Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswany with anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, November 2012 © Reuters

Between 1952 and 1957, Naguib Mahfouz did not write any novels or stories. This was not a case of writer’s block. Mahfouz, who had completed his masterwork, The Cairo Trilogy, in the early 1950s, later explained that he had hoped Egypt’s revolutionary regime would fulfil the aims of his realist novels, and focus public attention on social, economic and political ills. Disenchantment would drive him back to fiction, of a more symbolic and allegorical kind. In 1967, Israel’s crushing defeat of Egypt would force Mahfouz to stop again, and then resume with some explicitly political work.

In recent months, Ahdaf Soueif and Alaa al-Aswany, among other Egyptian authors, have been found on the barricades of Cairo. Such a close and perilous involvement of writers in national upheavals may surprise many contemporary readers in the west, who are accustomed to think of novelists as diffident explorers of the inner life – people very rarely persuaded to engage with public events. Literature today seems to emerge from an apolitical and borderless cosmopolis. Even the mildly adversarial idea of the “postcolonial” that emerged in the 1980s, when authors from Britain’s former colonial possessions appeared to be “writing back” to the imperial centre, has been blunted. The announcement this month that the Man Booker, a literary prize made distinctive by its Indian, South African, Irish, Scottish and Australian winners, will henceforth be open to American novels is one more sign of the steady erasure of national and historical specificity.

Tim Parks, among others, has deplored the dominance of the “global novel” as practised by Haruki Murakami, Umberto Eco, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie. Marked by an internationally identifiable and translatable literariness, not to mention cuddly-bear politics, such fictions threaten to render obsolete, according to Parks, “the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture”. More recently, the English critic Philip Hensher has complained that “a superficial multicultural aspect” of this year’s Man Booker shortlist conceals “a specifically North American taste”.

Naguib Mahfouz in Cairo, 1989 © Magnum

It’s too easy to blame such fears of covert suburbanisation on a condescending Little-Englandism. Mahfouz, little read in the Anglophone world before his 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, addressed a predominantly Egyptian public for much of his life. Today, it is the prospect of international success that tempts – and often shapes the work of – many aspiring writers from Asia and Africa. Gliding between exotically sited literary festivals, and often educated, or resident, in Europe or America, they can appear to embody the bland consensus of transnational elites, denuded of the differences and antagonisms that define a genuinely pluralist culture.

But the homogenising and depoliticising effects of the “global novel” can also be exaggerated, to the point where every writer of non-western origin seems to be vending a consumable – rather than a challenging – cultural otherness. The Benetton-ish cosmopolitanism ascribed to them, or such hip self-identifications as “Afropolitan”, risks obscuring that the traumas of the postcolonial world – military coups, civil wars, despotic regimes, fundamentalisms and economic calamities – still mould the themes and preoccupations of writers from Africa and Asia, and oblige them to explore social as well as intimate relationships.

And it would be untenable to deny that there are diverse reckonings with issues of class, race, religion and gender, and a bracingly ambivalent relationship with nationalism and global capitalism, in the work of Nadeem Aslam, Teju Cole, Hisham Matar, Tash Aw, Tan Twan Eng, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif, Damon Galgut, Tahmima Anam, Zoë Wicomb, Laila Lalami, Helon Habila, Aminatta Forna and Pettina Gappah. From his first novel The Circle of Reason (1986), which is set among the Middle East’s immigrant communities, to his most recent River of Smoke (2011), Amitav Ghosh’s work has excavated a suppressed emotional history of the vast networks of labour and capital that made the modern world. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fiction has already traversed what the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o described as three “stages” within African literature – “the age of anti-colonial struggle; the age of independence; and the age of neo-colonialism”.

