by Adam Biles, writer/editor of the daily FestivalandCo Gazette & www.gulpereel.net
“Politics,” said Martin Amis, from behind a curtain of cigarette smoke, “is unavoidable. It’s part of the air you breathe.” And for three days on the Square René Viviani the air was thicker with politics than ever, as FestivalandCo once again hitched open its tent flaps. Whether it was Amis selling himself as a Millenarian Feminist or Will Self training his pugilistic half-sneer upon the decision of the English electorate to decisively opt “for money… for inequality… for the creation of an underclass,” or Philip Pullman elevating Eve to the status of heroine for all those who cherish curiosity, or Ian Jack’s elegiacal meander through modern British history by way of a remembrance of dinner plates lost, barely a moment went by when audience members did not have their political knowledge embroidered or their inherited assumptions pummelled.
At a time when the world’s axis has slipped a few degrees so that everything, for a few weeks at least, seems to revolve around their country, the South African contingent also made their mark on the festival, with Breyten Breytenbach, Mark Gevisser, Njabulo Ndebele and Sue Cullinan discussing the complex, troubled and inspirational narrative of their homeland.
Kudos too to the weekend’s poets. From Jack Hirschman, whose dented and rusted brogue blasted the festival to attention at 11 o’clock on Friday morning, through TJ Dema who made the trip from Botswana and seduced the crowd with her rhythmic, polemical strophes, to Denis Hirson and Yusef Komunyakaa; all of whom demonstrated the power that poetry – when wielded by the right wordsmith – still has for stiffening the sinews and summoning up the blood. Nam Le and Petina Gappah did likewise for the “perfectible” form of the short story on Sunday, shortly before Hanif Kureshi took to the stage to declare post-colonial literature “dead”. And not forgetting, of course, Jeanette Winterson, as barnstorming and inspirational as always, Porchlight Storytelling, 5x15, Beth Orton, Fatima Bhutto, Raja Shehadeh and the unparalleled Gregory Blackstock (whose marathon three day signing session brought joy and confusion in equal measure to the storefront terrace) and the wandering storytellers, and the achingly erudite David Hare, and.. and... and so much more.
When Mark Gevisser’s 900 page biography Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred was published in South Africa in 2007, at the height of the Mbeki-Zuma power struggle, it attracted powerful reactions from all sides of the fractured ANC. Mbeki himself, whom Gevisser interviewed extensively for the work, claimed that it was not only an incorrect reading of his life but that it was also incorrect to attempt to read him at all. Mbeki’s opponents, conversely, saw the book as propaganda for the then president’s campaign to cling on to the leadership of the ANC. Thus Gevisser achieved what must surely be the goal of any conscientious biographer: for in managing to upset not only his subject, but also his subject’s detractors, there was a strong possibility he had veered rather close to the truth. An abridged version of the book, A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream, was published in 2009.
We met in a salon du thé on the Square Trousseau, in the 11th arrondisement of Paris. It was mid May, but the spring was still struggling to assert itself, and the conversation was punctuated by one or the other of us breaking off to marvel at the aggressiveness of the rain. As we spoke I supped on a Smoky Earl Grey, he a Green Darjeeling.
Adam Biles: A simple first question; what was your route into political biography?
Mark Gevisser: I had always been interested in narrative and got into journalism as a fiction writer because I needed to earn a living. I came into writing through Virginia Woolf, who was a big inspiration when I was a student. She wrote compellingly that biography “is the record of the things that change rather than of the things that happen.” It struck me that if you want to report how things change you need to work with biography.
So I got involved in biographical journalism in South Africa when I came back in 1990 – after studying in the States and having been a journalist there. 1990 was the year Mandela was released and I wanted to try and find ways to track this extraordinary transition we were all living through. It seemed to me that the best way to do this was to attach myself to a person and follow this person through his or her life, through the transition, and use the life as a kind of narrative raft through the swamp of data. So for a few years I had a column in a South African newspaper, a weekly profile of a political figure.
AB: And why Mbeki out of the rich array of political characters in South Africa?
MG: When I decided I wanted to work at a book level, it was exactly the time that Mandela was stepping down and Mbeki was replacing him. There was a lot being said about this enigmatic man who was taking over from Mandela, the grand liberator, and there was a market for writing about Thabo Mbeki. It was meant to be just a narrative, but then it became a decade long project almost by default, it became very much a journey for myself through South African history.
The Mbeki family story worked for me too. It is rather dynastic. I kept thinking I had delusions of writing some kind of great Russian landed gentry novel – because the Mbekis were landed gentry, who’d had their land taken away from them. When researching Mbeki’s family background it had this feeling of Chekhov or Tolstoy and that’s how I fell in love with the story.
AB: That surprised me in your book. I was unaware of Mbeki’s elite middleclass background.
MG: I was too. I went with Thabo Mbeki’s mother to the farm where she was born and we stood on a hill and she pointed out to me where they had had their cattle, and 200 hectares of maize, and an apple orchard, and an orange orchard and there’s nothing there now, not even a tomato plant, because of a century of colonial and apartheid degradation, and strategies to get landed people like the Mbekis off of the land. I really had no idea there was this history in South Africa. They came from a small elite minority, most Africans were not of this class. Mbeki’s mother was one of eight children, all of whom went to university in the 1920’s. I can’t say that about my family, so it completely upset all of my standards, about black South Africa and white South Africa in an incredibly creative way.
AB: We often look for the subjects of political biographies to embody the story of the people or the country they represent. Do you see Mbeki’s journey or Mandela’s as mirroring the South African story?
