction, but rather in sharp tugs at our hearts days, years, decades after.

Fiction anchors us in shared understanding. It tells us we are all human, and gives us something we can pass between us, hold in our palms like a rosary, and affirm that what we cannot see is important, too: love and anger and joy and all the rest. In several sessions authors discussed mythic structures that kept cropping up again and again in their work. But as academic as that discussion can become, they meant nothing more than the story that arches over and cradles us all in common delusion, blind faith, that, in the end, it all turns out all right.

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