This literary immersion in complex historical processes is hardly unprecedented. Asian and African writers have consistently described the effects and consequences of the belated modernisation of their societies: the alternation between liberation and repression, fulfilment and loss. The early impact of a west organised for profit and power on tradition-minded societies is famously summed up by the title of Chinua Achebe’s first novel Things Fall Apart (1958). A more apocalyptic vision is found in Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt (1984), which describes the spiritual devastation of Arab tribal societies by American oil companies.

Progressive-minded writers, such as China’s Lu Xun, India’s Mulk Raj Anand and Indonesia’s Pramoedya Ananta Toer, were much more ambivalent about tradition, investing their faith in anti-colonial movements that promised a radical dismantling of old social structures. Assuming state power, these revolutionary movements threatened to curtail the autonomy of individual artists – and not just in Mao Zedong’s China. In many of the new nations that emerged in the 20th century, literary fictionists were often expected to supply the myths and legends that an insufficiently imagined community needed in order to become cohesive and coherent. The Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk complains that when he decided to become a writer “literature was allied to the future: its job was to work hand in hand with the state to build a happy and harmonious society, or even nation”.

The careful dodging, often through modernist experimentation, of overbearing cultural commissars was to generate an impressive body of literature. In Turkey, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar preceded Pamuk in exhuming the cosmopolitan history of Istanbul, a city scorned and neglected by modernising Turks. Breaking with nationalist projects of state-building, Pakistan’s Intizar Husain and India’s UR Ananthamurthy turned rewardingly to the folk philosophical and literary traditions of the subcontinent. Amit Chaudhuri continues to uphold the literary fragment against the grand narratives of history and progress.

Soon after independence, things had begun to fall apart in Asia and Africa’s fledgling nation-states. No one recoiled from postcolonial dysfunction more intensely and quickly than the indigenous bourgeoisie for which expatriation to the west – spiritual as well as physical – became an intense aspiration and an ideal. Western-style pedagogy had already produced many deracinated colonials in the tropics, who spent their time fantasising about eating apples in temperate climes – pretending “to be real”, as the alienated Caribbean narrator of VS Naipaul’s The Mimic Men (1967) writes, “to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life” in London, Paris and New York.

The Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1969) was a prescient study of provincial self-pity and exhibitionism in the white metropolis, prefiguring the helpless Anglophiles of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) and Naipaul’s Half a Life (2001). In Heirs to the Past (1962), by the Moroccan novelist Driss Chraïbi, a French-educated North African outlines the tragic arc of many artistic careers: “I’ve slammed all the doors of my past because I’m heading towards Europe and Western civilization, and where is that civilization then, show it to me, show me one drop of it, I’m ready to believe I’ll believe anything. Show yourselves, you civilizers in whom your books have caused me to believe …Here I am – I’ve come to see you in your own homes. Come forth. Come out of your houses and yourselves so that I can see you. And welcome me, oh welcome me.”

In many ways, the postcolonial literatures of Asia and Africa came to be conflated with the output of what the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has called a “comprador intelligentsia”: “a relatively small, Western-style, Western-trained group of writers and thinkers who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery”. Their easy accessibility in the western metropolis, and eager credentialing by its publishers and academics, explains why the category of “world literature”, while facilitating much unmemorable writing, has excluded the many literatures of Asia and Africa that are not translated into European languages or exported to the west.

Large economic and demographic shifts since the 1980s have brought a new generation of writers to the fore, besides spurring the rapid growth of such genres as mystery, science fiction and – in India, at least – “mythological thriller”. A growing Indian readership today sustains much outstanding and un-exportable writing in English as well as indigenous languages. Readings, writing workshops and panel discussions in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria draw immense crowds – of aspiring writers and serious readers as well as celebrity-spotters. One upshot of this flaring of energy and ambition in places long considered hopeless or stagnant is that the globalised Asian and African intelligentsia, once programmed to boost the west’s most flattering self-images, is now politically more recalcitrant and internally diverse.

