A Literary Power ‘That Could Totally Subdue a Monster’

One of the major streams of disagreement during the 2015 Shubbak Festival, which ran last weekend, was what writing can (and can’t) do:

The comix panel. Photo credit: Shubbak Festival.
The comix panel. Photo credit: Shubbak Festival.

Libyan-British graphic novelist Asia Alfasi was perhaps the most vocal in the “can” camp.

During the “Drawing Your Attention” panel, Alfasi described what she saw as the power of comics and graphic novels. She moved from Libya to the UK at the age of eight, and it was a difficult transition. When she began to draw manga in her UK school, “It was the first time bullies stopped bullying … they started sitting next to me quietly as I drew. At that moment I realized that comics could have a power that could totally subdue a monster and make them so receptive.”

Alfasi, who is working on her first graphic novel, was roundly applauded for this by the audience. She later added that “sometimes it’s hard to say something [political] without [being] evangelical, or preaching.” She said she tries to avoid preaching by making the comics about her personal point of view.

Comics and graphic novels certainly have taken on a pressure to change, communicate, and propagandize that other literary forms have not. While “jihadi poetry” has attracted Anglophone attention, comics are asked to effect all sorts of changes, as Lina Ghaibeh has discussed in her talks on propaganda in Arab comics, and as artist Lena Merhej referred to at the Shubbak Festival, when saying that a funding agency didn’t fully appreciate her work, as “they wanted something more direct.”

The topic of what literature can and can’t do also arose at the panel on “Writing Change: Words in Times of Conflict and Crisis,” which moderator Daljit Nagra clarified as “extreme crisis.” Panelists were Kurdish-British poet Choman Hardi, Palestinian poet-memoirist Mourid Barghouti, and Syrian short-story writer Rasha Abbas, who joined via Skype because of visa issues. Barghouti was the strongest in insisting that the role of literature was “overrated in times of conflict” and that the “most troubling and worst words ever written are national anthems.”

“You see people go into tears and stand like this” – Barghouti stiffened his torso – “it’s obscene.”

“A poem cannot be direct,” Barghouti said. If you want to be direct, you can write it in prose, write it a letter, “collect signatures on it.” He added that literature “will not give medicine to anyone and it will not liberate anyone.”

Abbas, meanwhile, said that writers were “more affected by the [Syrian] uprising than they affected the uprising.”

Barghouti added that writing “during a state of emergency” — which he said most Arab countries have been in for a hundred years — as a negative thing. He likened the current pressures on Arab authors to those on European writers during World War II. From 1940-1945, he said, the playfulness and experimentation went out of European writing. Only afterwards, he said, “they came back to their experimentalism.”

It was Hardi, whose work was quietest and most understated, who argued in favor of a role for literature, as “history keeps repeating itself… I like to think that poetry does make a difference. To those who read it, at least.”

One of the audience participants at “Writing Change” asked a question that was never fully addressed: If writing doesn’t change anything, why does it lead so many people into jails?

In the science fiction panel, meanwhile, Ahmed Khaled Towfik half-laughed at the idea that his Utopia might have had some role in sparking an uprising in Egypt. Science fiction was, he said, “a safe way to express your opinions.” But mostly, he said, it was written as catharsis, written “so I don’t explode.”