The Writing’s on the Wall (GCSP editorial)

For the past six months, I have had the privilege of being the GCSP’s first Novelist-in-Residence.

During my time here as a Fellow, the seventh floor of the GCSP’s petal at the Maison de la paix has undergone major changes, starting with the name itself. No longer “Senior Management”, the lift takes you up to “The Creative Spark”. Has the Maison de la paix given up on ending war and been overrun by hippies?

The 7th floor’s main attraction used to be the Flag Room, representing the GCSP’s 46 member states and perhaps a more rigid — if more respectable? — approach. Now it’s a library featuring books on shelves that spell out THINK and ACT.

While the mandate to increase peace and stability has not changed, the Centre is experimenting with new tools and perspectives — not least by hosting mavericks such as myself. Fittingly, the room next to the new library is the Fellows’ Office. With its Global Fellows, the GCSP has added to its identity as think tank and executive training centre the vibe of a start-up co-working hub.

The-writing-s-on-the-wallWe can write on the walls. Move our desks around to enjoy the view of International Geneva’s architectural paragons. But the writing can be erased. After six months, what are my takeaways?

Looking back

Firstly, there is the place. As a writer working from my bedroom, leaving the house every morning in a presentable state, the act of actually going to work, has imposed a productive structure on my day. This may sound simple, but having an office can be a major draw for individuals who are self-employed, writing their doctoral thesis, or in transition.

It isn’t just any office space: both the strategic location, and the calibre of people passing through, make for an empowering launchpad. In a last-minute realisation that I should be getting snaps and interviews from the major international institutions for authentic story descriptions, I reached out to my new friends and, in the space of three days, was invited to the Palais des Nations, WTO, WHO, ITU, WIPO…

And it isn’t just any atmosphere. Before coming to Geneva, “security” and “policy” were not exactly terms that conjured up images of friendly faces or creativity. But at the GCSP, I’ve had the most pleasant as well as stretching exchanges with people I normally would not get to meet — at least not so thoroughly. It’s one thing bumping into such a person at a function. Co-working is quite another.

I’ve learned things here in a great variety of settings, formal and informal. From sitting in on public discussions and courses such as the recent one on Foresight and Strategic Planning, to a secretive roundtable on cybersecurity, to teaching a session in the first Creative Diplomacy course. I had taught creative writing before, but applying story to the world of military officers and policymakers has informed how my own craft can be applied to a wider context.

Even though I have not (yet) written books set in their world, anecdotes and gripes provide ample fodder for future stories. Marinating in this environment has broadened my horizons, inspired me to develop more personal excellence, and given me the confidence to take an even more active role in engaging with the 21st century’s challenges.

Looking forward

Even as I leave, the GCSP is welcoming a dozen new Fellows with vastly diverse profiles. There are reinforcements on every front, from the well-established Associate Fellows and Government Fellows to the burgeoning Doctoral Fellows, and our very first Young Leaders in Foreign and Security Policy.

Last week, I had some great conversations with the former Director of Intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. I’m disappointed not to have more time with new arrivals, but am happy to be handing over the creative-writerly baton to an Artist and Journalist-in-Residence.

I wish them all as enjoyable and stimulating a stay as I have had — and that they contribute to the writing on the wall.

Diplomacy gets Creative

Jyoti’s new article for the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in preparation for next week’s groundbreaking course!

The artist’s approach to saving the world

In September, the GCSP is hosting an innovative course on ‘Creative Diplomacy’. What can we expect? GCSP Novelist-in-Residence Jyoti Guptara will be teaching a session on Story as Influence.

Hi, Story: Fiction as a tool for lateral thinking

GCSP Director Ambassador Christian Dussey believes in learning from history — the obvious intersection between International Relations and story. As Churchill put it, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” So how about using fiction as a means of looking sideways?

The key area of convergence between writing fiction and the work of GCSP is conflict. If it weren’t for conflict, we would both be out of business. Conflict is the fuel of fiction (and defence budgets). No friction, no fiction. At least, nothing readable.

Going beyond the contribution of the arts to soft power, how would a storyteller make decisions? I will examine the question with a trusty storytelling device: beginning, middle and end.

Amb Narayanan, JGuptara, GCSP Creative Diplomacy Sept 2015

Jyoti Guptara with Ambassador Chitra Narayanan co-teaching at GCSP’s first Creative Diplomacy course

In the Beginning

Frequent advice on structuring stories runs like this. Act 1: Put your character in a tree. Act 2: Throw stones at her (and light the tree on fire). Act 3: Get her out of there. These are broad strokes. How do you come up with the dastardly details? Further advice for storytellers reads very nearly like preparation for political advisors, with the subtle difference of a word. Ah, words.

