‘I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer’ … Aminatta Forna on her frustration at the book world’s obsession with labels and identity
Friday 13 February 2015
When I was a child I did not want to be a writer. Instead, I wanted to be many things. When I was seven I wanted to be an inventor. A few years later, and several career changes on, my new determination was to become a wildlife biologist. At my British school the opportunities to study wildlife were limited and so I settled for trying to collect butterflies, which I chased with a net and bottle, but which I rarely caught. Then I discovered there existed gatherings where enthusiasts could buy and swap specimens, and this seemed an altogether easier way to acquire a collection. I remember the first time I went to a fair, held in a town hall, rows and rows of glass display cases, the collectors and visitors bent over them. And inside, the butterflies, pinned down with open wings, labelled with both their Latin and common names. Each case held a single species. Cynthia cardui or Painted Lady. Papilio machaon britannicus Seitz or Swallowtail.
Nymphalis antiopa or Camberwell Beauty. I only had enough money to buy one specimen, and so I chose a Swallowtail. I loved the trailing shape of the wings, the royal purple border and what looked like an eye on each wing. Over time I added to my collection, but I did not bother with labels, I couldn’t remember the Latin names anyway; I just arranged them any way I liked and I spent hours looking at them.
Over the months that followed I went off the idea of being a wildlife biologist. It was the Latin names as well as the emphasis on collecting, categorising, labelling, which in the end just didn’t seem that much fun. I decided I’d rather be a vet. And of course, many years later, once I figured out that what I loved more than anything else was trying on different lives, I became a writer and that allowed me to sit in a room and be a wildlife biologist one day, if I pleased, and an inventor the next.
So where should a bookshop shelve a novel set in Croatia and written in English by a Scottish Sierra Leonian author?
The first book I wrote was a memoir of my father, who had been a political prisoner in Sierra Leone when I was a child. I was propelled into writing it by the civil war in that country, my father’s country and the place I spent a good number of my childhood years. I wanted to know how the country I had known, seemingly so peace-loving and so beautiful, had imploded into violence. For my country to have a war and for me, a writer, not to write about it seemed to me a gross dereliction of duty. I was propelled into writing by war and I have written about war ever since.
But let’s take a step back: I said “my country”, as indeed Sierra Leone is. But I should say “one of my countries”, for my mother is Scottish and I was born in Scotland; by the time I was collecting butterflies in my 12th year I had lived for pretty much equal periods of time in both Sierra Leone and Britain. Later, because of my stepfather’s career as a diplomat I would go on to spend periods of my childhood in Iran and Thailand. You could say that there is a little complexity in my background – isn’t there in everybody’s?
I used to be a journalist and I know the limitations of the short form. Journalism does not on the whole embrace the idea of complexity. So when newspapers started to describe me as an “African writer” I was not greatly surprised. Literature is about nuance and understanding the intricacies of life. Journalism prefers simplicity, even at the price of reductionism. The idea of a person with two parents, two nationalities and two cultures is apparently just too much for the readers of newspapers to absorb. Though I was irritated at the way my British heritage was airbrushed out of the picture, I tried not to let it bother me too much.
The academic world surprised me more. I read law at university, so I came with unformed opinions about how the teaching of literature might be structured. 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. That was when I first heard the words “the English canon”. Now, the English canon, like the British constitution, is tricky to discuss because it doesn’t actually exist: it is unwritten, yet at the same time everybody seems to know what it is, everybody in the world of English literature that is.
The work of creating a canon of English literature is mainly credited to one man, the critic FR Leavis – a zealot or a genius, depending on your view. Leavis’s seminal work, The Great Tradition, published in 1948, traced the origins of the English novel, identifying those works he considered exemplars of the form. Since the 1960s the canon has been added to, fought over, debated. It has been the butt of fierce criticism on the grounds of race, gender and class, dismissed as a compendium of books by “dead, white men”. But through it all the defenders of the canon have largely stood their ground.
Forty years ago the great Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o argued against the idea of national canons. There should, he said, be a single department with a single word on the door and that word should be LITERATURE. A perfectly excellent idea, it seems to me, which naturally never came to pass. Instead, the study of literature became fragmented by the politics of university departments. Categories were added: American literature, post-colonial literature, comparative literature, women’s literature. The creative output of the world’s writers was hived off, territory was staked out and defended. In university departments no doubt this stuff mattered, because it came with opportunities for funding, career advancement and empire building. (In fact, it has been interesting to observe in recent times something of a reversal of fortunes, as English departments in British universities have their funding cut, while in the US a diverse student body has begun to insist on a range of subjects to reflect their interests. We will have to wait and see what long-term impact these changes will have.)
