A lie told too many times can become a truth. But a truth repeated for too long can also continue its life as a joke. This is how the “real issues” concept turned into a joke-by-repetition in Georgia: for some time, we have been griping about “not talking about real issues” more than discussing real issues themselves. The theme was first introduced as a criticism of neverending, petty political infightings that preferred to focus on “made-up issues” while ignoring the most pressing concerns plaguing large parts of the population (the “real issues”). And let’s not deny it, it is always the economic concerns, topping the lists of public concerns, that come to mind when hearing the term.
But who can resist the human urge to turn everything into a weapon for exclusion? Many a time, the seekers of “real issues” have turned to dismiss others’ concerns as “non-real” (with the rights of smaller groups particularly affected).
But, strangely, the real issues don’t conform to strict categorization. We’ve seen repeatedly how things termed “non-issues” can quickly become real things. Just think about the latest disaster that elevated climate change – previously a laughingstock for many a high-browed Georgian – from ‘someone else’s problem’ to the most burning – and tragic – concern. And that’s not an exception.
Here is Nini, and the Dispatch, to update you about real things that can come at us – really fast.
Poets and Pendulum
When preparing our annual Year in Review, we quoted Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili’s controversial remarks about… poetry. “Today, someone may think – I see journalists here, and I am sure that’s what they think – why poetry? There are these other relevant issues in the country, this country is divided, and why is there a time for poetry…” she fumbled somewhat chaotically, feeling the inevitability of the cynical backlash while hosting a poetry event in December. Zurabishvili, whose transition from the most-hated person to a liberal darling was still incomplete at the time, got what she expected full in the face. Then – as is the rule in a society with the attention span of Dory the fish – the controversy was forgotten.
Yet those remarks were perhaps the most symptomatic of the times the country was living in. “Georgia is a country of poetry,” famous Georgian author Aka Morchiladze said four years earlier as he introduced his country’s culture during an opening ceremony of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2018. But he was not fishing for an elevated metaphor, no. With characteristic irony, he spoke about the trauma: “To write a novel, one needs time, a table, some paper, you need to sit down and think,” the author went on. But in times of wars, of which Georgians fought a lot, a poem was, he argued, simply quicker to write “on a piece of paper placed on one’s knee, if need be.”
So why have Georgians stopped having time for poetry? Did they forget that it was supposed to resolve the lack of time problem? Or is it that the “state of war” comes with economic struggles when aspiring and even established authors have to take several jobs to support their creative endeavors? No wonder the thickest novels mainly come from writers based abroad.
But the war these days also comes with confusion over the role of art and culture: should literature be an integral part of social life and its growth, or should we mainly regard it as a source of aesthetic pleasure that can indefinitely wait?
While the president tried to pose that question, another powerful woman was finding she had all the time for culture. Tea Tsulukiani puts the Ministry into culture as nobody else can – with the zeal of purpose. She has been traveling the country, enthusiastically attending the plays in regional theaters as if to assure those outside the capital that she is the only benefactor who acknowledges their cultural needs. Yet those missionary trips have also kept her away from the big mess she’s been making in the capital city, where cultural life has been previously – and traditionally – concentrated. Her office has been on a mission – to bind the cultural institutions with one purpose – hers. These institutions – formally under the Ministry of Culture but statutorily independent – have been picked out one by one. The museums, the film center, and, finally, the Writers’ House. The experts that are considered to be critical, too independent-minded, or insufficiently subservient have been purged. At times, the administrative fig leaf of “reorganization” has been brandished; at other times, a convenient “audit report” just happened to land on the Ministers’ desk.
After the tenure of Nata Lomouri, head of the House of Writers, expired on August 7, the Minister decided to replace her with her close ally, MP from the ruling party, Ketevan Dumbadze. While the appointment looks to be both legal (unlike many of Tsulukiani’s earlier decisions) and somewhat predictable, it still came as a shock to many writers and publishers.
Supporters have known Dumbadze as the daughter of much-loved writer Nodar Dumbadze and someone with experience in literature-related projects. On the other hand, her critics and probably most of the rest of the country got to know her as one of the lawmakers who voted for the widely-resented and oppressive “foreign agent” bill in March that was supposed to run most of the country’s civic associations out of business.
In a country where the history of repressed writers remains a huge unhealed trauma, this kind of background, expectedly, raised serious qualms. Lomouri made the House of Writers into a service center and a place to help and promote Georgian writers on the international stage. But the ghost of two-minuters-of-hate when colleagues denounced anti-Soviet writers and the spirit of Paolo Iashvili, who shot himself rather than denounce his friend, still haunts those halls.
Who’s ready to write a novel?
In Georgia, it often happens that controversies give rise to conversations that one should have had a long time ago. But now that we have them, it feels too late and too awkward.
As many authors and publishers were lining up to sign protest letters against the minister, others started asking what the Georgian literature was up to, anyway? What is one supposed to expect or demand from Georgian authors these days?
Some critics on the left, for example, complained that large parts of leading authors have detached themselves from social struggles around them, withdrawn into their comfort zone, and seem unbothered by them, or at least unwilling (or unable?) to lead the discussion around these issues. While denouncing the government’s potential censorship, these voices argue, many authors remain oblivious to what amounts to “market censorship” – to a more subtle but no less substantial way in which capitalist power relations interfere with their creative work.
Those on the other side retort that what looks like a “comfort zone” from the outside is a reflection of the writers’ struggles to make ends meet and reach their readers. And, anyway, isn’t being free from mundane or political expectations the essence of creative freedom, as opposed to demands of socialist realism to reflect and advance social struggle?
There were also those warning against viewing contemporary authors as a homogeneous group while overlooking strong diversity in their perspectives.
The calls for a nuanced view were, alas, doomed by social media algorithms, and the trench warfare raged rowdily on. But let’s allow ourselves a pause here, in our little space that seeks no publicity.
Over the past years, various copies of social-themed prose made it to Georgian bookshelves. Think of Blackbird, Blackbird, Blackberry – a 200-page novel by Tamta Melashvili taking the storytelling from the over-explored Tbilisi courtyards to the life of an aging single woman in the countryside. It found a voice that resonated with countless women in their daily battles (What is Georgian women’s worst fear when death comes knocking on their door? That neighbors find their body in an uncleaned room). The book was recently adapted into a film that is sweeping international awards.
Or think of Courier’s Tales, the real-life memoir of the devoted theater actor whose inability to make a living with his profession forces him into a delivery gig. The slim volume, depressing and entertaining at the same time, has been lauded for bringing readers to remote corners of the sprawling capital city and showing the real woes of its inhabitants.
And Georgia needs more. It needs more stories. It needs more words, too, capable of weaving the vital, magic, free spaces for those who suffocate in the seventy thousand square kilometers of the country’s territory. The potential is there. All it takes is more talents who can afford “time for poetry” and, in a longer perspective, who knows, the time needed for the novels, too.
And all it takes is politics, where art is neither privilege nor an instrument of power. Subjecting public agencies to strict party rule, alienating free thinkers, and keeping alive the tradition where beautiful things are reserved for “somebody’s children” (the current term is ‘nepo babies’, we hear) won’t be helpful on that mission.