The novelist plans, while the advisor plans for, everything that can go wrong to go wrong. It’s strategic foresight. In the real world, this is where many solutions can be found before a situation develops. For instance, thinking like a novelist, policymakers could have asked: What potential troubles could arise from sending Iraqi security forces home? Ah. While brilliant minds are capable of recognising these threats entirely unaided, fiction can stretch, or add a little colour to the grey matter.

Whereas the state wants to pre-empt complications, of course, the novelist wants to prolong them, so let’s leave the advice at that…

The Muddy Middle

In order for our readers to care about our hero’s incredible ordeals, they need to care about our hero. They need to empathise. This is a key skill for policymakers.

We’ve been talking about ‘heroes’. While fiction necessitates a narrow cast of actors, often a likeable hero and a villain we love to hate, and of course reality is much more complex … Wait, is it? Often not in its portrayal.

At the 20th anniversary celebration of GCSP, Associate Fellows, journalists Souad Mekhennet and Janine di Giovanni, concurred that by presenting heroes and villains, the media has done a lot of damage. Take, for instance, the portrayal of the Arab Spring as a democratic uprising when most people would have been satisfied simply with an improvement to health care.

If both approaches suffer from the same symptoms, how does fiction help? Unlike journalism, reading fiction builds empathy by getting into the heads of people different from ourselves. If, say, policymakers had paused to consider how Iraqi security forces felt about being sent home (character motivations), perhaps we would have come to similar foresight as we did in exercise 1 (plot complications).

Soldiers are feeling shamed, so they might act to boost their bruised masculinity. They could beat their wives… They could form militias… Ah.

The point about empathy is understanding the essential principle that everyone is the hero of their own story. This awakens us to the fact that everyone has a story, a story conducive to — or even incompatible with — participation in the state.

Revelation preludes Resolution, the End

Finally, for happy readers and citizens, we need a creative resolution to our problems. Often accompanying our story’s climax and hence paving the way for a resolution is a revelation. The hero realises she must change a mindset or behaviour in order to succeed. If she changes, we have a happy ending. If she fails, it’s a tragedy.

The same thing happens in the real world. As Shakespeare said: “to hold, as ‘t were, the mirror the nature,” and make sense of it all. If only diplomacy would learn the same lessons.

To end diplomatic stalemates and avert future tragedies, consider applying for the course.

The GCSP’s motto is ‘Where knowledge meets experience’. The goal of this marriage is wisdom (or ‘strategic intelligence’.) By reading non-fiction, you arrive, if you’re lucky, at knowledge. By reading fiction and thinking like a writer, you could arrive at understanding.


Jyoti Guptara at Creativity in Education Conference

Jyoti Guptara teaches creative writing at College of Education St Gallen

Jyoti Guptara teaches creative writing at College of Education St Gallen

Last weekend, GCSP novelist-in-residence Jyoti Guptara spoke and taught at the Pädagogische Hochschule St. Gallen (PHSG). The British-Indian author, whose first book became a bestseller at the age of eighteen, was invited to a teacher training conference under the heading “Creativity – Learning for Tomorrow”. (See the Geneva Centre for Security Policy writeup on Jyoti’s event here.)

The topic was introduced with a skit illustrating the importance of innovation in education. As an example of discovering creative talent at schools, the act incorporated Guptara reading an excerpt from his first novel. (The author dropped out of school at the age of 15 to become one of the world’s youngest full-time writers.) The convention, co-organised by the St. Gallen Department of Education and the colleges of education in St. Gallen and Graubünden, drew together around 200 teaching professionals from across eastern Switzerland who wanted to explore how to encourage gifted students in the Swiss school system.

“The importance of storytelling skills is only going to grow,” Guptara concluded the segment on conveying context and coherence in an increasingly complex world. “Most opinions are formed by emotions, not facts. Story is a structure that delivers emotional impact. Everyone needs to know how to influence and inspire people. Not to mention the increasing demand for divergent thinking.”

The author held two rounds of seminars, combining story theory with tips on nurturing talent, developing new ideas, and how to be heard in a world of sensory overload. Finally, Jyoti Guptara joined artist Ruedy Schwyn in delivering some closing remarks from an interdisciplinary perspective.

After trying their own hand, the teachers were keen to use Guptara’s exercises themselves to promote and teach creative writing.

