Wednesday 28 January 2015

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I’m in the final third of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, the second book in a trilogy that also includes Oryx and Crake and MaddAddam. Readers and fellow bloggers know how keen I am on the Canadian author’s writing.

However, my post tonight is not about Atwood’s writing per se but about a peculiar phenomenon I have noticed quite often but which until now I had not dared to mention.

As I said before Margaret is Canadian and yet you would be hard pressed to find traces of her nationality in her oeuvre. I checked the handful of books I own, which does not necessarily mean they are the only ones I have read by her. The Blind Assassin, The Edible Woman and her magnum opus, The Handmaid’s Tale. Of all these, the second one might be the only that comes close to providing a Canadian setting with Canadian characters. But the story it tells is so universal that it transcends its geographical borders (if any).

Atwood: universal writing
This subject of “author semi-separated from her/his own immediate reality” played on my mind as I recalled recently an essay by the Nigerian novelist BenOkri (I have never read any of Ben Okri’s books; however I have read his essays and articles before). In it, the African writer looked at the ways authors from “ethnic” backgrounds are portrayed (some would even say “marketed”). I found Ben’s column interesting as I, an avid reader, have very often wondered the same.

For Mr Okri some people “read Flaubert for beauty, Joyce for innovation, Virginia Woolf for poetry and Jane Austen for psychology”. I shall leave you to assess the veracity of that sentence. However, writers from backgrounds considered to be “ethnic” (for example, Asian and African to mention two) are read for subjects that define and focus on their immediate reality. To wit, a black author’s book will be read for her/his portrayal of “slavery, colonialism, poverty, civil wars, imprisonment and female circumcision”.

I went back to my bookshelf to test Okri’s theory and he was right. At least in regards to my small collection. There they were: the Rushdies, Chimamandas, Morrisons (as in Toni), Levys, Walkers (as in Alice) and Hosseinis. Their works either portrayed stories set in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Jamaica, US and India or had characters that were originally from these countries.

This is where Ben’s essay comes into the picture. I agree with him when he avers that “The black and African writer is expected to write about certain things, and if they don’t they are seen as irrelevant”. I disagree when he states that this repetition can render their fiction monotonous. To me repetition doesn’t equate monotony (I love JS Bach and a lot of the music he composed was based on repetition). But I do worry about capability. Is the writer using the same setting and the same nationalities because she or he can’t do better?

My answer to my own rhetorical question is no. The (sur)names I mentioned above speak for themselves when it comes to top quality writing. However, I would not be lying if I told you that every time I open a novel or a collection of short stories by Salman Rushdie I expect to find at least two Asian characters in it, if not more. I would be telling porkies if I said that when I read Andrea Levy I do not have the sound of Jamaican patois ringing in my ears.

This predictability is my dilemma. As I mentioned before being predictable has very little effect on quality. But as Mr Okri asks: “Who wants to constantly read a literature of suffering, of heaviness?” Surely not the Nigerian or Afghani since that is their reality. I agree with Ben, it is the western reader whose surroundings do not resemble north-eastern Nigeria or Taliban-threatened Afghanistan. The “ethnic” writer tries to reflect the reality of her or his country through the kaleidoscope of fiction. Yet, one of the outcomes of their endeavour is that they provide a form of “escapism” to the western reader. Thus a cycle, chain, system, conveyor belt, you name it, is formed. You “ethnic” writer feed, I, western reader, consume.

What happens if the author decides not to confront their immediate reality?

In vain I searched my shelves for an example to answer that question. I hear that Chimamanda Ngozi’s latest novel, Americanah, changes settings, in that one part of the book takes place in the States. But it still contains Nigerian characters, a very Nigerian plot and the other part is set in Lagos. I’m not knocking Chimamanda, who I think is one the better writers I have read in the last ten years. Nevertheless, read the blurb for Americanah and you will see what I mean: race, identity, military dictatorship and flight are all mentioned. Go back now to Ben Okri’s earlier point. What complicates matters more is that writers like Chimamanda are quite rightly acknowledged for their creativity. Ngozi’s books have been longlisted for the Booker Prize, won the Orange Prize for Fiction and been selected by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association and the BBC Short Story Awards.

These accolades pose a question: if a writer is having the success they deserve, writing what they know about, why would they change tact? Why would they go looking for subjects on which they might not have as much knowledge?

As a reader, my response would be: because as Ben Okri rightly says, literature’s basic prerequisite is mental freedom. Both for reader and writer. Especially when it comes to demanding readers. Orangesfrom Spain is a superb collection of short stories by the Irish writer David Park. After I finished reading it, I wanted more. But when I searched for more of his books, I realised that all he ever wrote about was Northern Ireland. No matter how beautiful and nuanced his use of language is, I felt somewhat put off.

