The power of writers in the most extraordinary of times
Chitra Ramaswamy examines Owen Sheers’ showcase writers

Chitra Ramaswamy is an award-winning journalist and author. Here she examines Owen Sheers’ selection of writers for the International Literature Showcase, which focuses on those writers who are challenging us about the past, present and the future. You can explore Owen’s list here, or read on for Chitra’s response.

In The Plague, a novel that has experienced a flare-up in the midst of another pandemic, Albert Camus poses a simple question. “But what does it mean, the plague?” his unnamed narrator asks. The answer follows swiftly: “It’s life, that’s all.” It’s the that’s all that gets you, conveying both a shrug of the shoulders at life’s absurdity and a shudder at its bottomless profundity. The entire human condition beats in those two small words, especially when you consider when Camus is said to have written them. In the traumatised aftermath of the second world war. Six million Jews had been murdered by the Nazis. Much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins. Up to sixty million people were dead. Camus was laying down his prose in the midst of history, while he was living it. That’s all. And all is everything

Such is the power of writers to ask the right questions in the most extraordinary of times. Owen Sheers’ 2020 selection of writers for the International Literary Showcase is revealed during the coronavirus pandemic, which is rewriting the future in ways we have yet to understand. Sheers’ list reflects the deep moral responsibility of the writer in such a vexed moment, gifting us a reassuringly diverse and principled chorus of voices to guide us through dark waters. To address the times is one of the writer’s roles and it goes hand in hand with asking questions that will shape our future. It is a kind of sleight of hand to be able to ascribe meaning to events as they unfold because writing is a slow mode of travel. It happens in the present and takes time to reach a future reader. By which time a hell of a lot more past has happened.   

These ten writers hail from all over the country at a time when the UK, post-Brexit, is more divided than ever. The interrogation of place is a distinct theme, whether through the novels of Alys Conran, whose debut was simultaneously published in English and Welsh, Clare Pollard squaring up to late capitalism with her particular brand of confessional, dark “poetic postcards from the edge”, or Elizabeth-Jane Burnett rolling around in the fields of Devon to, quite literally, get closer to her father’s farming ancestry. 

Sheers’ list proves the point that where we come from, even more so in polarised times, is both integral to who we are and a springboard to the world. Take Nikita Lalwani, a novelist born in Rajasthan and raised in Cardiff, whose most recent novel, You People, is set in a south-west London pizza joint run by immigrants. Or Hannah Lavery, whose performance poetry monologue The Drift is a manifold examination of race, belonging and identity in contemporary Scotland. Then there’s Raymond Antrobus, whose creative response to the erasure of people of colour in mainstream culture, or widespread discrimination against people with disabilities, or pervading class inequality in Britain, is playful, incisive, and profoundly moving. His debut collection, The Perseverance, included a redaction of an entire Ted Hughes poem… and won him the Ted Hughes award. These may be marginalised voices, but they are in no way marginal. In a world fracturing before our very eyes their work reminds us that when the centre cannot hold and things keep falling apart we remain the focal points of our own stories. 

In a globalised world Martin MacInnes, a writer born and bred in the Scottish Highlands, is just as influenced by Clarice Lispector and how gut microbiology might constitute a new science of the self. Garrett Carr may be a map-maker who in the run-up to the EU referendum, and two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, walked the Irish border from Carlingford Lough to Derry, yet his open-minded perspective looks to borders – and walls – contested and redrawn all over the world. Clare Pollard’s voice might be borne, specifically, out of the cynicism and hedonism of late Nineties Blairite Britain but her witty dispatches penned by Greek heroines to their absent menfolk are sent from another place, and another time. 

Another common thread is activism. Raymond Antrobus’s poetry is propelled by a politics of empathy: for giving voice to that which has been silenced for centuries. Elizabeth-Jane Burnett is an eco-poet whose first non-fiction work, The Grassling, is as much a dictionary of the soil as a memoir of her late father. Adam Weymouth, whose prose has been described as reminiscent of a young Robert Macfarlane, started out as an environmental activist. His debut Kings of the Yukon, in which he paddles two thousand miles through remote North America, home to the world’s longest salmon run, is a kind of direct action in itself. And Laura Bates, whose most recent work is a YA novel interweaving witch-hunts from our own century and its 17th century equivalent, is best known as a feminist campaigner and founder of the game-changing Everyday Sexism project. 

These are writers impossible to pin down in a fast-moving world. In their words we might find reflections of our own lives. We might find solace, challenge, understanding, escape, humanity, hope, and possibly even some answers to the eternal question of how we and the world that makes us might look in that foreign country known as the future. What we will certainly find, as Camus wrote, is life. And that’s all. 

Chitra Ramaswamy is an award-winning journalist and author. Her first book, Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy, was published by Saraband in 2016. It won the Saltire First Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Polari Prize. She contributed an essay to Nasty Women, The Freedom Papers and Message From The Skies, writes mainly for the Guardian.

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