TranscriptQuestion: Why have you been sending books to the Canadian prime minister?
Yann Martel: Yes, exactly, especially fiction. Why? Because fiction, art, is the best way to explore the other. So, one of the books that I sent Prime Minister Harper of Canada, was "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison, which is about a 12-year-old black girl in urban Ohio, I think in the ‘50’s. And that as far from Stephen Harper’s, who was an empowered, white, middle-aged male in Canada, that’s as far as far a distance likely as you can get in North America. Well, no matter, you read that novel, you read "The Bluest Eye," and you are that 12-year-old black girl from a highly dysfunctional, African-American family. So for a few pages, you’ve been that black girl. The same thing with, you know, Zora Neale Hurston, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," wonderful language, you are an African-American speaking in the African-American vernacular. You read, "Maus," by Art Spiegelman, another book I sent Harper, you are a Jew in Europe during the Holocaust.
So if a world leader does not read fiction, how do they know what it means to be the other? In a broad, emotional way, not just factually, you read here, another one, Chinua Achebe, "Things Fall Apart," a fantastic, fantastic Nigerian novel about the encounter between Nigeria and England during the time of colonialism. How one flawed society met another flawed society, it’s an amazingly powerful, even-handed... it’s not a screed against colonialism, it’s extraordinarily even handed about the tragedy of two people that met who did not manage to meet each other, did not manage to communicate. If you don’t read any of that kind of stuff, how do you know the world? How do you know the possibilities of the world? How can you understand the other? Therefore, how can you get your vision? What kind of blinkered vision do you have if you’ve never read a novel, a poem, a play?
You know, we can’t be led by people—and let’s be accurate here, what I’m naming here are middle class, white males—we can’t be led by middle class, white males who have no vision beyond a technocratic, economic vision. Otherwise, they will lead us like, as if we were a corporation where the bottom line is profit. And the bottom line of society, of us as a people, an American people, a Canadian people, a Paraguayan people, what you want, is not an economic bottom line, it’s a cultural one, it’s an existential one. And that economics is one part of it, you cannot have governments that care nothing about economics, that would be crazy. But you can’t just be about economics. You know, it has to be about "What are we here for?" And we are here to be together, to talk, to try to understand life.
You know, culture is not just money for the National Endowment for the Arts. Culture is everything, of which the economy is only a component. So a leader who knows nothing about the arts, to me, that is scary. And so look at Barack Obama, bless the man, he wrote to me, he wrote me a letter about "Life of Pi." I’m not even American, he had nothing to gain, he just wrote to me because he liked my book and he wrote to me. And look at his language, look at his vision. I’m not saying that because you read books you will be a good leader. If that were so, you know, literary, you know, reviewers at the New York Times would all be presidents. No, that’s not the case, but, so, it’s not that readers make, reading makes you a leader, but to lead, you must have read. To lead you must read, because that nourishes your vision. So that’s what I’m trying to point out in this campaign, which there’s a blog, WhatIsStephenHarperReading.com, one word, what is Stephen, Stephen with a P-H, it’s a blog, you’ll see all the letters I’ve written, with the books that I send him every two weeks, and it asks people, "What do we want of our leadership?" I think we want people who have a breadth of vision that you get by reading.
Question: Has he responded to you?
Yann Martel: No, not at all, I’ve received five replies from his office, none from the man himself. And as I said, the contrast between Barack Obama, to whom I’ve never written, who writes to me, a handwritten note. I must be the first person in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to get a letter from the sitting president of the United States. One handwritten note from my own prime minister, to whom I’ve sent 79 books with 79 letters—nothing. The contrast couldn’t be starker.
Recorded April 13, 2010