OpEd: Words without borders

It’s World Poetry Day today (21 March). The French-American poet, playwright, translator, and editor Nathalie Handal, Visiting Associate Professor of Practice in Literature and Creative Writing at NYU Abu Dhabi, offers a personal perspective on value of words – especially at this time and in this place …

Literature in its many forms has stood the test of time, serving as a vital recorder of human experiences, emotions, and the evolving world around us. From the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh carved on stone tablets in ancient Mesopotamia to the contemporary works of globally celebrated authors, literature transcends geographical boundaries and cultural divides, uniting us in our shared humanity, and providing a snapshot of the place and the time that we write.

Spoken word stories and poetry does of course represent a Bedouin tradition that is reflected by new generations today. Its evolution reflects the unique, multicultural identity of the UAE, as the nation itself reflects a growing awareness that the centralised and too often Westernised view of what constitutes great literature needs to change.

In an increasingly interconnected world, the literary canon can no longer be confined to the traditional hubs of New York, London, or Paris. We live in a time where diverse voices and perspectives are essential in shaping the literary landscape.

Abu Dhabi is an ideal centre for this conversation. As a meeting place of people from many backgrounds, this city reflects the reality of a decentralised world. And through my years of visiting the UAE and teaching literature and creative writing at NYUAD, I have witnessed first-hand the rich tapestry of stories and perspectives that emerge from this diverse community.

My students, hailing from different corners of the world, are not mere recipients of literary knowledge: they are active participants in the creation of a body of literature that represents the UAE’s evolving identity. They, like any UAE-based writer or poet, are introducing new narratives, exploring their sense of self, and situating themselves in the world through their written works. By encouraging their stories to be told, we are archiving the UAE’s journey in history through literature.

The lens through which these students view the world is fascinating. With the emergence of an entire generation born and raised in the UAE, we are witnessing the formation of a distinct Emirati literature, comprising multiple languages and diasporic communities. This literature defies traditional boundaries and challenges the notion of a singular, homogeneous literary canon.

In this world of interaction, students learn from professors and each other. The classroom becomes a space for border crossings, where minds expand in unexpected ways, and writers become wordsmiths, translating emotions across languages, and finding new ways to connect. This process leaves no room for elitism or a centralised notion of what constitutes literary greatness.

Nathalie Handal

To celebrate the diversity of global literature, we recently hosted The City and the Writer: A Global Gathering, a convergence featuring renowned authors and poets from around the world. The event helped mark the 20th anniversary of my curation of “The City and the Writer” in Words Without Borders magazine, a literary magazine in the United States for global literature and translation. In this column, I interview writers from all over the world and ask them to give a glimpse into their city. I also ask them which writers from their respective cities they admire, and add dozens of names, to my map. Each have, and continue, to contribute to the rich tapestry of world literature, and each set their own standard of greatness, while elevating and expanding our understanding of what constitutes good literature.

The performance in Abu Dhabi included Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noire winner Alain Mabanckou, Academy of Athens Prise winner Amanda Michalopoulou, and Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang. Their presence reminded us of the power of connections between cultures and the inexhaustible nature of cities and stories.

At the heart of this event was the idea that a single piece of writing is a million pieces, each perceived and felt differently by every reader. One poem is a million poems, and one book is a million books.

This is what makes literature so beautiful – its ability to resonate universally, move freely through the world, and connect us to our shared humanity.


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