‘What are you going to do when you grow up?” It’s a question people dread because it always seems to carry a secret agenda, as if the questioner knows the right answer and is waiting for you to figure it out. Everyone has an opinion: your mother thinks you should be a doctor, your auntie thinks engineering is a safe bet, your best friend says law.
I was thinking about that question when I heard Sana Amanat speak as part of the Emirates Literature Festival. She’s an editor at Marvel Comics and best known for her role in bringing to life Ms Marvel, one of only a handful of female superheroes, and the first to be portrayed as Muslim American. Amanat grew up loving comic books but she never thought that “comic book editor” would be her grown-up job. She said she originally, and half-heartedly, thought she’d go to law school but much to the delight of comic-book lovers, she’s chosen a different path. A riskier path, to be sure, but one that may allow her to leave a lasting mark on pop culture.
Also at the festival, I heard Peter Frankopan talk about globalisation – in the ancient world, not our present context. In his evocation of ancient cities and trade routes, he argues for the pervasive and profound effects that the East had on the West (an inversion of the narrative that the West likes to tell about itself). His book, The Silk Roads, shows us that globalisation is not a new term but is almost as old as humanity itself, and that recent political and cultural upheavals may result in the balance of power shifting back to the East from the West. There’s another unexpected career path: re-writing the arc of western history.
You might expect that Amanat’s talk would be crowded – who wouldn’t want to listen to a hip young woman talk about comic books – but Frankopan’s talk was also packed. In fact, the entire festival was thronged: people of all sorts, queuing to buy books and have them signed, waiting for various author sessions to start, or just milling around looking at the different exhibits.
As a literature professor, I’m particularly inclined to love literature festivals, of course, and always try to make room for the book fairs in Abu Dhabi and in Sharjah, where this month the Sharjah Arts Foundation launched Biennal 13. But I don’t think that all those people at the Emirates Literature Festival were fellow faculty members, especially since there were lots of children roaming around, happily flipping through picture books. So who were those people, I wonder, and is an annual festival enough to foster a love of arts and culture? Festivals are wonderful celebrations, but maybe they also serve another purpose, which is to present people with a wider range of possible answers to “when I grow up”.
Arts and culture have the power to revitalise cities and create dynamic systems of exchange and development, as Frankopan traces in The Silk Roads; it’s when we engage with the arts that we develop the skills essential to grappling with 21st century problems.
The problem is, of course, that saying you want to be a writer, or an artist, or a comic book illustrator, or a musician when you grow up doesn’t always meet with the most supportive responses. As parents we want our children to be safe and secure, which are two words not usually associated with life in the arts. On the other hand, if people always played it safe, the silk roads would never have developed – or Ms Marvel.
A comic-book heroine may not represent the same level of achievement as establishing a global trade route, or curing cancer, that’s true. But then again, maybe the super-powers of Ms Marvel might inspire some young girl to think that even if she can’t defeat bad guys, she can still ace her chemistry exams – or decide that when she grows up, she’s going to be anything she wants to be.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi