What I'm reading

The politics of imagination

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.

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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.

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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):

shonibare

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.

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What I'm reading

The research academic as entrepeneur

I have been reflecting recently that research academics are in a similar predicament to musicians: there is no ‘middle class’ for either group. Either you are part of the majority struggling at the bottom from gig to gig, or you are straight-up famous.

Of course, there are significant differences too. Musicians are mostly operating in a market economy, while research is still largely done within a patronage model. But it’s clear that academia is becoming more market-based with the end of permanent positions coinciding with weird innovations like crowd-funded research and three-minute presentations. We are increasingly expected to be spruikers of our own brand and to perform labour in exchange for social capital as opposed to, you know, grubby old money. (Read especially everything by Sarah Kendzior on the adjunct crisis as well as relevant readings listed towards the bottom of this post).

There are no doubt problems with the old model as well as potential advantages with the new. Patronage offers security and dignity but had a funny way of institutionalising anti-meritocratic hierarchies. (Among other things, late-career researchers are almost exclusively male, and not always as productive and collaborative as might be hoped.) The neoliberal academy, on the other hand, is at least closer in its structure to the ‘real world’, meaning that if we want to change the way things are going we can count on having allies in other industries who feel our pain. They may even have the imagination to suggest ways of doing things that didn’t occur to us.

Above all, an accurate diagnosis of our situation as researchers—and our particular place within a wider context of social and industrial change—is certainly going to be more important than justified-but-futile whingeing. We don’t have to accept the status quo, but we are obliged to understand it.

This brings me to a fantastic article that appeared in The Atlantic recently: William Deresiewicz’s insightful and non-ranty,  ‘The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur‘. Lot’s of parallels here to the research sector.

Professionalism represents a compromise formation, midway between the sacred and the secular. A profession is not a vocation, in the older sense of a “calling,” but it also isn’t just a job; something of the priestly clings to it. Against the values of the market, the artist, like other professionals, maintained a countervailing set of standards and ideals—beauty, rigor, truth—inherited from the previous paradigm. Institutions served to mediate the difference, to cushion artists, ideologically, economically, and psychologically, from the full force of the marketplace.

[…]

The institutions that have undergirded the existing system are contracting or disintegrating. Professors are becoming adjuncts. Employees are becoming independent contractors (or unpaid interns). Everyone is in a budget squeeze: downsizing, outsourcing, merging, or collapsing. Now we’re all supposed to be our own boss, our own business: our own agent; our own label; our own marketing, production, and accounting departments. Entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity. It is, by and large, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job.

Still, it also is an opportunity.

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What I'm reading

Best journalism of 2014

Another year, another round-up of things I read online that I found amusing, though-provoking, challenging to my world view or simply validating of my smug sense of being right about everything. As with last year’s list, a piece will make the cut if I’m still thinking about it the next day (even if I’m thinking about it angrily). Some pieces are included simply because I enjoyed the writing style. The stand out publications for 2014 are The Appendix and Aeon.

This year I’ve introduced categories to make it easier for readers to ignore what they know is unlikely to interest them. The categories are fairly arbitrary but they have the advantage of showing up my biases. (Who would have thought I was such a cynic to have a whole category dedicated to the best writing on ‘nerd hubris’, and another for ‘activist hubris’? Alert: I do not think believe activism or nerdery is inherently hubristic.)

And if you only read two things from this list, make them:

  •  Andrew O’Hagan’s Ghosting: Julian Assange (London Review of Books, 6 March 2014). This is a superb piece of work from a brilliant writer who was commissioned to produce a biography of a narcissist and failed. The story of the failure becomes an eloquent biography in its own right.
  • Gene Weingarten’s The Peekaboo Paradox (The Washington Post, 22 January 2006). Technically not published in 2014, but this is when I read it. I enjoyed this piece because it reads like a fine piece of fiction.

Best writing on journalism and publishing for 2014

Best writing by or about writers and writing

Best writing on politics

Best writing on wealth inequality

Best historical writing

Best ethnographic and travel writing

Best writing on ethics and the examined life

Best writing on nerd hubris

Best writing on activist hubris

Best writing on children and parents

Best writing on sex

Most amusing writing (and photographs)

Best writing on feminism

Best writing on education and academia

Best writing on science

Best writing on language

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Collection fishing, What I'm reading

Anting-Anting Stories, And Other Strange Tales of the Filipinos

Newly digitised is this little treasure from the the library of the University of Michigan, Anting-anting stories: And other strange tales of the Filipinos (Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1901).

Anting-Anting Stories and other strange tales of the Filipinos

I once got a hold of this as a cheap-and-nasty print-on-demand edition but now it can be read in all its original glory. Far from a genuine collection of Filipino folklore, it’s mostly a Boy’s Own series of adventure stories featuring brave Americans holding their own against superstitious, cruel and ignorant savages. Published in 1901 during the Philippine-American war the unapologetic racism must have had some propaganda value back in the United States, though one story — Told at the Club — is much more sympathetic. I don’t know who ‘Sargent Kayme’ was, but the Michigan edition includes the handwritten annotation ‘pseud.’ after his name. There is enough detail to suggest that the author was reasonably familiar with the Philippines to be able to describe details such as local architecture and the appearance of port towns like Dumaguete, but not quite clued in enough to know that gorillas are not endemic to the islands, for example. The front cover looks like a pastiche of various nineteenth century archetypes of the ‘savage’ from Africa to Australia.

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What I'm reading

Sorcery songs to kill Hanson

gurindji-journeyContinuing the Japan–Australia theme, I’m re-reading Minoru Hokari’s Gurindji Journey, ahead of the event To celebrate the life and work of Minoru Hokari 1971-2004 at the ANU.

I especially love Hokari’s radically pluralist approach to oral history and his persuasive but uncomfortable demand that “we need to question the politics of this act of ‘rescuing and being respectful of’ the Aboriginal experience.”

But quite apart from all that, here’s a fun excerpt (p85):

When I told them that Japanese ‘law’ became more Westernised, they sympathised with me and said, ‘Kartiya way everywhere.’ My Asian background certainly created a particular dynamic between the Gurindji people and me. Here is another example: one day, a young man approached me and asked if I knew Pauline Hanson. He explained that she does not like ‘my mob’ and ‘your mob’. Then, he suggested that I sing sorcery songs with him to kill Hanson.

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