The Global Soul

Imagining the Cosmopolitan

March 27-28, 2017
Presented in collaboration with the Bath Spa Centre for Transnational Creativity and Education

“The assumption that people will live their lives in one place, according to one set of national and cultural norms, in countries with impermeable national borders, no longer holds. Rather, in the 21st century, more and more people will belong to two or more societies at the same time….Transnational migrants work, pray, and express their political interests in several contexts rather than in a single nation-state. Some will put down roots in a host country, maintain strong homeland ties, and belong to religious and political movements that span the globe. These allegiances are not antithetical to one another.” —Migration Policy Institute, Washington, D.C.

Today it seems as if the world is in the midst of multiple national identity crises—countries are in retreat from the global, withdrawing behind closing borders. In times of heightened political tension, identity as nationhood becomes an either/or question. What are you? Are you with us or against us?

So where does that leave the transnational, the person with more than one home? And where does it leave broader notions of cosmopolitanism, the idea that we can all, wherever we are born and under whatever conditions, choose to be “citizens of the world,” to develop and maintain ethical, cultural and political relations across national borders? Today cosmopolitans and transnationals find themselves at the center of a political debate of growing urgency.

Just as with greatness the modern transnational may be born transnational or achieve transnationalism or have transnationalism thrust upon them. He or she may be an immigrant or have immigrant parents or maybe a refugee or someone with parents from two nations, but crucially chooses to retain links with both countries, often moving between the two, actively claiming more than one culture, locality and home. Asked: “Who are you?” The transnational produces a multiplicity of answers relating to nationality and ethnicity and sees no contradiction.

From this nexus comes a new set of voices in literature, music and theatre. Says the writer Kapka Kassabova (Bulgaria/New Zealand/Scotland): “These writers’ worlds are cosmopolitan, yet pungently rooted in specific reality, with all the quirks of place and personality. Cosmopolitanism mustn’t be confused with Coca-Cola. It doesn’t have to breed cultural homogeneity. It is the freedom to come and go, or indeed stay, without the urge to wave a flag.”

Transnationalism is not new, but the conditions of transnationalism are changed due to the greater ease of the flow of capital, including human capital, transport and communication links. And the rise in the numbers of transnationals in the last century poses a challenge to political leaders currently pursuing increasingly nationalist policies. In all but a very few countries the collision of racial, political, geographic, and cultural identities of national cultures is no longer realistic.

The themes across the symposium will explore cosmopolitanism and the transnational identity and will question the future of the single, national identity in an irrevocably changed world.

—Aminatta Forna, Symposium Director


John Freeman
Xiaolu Guo
Aleksandar Hemon
Kapka Kassabova
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Taiye Selasi
Kamila Shamsie

Schedule of Events

Monday, March 27

7:00 PM | Copley Formal Lounge
Keynote Speech by Aleksandar Hemon
Moderated by Andria Wisler, Executive Director, Center for Social Justice
Book Signing & Reception to follow

Tuesday, March 28

9:00 AM | Copley Formal Lounge
Coffee & Breakfast

9:30 AM | Copley Formal Lounge
Writing in Englishes 
Aleksandar Hemon, Xialou Guo, Kapka Kassabova, Chaired by John Freeman
Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, Buchi Emecheta, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Chinua Achebe, Samuel Beckett, Jumpha Lahiri, Kazuo Ishiguro, Yiyun Li: multilingual writers across the decades have made artistic, practical, and sometimes political decisions about the language they write in. Three writers who have chosen to write in English as a second, third, or even fourth language discuss that choice, and how thinking and writing in more than one language influences the style, narrative, and themes of their work as well as those of contemporary English language literature.

11:00 AM | Copley Formal Lounge
The Canon: Do Countries Need a National Literature? 
Kamila Shamsie, Kapka Kassabova, John Freeman, Chaired by Mark McMorris
“The very construct ‘national literature’ is an expression of a nostalgic desire for a home that can be written in terms of nation,” says writer Kapka Kassabova (Bulgaria/New Zealand/UK). Kassabova, together with Kamila Shamsie (Pakistan/UK), and editor John Freeman discuss whether the notion of a national literature, bound by physical borders, is increasingly redundant in a world of migration and cross cultural exchange.

2:00 PM | Copley Formal Lounge
 The Sporting Spirit: Does Sport Unite or Divide? 
Aleksandar Hemon, Kamila Shamsie, Brendan Tuohey, Chaired by Dave Zirin
“I am always amazed,” wrote George Orwell in his essay The Sporting Spirit, “when I hear people say that sport creates goodwill between nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world would meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to to meet on the battlefield.” Soccer fan Aleksandar Hemon witnessed how soccer fan clubs became the recruiting ground for nationalist militias in the Yugoslav wars. Cricket aficionado Kamila Shamsie writes and talks about the intersection of sport and politics. Brendan Tuohey uses basketball as a means towards conflict resolution. The three panelists discuss what happens when sport meets politics.

3:30 PM | Copley Formal Lounge
Going Global, Staying Local: How to Be Cosmopolitan
Viet Thanh Nguyen, Taiye Selasi, Xialou Guo, Chaired by Fathali Moghaddam
In a time of fanaticism and intolerance what does it mean to think as a citizen of the world? What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity? Are cosmopolitanism and nationalism mutually exclusive? Is cultural purity an oxymoron? Or, are humans naturally tribal? A panel of writers, each able to claim more than one national identity, discuss these and other questions with psychologist Fathali Moghaddam.

5:00 PM | Copley Formal Lounge
Authors’ Reading
Kamila Shamsie, Taiye Selasi, Kapa Kassabova, Xialou Guo, John Freeman, Introduction by Bambo Soyinka

7:30 PM | Gaston Hall
An Evening with Viet Thanh Nguyen, Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Hosted by Lannan Chair of Poetics Aminatta Forna
Book Signing & Reception to follow on Healy’s second floor corridor.

All events will take place on Georgetown University’s campus. They are free and open to the public. 


March 27th | Keynote Speech by Aleksandar Hemon

March 28th | Writing in the Englishes

March 28th | The Canon: Do Countries Need a National Literature?

March 28th | The Sporting Spirit: Does Sport Unite or Divide?

March 28th | Going Global, Staying Local: How to be Cosmopolitan

March 28th | Authors’ Reading

March 28th | An Evening with Viet Thahn Nguyen