Writers of India Festival: A Conversation Between Vishakha Desai and Paul LeClerc

September 05, 2014

Vishakha Desai is Special Advisor for Global Affairs to the President, Lee C. Bollinger; Professor of Practice, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University; and Special Advisor for Asia to the Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development Safwan M. Masri.
Paul LeClerc is Director of Columbia Global Centers | Europe (Paris) and President Emeritus of The New York Public Library.


By Vishakha Desai

One of the key features of globalization today is the undisputed economic rise of major countries of Asia, especially China and India. It is commonly asserted that in the next two decades, 50 percent of world’s gross domestic product will come from these two millennial giants alone, and of course, almost 50 percent of the world’s population will reside in these two countries. With the recent election of a new prime minister who has promised greater economic prosperity, all eyes are on India again, with the hope of actualizing its commercial growth potential.

India’s might in the literary arena is now a well-recognized phenomenon. Writers of Indian origin, living at home or in the diaspora, have made an indelible mark in the global cultural landscape, wining prestigious prizes and making their voices heard on subjects as diverse as feminism and communal conflicts. Perhaps more significantly, they also give voice to the conditions of globality—a perennial sense of longing for belonging, a perpetual feeling of liminality, a desire to build new communities in adopted lands, or reflecting on the loss that comes from the unprecedented pace of changes caused by globalization.

Writers, and indeed, artists in general, play a unique role in articulating a deeper understanding of the global condition that is part of our 21st-century reality. As late Arthur Danto, the great Columbia professor once remarked, artists know no boundaries. They adopt and adapt sources that may grow like weeds in the corners of pavements of the world and make them their own. Their creations have a special distinction of being able to transcend national and cultural borders, affecting all those who experience it, and at the same time represent a particular local or personal ethos. They create works that simultaneously resonate globally and express local nuances. And yet, when it comes to current discussions around globalization, arts are often sidelined by the focus on geo-economic and geo-political issues.

The festival of Indian Writers at the Paris Center is an important part of the university’s global agenda, precisely because it articulates the role of creative arts in our ever-increasing inter-connected world. Under President Lee Bollinger’s visionary leadership, Columbia has embarked on a unique path to globalizing the university. Rather than defining the global agenda entirely in geographic terms—being in the world—there is an increasing awareness of and commitment to articulating the underlying principle of globality in relational terms—understanding one’s place in and responsibility to the world. This, more nuanced approach to making the research, teaching, and public dimensions of the university more global, necessitates not only a physical presence of the university in different parts of the world but also new forms of research and pedagogy that is at once trans-national and interdisciplinary. Columbia has several initiatives supported by the eight global centers that enhance the global agenda of the university. They range from finding solutions to major global challenges such as environment and income inequality to studying the issues of freedom of expression from a global perspective. Along with the teaching initiatives such as the development of a global core curriculum, the new Presidential Global Fellows Program and the undergraduate students’ involvement in the Global Scholars Program, focus on increasing the students’ awareness of and engagement in global developments and issues.

The forthcoming Writers of India Festival is one of the few initiatives at Columbia that uses the prism of the arts to shed light on the global condition. It is often felt that in most discussions around globalization, arts and humanities often get left out. And yet, it’s the arts and humanities that create a more nuanced understanding of the world we live in, raising questions of displacement, articulating a sense of fluid identities, and giving voice to soaring imagination beyond nationhood.

The Writers of India Festival is the creation of Paul LeClerc, the Director of the Paris Center and President Emeritus of The New York Public Library, and follows upon an immensely successful World Writers’ Festival that he created in Paris last year. In both the Bibliothèque nationale de France has been Columbia’s partner.

I recently sat down with Paul to discuss the goals of the festival and its relationship to Columbia’s global efforts:


VND: We often think of India today in the context of its economic potential as a rising global power, but through this festival of Indian writers, you are articulating another kind of global power that India possesses. Can you tell us about your selection of India as a focus for this second writers' festival at the Paris Center?

PL: India now considers itself, justifiably, as a literary superpower. In the Anglophone world, hardly a week seems to go by when one isn't reading the review of brilliant debut novel by yet another Indian writer.

Nor is one ever surprised to see Indian writers, seemingly inevitably, on the short list for the Man Booker Prize. I think any serious reader of world fiction today could easily tick off, instantly, the names of about a dozen contemporary Indian writers. But I'm not sure that the same phenomenon would apply to writers from many—perhaps most—other countries.

In short, I think that the extraordinary quality and quantity of Indian fiction today is one of the most remarkable events in contemporary literary culture.

And so, as a global center whose purpose is to facilitate the engagement of Columbia students, faculty, alumni, and local audiences in multiple aspects of an increasingly interconnected world, what we do at the Paris Center is bring the vibrant culture of another part of the world where Columbia has a presence—in this case Mumbai—to our Center, to its varied publics, and especially to the many Columbia and Barnard students who are at the Center this fall.


VND: I realize that there are many talented writers in India and in the diaspora, but you have developed a very varied group of writers, including those who write in the country's many regional languages. And you have chosen writers who focus on fiction as well as non-fiction, along with some poets. Some have been trained in the West, including at Columbia University, where as others are primarily local products. Some, such as Kiran Desai, are international stars, whereas others, especially those writing in Hindi or Bengali, have more of a local and a diasporic audience. Can you tell us about the selection process of the writers and their relationship to your interest in exploring the theme of globalization in the festival?

PL: It's important to note that the World Writers' Festival we created in Paris last year, and of which the Writers of India Festival is the second edition, was done in a partnership between Columbia and the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF), one of the five greatest libraries of the world. This was in keeping with President Bollinger's desire to have the Global Centers engage in various meaningful ways with their host cities, countries and regions.

So in selecting our writers we consulted with our colleagues at the BnF as well as with colleagues in India and at Columbia. Those in India included the two co-creators of the extraordinary Jaipur Literary Festival. Those at Columbia included an ad hoc advisory committee consisting of you, Professors Akeel Bilgrami (Philosophy Department), Gayatri Spivak (Department of English and Comparative Literature), Carol Gluck (History Department), and Dean Carol Becker of the School of the Arts.

I very much wanted the list to contain authors who wrote in some of the many vernacular languages of India as well as in English. I also wished to have a balance between women and men and between those coming from India and those from the Indian diaspora.  Finally, we wanted poets, novelists, nonfiction writers as well as a sampling of those who write in the vernacular languages of India. And we got all of that and more! We have authors who write in Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, French, and English. And we have writers who are also accomplished musicians, filmmakers, feminist publishers, and opera librettists.

Finally, in order to inform and influence the on-campus conversations about globalization that are taking place at Columbia, we've commissioned each of the 14 writers to give us a brief 500-word essay on what they see the impact of globalization to be on cultural production and consumption. We will have the rights to publish these and will do so on the Columbia website. But we will also make them available in India through the website of The Caravan magazine, our Indian media partner and a publication founded and edited by Columbia alumni, and in Europe through the BnF website.


VND: One could argue that there are many literary festivals around the world, organized by different public minded organizations. The fact that this festival is organized under the aegis of Columbia University puts a unique set of demands on this festival. How is it different from other festivals and what are its connections to Columbia University? 

PL: The principal strategic objective of the initial World Writers' Festival in 2013 was to put Columbia on the map as a major player in the cultural life of its host city and country. Dozens of American colleges and universities have been in Paris for decades, and none had ever attempted to do play such a role. And it was my sense that even though Columbia has had a site in Paris for half a century, very few people there knew of the University's presence there. So, we used the first edition of the Festival to break out of our self-imposed cocoon and to do so responsibly, but with panache, by celebrating great writers from around the world.

The advantage of having one of the world's greatest universities do something like this is that it can demonstrate, in a new and very public way its creativity, its convening power, and its commitment to bring the highest levels of artistry from around the world to students, faculty, alumni and a very broad public.


VND: As you know, one of the key priorities of President Lee Bollinger is to establish Columbia as a leading global university, contributing to our increasingly inter-dependent, inter-connecting world. Global Centers are an integral part of Columbia's global agenda. How do you think this festival furthers Columbia's global aspirations?

PL: I will always be deeply appreciative of the support that President Lee Bollinger and Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development Safwan Masri have given to this initiative. I share their view that Columbia's version of being a global university has to be different from others' and has to emerge substantially from the views, experiences, and expectations of our faculty, students, and alumni.

What the global center network serves to do, from my perspective, is to:  extend Columbia's teaching, research and service; connect Columbia's constituencies to new people and places; and contribute to understanding, and, ideally, solving global problems.

The Festivals we've created in the Paris Center are done in partnership with as many of the other global centers as possible and draw from their expertise. But, equally importantly, they connect to the campus itself. This year we are providing support for five emerging writers in the School of the Arts' (SoA) superb MFA program in Creative Writing to not only attend the Festival but to do so under the direction of a SoA faculty member and in the company of five comparable emerging writers from India. The cohort of ten will live together for four days, will share their experiences as writers coming from substantially different cultures, and will have special sessions with the Festival writers. People both at Columbia and in India believe this will be a transformative experience for our students and for the emerging writers from India.

In addition, we will bring a version of the Writers of India Festival to campus on October 27 when we will present several of our writers at Miller Theater.


VND: The festival will open in Paris and, if your past success from last year is any indication, it will be highly successful, delighting thousands of Parisians and even other Europeans. But in three days, it will be gone. What are your hopes for its afterlife, short and long term?

PL: Fortunately, the ephemeral nature of so much of life, including festivals, is now largely a thing of the past, thanks to modern media and the web. Most of the centrally important aspects of the Writers of India Festival will therefore live on, and on, and on. 

All of the sessions will be videotaped and will available world-wide through YouTube, Vimeo, the websites of Columbia and the BnF, and on that of the The Caravan Magazine in India. In addition, one of The Caravan's bloggers will be with us in Paris and will be blogging continually from the Festival, with Columbia's website providing links to it. Thus, the blog site of one of India's most distinguished intellectual publications will keep the Festival alive—and in a most dynamic way—for a long time to come. 

The essays that our writers will be giving us on their thoughts about how globalization affects cultural production and consumption will also be accessible for the long term, and globally, through the websites of these three organizations.

And finally, the websites of our media partners, especially Le Monde, France's newspaper of record, and French public television and radio, will have archival material on and from the Festival accessible for all to see, again for the long term. 

By all of these means we aspire to bring our Festival to virtually limitless audiences and to contribute in our own way to Columbia's standing as the best of all possible global universities.