As a bookish schoolchild in Galilee, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was invited to compose, and read in public, a poem marking Israel’s national day. He wrote from his own experience, reflecting on the plight of Arabs forced to celebrate the independence of their oppressor. The following day, he was summoned to the office of the Israeli military governor. The guileless young man was shocked to be upbraided: ‘As far as I was concerned, what I wrote and read was what I felt to be the truth … I had no idea that speaking out was dangerous.’
In these days of televised senate hearings, shock election results and constitutional disarray it can feel difficult, even irresponsible, to reflect on subjects other than politics. Yet, as Darwish learned, speaking about the circumstances of everyday life can be a meaningful form of resistance. Mounira Al Solh, interviewed in these pages, has adopted the poet’s defence of this ‘right to be frivolous’ as the title for a five- year-long project. Her written and sketched portraits of refugees from the crises in Syria and the Middle East celebrate the personal and anecdotal, taking as a starting point the relationship between artist and sitter. Rather than treating these men and women as symbols, to be pitied or deplored according to political affiliation, Al Solh documents the experiences – traumatic and mundane – that have shaped them.
That tendency to reduce individuals to statistics is apparent in the immigration detention centres that have sprung up around the United Kingdom, the bricks-and- mortar expressions of a xenophobia that we can only hope is on the wane. Through the testimony of an ex-inmate, Felix Bazalgette considers state systems of control, dehumanisation, and imprisonment without trial. J. S. Tennant, meanwhile, describes life in Havana as Cuba adjusts to the normalisation of relations with the United States, the death of Fidel Castro and the influx of foreign investment. He witnesses the changes brought to the country by consumer goods and Facebook accounts, and buried histories now coming to light. The poems of Nisha Ramayya and Heather Phillipson reclaim the body as the site of politics, foregrounding lived experience over metaphysical speculation.
A different form of dialogue compels Tom McCarthy’s reflections on art and literature. Asking what it means to ‘take a line for a walk’, in Paul Klee’s famous expression, McCarthy drifts through the history of twentieth-century art to consider how vanguard strategies of recording, mapping and marking are now embedded in digital culture. His concluding suggestion that the book provides one space in which art and literature can meet is supported by the extraordinary oeuvre of poet, artist and bookmaker Anne Carson, interviewed in this issue. ‘Reading and thinking,’ says Carson, ‘are physical operations. So you can affect both of them by ordering the text as a visual, aural, tactile, choreographic, dynamic event.’ Our third interviewee, the great French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, considers whether the arts and humanities can ever again be ‘part of the movement of history’.
This issue is bookended by two new talents, Nicole Flattery and Kristen Gleason, winners of the UK Ireland and North American editions of The White Review Short Story Prize 2017. Between them we are pleased to publish a new story by the winner of the inaugural short story prize in 2013, Claire-Louise Bennett. These three stories offer the strongest possible support for our mission, ever since we launched the magazine in February 2011, to promote ambitious new writing. Twenty print issues and almost seven years in, this autumn we launch an anthology looking back at the best fiction and nonfiction we have published. This marks a period of transition for the magazine as the founding editors hand over the reins to Francesca Wade and Željka Marošević. Their first issue, our twenty-first, will open an exciting new chapter for The White Review.