An International Debate on Literature Today and Tomorrow

UNESCO Courier, April 1995 | Go to article overview
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An International Debate on Literature Today and Tomorrow

Between 1988 and 1994, UNESCO and PEN International organized a series of symposia on the theme of literary creation on the eve of the third millennium. At the meetings, held within the framework of the Decade for Cultural Development, writers from South America, Africa, Asia and the Arab world discussed the main aspects of creative writing in their respective regions today.


A meeting on "The dynamic role of the Latin American and Caribbean literatures in world literature", held in Brasilia from 18 to 21 April 1988, was attended by several hundred writers and intellectuals from sixteen countries in the region.

The participants were particularly struck by the way in which urban themes have taken the place of rural subjects. Rampant urbanization has brought a change of perspective and sensibility to the Latin American novel. Instead of the compassionate but distant treatment of indigenous people found in the socially committed "peasant novel", the "urban novel" presents a picture of the indigenous condition viewed from within. The description of the urban landscape, or rather its recreation in a work of literature, is one of the triumphs of this genre.

However, Nature is intensely present and lends itself to symbolization of such luxuriance that European languages collapse under the strain. Some people have even wondered whether they should not be regarded as dead languages. But this would be a mistake because Latin American writers enrich these languages and adapt them to their world by drawing on oral and dialect sources. Thus their works are receptive to indigenous myths and the indigenous imagination, which reach the contemporary world via the written word.

Life in the New World, as depicted in Latin American novels, appears fantastic to readers of other continents, and French critics have coined the term "magic realism" to describe this kind of fiction. The writers themselves seem to prefer the adjective baroque, which describes more accurately the social and cultural disparities they deal with. Caught between Utopia and History, a prey to parody and dizzying absurdity, the protagonist of the Latin American novel bears within him a notion of identity rooted in anguish and division, where the dream of the Indian meets, contradicts, opposes - or espouses - the dream of the immigrant.


Four years later, a meeting held in Harare (Zimbabwe) from 10 to 13 February 1992 was the occasion for a discussion of similar themes in African literature: the force of myth and Nature, a sensibility dominated by the supernatural, and the problem of vehicular languages inherited from colonialism.

A Western language, because it is so widely spoken, gives writers access to the contemporary world and an opportunity to reach a wider audience. On the other hand, it distances them from the vernacular reader and still bears the imprint of the colonial past. As for national languages, they have proved intractable vehicles for expressing modern attitudes and remain a prisoner of the tradition whose myths they perpetuate. Caught between the two, new African societies find themselves deprived of a means of expression; their literature abounds in fictional heroes too far removed from reality.

The transition from a culture of oral tradition to a culture of the written word has given rise to a number of serious problems. But it also bears the seed of a new literature in which, once the traces of the colonial past have been identified, modern social values can finally be integrated and expressed.

The discussions constantly returned to the subject of the writer's commitment and to committed literature. If writers should observe and express social conflicts, they should also be able to communicate the message of progress without sacrificing the aesthetic quality of their work.

In their conclusions, the participants expressed their satisfaction over the place won for itself by African literature, which has asserted its own identity, linked especially to oral tradition, within English, French and Portuguese literatures, whose languages it borrows.

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An International Debate on Literature Today and Tomorrow


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