The Author is Not a Cultural Ambassador

Do you want this man writing your books?

It was only when novelist Randa Jarrar tweeted out a few short sentences in response to the New York Times Book Review that I realized how much I dislike the term “literary ambassador.”

@randajarrar: No no no no no. Writers are not ambassadors, man. “[Hisham Matar] seems uniquely poised 2 play the role of literary ambassador” {from NYTBR}

@randajarrar: I know writers CAN be ambassadors, but I hate/reject that role. Esp when forced on writers of color. Makes me so mad.

It’s certainly true that Hisham Matar, like the wonderful poet/translator Khaled Mattawa, has worked hard to explain his  vision of and hopes for Libya to a global audience. I do believe the novelist can be an activist, sure. A novelist can answer people’s questions, why not. But be an ambassador: no.

I don’t doubt that ambassadors do important work. But, if you have observed any, they tend to be straitjacketed, self-censoring, measured, and careful, the self-conscious representative of a culture and body of policy. They rarely—if ever—speak their minds in full. It’s important not to offend and never to be too critical, too indulgent, too prosaic, too anything.

Yes, a great author can express the feelings of a large group of people. A great author might find some day herself conflated with the hopes and dreams of a nation (or much of it).

But authors should not be seduced by this. They must also confuse and offend. And err.