Friday, September 5, 2008

Irakli Kakabadze, and writing as politics

And speaking of the former Soviet republics, I got the chance today to talk with Irakli Kakabadze, Georgian novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer and (yes!) spoken word artist, as part of the Writers At Cornell podcast. Irakli is living in Ithaca as part of the Ithaca City of Asylum project, which offers residencies to writers forced to leave their home countries. Last year's writer, Sarah Mkhonza, was the subject of one of my podcasts back in May.

These writers have made me rethink my resistance to the idea that all writing--all art, for that matter--is political. Obviously, there is no truly good argument that it isn't--indeed, as Irakli points out in our interview (that's a direct link to the 26MB mp3 download), all living is political. But I've always found it expedient to place an arbitrary wall between art and politics. My conception of art as a "pure" form of expression, something that should exist exclusively for its own sake, without contamination by more immediate or practical concerns, would never have been able to endure any kind of rational analysis, but it was convenient--it made writing feel, to me, like a private zone, a safe space.

I suppose I knew pretty soon after September 11th, though, that the wall was crumbling. By around 2004, when I started writing Happyland, my novel-in-serial, I began to find it impossible to push away my political anxieties while I worked, and so I re-fashioned that novel, previously drafted as a Garrison-Keilloresque feel-good comedy, into a quasi-allegory of Rovian politics. It wasn't quite good enough, though, to bring these parts of my life together. The new novel goes a little farther; its politics are a bit less disguised, though I don't think it reads like a tract.

But I'm not sure if I'm ever going to unify these parts of myself. In an ideal society, perhaps, politics would never be separate from daily life, a thing to engage or deny. They would be inalienable, obligatory, and benevolent. And maybe what we have in the US is as close as it's possible for a large, wealthy country to achieve. Even in the best of times, though, there is friction between the personal and the political--the two are inseparable and bitterly opposed. Maybe some good art can come from the heat of that fault line. But wow, it's tough to make that work.

In any event, mixing art and politics is part of what forced Irakli to flee Georgia, which makes him something of a badass. You should listen to the interview--not my half, which is even more bumbling than usual, but his. It's shocking to find somebody so cheerful and enthusiastic in the face of gargantuan and terrifying world events--he's somebody who believes very strongly in the power of art to change societies. It's refreshing to find anyone within these borders who does.


E. said...

In my own struggles to birth a novel, I continuously get hitched up between the necessity to write specifics particular to a narrowly defined world, and the urge to "make it something more" -- to be certain that what I'm doing is relevant to anyone outside my own head; meaningful beyond my own small effort. That's where my tension lies as I'm writing, anyway, and after reading your post, I now see it's that "friction between the personal and the political" that I struggle with (against?) as I draft this darn thing. Whether it will resonate artfully in the finished work remains to be seen.

As always, illuminating comments from you, JRL.

jrlennon said...

Thanks Elizabeth...yeah, I increasingly feel as though no work of art is a private act. Maybe it's because I'm always blabbing about it on the internet...;-)

gcm said...

Just a general question: Have recent politics been distracting anyone from tackling their daily regimen?

Personally, I've gotten very little done over the past few weeks. Think it's anxiety over this damn election.

rmellis said...

My internet vacation went out the window this week. It's been horrible.

Random people have been coming into the bookstore and asking me, just because I'm standing there: "What do you think's going to happen when McCain dies and that bimbo's in charge??"

I just tell them he's not going to win.

They say, "That's what they said about W."

jrlennon said...

I've been on edge ever since the Repub VP thing. I've got a backache a lot of the time and I'm sweating more. And of course not writing a thing.

I even gave up reading blogs. The anxiety is IN THE ETHER.

E. said...

Hah! Anxiety is right. I started a bloggy kind of journal a few weeks ago to work out some personal anxieties so they wouldn't keep creeping into my fiction. So far, the longest, most passionate diatribes are about the freaking race/lies/hypocrisies. Turns out Mayor McCheese makes me jumpier than cancer!

gcm said...

Let's look on the bright side: if McCain wins, we may see the dawning of a new era in American expatriate literature.

(In addition to being the last world-class city where the dollar has any real purchasing power, I hear Buenos Aires is amazing.)