Yann Martel: ‘Transgression is central to art’

I think transgression is central to art. In art you cross borders and I’ve done that
constantly in my fiction. So, for example, my first book was a collection
of short stories and in it were the main stories about two students, one of whom as a result
of a blood transfusion gets AIDS and he slowly spirals towards death. And the two encounter each other. His friend visits him every week in the hospital
and they start telling themselves a story set in Finland about this Italian family in
Finland. And to give it backbone they say that each
episode in the story of that family must resemble one historical episode of the twentieth century. So in the first episode of this family, the
Helsinki’s of Roccamatios it has to imitate 1901. And in 1901 Queen Victoria died. So in the family, in the Helsinki family Roccamatios
the patriarch dies. So it creates this parallel. And so right away you have a setting here. Here I’m a Canadian writer and I’m writing
about a fictitious Italian family in Finland and they’re using historical parallels that
come from all over the world. Right away I’m exploring realities that
are different from mine. It’s even more obvious with my next book
which is my first novel called Self. In Self you have a boy who’s traveling,
he’s backpacking, he’s 17. He’s starting very young. And on his eighteenth birthday he wakes up
and he’s a girl, he’s a young woman. And he’s a young woman for seven years. And then he becomes a man again. And his gender orientation starts to vary
too. Initially when he’s a young woman he’s
thinking as a heterosexual male so he’s attracted to women. So sorry, she’s attracted to women. And then slowly her orientation starts to
shift and she’s attracted rather uncomfortably to young men. And the first time she kisses a young man
the first thought that pops into her head is I’m gay. Because in her mind, in her thinking she’s
still a male and she’s kissing a male therefore she’s gay. But in fact she has the body of a woman. So conventionally she’s heterosexual. And then when she switches back to a man again
once again the slide takes place. And so there I was very obviously exploring
a front, a border that I haven’t crossed myself. With my mind I went somewhere else. I was interested in exploring what it means
to be a man, what it means to be a woman, where does sexual orientation come from. I was exploring the idea that the body is
an environment to which we adapt. Just as people adapt to hot climates to cold
climates we adapt to our bodies. So there’s a very obvious example of transgression. I went with my mind where I couldn’t with
my own body. And the point of that is that with the empathetic
imagination we can go where nothing else can go. And therefore we can bring back truths that
you can’t actually bring back factually. And I’ve continued that with my other books. Life of Pi of course is a story of an Indian
boy in a lifeboat with a tiger in the Pacific. None of those are true to me. I’m neither Indian. I’ve never been a castaway. I’ve never been in close proximity to a
cat, to a big cat, to a tiger. The High Mountains of Portugal set in Portugal
in the twentieth century featuring people that I am not. I think most art is a kind of transgression
where we explore the other to find out what it means to be the other so that ultimately
we find out what it means to be ourselves. Because we are who we are in relation to others. But the key thing is the empathetic imagination
and the empathetic imagination is the great traveler. And travel doesn’t necessarily cross borders. And not only do they have to but it’s a
thrill to do so. It’s a thrill encountering the other.

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