Mental freedom for the writer carries a danger sign, though. If she or he finds success writing about a particular subject, the public will most likely want them to stick to that subject. Variations on the same topic, like a Kundera, for instance, work wonders. If they so much as deviate one iota from the formula their readers have created for them, the writer will pay the heaviest price: at the till.

I have not even gone into the issue of credibility. That means writer’s credibility when they write about a subject they are not known for or which does not tick one of their identity boxes, i.e., Irish writer writing about something other than Ireland, US writer writing about something other than racism, Latin writer writing about something other than immigration. All of a sudden, we, readers, transform ourselves into judges and experts. That is another can of worms which I might be tempted to open on another occasion. In the meantime, I shall leave you tonight with these reflections to digest. I can’t wait to read your comments.

© 2015

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 1st February at 10am (GMT)


  1. Excellent, thought provoking post! By coincidence I'm currently reading and loving Americanah. It was not what I expected from the title. The book opens in the US but then shift to Nigeria with the focus on repatriotism. I'd recommend it first and foremost for the beautiful writing and for the strong MC who breaks all stereotypes both in her country and mine. Race is only part of the story.

    It's true that many non-white authors are known for writing about race and conflict, but there are notable exceptions. One of my favorite literary authors Haruki Murakami sets his books in his native Japan but he is known worldwide as the master of the surreal. In the UK, Kazuo Ishiguro captures the British so well and he is ethnically Japanese. In the USA bestseller authors Tess Gerristen and EL James are ethnically Chinese American and write genre fiction, which I haven't read, but my understanding is that those books are not about race. YA author Jenny Han is ethnically Korean American but her popular debut trilogy was about white characters, although she has Asian characters in her more recent books. I do need to dig deep for counter examples.

    Authors should be free to be storytellers and not bound by their skin color, ethnicity or nationality as long as they are willing to do more research and use their imagination. Nobody ever accuses an author for writing outside of race when she writes about vampires!

  2. How right you are. Which I had never properly considered before. Thank you. Writers can be locked into a genre too. Think J.K Rowling - who used a pseudonym to branch into crime fiction. And how sad that she felt she had to.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful, thought provoking post!

  4. I take your point - but, as a white middle class woman, I love getting away from white middle class angst. I also think than Americanah - while the plot focuses on Nigerian identity, raises so many questions about how we see ourselves and each other that it rises above anything that can be described as 'ethnic wiriting'.

  5. Nice essay. I was thinking of James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room" while reading it. He was criticized as his publisher wanted another 'Harlem Novel" and he wrote a novel in France without any reference to race. Of course, the sexuality was something he experienced although that wasn't talked about in the 1950s. I suppose we write what we know. I need to read Americanah.

  6. Can sure get stuck in one spot as branching out leads to a lot of criticism. But different I'd rather take than the same old same old

  7. Siempre ves las cosas en el más allá, buena reflexión, pues lo cierto que no conozco a esta escritora, con lo cual me abres una puerta de búsqueda.
    Un abrazo.

  8. I definitely need to read some Ben!

  9. hmmm i wonder if they are irrelevant....each of us writes from our own viewpoint and prejudices....we all have them...maybe they are preferences...i do think it is harder to take on a different perspective from what you of the writing maxims is to write what you know....but then again, you can research...but i know many that come off flat trying to....

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  11. Sometimes I have to make a thorough research or ask around before I write something because I know all of us have different points of view. Thanks for sharing this. Something to really think about. :)

  12. Wow Cubano, Part 1

    Just an explosion of thoughts right now. I'll do my best to be concise and if not that, at least cogent.

    It's indeed a thought-provoking piece. I think I'm most inclined to agree with Brian's comments. I'm not familiar with any of Margaret Atwood's books. (I have read Ben Okri's 'Famished Road' but elements of that are so fantastical that although it's set in Nigeria, it departs from the reality most of us would recognise, whatever culture). However because she doesn't ostensibly set her novels in Canada doesn't mean her writing is any more 'neutral' or divorced from the culture with which she is familiar. None of us grow up in a vacuum and our worldview, whether overtly or subtly, will be informed by our various experiences. This will in turn be reflected in the work one produces whether they are working with what they know or trying to get away from it. Thus unless I'm quoting him out of context-and please pull me up if I am-I disagree with Barthes notion of the author being dead. Even the aforementioned Kazuo Ishiguro, although born in Japan, has spent most of his life in the UK. He'd probably more conversant with British social mores than with Japanese or at least as much so. If anything what is remarkable is how he seems to capture an era that would otherwise be alien to him such as in 'Remains of the Day' (not that any of us can be true experts on war time Britain not having lived through it. Research can only get you so far). It's one reason as a British born and raised African, that when I do attempt writing fiction I don't often make the ethnicity of my protagonists explicit unless it's especially relevant. I don't want to be perceived as writing from a 'West African' perspective, whatever that is, or being the 'voice' of Nigerians/Ghanaians of a certain age when I didn't grow up there. If anything I'm more familiar with what it is to be a Londoner etc. It's one reason I object to categories such as 'African Literature' (not unless we are going to speak of 'European literature' in the same generalised terms). Too easily if you're from a certain background you get pigeonholed, as you mentioned. Some don't mind playing up to it. The question is perhaps, why are writers from a certain background expected to more explicit in their cultural references, and the reasons for this you've already addressed quite thoroughly. In a nutshell I think it's reductive and steeped in paternally racist ideology, no matter how well-intentioned. Why should one individual be expected to represent a cultural or ethnic mass? Even the idea that it should 'escapism' for a different culture is problematic. I don't necessarily read to escape but to relate. To recognise some of my own humanity in the characters.