MG: I don’t want to make claims for my book that it’s the great South African story – though it is a great South African story. Mbeki’s father was in jail with Mandela, so I suppose there is a kind of dynastic sense of the struggle being passed from one generation to the next. The Mandela story is very particular because Mandela is a prince. He comes from the Thembu Royal family, so he was raised to be a nobleman and to lead. It is a story of entitlement, and you can see that in the way Mandela is. He is absolutely comfortable in his skin, he knows exactly who he is, whereas Mbeki has much more of a chip on his shoulder. That was why his presidency was such a failure in so many ways. It’s because Mbeki’s story is a middle class story. A nose-to-the-grindstone story of proving yourself by getting back what was taken away from you. However, I don’t think either Mandela or Mbeki embody the South African story. I think they both provide a narrative vehicle for understanding it.
AB: Is it fair to claim Mbeki’s presidency was a failure? Wasn’t any post Mandela president destined to fail, simply because they were coming after Mandela?
MG: Of course. In fact I don’t think the Mbeki presidency was a failure. I think there were actually a lot of very important things that happened on his watch. I think it is perceived to be a failure, and largely for the reason you give. When Mbeki took over from Mandela, he made a very awkward joke, he said: “Everyone says it’s going to be very difficult to step into your huge shoes. Well I wouldn’t want to step into your shoes because they’re such ugly shoes.” And this schoolboy humour betrayed how difficult it was for him living in Mandela’s shadow. Mandela sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, let Mbeki know he was living in his shadow. For the better, for instance, when he took Mbeki on over AIDS.
AB: Is there a sense that Mandela is an untouchable figure for biographers, a holy cow if you like, whom it is almost impossible to criticise?
MG: Certainly. There is a biography just coming out about the young Mandela that tries to deflate the whole myth. It shows what an extraordinarily great leader he was, but what a flawed individual. I think it has been difficult to do that until now. For example this new biography talks about the fact that Mandela beat his first wife. He has had four previous biographers, and all four of them have had this information and have chosen not to use it. There’s a way that South Africa and the world needs Mandela to be a saint and I think that has been an extraordinarily powerful thing for South Africa. Still, I think it’s also very valuable that we no longer live in this era. It’s now about flawed and self interested men, just as it is everywhere else in the world.
AB: How different were Mandela and Mbeki as leaders?
MG: What was extraordinary about Mandela was the way he gave his values to South Africa. His approach was: “I was in chains, you were in chains. I was freed, you were freed. I can forgive my captors, you can forgive your captors.” It’s incredibly regal. I am a representation of you. Mbeki’s instincts were always very different. In the shadow of Mandela he took the approach that he would never be able to compete so he veered to the other extreme. “I have no subjectivity, I have no personality. I am a technocrat. I am cold and I’m professional.” If that had all been true it would have been fine, but it wasn’t. So there was all this stuff boiling in his head, and that exploded.
AB: Mbeki criticised your book by saying that not only was it an incorrect reading, but that it was even incorrect to read him…
MG: Yes. In a way that comes from his upbringing. If you read biographies of Lenin, or Stalin, or Trotsky, they are all about the absolute sublimation of anything that was not political. My brothers and sisters are my comrades in struggle, I have no relations beyond the political. The only blood is the blood of struggle. And Mbeki was raised in this tradition.
AB: Do you think he sincerely believes it is incorrect to attempt to read his character? That seems like unbelievable naiveté for such an intelligent man.
MG: Yes, I think it’s primarily defensive.
AB: This could sound strange, but might one consider Mbeki unfortunate not to have been imprisoned, in that as an ambassador for the ANC he was obliged to cut his teeth – and muddy his feet – in international politics?
MG: I think that’s a very important point. There’s a way that prison, and particularly Robben Island, was some kind of school, some kind of laboratory, where you didn’t have to muddy your feet, but you could try a lot of things out. In a way this was how Mandela came upon his politics of reconciliation. Their different experiences caused them to understand politics and power in a different way. I think, conversely, that within the bell jar of prison, those dynamics can really warp and deform you too. Mandela, for example, fought a decade long power struggle with Mbeki’s father for the leadership of the ANC. Now that could drive you crazy! That could make you unbelievably Machiavellian. To go over the same conflicts with the same people, day in, day out, with no escape. So it could go both ways. Look at Robert Mugabe, who was violently deformed by his time in colonial jails. I think what happened with Mandela in South Africa was in many ways exceptional.
AB: In the book you draw comparisons between Mbeki and Coriolanus. You also compare Zuma and Mbeki to Cain and Abel. In constructing your biography, were you influenced by classical narratives?
MG: I think I was to a degree, both consciously and unconsciously. My first class as an undergraduate at Yale was English 129, beginning with the Greek tragedies and ending with Joyce. I think I was always very conscious of narratives. One of the most common criticisms of my book is people who say to me; “You’ve over determined Mbeki to fit your narrative.” I think that’s a real problem with biography, and one that I sometimes fall into. I don’t know many successful biographers who don’t fall into it. Janet Malcolm said that people read biography as they read fiction, and that there is this kind of expectation of a narrative, of a protagonist who goes through all manner of trials. What you end up doing, if you’re not careful, is imposing your narrative on the facts. So I have my story about Mbeki. I have no doubt that it is correct. That it is true... No, true is the wrong word – I have no doubt that it is accurate. He is a tragic character in the Coriolanus mode, and his tragedy had to do with his disconnection. But what you end up presenting between the covers is one story.
AB: You can’t fit all of a man and all of his life in 900 pages.
MG: No, you just find one raft through the swamp. Another thing Janet Malcolm said was that any subject of a biography can’t but feel betrayed. She’s right. Any subject of a biography who says he or she doesn’t feel betrayed by the author is lying, because your life is made into art. The art of the narrative arc.
The way I present Mbeki is completely different from the way that he would do it himself. I think of biography as an act of the imagination based on scholarship. I use an archaeological metaphor to describe this. I didn’t want to be the kind of biographer who looked down from on high and said “this is how it was”. I write myself in as a kind of voyager, who digs into the past and pulls out shards. So just as an archaeologist pulls out a shard of a plate and imagines the whole civilisation around it, biographers and historians do the same.
