Aug 14 2013

Book Blog: The Speech Writer

by Kathy Zhang

The Speech Writer by New Delhi and Karachi-based Pakistani artist, Bani Abidi, is a fictional account of a day in the life of a retired political speechwriter, in ten sequential flipbooks. Snugly encased in a rectangular yellow box, each of the palm-sized books, devoid of text, speaks to the fallibility of language.

With the rapid turning of each flipbook’s pages in turn, ones sees the artist enter the home of a grey-haired man, follow him into his study to witness him as he carefully selects a blue suit jacket and retrieves a printed document. Tapping the microphone, the man begins to speak.  In the street, a passerby pauses, gazing up idly at several loudspeakers installed along the building’s roof terrace which silently broadcast the man’s voice.

A time-stamped account of this brief meeting—which transpired over the course of two hours on a Tuesday afternoon—is printed on the box’s yellow surface in the imperfect letters of typewriter text, including the speechwriter’s own reflections on his past:

“I have written them all: campaign speeches, victory speeches, inaugural addresses and all the rest; many were broadcast live to the entire nation. Those were my words that reassured and spoke of change and made promises . . . I made those promises.”

Inside, each flipbook serves as a chapter in a story of a man whose life has been devoted to composing the rhetoric and ambitions of others. In his retirement, and for the first time in his life, the speechwriter is now the orator. But the neighbors and passersby, who are his only audience, devote little attention to his words, listening with mild curiosity and perhaps a certain level of amusement.

Abidi’s practice is concerned with the power struggles and cultural differences that exist across the Pakistani-Indian border. In The Speech Writer, the artist uses moving image—albeit in silence—to depict a quotidian event that demonstrates the disjuncture between movements and words.

While not overtly political, The Speech Writer hints nostalgically towards a bygone era of political idealism in India. In this book the reader can observe the curious nature of language which at times holds the power to define and move matter, while at others ceases to have any meaning at all:

“‘These are some of my best pieces. They were never used,’ he says, holding up a sheaf of papers. ‘I was told that they spoke of more than was needed.’”

The Speech Writer by Bani Abidi. Published by Raking Leaves, 2011.