Yesterday at a literary panel about Southeast Asian writing appealing to the world, a woman stood up in the audience and said oh well you know you need to listen to what us readers want and if we don’t want to read this because we don’t like it and it is not entertaining to us then we just DONT. And she was shouting and her hand was on the back of my chair and there was some spit that had landed on my lap and I stared at it for too Long and the moment to turn and address her had passed, and anyway, her comment was not aimed at me it was aimed at the panel.
This woman was old (are we still allowed to say that? Or is that now non-inclusive?) and so one might feel compelled to kind of brush it off or not expect her to change her views while at the same time holding on to the knowledge that she would be full of rage about having been dismissed so easily. Before the panel started, earlier in the evening, I overheard her and her friend talking loudly behind me about “books nowadays being too long, just read a bit from the middle and then go to the end and you’ll know if it’s good. Plus now that (she) teaches in school (she) feels like (she) needs to know what the book is, you know, about”. And when she later stood up and addressed the panel this was something she said again: that she bought but didn’t read books, and she said this with something like a sense of pride. This was very strange to me, both the incomprehensible choice to bring that kind of attitude to a literary festival and also the fact that Teachers like that exist. I hope she doesn’t teach English or literature but life doesn’t always follow your hopes. She spoke like someone highly educated and proud of it, and more likely than not she lectures in a higher degree institution somewhere. Or something. And in that vein this is what I wanted to say to her, that I did not, because I was staring at the spit on my lap. That literature is art and art does not exist to follow your desires.
Of course you can choose to only read what appeals to you. It’s your life and your privilege and your eyes and certainly your brain. Nobody is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to try and understand postcolonial literature or infinite jest. One may subsist his/her whole life on a diet of dan brown, and while it is something I personally disagree with, I have to still say that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that. Why? Because it’s your life. But when you stand up in a panel to shout (lets face it that was what she was doing, shouting) this at three very accomplished very hardworking very serious novelists then it becomes a problem because 1. You have started a dialogue which must be then receptive to response and 2. You are being rude.
So since a dialogue, shouty or not, has been started, here is a response. You may of course live your life wrapped in the comfort of easy reads that serve to reassure you and your way of life and hold books that you nod at sagely every few lines, thinking, mm, this book gets me, gets my life, is so good and worthy, etcetera etcetera. But art is not here existing to validate your world view. It is here to unsettle you and poke holes in your brain and make you very very uncomfortable. And in that extreme discomfort it might hopefully help you recognise your privilege and understand what other people and communities go through, and help you understand how to care, and how to empathise in a way that is not burdensome to the people on the receiving end of your empathy. I do not have it figured out. I struggle with understanding/ synthesising both the complications of my status as a woman and my privilege as a young chinese able bodied woman in Singapore. I stumble around looking for the right words when trying to articulate my thoughts to and about these things. But I am trying. And I can say that I probably know to try because of the books I have been very fortunate to have been recommended, or given, or that have somehow fallen like blessings into my lap. Learning to embrace this discomfort while putting your pride aside and understanding that it is not always about you is a good and essential life skill when approaching the arts. And this is my view which I do not forcibly foster upon you or shout about in public panels and certainly not shout until my spit lands on the lap of some poor girl who just happens to be within firing distance. But if you want comfort, you should get a blanket.