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”. *** The artist Paul Klee described drawing a picture as taking a line for a walk. I have borrowed his words to explain my approach to writing; when I write a novel it is like I am taking a thought for a walk. I came to set a story in Croatia because I had become fascinated by the subject of civil war, having examined it over the course of a memoir and two novels set in Sierra Leone. I wanted to move the action beyond the African continent and into the west, where I would invite readers to reconsider some of their assumptions about wars all over Africa. The two wars had been more or less contemporaneous, Croatia 1991-95 and Sierra Leone 1991-2002. I had friends from the former Yugoslavia and I was intrigued by our conversations, the similarities and the differences. It seemed to me Sierra Leone society had recovered from the enmities of war with remarkable speed and grace – indeed, I knew that professionals working in conflict resolution in countries where similarly violent events had taken place were seeking to use us as a model. Sierra Leonians have committed the greatest act of forgiveness I have ever witnessed. In the former Yugoslavia there have been trials, but little or no formal truth-seeking and reconciliation. I wondered if a key difference was the ethnic factor: the war in Sierra Leone had never gone down ethnic or nationalist lines, we had not created the idea of the “other”. But this had happened in Yugoslavia. The war in Sierra Leone had begun after 30 years of exploitation of people and resources by a venal regime; it had been a slow burn. Of Yugoslavia a friend who had reported there commented that “the reason those wars kicked off so fast was because every man had a gun and knew how to use it”. His comment gave me one clue to my question about speed, but I also saw something I hadn’t seen before. The war in Sierra Leone had been characterised by amputations; the rebel army hacked off people’s hands and limbs. The former Yugoslavia became a snipers’ war. We were a nation of farmers and they were a nation of hunters. When people go to war they pick up the first thing to hand, be it a machete or a rifle.
After The Hired Man was published, I gave a talk in a New York bookstore. Some days later I went back into the bookstore to redeem a gift voucher they had kindly given me. Out of curiosity I looked for my book and found it in the African section. An assumption had been made. I located a manager and explained I was the author and that the book was set in Croatia. She picked up the book and walked away with it, her dilemma written into her entire posture, her slow pace. Where now was she to place this book? Under Balkan literature? A few weeks later I was sent a photograph by a friend; there was my book in the same bookstore, prominently displayed on a table marked “European Literature”.
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.
So we have the creation of national canons of literature, the politics of academia, a good dose of media and marketing (publishers like to talk of “author-subject harmony”), as well as the requirements of bookshop shelves. Now I am going to throw in a handful of identity politics. An article entitled “The One Thing White Writers Get Away with, but Authors of Color Don’t”, by Gracie Jin, published in the online magazine Arts.Mic, highlighted the story of Bill Cheng, whose first novel is set in Mississippi. “You’ll be hard‑pressed,” wrote Jin, “to find a review that doesn’t wonder at the novelty of a Chinese-American man from Queens, New York writing about rural, black Mississippi.” The same thing had just happened to me. I could count on one hand the reviewers who did not mention that I was a woman of colour writing in the voice of a rural, Croatian man.
A while back, I posted on my Facebook wall the question: “Where did the new orthodoxy arise that writers must only set stories within their own country of origin or nationality?” The post received 130 responses, mostly from writers but also from academics and critics. Many authors pointed to writers in the past who felt themselves to be under no such constraints. Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, EM Forster’s A Passage to India, most of Joseph Conrad’s oeuvre, much of Vladimir Nabokov’s, Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô, Franz Kafka’s Amerika. William Shakespeare set his plays in Italy, Greece, Scotland, France …
Writers do not write about places, they write about people who happen to live in those places
But it was the very representations of “otherness” of the Indian subcontinent and of Africa by certain of these writers that posed considerable difficulties for readers from those lands. Chinua Achebe was a longstanding critic of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and wrote Things Fall Apart partly in response to Conrad’s depiction of grunting Africans. He said his novel told the other side of the story, what the Africans were actually saying. Achebe is often called the grandfather of African literature, and, as labels go, it probably isn’t the worst to have pinned to you. But the trouble with labels, even a label intended to glorify, is that they are limiting. Achebe often found his universal themes overlooked in favour of an ethnographic reading of the novel’s story of Okonkwo. In his collection of essays, The Education of a British Protected Child, Achebe recounts the tale of a young man from Yonkers who wrote to thank him for “making available to him an understanding of the customs and superstitions of an African tribe”. Contrast this with James Baldwin’s response: “When I read Things Fall Apart in Paris … the Ibo tribe in Nigeria … a tribe I never saw; a system to put it that way, or a society the rules of which were a mystery to me … I recognised everybody in it. That book was about my father … How he got over I don’t know, but he did.”
