Monday, 2 July 2012

Worlds 2012 Fiction, Memoir & Truth (7)

Chika Unigwe

The last salon session began with a summing up  of themes by Jon Cook, followed by Chika Unigwe's provocation. Michael Ondaatje was present at the session, having given a reading last night (that I couldn't attend as I was reading at Bungay). I haven't had a chance to write this up before so I am going by my fragmentary notes. 

Chika began with Chinua Achebe and the idea of reading about travel in far off lands, how he noted that these inevitably involved good wise handsome white men and savage, stupid, ugly black men. She spoke of stories of hunters and lions, where the hunter is a predator and the story is always from the hunter's point of view. She hoped for a literature from the lion's side of the matter.

This entailed a responsibility on writers and social commentators to engage and redress, but at the same time to resist 'collective identity' and the rhetoric of a political identity where one size fits all, so the various individual identities collapse into one dull, homogenous monster.

[I wondered here whether this responsibility was possibly a specific historical stage of literary development from independence onward, but whether it was also a function of  prevailing political conditions. There are certain forms of authority that affect everyone so deeply that the readership is almost a single body, as it was until 1989 in Eastern Europe, after which it immediately fragmented into dozens of different shards of political glass.]

But maybe this was what was required by European publishing houses, which was, after all, where most non-European writers wanted to be published. Might it be that these publishers had their own ideas regarding what constituted 'Africanness'.

[And here, again, I thought of pre-1989 Eastern Europe where there was an intense desire to make the leap over national boundaries into an international cosmopolitanism, later to be referred to by Teju.]

This worked both ways, she said, and gave as example an anecdote of her own when, shortly after 9/11  she was on a bus in Africa and another woman asked her to look after her bag. Chika refused and the other passengers turned on her because she was importing European fears and values into an African situation.

[Now this was a fascinating story. I wondered whether there were local cautions people might take, such as, for example, not stopping by an apparent accident for fear of being kidnapped or robbed, as I understand happens.]

As regards the relationship between memoir and fiction, Chika said that Ibo culture has no terms for exact age and the distinction between memoir and fiction was less sharp, and that (by implication) that the two overlapped. She talked of the female god, Ala, who represents truth, justice, moral rectitude, beauty and art. [A clear case of divine multi-tasking, I thought, and found it interesting that moral rectitude and beauty should be on the same in-tray].


Many people spoke in response to this. Goretti drew a distinction between audience and market and felt that Ugandan writers had to be political, and not just on the topic of Idi Amin. In a poor country with few amenities the writer was obliged to engage with prevailing conditions. Why should readers in Uganda be influenced by the values of Anglo-American-Western writers who do not speak to their condition? In any case, people were too poor to buy books. Why should Europe be considered a centre and the rest the periphery.

Vesna Goldsworthy replied that poverty does not prevent reading.

Someone, it might have been Manon, asked whether lions were not also predators.

Chika talked of the idea of an international audience. Kamila mentioned that the world's most rapidly increasing readership was in India. Alvin suggested that there might be an escape from the periphery by the building up of personal centres, and thereby reaching an 'escape velocity'.

The idea of a natural local readership to which the writer had an obligation (Goretti's idea and to some extent Chika's too) was questioned by Teju, who suggested that all cultures had internal conflicts and that his own inner story-telling audience included Joyce and Woolf, and that the best writing might be done by cosmopolitan people with an experience of marginality. Frances Leviston wondered if it might not be a good idea for writers to have a certain degree of contempt for their readers.

This account is necessarily selective and a little dry, and I realise with a start that it might almost be read as minutes. It is of course a strictly unofficial account, almost a memo to myself. Listening to such conversation inevitably starts a hundred hares in my hare-brain but there is a certain hope that at some point they might amalgamate into one big hare. I was, of course, a part of the conversation, so some of the hares were my own. They are even now romping through the ranks of nonchalantly nibbling grey rabbits on the lawns of the university, who always look like extras on a film about St Francis.

As for that hare, those hares,  I'll put them in a last blog about Worlds 2012. I'll also link to all the names above once home. This from my UEA office.


Vesna Goldsworthy said...

Dear George
I am "haunting" your blog in Belgrade, where I had a poetry reading at the European Literature Festival last Thursday. Some 200 people attended, at 38 degrees of heat, and similar numbers came to hear the novelists, including Peter Esterhazy, and David Albahari. Books cost around £10 and £300 a month is a solid salary in Serbia now. Yet people buy books and read them. The Russians devoured books when they were poorer than much of Africa is now (certainly poorer than Nigeria which Chika was talking about), and now read less although they are considerably richer. My intervention about poverty and reading seems a bit stark on the web page, but it was intended to argue that the link is not simple. Thank you for working so hard to capture the memory of Worlds 12 for all of us: it was, as always, magical, Vesna

LauraD said...

Hi there!

Vesna, I'm also in Belgrade, and have recently published an ebook (soon a hardcover and paperback). I've found that so many people - even at the farmer's market (piaca) - who know me, who speak little English, but can read it, really want to read my book. Do you have a blog, or a way I can contact you? I want to hear more about your experience. I wasn't sure how much of an audience there is here in Serbia for books by American authors.

Was the event in Serbian?

author of Adopted Reality, A Memoir, available on Amazon.

Please contact me at

George S said...

I realised it would look a little stark, Vesna, but I couldn't remember how it was framed at the time. I hope you don't mind. The whole reconstruction of the conference is an example of memoir in practice: losing bits, remembering odd lines, making up some and trying to avoid sounding too much like the minutes of a committee meeting.

Belgrade sounds good. I was introducing my guest issue of Poetry Review at Parnassus. Very good attendance there too and excellent reactions. The sun is out as I write this. It is the best of all possible British summers.