Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-born poet, novelist, and translator, interviewed by The Kenyon Review:
How do you think literature may or should respond to this spring’s events? What role (or roles) would you say literature has played, and how might those roles change?
Literature always responds to history, of course, but works hastily written under the pressure of responding often risk being pedestrian, but there are exceptions! The revolts are still ongoing and unfolding and we are all still processing their effects, but they have definitely energized all citizens, including writers. The challenge is how to represent these moments in their complexity and in beautiful forms.
Contrary to all the brouhaha about Twitter and Facebook, what energized people in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere, aside from sociopolitical grievances and an accumulation of pain and anger, was a famous line of poetry by a Tunisian poet, al-Shabbi. Poetry, novels, and popular culture have chronicled and encapsulated the struggle of peoples against colonial rule and later, against postcolonial monarchies and dictatorships, so the poems, vignettes, and quotes from novels were all there in the collective unconscious. Verses were spontaneously deployed in chants and slogans and disseminated in clips. The revolution introduced new songs, chants, and tropes, but it refocused attention on an already existing, rich and living archive.
Institutionally and structurally, the revolts further exposed how the state had neutralized certain intellectuals and writers and used them to legitimate its projects. The revolts reignited debates about the relationship between cultural production and state power. The revolts have already debunked the old cultural discourse and are threatening the dominant cultural elite, many of whose figures were at the service of state culture for a variety of reasons.