    I believe these discussions are important in foregrounding these issues. I also take some umbrage with writers who wear this 'ethnic' mantle a bit too readily, to the point of gimmick. By example I choose one of your faves (of whom I am now a former fan) Zadie Smith.

  13. Part 2 (I clearly failed on the concise front)

    Moreover because a writer comes from a different background and writes about the culture with which they are most familiar, doesn't automatically make it escapism. That could be seen as a bit patronising. The best storytellers are transcendent in their scope. I don't read ' The Great Gatsby' for escapism so much for what it says about the human condition. The same goes for the excellent Sadie Jones. Her admirable, painstaking research and attention to detail are mere flourishes to her excellent characterisation. I'm not a repressed middle-class Caucasian living in early 20th Century suburban England but I can identify greatly with the characters in 'The Outcast'. I feel an affection for Lewis and heartache over his bad decisions the way I imagine God feels observing humanity. The Marchmains are a wholly disagreeable lot and Charles Ryder an arrant cynic to say the least but 'Brideshead Revisited' speaks volumes about human interaction; the way we negotiate relationships and try to exert influence on those close to us. This transcendence is what gives Adichie her appeal (the overrated 'Half of a Yellow Sun' notwithstanding) and likewise the overlooked but just as talented (if not more so) Sefi Atta, despite their ostensibly ethnocentric concerns.

    In short, Western (specifically those of European descent) writers are no less ethnocentric than anyone else. It's just because the West has so long defined the discourse or assumed the 'default' standpoint of critique that theirs seems the unmarked position but it's far from the case. Take for example when a Caucasian American writer ventures to depict an African-American character (with perhaps the notable exception of Harper Lee). I cringe at the stereotypes even gifted authors such as Lionel Shriver rehash. It’s clearly so alien to them, it comes across more like caricature.

    PS. I hope I at least held up the cogency end of the bargain!

    Shalom x

  14. First of all, thank you all for your comments. I will try to be concise even though that is not my forte (my friends know that. I have a reputiation for being a bit of a "talker").

    I will try to address all your points as a group rather than individually as there are a few overlaps.

    Spot on Baldwin. I have read Giovanni's Room a few times now and it differs so much from otehr works such as Go Tel it on the Mountain and Another Country. That doesn't mean that I consider the latter two as lesser novels. It just means that I like to be "surprised".

    I think that bottom line we are dealing with a type of "comfort zone" both for reader and writer. It is almost like a secret relationship is established from the word go and if either party (usually the writer) does something differently the pace and rhythm are altered and questions arise.

    Spot on Ishiguro. I always thought that his novels captured Britain (especially his period dramas) very well. I never thought of him as a Japanese writer, but as a writer who happens to be Japanese.

    That to me is the key to my post. What I look for in a book is primarily the story. That to me still comes first and foremost. Is the story well-written? Is it believable (within the boundaries of fiction)? How do I feel it about it? What do I think about it? Will the book make me want to re-read it? All the authors I mentioned in my post share those qualities. I love Walker (especially her collection You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down. Please, do check it out). Toni, I have been a fan since my uni days. Levy, I "discovered" a few years when I read Small Island. Rushdie merits his own adjective - Rushdie mood. And it's likely that by the time I've finished Atwood's trilogy I will be in a Rushdie mood.

    On another note, Cuban cinema is probably the best cinema you have never heard of (I know, I know, I am biased, but it's the truth). Titón, Solás, Tabío, these are names who made history. Three titles you must, must, must dig out and watch: Memories of the Underdevelopment, Lucía and Death of a Bureaucrat.

    I have so much to say but it's all jumbled up. I'll come back later. Thanks for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  15. In terms of fiction, I prefer dead writers to living ones, which is to say when a writer's books outlive "him," it is a good indicator "he" wrote something worth reading. Subject matter (genres) and story-telling ability are the elements I look for, which means my interests are what matters to me, not a writer's ambitions. There are writers I respect and admire, and some I have read the entire catalogue of their published works, but I never have become a fan club member or a groupie of one. And, writers important to me in my 20s have not always met the test of time.