AB: In constructing a narrative arc is it difficult to not lapse into polemic?
MG: Hugely. This book came out in SA at the time Mbeki was fighting for his political life. It was seen by Mbeki’s many enemies as a part of Mbeki’s own political campaign. A lot of that had to do with my absolute refusal to take a polemical position against Mbeki. My approach was that the role of the biographer is to sit on his subject’s shoulders and see the world how his subject sees the world. The narrative has to be empathetic when you have a protagonist based narrative.
AB: At the very least to give you access to your subject’s character.
MG: Right. Take a look at modern or post-modern fiction. In fiction that works with an unsympathetic protagonist, there is always an empathetic point of reference for the reader. Where this came to a head with Mbeki was over AIDS. Mbeki is, perhaps not incorrectly, accused of genocide. Now how does one write empathetically of Mbeki as an AIDS denialist? If you don’t write polemically about it, are you in some way a collaborator in the genocide? My answer is, no. I have no doubt that what Mbeki did was very wrong and incredibly damaging, but if I’m not going to be the one to help explain why he came to this bizarre set of opinions, who is? The distinction you make between a narrative and polemical discourse is, for me, fundamental.
AB: Do you plan to stick with political biography?
MG: Not necessarily. This is really the end point of a trajectory I’ve been taking since I started journalism. I’ll always be working with history and narrative and that’s what I’m doing now. I returned the advance for a book that was going to be about what I call the “Second Transition” – that from Mbeki to Zuma – because it was becoming more and more a biography of Zuma, and I didn’t want to spend another ten years chasing a moving target and being denied access.
Now I’m working on something that is much more personal. Using family history and asking “what is a South African” through the story of my own family’s experience. How did I become a South African, in reaction to what I was told it was to be a South African. So this summer I’m taking a trip to Ireland to find my Irish Jewish family. There’s a lovely story there. One of my family names is Bloom and I was raised on the myth that Ulysses is about us. It is true that he got the idea to name his character Bloom from my family, who were Irish Jewish community in Dublin, even though Leopold Bloom has nothing to do with anybody real. He just could not have existed, there were not people like him in the world! So again, on using classical narratives, one chapter of this book is going to be using the Odyssey and Ulysses to look at my own very nomadic family and how they came to Ireland and then to South Africa and became farmers. I always work biographically, so I’ve got a character I’m working with there. Then I have another character from my father’s side, who was a journalist who survived the holocaust.
AB: You refer to Mbeki’s paraphrase of a Langston Hughes poem Montage for a Dream Deferred: “What happens to a dream deferred? It explodes.” If politicians set themselves up as storytellers, is it inevitable that the electorate will come down with a bump once the politician assumes power, and do politicians have a responsibility not to exploit this storytelling power?
MG: It’s an absolutely beautiful poem, isn’t it? No, I think it would be too much to ask politicians not to sell us dreams. I think you are absolutely right that democratic politics is about competing narratives. It is the electors who must choose the narrator, choose the story, that resonates best with them. That is why you have the situation you do in Zimbabwe where the majority – or at least a plurality of people – voted for what was dangerous for them. They voted for Mugabe because he liberated them, even though he’s driving the country into unspeakable horror. In watching Mbeki on the campaign trail talk about how the voters needed to vote him in because he was going to fight “The Man.” Presenting himself as this figure of Marxist struggle. And I was sitting there thinking, “but you are The Man now.” The ANC remains in power because the narrative of liberation as spun by Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma remains the dominant narrative and the narrative that most South Africans identify with, and will probably continue to do so even when it’s no longer in their interests.
AB: I’m reminded of the Mario Cuomo quote that you campaign in poetry, govern in prose.
MG: I don’t necessarily agree that you campaign in poetry. I think rather you campaign in poetry and archetypal stories. You campaign in narrative and you govern in discourse.
AB: Traditionally at least, but it has been argued, by Christian Salmon among others that the George W. Bush administration set new precedents – with press conferences on aircraft carriers and the like – by also trying to govern in narrative.
MG: It’s absolutely true too with Zuma! He created such an incredibly strong narrative. The narrative of the hard done-by outsider, slapped down by the elites because he didn’t have an education. He has not been able to transform this and that is the reason he is literally dead as a governor. His story doesn’t work anymore, so he’s just gone silent.
AB: Does he make his biography a fetish in the same way you say Mandela does, but Mbeki couldn’t?
MG: Absolutely. Zuma has returned to that. On the other hand, Mbeki came from an internationalist family. There was no tribal – in the absolutely neutral sense of the word – root, no homeboy identity, and because of that there was no home for him to come back to in the way there was for Zuma. So “African” came to mean something more polemical, more generic for Mbeki, because he came from a detribalized household. A citizen of the world whose family had two fathers, one of them Gandhi and one of them Marx.
AB: In the recent British election, both Cameron and Brown named Mandela as their hero. Given the Conservatives’ historical opposition to the ANC, does Cameron’s choice seem strange to you?
MG: You would have expected Cameron to say Churchill, wouldn’t you, consdiering that Margaret Thatcher declared the ANC to be a terrorist organisation. Gordon Brown choosing Mandela totally made sense. I believe that Mandela has always been Brown’s hero. Ironically it’s Brown and Mbeki who are more similar, both a kind of Coriolanus figure.
AB: Do you think the politician, not only as a storyteller but as a character in that story, is becoming increasingly important in our political discourse?
MG: Of course. It must have become more important because of the commodification of electoral politics. You have to market yourself. I also design exhibitions for museums and the company I set up designed a big heritage site in South Africa. We brought the guy who designed the Holocaust museum in Washington, Ralph Appelbaum, to run a workshop for us, and he told us how he had revolutionised museum design by making museums into stories in space. He said we had to do this because most visitors have been raised on television. Likewise political parties and candidates in elections make up stories to define their brand essence. To the point that you get wholly media constructs like David Cameron. The way Zuma beat Mbeki in South Africa, which has a media nowhere near as developed as Britain’s, was by creating a story, based in truth, but made into a story.