Baldwin, being a writer himself, understood what the young reader had failed to see. 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.
“I think it’s about authenticity,” said the British writer Linda Grant, responding to the Facebook post. “And probably came in with post-colonial studies. If white people can’t appropriate the experiences of the oppressed for fiction then it no longer becomes possible for anyone to write outside their own experience.” 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.” Salman Rushdie thought the argument was skewed against certain writers and in favour of others. “I think this issue of authenticity is primarily aimed at writers of colour, from Africa, India and the Caribbean. There are so many counter examples.” And he listed some modern texts: Angela Carter’s Japanese stories, JG Ballard’s Super-Cannes, also two Australian recipients of the Booker prize: Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, set in Kraków, and DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little, set partly in Texas. The Bosnian American writer Aleksandar Hemon agreed with Rushdie: “Western writers get to write about anything. The rest of us have our pigeonholes.”
The Kashmiri novelist Nitasha Kaul argued that the many strands of the discussion came down to one thing: power. “I don’t think it’s about postcolonial studies at all. It is a continued hangover of a systematically hierarchical structuring of who can say what about where and when – the power/knowledge nexus as it operates in the generation of what is seen to count as authentic knowledge in the marketplace. It is not merely about authenticity either, it is about perceived degrees of freedom in creating authenticity of expression. Not everyone is seen as an equally viable commentator or observer of otherness … Post-colonial studies has drawn attention to the way in which it has always been possible for a certain set of privileged people to be taken seriously writing about anything.”
But then a good many white writers would probably say they too feel increasingly under assault. Writers from the cultural centre, or what for centuries has been the cultural centre, Europe and America, are at risk of being accused of exploitation or cultural appropriation or ventriloquism, or having the temerity to “speak for” minority communities when they create characters from those same communities.
Historical novels are exempt from accusations of “inauthenticity”, presumably due to the lack of critics with first-hand experience. For who can say Hilary Mantel’s description of the politics of the court of Henry VIII isn’t at all like it really was, or maintain that Jim Crace gets it wrong with his account of life in an English village during the enclosures of the late 18th century in Harvest? Or that Patrick Süskind’s portrait of an 18th-century French psychopath in Perfume doesn’t chime? I wonder if the increased trend to historical fiction does not represent a retreat to a safe haven on the part of some white writers who feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t include people of colour and their experiences.
What the best novels and novelists do is to offer a different way of seeing If the evidence of my creative writing classes is anything to go by, new writers are even more unnerved by the thought of producing imaginative work only to have it shot down by prior claims of ownership over the material. Time and time again I am approached by a young student who has a story he or she is burning to write set in Somalia or Albania, or in the voice of a man, or in the voice of a woman – but who is nervous of doing so. Recently at Yale University I led a creative writing masterclass and read from three of my own works: in the voice of a young Sierra Leonian girl, then in the voice of an elderly Creole man, and then in the voice of a Croatian peasant. 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.
What is “authenticity” anyway and who is to be the judge of it? British interviewers regularly describe me as having “two such different cultures”. When I ask them how they know if they have never been to Sierra Leone, they are generally at loss for a reply. Perhaps what they really mean is “two such different colours”. I point out that in Scotland my family belongs to a clan which, when we are talking about Sierra Leone, is renamed a tribe. In Sierra Leone people tell stories of mischievous spirits who play havoc in the world of humans, using the same word the English colonials used: “devils”. In Scotland my grandmother told me stories of “faeries” who stole horses and babies, and essentially behaved in exactly the same way as the devils in Sierra Leone. Both faeries and devils had to be appeased by humans with gifts of food.
