The lingua franca of yearning and inquiry | Marina Warner

Marina Warner in conversation with Gloria Lauri-Lucente, Valletta, 29 August 2015

Marina Warner in conversation with Gloria Lauri-Lucente, Valletta, 29 August 2015. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

One of my most eagerly anticipated events of the year is the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival – a multilingual gathering of authors and poets set up by the Inizjamed literary NGO, which has been steadily growing in stature over the past few years, boasting an admirable array of foreign guests on its CV while allowing local authors to showcase their work on equal footing.

Thanks to the efforts of lecturer, poet and Inizjamed head honcho Adrian Grima and his many collaborators – not least the helping hand of various local institutions – the festival is a balm against parochialism in the local sphere, as it accommodates not only the (often self-crowed) local contingent, and neither is it limited to ‘special guests’ from the expected English-speaking regions. Rather, and true to its name, it’s a refreshing gathering of writerly talents from all over the Mediterranean.

But at the risk of being criminally reductive to this year’s line-up – which included among its ranks the Booker shortlisted Libyan novelist Hisham Matar and the rousing Palestinian Egyptian poet Tamim Barghouti – I have to confess that the main attraction for me was the participation of Marina Warner – author and mythographer extraordinaire, and a consistent intellectual inspiration for me over the past few years.

Warner’s presence certainly felt like the cherry on the Festival’s cake, and having a writer of this stature on board this time around was certainly apt, given that this year also marks its tenth anniversary.

But Warner would have been a good fit for the festival either way. Though ostensibly British, the former academic, fiction writer and myth-and-fairy tale authority boasts Italian family connections, and a childhood spent in Cairo. Her recent book Stranger Magic is a study of The Thousand and One Nights, and the author doesn’t shy away from addressing the cosmopolitan sweep of the snowballing, multifaceted and latterly controversial collection of folktales of the ‘Orient’.

And in her conversation with Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Malta Prof. Gloria Lauri Lucente – which capped off this year’s edition of the Festival – Warner’s sensitivity to the various cultural networks found within the Mediterranean was fully borne out. But more than anything else, it was a pleasure to witness these two great women discuss both the universal and the personal as it pertains to Warner’s work – from the enduring global appeal of fairy tales, to Warner’s upcoming short story collection Fly Away Home, which taps into her experience of growing up in Cairo.

Once again showcasing her organic, interdisciplinary grasp on cultural studies, when asked why fairy tales continue to fascinate us, Warner went for a musical metaphor.

“I like to think of fairy tales as a tune,” she told Lucente. “You know the tune, I know the tune – we remember it, we can play it – it isn’t confined.” Fairy tales, Warner went on to say, suggest a kind of “lingua franca” for yearning and inquiry. “And stories are vessels for very difficult inquiries.”

Just as Stranger Magic was a sensible and considered riposte to Edward Said’s monumental critical characterization of ‘Orientalism’ – an articulation of how exoticised Western projections of the ‘East’ and the ‘Orient’ serve to facilitate cultural dominance – so Warner encourages us to not dismiss the significance of fairy tales simply because the bulk of them offer seemingly pat endings whose function is to ‘console’.

For in offering alternatives and pathways for the imagination, fairy tales can be emancipatory. In terms of their phenomenological dimension – and while stressing that she doesn’t encourage total escapism and delusion and that she remains an adherent of the Enlightenment project – Warner reminds us that, “the mind’s eye that imagines a mermaid on the shore, and that simply witnesses, and then remembers, a fisherman catching dolphin fish, is the same place.”

(It’s not a dissimilar position to the one expressed by Ursula K. Le Guin in her National Book Awards address).

Marina Warner reads from 'Fly Away Home'. Valletta, 29 August 2015. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

Marina Warner reads from ‘Fly Away Home’. Valletta, 29 August 2015. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

A discussion on the rift between fiction and non-fiction was another topic – also poignantly tackled by Barghouti on the first night of the festival – which allowed Warner to point out how, far from serving as a distraction from social and political strife, fiction can provide an additional leeway for discourse, especially in countries where those freedoms are otherwise suppressed.

“People are now using novels to do all sorts of things. There is censorship in so many places in the world, that fiction offers some sort of shelter.” But fiction has yet another, more subtle advantage.

“With fiction, unlike in essays, you don’t have to ‘make up your own mind’. And I do find it much more satisfying.”

But as if to illustrate Hisham Matar’s point on the previous night – that while our freedom to reinvent our cultural, social and professional identities in the modern world is a great thing, we shouldn’t forget that we remain privy to historical currents beyond our control – Warner was candid about a key motivation for her wide-ranging work.

Unlike, say, Hisham Matar himself – whose father was abducted by the Libyan regime and whose ultimate fate remains a mystery to the author and his family – Warner’s upbringing remained relatively comfortable.