AB: Do you believe these developments lead to a lessening of gravitas in our politics, or is storytelling a legitimate way to stir up support for ones cause?
MG: I think it has its problems because – as is now happening with the Zuma presidency in South Africa – there is an evacuation of power when you can’t maintain the story. One has to differentiate between two things perhaps: storytelling and marketing. Electoral politics in societies with mass commodification is all about marketing and competing stories. It’s about spinning your story, and distilling your story, and simplifying your story, and transmitting something to the electorate. That is very different from the impulse to tell the story of your life and your experience, which may inspire or motivate or help the listener to understand his or her own life in such a way that they become engaged in the act of democracy. That was the upside of the Zuma campaign, suddenly a whole lot of people felt that they had a place. Zuma going to Pretoria, was equivalent to them becoming part of the politic, rather than just subjects, and you can make hay out of that. So I don’t think storytelling, in and of itself, is bad for politics, but what is dangerous is when we competitively market stories.
Gao Xingjian at the Bibliothèque nationale de France
There are four mirrored-glass towers between which a wind tunnel forms. There is one concrete block. There is no shelter.
“Hello?” My mother asks, holding her telephone – I imagine – away from her ear, so as to avoid the white noise caused by the strong northwest wind.
I run to the block of concrete which, I discover, shields the escalator which descends directly to the bowels of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. “Can you hear me now?” I cry into my cell-phone.
“Hello?” she repeats, “Is anybody there?”
This tentative question, this dance between assertion and hesitation, was repeated, with variation, throughout the selection of Gao Xingjian’s works that was performed at the BNF on Wednesday evening. Gao’s conversation with Marie-Dominique Montel was at once the inaugural event of Festival and Co. and the last in a series of rencontres at the BNF, organized in conjunction with NYU in Paris, with writers who write in a language other than their mother tongue. The BNF’s project was to approach the question of frontiers. Gao’s oeuvre belongs unquestionably to this series: Born in China in 1940, he began writing in French in 1987 when he moved to France to obtain political asylum after being exiled from China. Of course, the question of language also raises the question of identity. Gao obtained French nationality in 1997.
Gao – the name by which he is commonly known, despite being his surname – is a poet, playwright, novelist, painter, translator (particularly of Beckett and Ionesco), critic, stage director, and screenwriter. He won the Nobel Prize in 2000.
Some writers believe in the polemical or political power of language, and while Gao surely believes in the force of words, his approach to writing is different. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Gao says that if man needs language, it is not only to communicate some kind of sense or meaning: It is to recognize his own existence. In writing, Gao says, man is “awakening” and “affirming” his conscience: “For me, writing is not a profession. It’s not a job, either. It is a necessity…The individual who expresses himself begins to think.”
Susan Sontag touches upon this idea in her journals. Sontag was a prolific journal writer and said that she did not keep a diary simply to record her daily thoughts, feelings, and events, but to create herself, as well as the way in which she saw and expressed this self. Gao started writing a personal journal at the age of eight, but burned it along with most of his other manuscripts during the cultural revolution. It was a necessity – un besoin – to write, but at that time it was also necessary to hide one’s writing.
The writer is an ordinary man, Gao believes; “he may be a bit more sensitive, but it is the sensitive ones who are always more fragile. It’s precisely the voice of this kind of individual which is the most authentic. Literature can only be the voice of one individual. When it becomes the voice of a party, a class, a country, a race....it loses its real nature and will no longer be literature, but a tool at the service of power and personal interests.”
Gao’s most well-known novel, Soul Mountain, seeks to revisit China’s official stories: “There is another story,” he says, “the story of its culture which is not necessarily linked with the nation.” Though the protagonist of the novel is referred to as both “you” and “he,” Gao makes it clear that the book is not autobiography. “Of course we are inspired by experiences we have lived - if not, it's a total fabrication, and this is not interesting to me at all.”
Everything he has ever written, he advances, has been about China. His work is occupied with questions of totalitarianism, dictatorship, and social crimes. One of his principal goals in Soul Mountain is to show how this sort of madness can convince and possess a nation. He seeks to question, provoke, denounce; he wants to “show the weaknesses of the individuals in this country, just as how everyone in the nation accepted the mentality of the Nazis: Pourquoi? Comment?”
Though Gao’s motivation to write is personal – self expression, self reflection, self creation – he concedes that literature is not an entirely insular activity: Works are written to be read. “It is with sincerity and persistence that we can get closest to reality and therefore speak to a universal audience,” he says. Gao’s background in the theatre – his mother was involved in amateur theatre – clearly marks his understanding of the written word. For him, “l’ecriture, c’est la voix”; it is speaking, but it is also listening, hearing. Theatre is the “living voice,” and Gao is known as a pioneer of absurdist drama. He says that we as humans “try to rationalise things, but reality does not explain itself: It is completely absurd.”
Montel’s final question brought the subject back to language and the formation of identity: Does he remain the same person, whether he is writing in Chinese or in French?
Gao responded: “The person is always the same; the sensation is different. French is very structured and very logical. That explains French poetry: it is very rational. The language nourishes this sort of spirit. Writing in Chinese is different: It is a very supple language. We can freely put the subject behind the object, there are no tenses, or conjugation. Everything is understood in context; there is no distinction between noun, adjective or adverb. We can think the same thing, though, whether in French or in Chinese. It is just expressed differently.”