Jyoti’s first GCSP editorial

Jyoti’s first editorial went out with the newsletter of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and can be found on their site here.

“Earning liberty, enabling human security” by Jyoti Guptara

Does putting rights before responsibilities pose an impediment to development as well as a grass-roots danger? 
Jyoti Guptara, GCSP’s novelist-in-residence, examines the disconnect between rights rhetoric at an international level and the way people perceive and interpret them, and argues that culture is king when it comes to human security.

Dont-get-rd-earning-libertyInscribed over an arched entrance to the Central Secretariat of Lutyens’ Delhi is a quote by British writer Charles Caleb Colton: “Liberty will not descend to a people. A people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.” Is this simply imperialist rhetoric, or are we, in light of current global affairs, obliged to ask: can — must — liberty be earned?

The very question can offend postmodern sensibilities. Surely liberty is a ‘natural’ right, ever stolen by opportunistic oppressors. But with security being the exception rather than the norm for most people past and present, and disappointment fresh with our inability to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, clearly it isn’t enough to talk about rights. Indeed, what if focusing excessively on rights, in speech and practice, is precisely what prevents them from being realised?

Rather than decrying abuses, could we approach the issue from the other side and, instead, inspire responsibility? I would like to suggest returning to the foundational and politically incorrect question of what qualifies a people for liberty. What ultimately provides the social basis for stability and security? — considering it here briefly in relation to the most basic building block of society, the family, through the lens of gender relations.

Beyond the wrong kind of education

When asked how to achieve fulfilment of universal rights, ‘education’ tends to win most popularity contests. Can, however, education provide the social basis for security, when reportedly one in five women in American colleges are sexually assaulted? Six months ago, sexual violence at top universities reached a new low when fraternity members vocally defended and even promoted the existing rape culture at Yale. Evidently, intelligence and academic success alone do not qualify you to exercise liberty.

How, then, is focusing on rights counterproductive? Meta-narrative and confirmation bias would be the answer. When Yale students chanted “No means yes, yes means anal”, they were invoking a perverted sense of their ‘rights’. If a Darwinist narrative teaches men that to be masculine is to be a predator, should we be surprised if they begin to behave accordingly, hunting to meet perceived ‘needs’ with the self-justification of ‘natural law’? Beginning the discussion with rights and letting responsibility play second fiddle produces a culture of entitlement.

If we cannot, in the world’s safest countries, guarantee security even to privileged women studying in supposedly refined circles, surely something has gone wrong? What can we expect of such men when they graduate from abusing their own relative powerlessness at universities and get into positions of substantial power in corporations, governments and the military?

What can be done to undo a culture that thinks “I should be concerned primarily about my own might, which guarantees my own (perceived) rights” — subjectively defined, possibly over the legitimate rights of others? It can only be achieved by building, from the roots, a fresh culture of responsibility. How is this achieved? By replacing destructive beliefs: the ideas that rule the mind, and the values which shape action.

Rights vs Responsibility: A Call to Action

I once had the privilege of speaking with Cherie Blair at a dinner. While I commended the work of her Foundation for Women, I asked where empowering women entrepreneurs left their alcoholic, ignorant men. From the sort of rights’ perspective that has become normative in our society, Mrs Blair rebutted correctly to the gist of: Who cares?

The problem cannot be resolved, like a change of clothes, at the level of replacing one set of rights with another. Two worldviews are at war. The universally recognised human rights as applied to women come up against the local reality, in this case the perceived “rights of a man” to be served in traditional society. Perhaps so little progress is made because we are pitting one understanding of rights against another, effectively leaving us with a shouting competition?

Transformation agents typically target the victims, when the necessary transformation must take place within the perpetrators, who are after all causing the trouble. Inculcating a vague and uninspired sense of “responsibility to respect others’ rights” is powerless to turn an aggressor into an ally. Nor can we appeal to reason; conflicts are rarely solved on the basis of rationality. We need a shift in perceived identity — an alternate worldview. We need to tap into and redirect emotions.

What if rights fail to tap the right emotions? Rights by nature have to do with the individual. And so rights-based thinking, for better and worse, inevitably fosters individualism. This in turn can lead to self-groupings for advantage and, where that isn’t possible, to fatalism and passivity.

While in the case of negative rights there are real victims and perpetrators, unfulfilled positive rights often foster hostility towards an imagined perpetrator, when in fact there is merely the absence of an unassigned saviour. Without an already instilled appreciation for the nuances surrounding such definitions, the very vocabulary of ‘rights’ leaves us at the passive level of non-infringement in the case of negative rights, and of self-victimisation in the case of positive rights. (Rights are something others owe me. If my rights aren’t delivered, I’m a victim — and there must be a perpetrator.) Entitlement turns to resentment and revenge.

