It’s been like living on a sinking ship far from land. The last few weeks in ‘post-Brexit-Britain’ have been tough, hot and humid and without air-conditioning. We haven’t Brexit-ed yet but for the first time in my life I am having to contemplate a future adrift in a tiny boat without an anchor. Tiny England. Tiny-minded England. The truth is also that I’m having to address my own insularity: how could I have ignored the fact that half my country feels unloved and ‘up shit creek without a paddle’ (as my husband says)? We live in a divided society.
The focus leading up to the EU Referendum on 23rd June 2016 was on politics, immigration, business and the economy. Our country was unhappy and the scapegoat became the European Union, a lumbering colossus astride our continent, a huge beast in need of taming, trimming down – but not of being totally abandoned. We could maybe have reformed the EU into ‘The Big Friendly Giant’. (Roald Dahl’s BFG is, fittingly, the cinema hit of the summer.)
As the political and economic arguments leading up to The Vote so badly failed in Britain, our more eloquent and colourful creative community is finally being consulted to help articulate a cultural response to Brexit. The call is for ‘new narratives for Britain’. My old stomping ground, BBC Radio 4, held a significant debate last week with the hashtag title #culturalresponse. Suddenly the airwaves were alive with words such as ‘revolution’ and ‘youthquake’; Brexit, the BBC panelists agreed, was ‘a wake-up call for the arts’, ‘an opportunity’. For hours after the debate you could hear the sound of clashing hashtags and Twitter handles. And I added to the cacophony with my own #CultureMatters #RivetingReviews #RivetingReads #todaysshoes #fashionandfiction @eurolitnet @GoldRosie… ANYTHING to get people communicating and collaborating. Because ofcourse #CultureMatters and the fact that the positive and inspirational role of the arts is generally ignored in our national debate is a typical British phenomenon – but we get there in the end. Look at Punk and Rave and Rock ‘n’ Roll.
One foundation stone of the #culturalresponse, though, is still overlooked and that’s literature. Words, myths, language and stories – where we all began. Stories can help shape, describe, imagine the past, present and future; they help inspire, explain, warn, guide and escape. If the talk today is of ‘new narratives’, I doubt whether ‘stories’ are meant. Somehow, then, we must smuggle in a literary response, the voices of publishers, the book industry, booksellers, librarians, newspapers and broadcasters, poets, writers and translators. And we must also smuggle in those even quieter, weaker voices, of the foreign writers who struggle to reach the tiny 4.5% of the UK’s reading population. Literature in translation has in recent years enjoyed a mini-boomlet thanks to the collaboration and investment of publishers and thanks to funding from various bodies, such as Creative Europe, the Arts Council and individual international book institutes and cultural organisations. Just look inside any book flap of any translated book.
What will happen to that funding? I run the European Literature Network in the UK and I chair the annual European Literature Night at the British Library – what will happen to us? We are independent, we don’t work for the European Union but will we be pilloried for bearing the European name, for our values? We don’t know. All the more reason for us to speak up now. Thousands of young people may be barred from the EU’s Erasmus; the decline in modern language learning in Britain will nose-dive further. Brexit has not been thought through at any level in Britain.
What have we done? We didn’t think this would actually happen.
In July the influential Bookseller magazine, the industry bible, gave voice to those independent publishers in the Britain actively showing support for Europe post-Brexit by promoting its literature and calling for ‘a plurality of voices’ to be heard: Adam Freudenheim’s Pushkin Press is celebrating “the excellence of literature written on European soil” by running a ‘Read Europe’ promotional campaign. Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press stresses the need for us to engage with the “narrative of strangers” following the referendum. “The shocking victory of Brexit came about because the campaign tapped into people’s fears of foreigners and strangers. Fear is caused when we feel threatened. And we feel threatened when we don’t understand. …..and this is only possible if we are willing to engage with the narratives of strangers – narratives that might at first jar with what we know and like.” She continues: “If I – a professional of the ‘story industry’ – resist leaving my comfort zone and only listen and read stories that sound familiar, how can I then expect others to have an open ear to new and strange tales? […] This country needs to learn to listen to other people’s stories, only then will it change. But we – writers, publishers, agents, critics, booksellers – have to be courageous enough to lead by example.”
Another publisher at Melville House, went further, “mainstream publishers (also) have a responsibility to bring more level heads to the table, to reintegrate the alienated and fearful white middle class, and to rapidly de-escalate the culture war presently looming on the British horizon.” And the founders of Alma Books promised to maintain their commitment to their “pursuit of cross-cultural literary endeavour” and to “celebrating the best of European literature”.
‘Revolution’, ‘culture war’ and ‘new narratives’ are all the rage. They are ‘the new black’. Exciting times for us ‘old leftie softie arty-farty media types’ (one insult I’ve received recently) but like so many of my colleagues, most of us operating on tightropes and shoestrings, I take my cultural responsibility seriously. In fact, I invite you to become a literary activist in support of literature, language and translation in the UK, by joining me for ‘Dinner with Elena Ferrante’
By Rosie Goldsmith
This blog was originally published on Versopolis. European Review of Poetry, Books and Culture.