It could have started in Paris, it could have started in San Francisco, it could have started in any city in need of a frontline correspondent in the war against the downtrodden and the oppressed. In the event, it started in New York: “It’s big, it’s ugly, I hate it, I love it, I’m free, O talk to me, Can’t you hear me, I can’t leave it, I’ll do anything for it…”
There are few poetic voices more powerful, few more distinct, few that cut more brutally to the quick than Jack Hirschman’s. Poet, communist and activist, for more than 50 years Jack has been rousing rebellion with verse. As he took to the microphone to declare this year’s festival open – got up in desert fatigues, as any self-respecting war correspondent should be – blasting out his clarion call in that dented and rusted New York City brogue, you could almost feel the floorboards in the marquee bow and whine, as if the very earth beneath them was trembling.
By his side was Gilles B. Vachon, a dapper man, academic to a fault, but with echoes of Ginsberg-esque mischief about the eyes, introduced as Hirschman’s translator. Any doubts that Vachon might not be up to the challenge of rendering Hirschman’s words, and his singular voice – that anger, that viscera! – into the vaulting grammatical arcs of the French language were dispelled as he took to the microphone. “New York,” he roared “je le déteste…”
Hirschman is a man of strong opinions, but not always easy ones. Perhaps encouraged by what he – quite correctly – assumed was a broadly sympathetic audience he elected to read his Urinal Stalls Arcane an epic poem structured as if a dialogue between himself and another poet, conducted at the urinal stalls. As well as presenting us two men who have, we can only assume from the length of the poem, the bladders of racehorses, the poem gives voice to Hirschman’s doubts that Obama represents quite the kind of change he promised, wondering à voix haute, if he wasn’t just “the same no dif’.”
But Hirschman’s campaign is not waged only in words of confrontation, but also – and crucially – just as often in words of love, as One Day, his concluding poem, reaffirmed:
I’m going to give up writing and just paint.
I’m going to give up painting and just sing.
I’m going to give up singing and just sit.
I’m going to give up sitting and just breathe.
I’m going to give up breathing and just die.
I’m going to give up dying and just love.
I’m going to give up loving and just write.”
If Hirschman issued a clarion call to love fuelled revolution of the macro-political variety, the second speaker, Ian Jack, delivered an elegant counterpoint. A wryly observed, sometimes nostalgic – though he would prefer “elegiac” – meander through modern British history as he lived it. Beginning with a reading from his essay What I Ate which takes George Perec and his Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and the Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy Four as its jumping off point, Jack demonstrated that a meticulous dissection of one element of a country’s culture – in this case British, ahem, gastronomy – can conjure up a more telling and achingly evocative image of what that country is, what it stands for, than a rendering by strokes from a much broader brush.
“First tin of baked beans that also included sausages. Under a bridge and sheltering from the rain at Lanercost Priory near Hadrian’s Wall, 1956. A cycling holiday – my dad had brought his Primus stove and a tin opener. My, he said about the combination of beans, tomato sauce and pale little sausages, but this is good.”
But what is Britain, Janine Di Giovani wondered. Is there a unifying identity for this nation state that transcends the individual identities of the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish? Although Jack admitted that – particularly among his fellow Scots – it was rather unfashionable to subscribe to it, he could cite certain institutions – the BBC, the National Health Service – that for him in some way embodied Britishness, a slippery concept that successive governments have tried, and failed to pin down.
At a time when the gravitational axis of the earth seems to have shifted so that everything – for four weeks at least – seems to revolve around South Africa, it can’t but bring to mind memories of the last time the world’s gaze was focussed on that country, owing to a struggle of a very different nature. And just as the current sporting battles are played out exclusively among men, so it would be easy, if lazy, to imagine that it was principally men who were responsible for the victory against apartheid.
Njabulo Ndebele was here to correct that misconception and show how the women of South Africa played a role equally important, though far more understated, than the men. In his book, The Cry of Winnie Mandela, which he classes as a novel, Ndebele blends the known facts of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and release with the lives of four fictional women characters who are all, in different ways, waiting for their man. So just as Ian Jack before him used British cuisine as a lens through which one might more clearly understand the society, Nbedele chose the, often less spectacular, stories of the women and children of South Africa. Why do this? His reasoning proved as elegant as it was convincing:
“The attempt by the South African government to depersonalise people was extensive. You were a number. So you had no life beyond this number. In my writing I didn’t want to reflect characters who were anonymous, who were numbers. I wanted as fully as possible to reflect people in situations that were normal. I thought that in recalling this normality, it was one of the most radical ways of fighting the system, because the system then has to respond to complex individuals.”
The first day in the marquee was capped off by Will Self, a literary giant in both the literal and figurative sense. With a roll-up tucked behind his ear, and that infamous pugilistic half-sneer – targeted, it seems, not at someone or something in particular, but at the universe itself, reminding it that he at least, and perhaps he alone, has not been taken in – he first read from his novel Dorian, a modern reworking of Oscar Wilde’s story. Self is, in his words, “A notoriously happy person. I get up in the morning in a good mood and it just gets better all day. I’m insufferable, even to myself.” That may be so, said Janine Di Giovanni, but does he consider himself more a satirist or an experimental writer?
“I don’t object to being thought of as a satirist, but I think most people’s idea of what satire is, is quite constrained. For example people expect it to be funny. For me satire as a genre, as a mode, is as grand as tragedy, as poignant as romance. Laughter is incidental to satire. Satire is the only truly political form of literature, that only addresses itself to real power relations and asks of the reader that she decide what she thinks about. I don’t think other modes of literature do that. Nor do I object to being thought of as experimental. J. G. Ballard showed the way. How it was possible to write about the contemporary world in a way that was not complacent.”
Despite having earlier asserted that “it’s all about me, let’s face it,” the way Self speaks of the Thatcher and Blair epochs, reveals a man whose brimming tankard of disgust is trained, with a marksman’s precision, squarely on the purveyors of injustice:
“What was Tony Blair except the extension of Thatcherism by other means? In the 1980s, in England, the society decisively opted for money, decisively opted for inequality, decided that a certain portion of the population were absolutely expendable, decided on the creation of an underclass. The statistics are unimpeachable. Britain has become steadily less egalitarian since the seventies.”