Responsibility, on the other hand, is other-centric and proactive. It reframes the conversation in a positive light, issuing a call-to-arms. Rather than trying to re-educate, therefore, we must circumvent the mind and attempt a “change of heart”. This could actually be good news, because education is expensive, and stories are free. We need not send problematic segments of society to more sophisticated schools. We need only sell them a story that inspires a shift of allegiance.

Predator, or Protector?

To posit a responsibility rather than rights-based approach, let us try adopting the meta-narrative that Darwinism replaced: that of humanity tending a garden. In Eden, humans are gardeners surrounded by budding beauty, which they nurture and protect. A hunter, on the other hand, has no responsibility to the wilds. He takes what he can find. While a hunter uses his power to destroy prey (rape), a gardener uses his tools to tend (respect). These are two diametrically opposed attitudes towards the use of power. Applied to gender relations, what if our cultural meta-narrative reframed the notion of masculinity from predator to protector?

This concept of responsible masculinity empowers rather than emasculates men, who will be more likely to themselves empower rather than violate others. For the space of this piece, we have looked at gender relations, but such a positive-proactive shift in identity is equally relevant to other issues. Our alternate meta-narrative is as needed in developed and developing countries, and could be applied, say, to solving the problem of underperforming boys in school (a precursor for juvenile delinquency and crime).

Harnessing meta-narratives to  co-opt the victim-perpetrator

Could it be that every state’s most strategic responsibility is to nurture its people’s capacity for liberty?

When this root condition for human security is unmet, any amount of ‘security’ remains an exercise in fighting symptoms, and must over the long haul constitute a losing battle.

Only a people who self-govern can be peacefully governed. When self-control is lost, control must be imposed by force. In an age of technology and terror, antagonistic individuals and rebellious minorities pose a disproportionately larger security threat than ever before. Does responsibility-based thinking have the potential to co-opt rather than sideline victim-perpetrators?

If so, at a time when it is of paramount importance to address security at a human level, what should policymakers be doing to diminish resentment and foster responsibility on a personal level?

Suresh has earned his stripes!

Promotion ceremony speech

Suresh addressing newly minted First Lieutenants of the Swiss Armed Forces and guests at graduation ceremony

After 600 days in uniform, first lieutenant Suresh Guptara has completed his compulsory national service as a decorated war veteran – erm, neutral Swiss Army officer!

Stay tuned for news about the twins’ next residency at Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), an advisory body and training hub for its 46 member states, from April 2015.

Essay in Wasafiri

For its 30th anniversary edition, Wasafiri commissioned a piece on my creative influences. Published quarterly, Wasafiri is Britain’s premier magazine for international contemporary writing. Thanks for the kind invitation to contribute! I hope you enjoy the essay, “Quest for Immortality”, which you can read here. Cheers, Jyoti

Calaspia auf Deutsch wieder erhältlich

Eine Weile lang waren die “Calaspia”-Bücher vergriffen. Nun sind sie wieder erhältlich im Online-Shop von ProfiBooks für SFr. 28.90 pro Band (inkl. Versand)!

Chretzeturm Fellowship at Stein Am Rhein

Suresh and Jyoti Guptara are honoured to be invited from October – December 2010 as the Artists in Residence of the City of Stein Am Rhein, a prestigious cultural patronage. During this time, they will live and write in the Chretzeturm, a four storey tower from the 12th century.

City’s German info on the Twins’ stay:

Writing 4th Novel Resident at Delhi University

From January – March 2010, Suresh & Jyoti are Resident Authors at the prestigious St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, where they are writing their fourth book.  As of now, the only public knowledge is that this 4th novel does not continue the Insanity Saga, being completely unrelated to the world of the Calaspia trilogy.

NRI Conference PBD2010

In Delhi, Suresh & Jyoti Guptara attend the “Pravasi Bharatiya Divas”, the annual conference for NRIs (Non Resident Indians) organised by the Government of India. It seeks to reconnect the Indian Diaspora with the motherland in terms of intellectual and emotional as well as financial investment.

Speakers included Prime Minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh, President of India H.E. Pratibha Patil, and Chief Minister of Delhi Sheila Dikshit – who was Guest of Honour at the debut book launch of the Guptara Twins’  Conspiracy of Calaspia in 2006!