“I came from a background of petite bourgeois colonialists,” she told Lucente to disarming laughter. “So I always felt like I had to make some kind of reckoning. And this has been my spur.”

We Need to Talk About Genre | Individuality vs Community

Argument: We divide fiction up in genres because of our chronic fear of loneliness.

I’m invested in this question, which is evidenced by my foolhardy effort to write a parallel-narrative novella incorporating both the fairy tale idiom and the very ‘real’ world, as well as my attempt at getting at what that multi-faceted mongrel genre ‘the New Weird’ is all about for a Master’s dissertation.

But first, some (recent) observations on the matter from more articulate and well-versed people than myself.


  1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech at this year’s National Book Awards

“I rejoice at accepting [the award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”


  1.  ‘A Better Way to Think About Genre’ by Joshua Rothman (New Yorker)
Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye

“It’s tempting to think that we might do without these kinds of distinctions altogether. Why not just let books be books? The thing is that genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed. As it happens, there is such a system: it was invented by the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, and laid out in his 1957 masterwork, Anatomy of Criticism.”

  1.  The Real Mr. Difficult, or Why Cthulhu Threatens to Destroy the Canon, Self-Interested Literary Essayists, and the Universe Itself. Finally. by Nick Mamatas (Los Angeles Review of Books)
A young HP Lovecraft

A young HP Lovecraft

“Lovecraft’s quality is obscured by his difficulty, and his difficulty is obscured by his popularity. If Lovecraft isn’t seen as a difficult writer, it is because of the pulp idiom in which he worked. [Jonathan] Franzen points to college as the place where people are made to read difficult books, but Lovecraft is an adolescent fascination. Lovecraft demands the careful attention that only a teen boy with little else to do – no high school romances, no sports practice – can muster. Lovecraft’s pulp provenance, and early spike by Edmund Wilson, kept Lovecraft’s work from being taken seriously. Only over the past twenty years, with reprint volumes via Penguin Classics and Library of America, with champions such as Michel Houellebecq and Reza Negarestani has Lovecraft earned a place in what we used to call the canon (while making quotation marks in the air with our fingers, notch).”


These are all problems that have been burning at my brain in some form of another for as long as I can remember (slight exaggeration, but it certainly feels that way). Because I take this very seriously for whatever reason – friends and family who know me intimately can feel free to psychoanalyze away – I’m driven to find an evolutionary root to our need to divide up literature into genres, and then argue about it endlessly.

Cards on the table: if I’m a follower of any critical school on this front at all, I’m a follower of Frye’s. His organic view of genre both suits my needs as a writer and provides me with an inclusive argument about genre that, ostensibly, short-circuits going-nowhere binary arguments on the issue. Also, there’s a pervasive paradox in the way I process this whole thing: I hate the idea of genre as segregation, but I don’t want us to do away with recognizing genres, because there’s an aesthetic pleasure in picking out what belongs to which tradition.

That Edgar Allan Poe influenced Lovecraft who in turn influenced Ridley Scott and Stuart Gordon and Caitlin R. Kiernan and Nick Mamatas and Cradle of Filth and countless others, and that the details stolen from Lovecraft by each of these artists are traceable to Lovecraft but still distinct, and that this intertextual richness evokes a kind of hopeful reminder of the prodigious human imagination, as it stretches across generations.

But on a more universal note, I will suggest that genre stems from a combined need for both INDIVIDUALITY and COMMUNITY. In this pantomime debate between the ‘literary mainstream’ and the ‘genre community’, the literary side is ‘clubby’ in the original sense of the word: the domain of an elite that gatekeeps itself into a privileged minority, with all the attendant ‘real world’ social implications of that.

While the ‘genre’ community, on the other hand, is seen as a regressive ‘cult’ circle that turns its back on the ‘real world’ in favour of a vacuum-sealed aesthetic that often favours the tried and tested over any attempts at current social commentary or formal innovation (perhaps the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is an iconic example).

But this perception – the pantomime is very much a perception – is made doubly complicated by the fact that we’re discussing works of art here. Leaving aside value judgements of the individual works of art in question, the reason why the genre debate will never settle into a peaceful resolution is because we’re asking the works of individuals to answer to the needs of a community, however large and nebulous this community may be.

There will always be mavericks, trailblazers, and ‘exceptions to the rule’. But even declaring that the mavericks are all that you like places you in a double bind: each maverick will have their influences, and in each influence – much like Lovecraft’s fish-god mongrels from Innsmouth – lies a genetic code that can’t be denied, and which ties back to a tradition.

Traditions are what genre is built on, and tradition will be something not even the most opaque of ‘literary’ fiction would be able to deny… strain as it might for originality and freedom from market constraints and critical labels.

We all want to be ourselves, but none of us want to be lonely.

READ RELATED: Getting it Ass-Backwards: The Genre Binary at LonCon