And what about Britain in 2010, a member of the audience asked. Self responded:
“I think we’re in an Inter Regnum. I think that once the spending cuts come in during the next year or so, there will be some radical changes. I would expect there to be both an upsurge in militancy and an upsurge in nationalism and in negative and bigoted political postures.” Before hurling the question back out there with an interrogative, “No?”
Perhaps we’ll find out today.
The Refectoire de Cordeliers is a world of softly illuminated stone arches inhabited by people drawn in black and white and girls with voices like wild canaries. When I walk in, drawings are being projected onto a screen under the vaulted ceilings, accompanied by guitar music. The images move quickly: a girl, arms, clouds, waves, a train. As I look around, I realize that the scene is being created right before us: several people, who I will call, for lack of a better word, “puppeteers,” are moving paper drawings before a live camera. Their movements are carefully choreographed and follow a logic which is mirror-image and upside-down. This is, to open the evening, organized in collaboration with London’s 5x15 storytelling project, Paper Cinema. The Paper Cinema are, in their own words, “an illustrated song, a shadow show, a smoke, a mirror, a puppet show, a cinema show, side show, magic show, a show and tale, a show off. It exists in the meeting of live music and moving drawings.” They create a silent world, telling stories with no words, the imaginative meeting of image and sound leaves the audience the space to create their own narrative.
After this, “folktronica” singer-songwriter Beth Orton performs. She is nervous, she says; more nervous than usual. Her last album came out four years ago; three and a half years ago she had a baby girl. “Writing is different when you become a mother,” she says. She sings several of the new songs which will be included on her new album to be released this autumn, one of which is a lullaby for her daughter. “Once you have a kid, you are interested in different stories.”
“The place of the poet, historically, in Botswana, was always beside the king, the DiKghosi. These poets were always male, and their work was to get up and praise the king. Whenever I try and tell people in English what the poems say, it sounds very clichéd and simplistic, but in fact it’s very rich. A lot of the language involves cattle, because that’s our most prized possession. So you would praise the king, you would tell the stories of the warriors, whether they won or not, liken them to lions and buffalos, incorporating the tribe’s totem, and so on and so forth. You were the custodian of the tribe’s complaints and issues and laments, and their joy, and you would document that orally. Your payment would be food and drink, or perhaps a cow, if the king was pleased with you. The traditional poets, having never written anything down, were even more hip-hoppy than we are. A lot of their work was off the top of their head and only memorised later.
“You only have to take public transportation and be sitting next to people to see how storytelling is native to Botswana. Basically the country is made up of natural comedians and storytellers. So concerning performance, we are not reinventing the wheel. The idea of public performance has been always with Botswana, but before it was only the men.
“My influences are transnational. My generation has been accused of being heavily influenced by the American arts landscape, which is not wholly incorrect. But I feel you are a product of your environment. If you’re growing up not listening to your grandmother telling stories around a fireside, but instead in front of the television, and there are American people on that television, there is no way that isn’t going to be a part of your mindscape. Whether it’s something you’re running towards or away from. So as an observation I think it’s fair. If it’s levelled as an accusation, I become very defensive. I’m a child of the universe. Everywhere I go I pick and choose what I want to become a part of my work.
“I’m now working on a book and I’m having to deal with the page versus the stage. I’m very comfortable saying the poem out loud, knowing my voice is there to deliver it. When something has to sit on a page, I know that the story will speak for itself, but I have to consider if I have laid it out well.
“There were structural problems for us setting up at first. The arts have never been a priority for my country. We have only been independent for forty-four years and so health care and infrastructure development has been the focus, and then of course the HIV/AIDS pandemic meant that a lot of resources, for a long while were focussed on that. So for the arts have been more of a hobby for people, never imagining that one day you might be getting on a plane and going to Paris because people are interested in what you have to say.
“So when I decided I wanted to share my writing I formed a collective of six or seven poets, which very quickly grew in to collective of artists. One visual artist, one guitarist, one beat-box vocalist, and the rest were poets. For the first year or two I was the only female, so I started actively trying to get more females involved. So this was happening simultaneously with trying to create an audience. As a collective, we then realised that we needed a place to perform. We had to talk someone into believing it was a credible idea, then convince people it was something they would want to come and sit through. So at first five people came for the monthly shows, then twenty five, then four hundred, and it happened by word of mouth.
“Politics creeps into my work, but it’s not always direct. Some politics is a little under the radar. I don’t name names or point fingers, but if something is happening on your watch, or there are situations you’re not comfortable with, you have to point it out. I’m certain now, even though I can’t always articulate it, the things I want to talk about, and why I want to talk about them. So even my set for the festival is very much a politics and storytelling set.
“Women also creep into my work a lot, either as the point of view from which the piece is written, or taking Africa and looking at her as a woman. I have been asked if I am a feminist, and still to this day I don’t know what that really means. It’s women and children and love and life – basically everything when you think about it. Life folds back in then comes out as poetry.
“The language has recently become an issue. We write and perform in English, rather than Setswana. From a factual point of view my first language is my tribal language, Kalanga, which is spoken only by my tribe. Setswana is the national language and English the official language, from a legal point of view. We are completely educated in English, and you are encouraged to speak English. It is considered a currency of sorts. So you can build a future for yourself anywhere in the world. So I think in English. Instinctively I speak to people in English.
“I run poetry workshops, where you have a group of fourteen to nineteen year olds with lots of questions, interested in creating their own work. I tried to create the kind of workshops that I thought would have helped me. I would have killed to have had someone, anyone, do that for me. Even just to be there and reaffirm their desire to write. To tell them it’s possible and that you are not crazy. Well, maybe a little bit, but that’s not always a bad thing.”
A young man walks through the bookshop ringing a little copper bell. “It’s story time, everyone! Story time is about to begin in the park!” This is Martin Bonger, and he is one of the roving storytellers participating in the “politics and storytelling” festival. A crowd gathers.
