Nostalgia and its Discontents
This piece is featured from this year’s Worlds festival. Also on site, from the provocations we have: Akhil Sharma’s ‘Nostalgia’, James Scudamore’s ‘The Ecstasy of Impossibility’, and Denise Riley’s ‘Is Nostalgia a Bromide?’. Finally, as a special treat, we have Bae Su-Ah’s meditation on the experience of translating W. G. Sebald into Korean, ‘After Sebald – A Tribute’.
Earlier this summer I took part in the 10th annual Worlds Literature Festival from 16-20 June. Worlds is an annual festival, held in Norwich and curated by Writers Centre Norwich. The festival consisted of private salons and literary readings, gathering writers such as JM Coetzee and Xiaolu Guo, from countries as diverse as Norway, Malaysia, Poland and Jamaica. Each year a theme is announced; around this, invited writers reflect on their thoughts and their practice as writers in response. This year’s focus was nostalgia. We were all asked to consider how we had dealt with this in our writing, in one form or another.
Two kinds of remembering – public and private – formed the crux of our discussions. We examined the point where memory segued into the realm of nostalgia, which Jon Cook suggested was the fulfilment of a desire, expressed through narrative, for a return to a former imagined state. Cook also proposed that nostalgia was an invention of a modern sensibility, in its desire to return from civilisation to an idealised version of nature, and that nostalgia might be defined as the longing for a place that one never much actually liked, or which never even existed.
In the first provocation of the festival, poet and feminist theorist Denise Riley likened nostalgia to a desire-suppressing bromide, an ‘oily paste’ that aided the digestion of a series of false closures or endless beginnings, weakening one’s resistance to a true sense of the past. She suggested that the modern sense of nostalgia was dependent on a specious version of the past, a disingenuous distancing that evokes mood rather than emotion. The very term ‘nostalgia’, she said, was a falsely comforting and reductive shorthand, moving beyond the direct pain and jagged rawness of lived experience into the realm of myth.
Welsh poet and novelist Owen Sheers’ provocation shifted our attention to military nostalgia and the Greek etymology of the word: nostos, (home) and algos (pain). The nostalgia for the battle scene and the concomitant attachment to comrades and hatred of the enemies who had killed or wounded those comrades, he said, was very much associated with love. This sense of love and loss after the intensity of the experience, spoke of the emotiveness of war and the strong sense of duty, belonging and vengeance that came with the wartime experience. The idea of home as the chief object of nostalgia raised other questions about place, time and the point or pointlessness of war.
This rang a bell with me. Much of my own writing has involved characters consumed, almost always to the point of stasis or destruction, with a sentimental longing for the past. The past is reshaped and idealized on hindsight to the point where it disrupts and disturbs the present. I found it enriching to see how other more established writers dealt with the disruptive, rose-tinted past both in their own work and provocation responses.
Next, the Polish war reporter Wojciech Tochman roundly critiqued the term ‘nostalgia’ as a cosy occupation for the wealthy and comfortable, and extended this to the very realm of fiction and fiction-consumption itself. ‘All the words in existence are already worn out,’ he said, and are diminished in their imaginative capacity in contrast to real-life atrocities. He highlighted the genocide in Rwanda. Fiction, he claimed, was the distracting opposite of reality and was in fact a luxury, a form of commerce. This led to a lively and intense debate about the function of fiction and the imagination, with delegates arguing in its defence that fiction was its own form of made-up truth, a form of witness nonetheless.
English novelist James Scudamore brought our discussions into the realm of dream and the imagination, defending nostalgia and literature as a way of ‘recalling experiences we have never had’. He suggested that the contraction of time and space in a book were crucial to the cultivation of our imagination and vital ways of remembering. Marquez: ‘What matters in life is not what happens to us but what we remember and how we remember it.”
On the final day of the Festival, poet and festival director Bernice Chauly examined the concept of Malaysian nostalgia, unpicking its associations. Her own love-hate relationship with Malaysia, which she views as suffering from a kind of historical amnesia in choosing to forget or adopt sanitised or idealised versions of its colonial past, was the reason why she chose to write herself into her country’s narrative. Writing, to her, and with some parallels to Kerry Young’s viewpoint, is an act of defiance, will and memory; a way of giving voice and a point of view to the marginalised or discriminated.
Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo presented one of the most critical responses to how nostalgia symbolizes a largely conservative impulse in Western culture. She argued that literature had turned into a monoculture, privileging the conventional and commercially marketable novel and marginalising interdisciplinary, daring and alternative forms of art. She cited the Dadaists, the European auteurs of the 50s and 60s, as being at the forefront of fluid experimentation and cross-genre collaboration which resulted in writers being not just novelists, but intellectuals. By isolating itself from other art forms and these possibilities of collaboration, literature was becoming complacent, lazy and therefore boring. She cited gaming as an interesting area where vanguard narratives were emerging and being encouraged.
Worlds was a truly thought-provoking, intense experience and I feel privileged to have taken part in the discussions. The provocations were full of unique and compelling ideas as writers from all over the world challenged, revised and presented their own interpretations of nostalgia. The act of remembering continues to engage and preoccupy me and I look back at the festival with the fondest of (nostalgic) memories.