When we look at other cultures we tend to assume ethnicity and geographic proximity are what make us similar. Yet sometimes geographically distant countries can have more in common culturally than we imagine. In a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he examines the link between air accidents and national culture, and includes a number of case histories and the analysis by air accident experts of what caused them. He cites the work of Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist and anthropologist, creator of the Hofstede Dimensions, an international and cross-cultural analysis of societal values. One example Gladwell gives his readers drawn from the Hofstede Dimensions is of “uncertainty avoidance”, or how well a culture tolerates ambiguity. How this relates to air accidents I will leave you to speculate on or read about later. What struck me most was Hofstede’s list of the top five and bottom five countries, that is the countries most reliant on rules and plans, most concerned with procedure, and those least likely to be sticklers for the rules. Take a look when you have a moment, the findings might surprise you, as they surprised Gladwell, who writes: Belgium and Denmark are only an hour or so apart by airplane … Danes look a lot like Belgians, and if you were dropped on a street corner in Copenhagen, you wouldn’t find it all that different from a street corner in Brussels. But when it comes to uncertainty avoidance, the two nations couldn’t be further apart. In fact, Danes have more in common with Jamaicans when it comes to tolerating ambiguity than they do with some of their European peers.
Right up there at number five in the Hofstede scale are the rule-driven Belgians. The Danes come in all the way down at number 51, with the Jamaicans at number 52.
When I started writing The Hired Man, there seemed to me a good many similarities between Croatia and Sierra Leone. The countries are roughly the same in size – Sierra Leone is 22,000 square miles, Croatia is 28,000. With a population of 6 million Sierra Leone is slightly more densely populated than Croatia, with 4.25 million. They are coastal countries, of great natural beauty, whose economy has at times relied on tourism. Both countries have a strong peasant culture, too. Then, of course, there is the key similarity, the one that drew me to Croatia in the first place – both nations have endured decades of dictatorship, curtailed freedoms, economic hardship and, finally, civil war.
The Hofstede data on Sierra Leone was incomplete, but in three out of four findings, Sierra Leone and Croatia were very much like each other. They are both hierarchical societies, and the hierarchy is by and large accepted. They are community-orientated cultures, in which “we” takes precedence over “I”, societies in which people live in and take care of their extended families, and relationships are nurtured and strong. Perhaps as a result both societies are less goal-orientated, more concerned with consensus and quality of life. The one area the two countries differed on was in the dimension of ambiguity. People who live in Sierra Leone, it seems, are better equipped to tolerate uncertainty, while Croatians don’t like it at all.
Now contrast those findings with the UK, according to Hofstede a much more equal society, but one in which people are more likely to look after number one and are goal-orientated and driven by personal success. With five of the six Hofstede scores practically the inverse of each other, Croatians and the British could hardly be more unalike. The only value the two appear to have in common is a strong pragmatic streak.
Just because things look a certain way on the surface, doesn’t mean that’s the way they really are. What the best novels and novelists do is to offer a different way of seeing. Sometimes that difference is one of perspective. A cow can tell you what it is like to stand in a field and chew the cud; a cow cannot tell you what it looks like standing in a field chewing cud.
One of the most compelling portrayals of what it is like to be black I have ever read was contained in Arthur Japin’s The Two Lives of Kwasi Boachi.
Japin is Dutch, an opera singer. His skin is white. How did he do it? He looked, he considered, he thought about the myriad ways in which prejudice presents itself. He saw things that perhaps some black folk are so inured to, or don’t think about it any more, or maybe turn away from because to confront them would make life too difficult. Then Japin did something else. He imagined.
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.
Sometimes we need labels just to be able to describe the thing we are talking about. But labels confirm the limitations of language and, when they are overused, they become limiting. I find myself referred to as an African author less often. I have a new label, “transnational writer”. I posted this news on Facebook, and asked, tongue in cheek, “Does it suit me?” A fellow writer quipped back: “Yes, but will the “cis-national” people object?”
These days I look at my students and I think of the butterflies I used to collect and why I stopped collecting them. As dead things, pinned to a board, the butterflies were beautiful but they were not interesting to me. A living butterfly that soars and flies is a magical thing. I want my students to let their imaginations fly and soar beyond themselves and their own experience, towards new horizons and into new worlds. In the autumn I met this year’s new intake of students, all at the beginning of their writing careers. And inevitably the question came up: can I write the story of a person who is not like me? Write what you want, was my reply. To which I added only one coda. Write it well.
See online: Aminatta Forna: don’t judge a book by its author