The storytellers’ first story of this first day of the festival is the story of stone soup. The story is told on a portable blue wooden stage in the square, just outside the festival tent. Do you all know the story of stone soup? He and she re-enact the familiar-forgotten fable of the traveller who comes to a small town where everybody holds their secrets to their heart. The traveller has nothing much more than a stone which, when it comes down to it, is more like the idea of a stone.
He tentatively approaches the townspeople. “I am making stone soup,” he says.
They are sceptical.
The traveller asks them all, invididually, to share what they have. A carrot, a potato, a left-over chicken leg. The man mixes it all together in a big pot in the center of town and, gradually, things begin to smell good. It begins to smell like...soup.
The oldest, crankiest man in the town, played by Naomi Durston, is the first to taste the soup.
“Hmm. I think it needs a pinch of salt,” he (she) says, and goes promptly to fetch it. He salts the soup and is satisfied.
When the soup is finished, when everybody in town - strangers to the traveller and to each other - has offered what they had, they all, for the first time, sit down together. They eat the soup. They tell stories.
The conception of a literary festival like this - when simplified to its most basic recipe - is a bit like making a stone soup: You start with an idea, or even just the idea of an idea. You ask everyone you know for help. Each person brings what they can, what they have, and someone - a few people - mix it all together. People sit together, they eat soup, they drink wine, they tell stories.
There is a leaflet being distributed in the bookshop with a new portrait of Sylvia and George Whitman by Rosy Lamb - an artist who participated in the Real Lives festival in 2008 - and a textual sketch of a scene during the painting of the portrait, written by Laurence Drake. He describes how Sylvia announces that she is going to make her dad some Irish stew. “Stew? Do you have any turnips?” George – the oldest, crankiest man in our own little town – asks. “You need turnips for flavour!”
“Yes, Daddy.” She has the turnips. She makes the soup.
Islam, and Islamophobia – or more precisely “Islamismophobia” – was slated to be one of the principal topics of the conversation, between Will Self and Martin Amis. In the event, it covered broader ground. Amis started by recalling that as a younger man he was “tremendously” political but “was very committed to the idea of not being part of a group.” Whilst group affiliation can be avoided, however, politics, he stressed, cannot be. “It’s part of the air you breathe.”
However, British politics doesn’t interest Amis, not only because it takes a “tremendous effort to get interested in”, but also because “it doesn’t matter in the world. It’s therefore reduced to personal abuse and gossip. There’s nothing that heats the blood.” Amis’ concern is “what power does.”
He maintained, in disagreement with Self, that countries are rather like people, and people like countries: “I’ve known many a failed state. In fact most of us are more or less parliamentary democracies with some grave constitutional flaws. I only ever knew one regional superpower, and that was Saul Bellow. But countries are like people too, and not very nice people. Very touchy. Very power hungry. Obsessed by face and appearances.”
Touching for the first of several times on feminism, Amis explored this idea further: “I’ve always thought it was a tremendous error in historiography that countries used to be referred to as ‘she’. If you start thinking of countries as men, then it all makes sense. The aggression, the unappeasable nature, it’s definingly masculine.”
It surprised some in the audience to hear Amis define himself as a Millenarian Feminist “in that I believe what we have to evolve towards with some urgency, is women heads of state who bring feminine qualities to bear on governance. The trouble with feminism now is that it is stalled on this idea that pole dancing is empowering.” The process, however, is a long one: “Patriarchal society goes back five million years, so the idea that you can rise above that in one or two generations, is an illusion. You’ve got to feel the weight of the past.”
Despite the unavoidable nature of politics, Amis does not ultimately set out to write political books. Not only because the best novels come from writers who are attentive to what Nabokov called the “throb,” but also because events take time to filter from the frontal lobes to the subconscious: “It has to make it’s way all the way down your spine and mingle with your subconscious thoughts, dreams. That’s where energy comes from in writing.” Thus it is for Amis and 9/11. While he acknowledged that more Americans die in the bath each year than there are Western victims of terrorism, he believes we should still not underestimate the difficulty of writing about the attacks without a historical perspective.
Fatima Bhutto had no desire to consolidate the family dynasty, by entering politics, instead choosing the path of writer. It was a role she envisioned for herself even from a young age: “At four years old I used to play journalist with my father. When he returned to Pakistan and went to jail, I used to send him questions by mail, and when he didn’t answer them, I would get quite upset.” There is, she says, “a freedom with writing, which you don’t have with politics. It’s the most powerful way to give voices to people and preserve and protect memory, especially in a country like Pakistan when our memory runs as if on a ticker news cycle. After twenty minutes it’s finished, we wipe the slate clean.”
Bhutto also has no illusions about the use and abuse of power, even by those in her own family: “I think anyone in power will ultimately abuse it. It wasn’t unique to Benazir and her family. My grandfather also overstepped a line he ought to have respected. I think it’s the nature of the beast. I think power is such an overwhelming and transformative and destructive force. It separates and isolates you.” The problems with a dynasty, she observes, “is that it closes off a democratic system that, at its heart, should be open. Five or six families control Pakistani politics, and it’s dangerous.”
Still, the Bhutto name is something she cannot escape, and with the name comes risks. How is it that her life is not one ruled by fear? “The blessing of fear is that it does not work in a linear way. You’re never afraid when you’re supposed to be. It’s more dangerous in countries like Pakistan to stay quiet.”
After a rousing performance from TJ Dema – in which she wondered whether her audience had “ever seen God on CNN” – Philip Pullman took to the stage to talk about his own exercise of taking Jesus out of the Bible. After beginning with a chapter from his book – in which Christ, the pragmatic, calculating twin of the charismatic Jesus, passes the night with a prostitute whose body is ravaged with cancer – Pullman spoke first about his religious upbringing, with a clergyman grandfather, and his loss of faith in his teens.
