Cut out critical middle man

Writing Across Worlds
August 20, 2004

Academics, critics and reviewers: readers all - for love and money. They keep a tacit tryst with writers at best, and, at worst, invest their works with meanings writers did not intend. What better way to investigate writers' intentions than by interviewing the writers themselves? Wasafiri , a journal of contemporary literature founded and edited by Susheila Nasta, collects in this 20th-anniversary edition, Writing Across Worlds , interviews with 31 contemporary writers, ranging from stalwarts such as Sam Selvon, Wole Soyinka, V. S. Naipaul and Nadine Gordimer to newcomers such as Monica Ali.

The name Wasafiri derives from the word "traveller" in the East African language Kiswahili and is a hybrid variation of the Arabic "safari". Nasta chose it to highlight how writing is a form of cultural voyaging. Apart from facilitating the exposure in Britain of two or three generations of African, Caribbean, South Asian and black British writers, Wasafiri has helped to bring about curriculum changes in universities and schools during the two decades covered by these interviews, which were often prompted by the award of a literary prize or the publication of a significant book.

In a brief introduction, Nasta draws attention to one of the biggest problems in contemporary literary scholarship: the standardised formulation of Anglophone literature under a "Commonwealth" category and the application of this formula to the study of all literature from "ethnic" Britain and its former colonies and dominions. "The so-called 'postcolonial' links of these writers are heightened and the often significant differences between them subsumed by a reviewing practice that misleadingly levels out important contextual issues of history, politics, generation or location," she writes.

The rest of the book, by bypassing the literary critic and academic and going directly to the writer, undermines this formula and gets as close to the writers' ideas and craft as possible. The interviews individualise a writer by bringing to the fore the differences that characterise his or her work. They show us how, at the end of all our academic reading and research, there exists the original impulse behind a work of literature, an impulse only the writer is aware of. Academics and reviewers may, of course, write penetratingly about a book, but the writer has the privilege of knowing more. Only a writer could step away from the jargon and express the process of creation as simply as this: "I get 'borrowed'" - to quote Wasafiri 's interview with the Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison.

One consequence of studying this body of literature as a whole is the revelation that cultural crossings by writers have always fed literature - today as much as in the ancient world.

This is particularly evident with Wole Soyinka, whose frames of reference are many. The energy of the direct response to a question, which is part of the very nature of an interview, is here palpable. Soyinka dismisses as "ignorance" the current trend in newspaper and academic criticism that frowns on the idea of universality in art as a denial of African-ness.

Critics and academics, with their limited knowledge of West African culture, miss the Islamic iconography depicted on taxis, lorries and prayer mats, which the common man, without literary hang-ups, enjoys. As for his own involvement with other cultures, Soyinka says that his interest in India is as much romantic as intellectual: as well as studying India he came to it through "fascinating relationships with Indians". A real moment of truth occurs when Soyinka speaks of how political forces have caused Nigerian society to degenerate - provoking his interviewer, the Africa-based academic Mary David, to admit: "I have to avoid Nigerian politics as an academic here." This suggests how restricted certain readings of Soyinka may be. If academics are not free to address such issues even within the confines of a literary interview, how honest might they be in print, and how reliable as critics?

At the end of Soyinka's interview we get the Nobel laureate's unvarnished perspective on academe and critics. They are "incapable of using even... criticism as a means of illuminating texts. They [leave] the literature completely and write pages and pages of what the literature is not doing rather than what it is doing and how well it is doing it. It is a kind of opting out, a kind of intellectual laziness, a form of opportunism in which they then become the centre."

In a less spirited exchange, Wilson Harris, interviewed by the poet Fred D'Aguiar, shows once again the futility of pigeonholing texts and writers by elucidating the reality of a "community of texts". Harris speaks of the strengths that T. S. Eliot, Lévi-Strauss, Picasso and Henry Moore drew from Harris' own culture, as he now draws from theirs, resulting in a cross-fertilisation not always acknowledged or appreciated by the establishment on whichever shore the cross-fertilisation has left its mark.

In the main, though, reading one interview after another one comes to realise how much readers impose meanings, patterns and subtexts on texts, of which the writers were often unaware when writing. Naipaul, interviewed in 1993 after being awarded the first David Cohen prize for his contribution to "British literature", stops his interviewer short at the first question, saying that all mention of "traditional backgrounds" ought to be left aside as they played no part in his writing. Soyinka makes clear that he did not have the Sanskrit "Sabera" in mind when he named a character Suberu. Chinua Achebe says that he has really only been filling out one story all along - that of modern Africa and its problem with Europe - and that he cares little for the politics of how African languages may have influenced his English and his work, saying he will leave the assessment of that to linguists. Speaking of labels, the Jamaican-born Joan Riley remarks: "I just refuse to engage. I think it's quite important to refuse to engage because in lots of ways you validate something that is somebody's else's perception of you."

Jamaica Kincaid lets it be known that she has been influenced not by any African tradition of storytelling but by family gossip. Hers is one of the best interviews, because she purges postcolonial studies of what she calls its nonsense by her honesty. In an age when incumbents of chairs in Ivy League universities step out of luxurious apartments and speak of being part of a "diaspora", it is satisfying to hear Kincaid denounce the concept unambiguously. "This word diaspora is a very odd thing... I don't see how anyone in their right mind would imitate the experience of Israel or would hope to imitate it... So you just wonder why people say this nonsense. If I am in diaspora, my diaspora-ness has huge problems if I return home... [Here] I'm nobody, and it's quite fine with me."

Writing Across Worlds draws together some of contemporary literature's most perspicuous voices. It allows the reader the delight of an extended interaction with writers almost unmediated by critics.

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in postcolonial literature from Bristol University.

Writing Across Worlds: Contemporary Writers Talk

Editor - Susheila Nasta
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 382
Price - £45.00 and £10.99
ISBN - 0 415 34566 9 and 34567 7

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