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