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.


  1. hehe, we have cultural ambassadors in the EU. yes, it’s an official title.

    1. Someone interviewing me recently asked if I didn’t see myself as a cultural “bridge-builder.” It surprised me to what extent I vehemently denied it. “Gadfly.” I asked him to write that I was a “gadfly.”

      I don’t think he did, though.

  2. Obviously, writers– even blog writers– can be bridge-builders and ambassadors. I think the reasons some people react vehemently against such a charge is that they do not want to constrain themselves to fill that bill. If these writers are to be recognized as ambassadors, it must be after the fact of their writing, and not because they felt compelled to use their writing in service to that goal.

    On the other hand, some writers set out to produce a work that will reach the hearts of those who would be ill disposed to tread a cultural bridge. Successful efforts can move entire populations.

    Marsha, I agree that you are cultural bridge-builder, but don’t take offense. Worse charges could be made against any one of us!

    1. If it happens of its own course, sure, that’s one thing.

      But if I saw myself in that manner, then I should say only bland, positive things about books in Arabic/translated from the Arabic. That would be just silly.

      1. The art of being a cultural ambassador would lie in the ability to say truthful things diplomatically, in an engaging manner. One who limits oneself to saying bland, positive things is just a mediocre politician

  3. Thank you, M. Straight to the point as usual.

    My personal pet peeve with the “author as ambassador” view is that it tends to ignore the literary aspects of that author’s work. We don’t expect ambassadors to be artists (though that would be awesome). Authors are, and it’s a shame when we forget it.

    1. We forget that authors are artists because so many authors are not artists at all. The fact that publication is available to anyone ambitious enough to do so does not make an author an artist.

      Perhaps we should start expecting ambassadors to be artists as well.

      1. Loved the last sentence. “Perhaps we should start expecting ambassadors to be artists as well.”

        Made me smile.

  4. Yes, let it be said that it’s entirely possible that the French ambassador (I think) pictured above is also a brilliant author by night.

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