    By the sheer volume of availability, reading is discrimination, picking and choosing, prioritizing, and even during periods when I have been reading three or four books a week, it largely has been non-fiction or what might be called "classics" in fiction.

    This is the third comment I have written for your post, CiL. I was not happy with the first two and scrapped them, and I am not altogether pleased with this one, but I need to move along to other thoughts. You are making me think more than I wish.

  16. i think usually we write about what we know or what moves us - that i think is authentic writing as well... i mean there are people who invent whole new worlds as they go - but then in a way they really see them as well

  17. Although I love to write, and always write about things I know, I am a poor reader when it comes to in-depth stuff. I guess I am lazy, but I would rather be entertained and/or moved than educated!!

  18. You pose very interesting questions here--certainly, writers write about what they know, and probably part of what makes writers from places that feel more far flung from the Western business/publishing world successful is an exotic quality--the information and atmosphere and "difference" that the work conveys--these writers may be the ones whose work is more likely to be exported. But the fact is that the market looks for a kind of uniqueness sometimes--and the aspects of one's culture (if not widely known) can be part of what makes one's work more unique. But I think writers may write of these things naturally, especially if they have been raised in a Western canon (as many have been), which I think would tend to make one more conscious of their difference. Also, what makes a book ultimately art, fiction, a novel--is that it is not just a travelogue, but has a story, characters--these are the real subjects of any novel--and of course these are shaped by their locale to some degree, and in other ways are rather universal. K. ( think blogger is going to make me post by an old ID I don't use! k.

  19. A very interesting essay.

    I think each person's unique background makes him knowledgeable in certain areas, and if that person is a writer, that knowledge provides him with a voice of authority. As I reader, I love that authentic voice of authority. To broaden my horizons and have a better understanding of other realities, I want it from the source. To understand what it's like to live in Afghanistan, I want to read about it from the viewpoint of someone who has lived there, not from someone who's merely imagining it. If I want to have a clearer picture of what it's like to be a black man in American, I want to read it from a black man, not from a white man or woman. (With one exception: the book "Black Like Me", which was written by a white journalist back in the '50s)

    However, even though a writer may have the authority to write about his own life-experiences, what makes them transcend for me is when the author also proves the universality of his experiences. We may come from different places and different realities, but at bottom, we are more alike than we are different. That's our shared humanity, and those are the best books of all.

  20. I like reading all kinds of fiction. Of course, those who write from their own experience feel more authentic as we read. But imaginary realms also make fascinating reading...the imagination knows no bounds, so can take us along with them, creating in the reader's mind a new "reality".
    Another very thought-provoking post, have left me deeply pondering...:)

    Have a Great Weekend:)

  21. Many thanks for your kind words. I forgot to mention in both post and comment that I was only focusing on fiction: novels and short stories.

    Greetings from London.

  22. to make it short I think that writers are influenced by their upbringing. Using familiar things in their writing. Unless you write fiction or SF. Then you are capable of inventing entire worlds :)

  23. Hello greetings and good wishes.

    Very interesting post. I have seen books of Margaret Atwood in book stores but some how I did not have the courage to buy them. Not only Margaret but most of the modern authors I generally skip.

    I like to read classics like War and Peace, Dr. Zhivago,Anna Karenina, Mother, books of Charles Dickens, Les Miserable,world war stories, gone with the wind, Sherlock Holmes stores, Crime and punishment and so on. I also like PG Wodehouse books At present I am reading GK Chesterton's FATHER BROWN STORIES.

    Some of the modern authors I read are books of Leon Uris,Robert Ludlum and also the Da Vinci Code.

    Now that you have written about Margaret Atwood, I would certainly like to read one of her books.

    Best wishes

  24. Very interesting post, particularly having just read this post which seems to make the opposite point - that people want to read translated works for the familiarity, rather than the diversity. Personally I enjoy foreign literatures (whether translated or not) because of both the foreignness and the familiarity, ie foreign settings and cultures but the familiarity under that that shows we are really all the same to a large extent.... As to Margaret Atwood, I've enjoyed several of her novels but I'm the biggest fan of her poetry.

  25. Bravo, Joseph Pulikotil .... roam with the giants, not with the wannabes .... you brightened my day ....

    1. Hello Fram, greetings and good wishes.

      I always like to read books which have been tested over a period of time. They are always enchanting and enthralling and takes us to world we never lived in. We know what is happening in the present world because we are living in it. We are flooded with information in TV's and news papers and radios. Sometimes I do make an exception and dabble in a few modern authors. Some how they lack the old world charm and grace.

      Wish you all the best.

    2. Are you two plotting against me? :-) Joking aside, I have read some of the authors you mentioned, Joseph and what distinguishes them from the writers I included in my post is the idea of transcendence. Thanks for your input, both of you.

      Greetings from London.



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