Although there is clearly a political agenda behind Pullman’s work, he is above all, an irrepressible storyteller, revelling in the role of the omniscient narrator. “The mysterious authority of the teller of the story derives in part from the very ambiguous nature of the storyteller. I feel that when I’m telling a story in this voice, I am inhabiting a being who is both old and young, both male and female, both sceptical and credulous, wise and foolish, who is not human at all, but some form of immortal sprite.”
Stories, he says, are made of events. Whoever gets to give their version of events controls the narrative, which is what the Catholic Church tried to do, by resisting the translation of the Bible into Latin. Although they needn’t have bothered: “People don’t actually read very closely. If you do read the Bible closely you discover things that are not visible to you if you just coast along. When you do read closely you discover all the inconsistencies and all the contradictions.”
A reason for this may be a general lack of curiosity, a characteristic that Pullman values highly: “It’s one of the great virtues. Of course the first great heroine of curiosity was Eve. Who wanted to know what knowledge tasted like. And thanks to her great and courageous action we are free human beings and not lapdogs to God. So we should all thank Eve.”
“I fell into poetry when I was training to do stage management. I did the lighting and designing for a group of dynamic, young, black writers. I went to the group for a while and started re-exploring my writing, which was something I had always done as a child. But there wasn’t much of a scene in London at the time, and it wasn’t until I was in South Africa eight years later, working with a musician friend of mine, that I started writing some poetry again. I went along to a night called Monday Blues and got up and read this rough little poem I had in my notebook, and I really enjoyed it. So when I got back to London I checked out the spoken word scene and found myself falling back into it again, and it escalated from there. I never believed it would get me to the point when I could come to a festival like this. I was just having fun, but people kept inviting me back.
“The scene in London has exploded over the last seven years. There are so many circles that occasionally overlap. I’m lucky enough that I can pretty much move through all of them. There’s a spoken word cabaret scene, a spoken word comedy scene, another very literary scene, a black scene, a music and spoken word scene, which is huge in London now.
“London is a great place. I’ve got a love-hate relationship with it, but I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t endured the tensions and joys of that city. It’s a place of constant flux, people always moving through, different cultures different languages, and I pick that up as a way of being, as well as a way of writing. But I consider myself a global child.
“There’s a big argument in the UK about performance poetry versus ‘real poetry’ – meaning poetry on the page – and it’s a struggle as a performance poet to get taken seriously and published. Nobody is really prepared to take on a performance poet, because they think it’s a kind of dumbed down version of the real stuff, which is a load of rubbish, of course. I study the craft of performance as much as I study the craft of poetry.
“I get asked a lot whether I write for performance, or whether I write for the page. Some people think that the two are really different. I don’t see it. I believe all writing should be read aloud because in reading it aloud you get a fuller understanding of the text. Of course there is something important about the intimacy of reading silently from the page, which is a beautiful thing to be enjoyed. But at the same time there is something special about the resonance of words, about enjoying words sonically. I’m a human being, I have eardrums, I feel the resonance of people’s voices on my body. So I believe that we have the power to unlock certain emotions through the power of our voices.
“I draw from different literary traditions. I consider myself first of all as a storyteller, and I will use whatever I need to tell my story. So for me, all of the authors I’ve read, poets that I’ve read, radio plays I enjoy listening to, films that I see, theatre I enjoy, ordinary people who I know that are just wonderful storytellers. I draw from it all how a painter draws from her palette. I enjoy languages very much. I’ve studied Portuguese, I dabble in French, German, South African languages. All to help me to tell the story.
“My stories are about human relationships, how human beings connect, our frailties and the bravado we put on the protect ourselves. I often create characters as a means of telling my own story, to help me process the world. It’s a lot easier for me to take some gangly looking guy walking down the street, who in some way reminds me of me, and explode and expand his character much more. I have a character called High-Hat, who loves music, who talks in musical tones, and who doesn’t really engage with normal people because he can’t understand them. And that’s how I feel about music, and how music saved my life. My writing is not overtly political. It’s difficult to write political poetry without sounding clichéd. But all writing about human relationships is in some way political.
“How you’re marketed is also a political act. You have to be boxed in, write about this or that, so you can be marketed. You have to be able to label things. I don’t believe that at all. You can’t start telling audiences what they want to listen to. That just kills poetry. One of the freshest poets I know believes that spoken word will be latched onto and marketed to death. I don’t believe that. It’s for the audiences to decide what they want to listen to. Write what you want, don’t compromise, and if people like it, they will come.”
Inspired by an image of a bowed woman in Afghanistan
They thrashed her within an inch of her life
Told her it would make her a better wife, a wise woman
Like PMT was a disease of the mind
There were no floodgates, no bastion could hold her tongue
Which sat in the velvet and thorny seat of her will
Fatima cornered her toppling agitation with prayers and bitten lips
Hobbled her pull to express at the knees
Forcing her ‘self’ to kneel at every clock tick
in every sunbeam and crack of light she could find
The tremor were felt all over the house
The neighbours complained of pictures and china miniatures
Jumping like lemmings off the walls and shelves when Fatima prayed
But no-one saw it coming
How the air rushed to where she knelt
How the windows got sucked out
How the furniture and the cot and the kitchen pots
Flew around the room
How the cheap chandeliers and wall lamps clung
till the force of this wind pulled the nails from the floor boards
plaster from the walls, stripped in great clumps
And the hinges on all the doors broke
The noise was a thunder of bewildered Wildebeest hoof
The roaring crash of water on rock from a 500 foot drop
And the acrid smell of thrown acid melting flesh,
of burning hair and dust
woke in her nostrils the scream
incubating all her 21 years
Fatima had seen enough to know that
If her jaw dropped any lower
If her throat opened any wider
If her lungs drew the breath to complete their involuntary mission
She knew her reflex
Would be revolution.
– Zena Edwards