I’ve often thought that the very worst clichés beloved of highschool English teachers are ‘Write from your experience’, followed closely by, ‘An argument always has two sides’. This is the perfect one-two punch: stifle the imagination then stamp out any residual feeling for nuance. Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing about what you know, and occasionally arguments do have two sides as opposed to three or seventy or just one. The problem arises when these ideas are formalised into ethical principles.
Against this, a recent article by Aminatta Forna is the best defence of the imagination that I have read in years. It also serves as a literary rebuke to the politics of identity taken to extremes, where well-meaning efforts to be ‘inclusive’ of minority perspectives and create ‘safe’ discourses end up essentialising those perspectives to the point where individual experience is erased. I’m going to quote from it below, but go and read the whole thing if you have time.
Some years ago I was invited to speak at Oxford University, and I was perhaps naively surprised to find my book taught by the African studies department and nobody from the department of English literature in attendance at my talk. Everyone in the audience was an Africanist.
All this classifying, it seems to me, is the very antithesis of literature. The way of literature is to seek universality. Writers try to reach beyond those things that divide us: culture, class, gender, race. Given the chance, we would resist classification. I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer. We hyphenated writers complain about the privilege accorded to the white male writer, he who dominates the western canon and is the only one called simply “writer”.
So where should a bookshop shelve a novel set in Croatia and written in English by a Scottish Sierra Leonian author? Over the years I have posed the question of classification to many writers about their own work and the answer is invariably the same: in bookshops, fiction should be arranged in alphabetical order.
Writers do not write about places, they write about people who happen to live in those places. This is something that the labellers and their labels don’t understand either. Achebe did not “write about” Africa, he wrote about people who happen to live in Igboland. Likewise, I do not “write about” Sierra Leone or Croatia, those places are the settings for my characters.
The Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie, whose novel Burnt Shadows featured a Japanese character, agreed: “It’s about authenticity. When I was at uni in America in the 90s there was a lot of criticism around the idea of ‘appropriating’ other people’s stories. What started as a thoughtful post-colonial critique of certain types of imperial texts somehow became a peculiar orthodoxy that essentially denies the possibility of imaginative engagement with anyone outside your little circle.”
At question time a woman raised her hand and asked how I felt about writing characters “who have experiences different from your own”. I answered that all my characters had experiences different from my own and though it was generally assumed by western critics that I had a great deal in common with my west African characters, I had never in fact been an 80-year-old peasant woman, a university dean or a surgeon. I remarked that while this kind of anxiety seemed to focus on writing outside one’s own ethnicity or gender, class was often overlooked and by far the most challenging in my experience. My male characters were for the most part middle class and middle-aged, like me, but to write a peasant woman born at the turn of the century, to imagine what it might be like never to have read a book or seen a film, I found the toughest act of all.
A novel is a work of imagination, it is not a dissertation. When a writer writes a book, he or she makes a pact with the reader. For a writer of non-fiction the contract is clear. The author pertains to objectivity. The reader may rely on the facts contained therein, the writer promises (to the best of their ability) to provide a factual truth. A writer of fiction makes no such promises. Fiction is subjective: it comes from within the writer, and, not only that, the story itself is composed of a sequence of lies. The writer of fiction says to the reader only this: come with me on a journey of the imagination and I will try to show you something you have not seen before. This is the gift of the writer to the reader. The reader’s gift is to bring to this alchemy their own imagination and their own experiences.
Her article puts me in mind of the outrageous art of Yinka Shonibare, who was once advised at the beginning of his career to take inspiration from his ‘own culture’. Largely raised in a British context Shonibare began draping his work in bright Dutch-manufactured African textiles. My favourite sculpture of his is ‘How to blow up two heads at once’ (2006):
There is always something dangerous about the art and its capacity for subversion and ambiguity. To foreground Shonibare as ‘Nigerian’, ‘British’ or ‘disabled’ (he is all of those things) strikes me as exercise in making his work intelligible, controllable and ultimately less exciting.
The value of Roland Barthes’ manifesto ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967) was that it provided a timely corrective to a culture in which writers were given full authority on the ‘true’ interpretation of their work, a tradition that lives on in boring Writers Festival questions like “So how much of yourself did you put into your characters?”.
That is not to say that the author’s experience is irrelevant, it’s just that any interpretation that treats biography as the primary frame of reference is putting the cart before the horse. There is an implication that we enlightened consumers of art can somehow know the contours of the artist’s experience ahead of schedule by extrapolating from the categories we ourselves assigned to them. The author is alive and kicking. It’s our idea of what it means to be an author that needs to die.
On the other hand, I’m not willing to take Forna’s ideal of the transcendant imagination at face value. One of the things I love about the New Philology is that it brings good old ethnography back into textual criticism. If, after all, an anthropologist is obliged to ask basket weavers in Central America about their experience and sources of inspiration, then why can’t don’t we ask Salman Rushdie, or indeed Aminatta Forna? Books, like baskets and sandwiches, are also cultural artefacts produced by people with intention. Ultimately this means that authors deserve to have the particularities of their experience recognised but it also means that they cannot be absolved of responsibility when they use their imaginations to inhabit the experience of others. Thomas Kenneally said that if he were to write The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972) today he would not have been so presumptuous to write it from an Aboriginal perspective. This is both a political and an aesthetic decision. To ventriloquise and exoticise does not always necessarily make you a ‘bad person’. It does make you bad at imagining.
The imagination is not a transcendent space, but perhaps its necessary to believe that in order to write at all. As Forna put it to her students: write what you want but write it well.