The loyalties and affiliations of this worldly elite have been reconfigured not only by Skype and cheap flights but also by the politics of xenophobia in west since 9/11 and the economic and cultural revitalisation of their home countries. Certainly, these inhabitants of multiple residences and in-between places, and possessors of multiple passports, manifest a deeper intimacy with “home” than the permanent “exiles or emigrants or expatriates” in the west who, as Rushdie wrote in 1982, “create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands”.

Many young transnational writers seem less interested in the dilemmas of exile and assimilation in the US or Europe than in exploring the impasses of unfinished nationhood or delayed decolonisation that their parents and grandparents first dealt with. And, as though aware of their First World privileges, some of them seem keen to pre-empt any charge of subaltern posturing. A character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun (2006) sets out the perils of ventriloquising other people’s victimhood: “How much did one know of the true feelings of those who did not have a voice?” In NoViolet Bulawayo’s Man Booker-shortlisted We Need New Names, the sharp-tongued narrator, a young girl from Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, is among the “children of the land” who “scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky”. But this uneasily Americanised immigrant’s claims on her homeland are rebuffed by her Zimbabwean friend on Skype: “you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?”

Bulawayo and Jhumpa Lahiri, also on the Man Booker shortlist for The Lowland, may both appear to be purveyors of American-style “immigrant fiction”. However, the differences of perspective and style between their novels are immense. Lahiri’s genteel Bengali-Americans are predisposed by their class and educational privileges to fulfil, if deeply uncomfortably, the American dream. Bulawayo’s narrator represents the mass of no-hopers in the US. “When we got to America we took our dreams, looked at them tenderly as if they were newly born children, and put them away; we would not be pursuing them. We would never be the things we had wanted to be: doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers.”

The bitter and penniless refugee from Middle-Eastern wars in Rawi Hage’s Cockroach (2008) knows he can turn into a self-Orientalising performer before his naively multiculturalist Canadian hosts: “The fuckable, exotic, dangerous foreigner,” he says, “play it right and they will toss you from one party to another.” Even apparent members of the “comprador” bourgeoisie do not fail to scrutinise its emollient myths. In Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), the Ivy League-educated Pakistani narrator vehemently rejects his role as a “janissary” of American capitalism. The conviction that the global rules are fixed in favour of a tiny minority pervades Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006). Discussing A Bend in the River (1979), VS Naipaul’s Conradian novel about Africa’s allegedly ineradicable darkness, Desai’s characters claim that its author, a victim of “colonial neurosis”, is “stuck in the past”. Naipaul also comes in for a drubbing in Adichie’s most recent novel Americanah (2013), which articulates the grim ironies of class and race in England and the US, before turning a sardonic gaze at her own class of westernised “Afropolitans” in Nigeria.

Far from being an imaginary homeland, Lagos emerges in Americanah as one of the “developing” world’s gritty megacities, complete with broken roads, chronic power outages, organic food-fetishists and Hello magazine clones. Indeed, Americanah contrasts, slightly brashly, its own intellectual and emotional plenitude with the slick but etiolated mass products of America’s “creative writing” industry: “novels written by young and youngish men and packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness”.

Remarking once on the dazzling artistic vitality of crisis-ridden Europe in the early 20th century, the historian Perry Anderson worried that the “contemporary artist in the West” finds himself facing “the closure of horizons: without an appropriable past, or imaginable future, in an interminably recurrent present”. This end-of-history gloom in the arts can seem as exaggerated as its political Fukuyama-ist counterpart: literature of appreciable quality continues to be produced by the chroniclers of pacified capitalist democracies. It is true, nevertheless, that writers from incompletely modern Asia and Africa still find themselves at historical crossroads – the place where Louis Vuitton coexists with child soldiers. And it is likely that a bolder cartography of the imagination will emerge from these revelatory conjunctures of countries “poised”, as Arundhati Roy wrote in The God of Small Things, “between the terror of war and the horror of peace”.

Pankaj Mishra is author of ‘From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia’ (Penguin)

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