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Exile is never far from the news. It is never far from the scholarly press, either. Exiles, immigrants, refugees – call us what you will, we are everywhere. We always have been.

Recently, a poignant, multimodal depiction of the fate of exiles has been doing the rounds on social media. Because it is set in Norway, the country in which I am also an exile, it is particularly relevant. Somalis in Norway wants us to think it a true story, ‘told to journalist Benjamin Dix and drawn by artist Lindsay Pollock’, as stated by the BBC on the link. It may well have its origins in truth – that I do not dispute. But how true is a story told to one person and drawn by another? Told in cartoon form – that medium more often associated with Tom and Jerry or Garfield, the medium in which characters pop back into life no matter what happens – the appearance is more of a fable. We, the readers, are distanced from the characters; we do not engage with them in their two-dimentional, colourless form. That is not to say it is not based on reality, or that is not believable. Rather, that through her choice of medium, the artist has chosen to distance readers from the realities of the situation. We do not dwell on the horrors of war, we scorn the brat-like children without emphasising with them, we expect the happy ending. Any details we wish to add – the feelings of the mother, the colour of the family’s skin – we have to imagine. With reader imagination providing so many of the details, then, how can the story be ‘true’? What is ‘truth’ in an age of photoshop and spin?

The border between fact and fiction is permeable; it always has been. Not long ago I copy-edited a fantastic book on exile in twentieth-century literature: Languages of Exile, eds Axel Englund and Anders Olsson. (You can view its contents and purchase it here.) A scholarly book, yes, but a very accessible one. Some of its contributors are exiles, and all discuss the experience of writing in exile. Sometimes that exile is voluntary, sometimes it is forced. Sometimes it is a mixture of the two – a choice not to return home. The power of Nelly Sachs’ poetry (A. Olsson) or W.G. Sebald’s pictorial prose (A. Englund, K. Båth) is precisely its believability; the emotions conveyed are real beyond doubt, at least in this reader. The editors were not adverse to contributors’ own opinions creeping in, bringing the scholarly prose to life. Let me give just one example. I do not know, but I suspect that L. Miočević’s description of the BCMS region may be based on personal experience. What leads me to this suspicion? A vivid description with few references. The author’s name and ability in the language(s). Does it matter to the merit of her work? Not at all. Does it influence her work? Perhaps. It is tempting to see, or to look for, passion behind the professional, academic prose. Certainly, her prose, like much of that in the volume, is suffused with an energy that is rarely found in scholarly writing, and this without doubt contributes to reader enjoyment of the whole book.

Exile is not new, nor is it going away. As borders become ever-more ephemeral, as Romantic notions of nationhood become ever more outmoded, exile will continue. The notion of the ‘other’ is as old as humanity itself, indeed it is much older, even if it has taken homo sapiens to give it a name (think of the geological term ‘erratic boulders’, for example). The literature on the monstrous in medieval art and literature, for example, is vast and growing. The monster can signify internal or external struggle (Beowulf, Crusades, knights’ quests). The other is not always debarred, but the visionary, the saint, treads a difficult path and is often misunderstood.

Hildegard receives and dictates a vision. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Hildegard receives and dictates a vision. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

When we left the UK in 2007, we intended to return. We left because we could; because there was an opportunity to do so, and we wanted to taste life outside of ‘home’ before we became so tied to ‘home’ that we would never leave. Putting that another way, we saw disgruntled Glaswegians (principally – we were in Glasgow, after all) grumbling, and we decided to see life elsewhere before settling down, before our careers took off. We were not unhappy in Glasgow – far from it! – and it remains one of our favourite places. But I don’t know if we could ever live there again.

So much is learnt about a place only by living there. Did you know that Swedes don’t hold doors open, and will only rarely offer to help a person struggling with a large bag? And do you know why? (Clue: the Jante law.) Did you know that in Paris you will receive abuse if your dog does his business on the pavement even if you have a bag in your hand ready to clean it up? Did you know that Norway displays original art in high schools because of the belief that doing so inspires young minds to learn, and teaches them to interpret the world around them?

Shall I say that last one again? Original art, in schools. On the walls, unprotected, undamaged. For the benefit of young minds. In Norway. A recent article in leading newspaper Aftenposten called for more.

Jay Defeo: The Wise and Foolish Virgins. Kristiansand Katedralskolen

Jay Defeo: The Wise and Foolish Virgins. Kristiansand Katedralskolen

 The photo above is of two items in the collection of Beat art paintings donated to Kristiansand Katedralskole, and the neighbouring university, by the collector (and alumnus) Reidar Wennesland. While such generousity is relatively rare, the culture that fosters it, and still encourages it, is all around.

This week, Norway was ranked as number 1 in the world, for the fifth year in a row, in the Legatum Prosperity Index. Coincidence? Maybe. This week I, a junior academic, have been invited to take part in a national meeting for postdocs in Oslo (I hope to attend), and invited to apply for 30,000 kroner from the research council in order to attend an ’emerging leaders’ seminar (which sadly I have to let pass for family reasons).

Meanwhile, the country where I was born, whose passport I hold, and in whose general elections I can vote, brings in bedroom tax and dubious education policies, and tries to run on everything on a business model at a time when the dangerous self-seeking incompetence of big business has brought so much of the world to its knees.

Yet I was born and educated in the United Kingdom. My MA and PhD were state-funded. Do I not owe it to my country – and my fellow citizens – to give something back? Believe me, I have asked myself that question repeatedly. In my time living in the UK I did give quite a lot back. I worked throughout my MA to support myself, since ‘state funded’ meant simply ‘no fees, crippling loans’. As of this year, 16 years on, I am now finally earning enough to be paying back those five crippling loans, which are from the ‘old scheme’ (that is, the one without any tax benefits and where repayment is at a set rate) and have thus accumulated plenty of interest for whomever now owns them. During my self-funded MPhil I worked no fewer than four jobs concurrently, mostly in order to pay the council tax which, for a north-facing pokey flat in the East End of Glasgow occupied by two part-time students, was more than a family member paid for a four-bedroom detached house on the banks of the Thames. I spent a year as a professional musician in the armed forces, and though it was not for me, I have the deepest respect for those who choose such service as part of their career. I have now worn the poppy in remembrance day concerts in four countries.

At the start of this post I spoke about the exilic status using the first-person plural. That was deliberate. I do not feel that I am able to return to my ‘home’ country. I was not forced to leave, nor am I debarred from returning. But, having viewed that land from abroad, and experienced how things can be otherwise in societies which reap the fruits of fair taxes, I have no desire to return. This ‘voluntary exile’ status is very different from that of those who have had no choice but to leave their homelands. In many ways, it is a question of principle. In others, it is a question of doing what is best for my children – something to which most exiles can relate. I bear no ill-will towards the UK, and I will always be grateful for all that it has done for me, and to all those who made it the country it should be.

But right now, and for the foreseeable future, the United Kingdom is not a place that I could call home. That means that my Swedish-born children will likely grow up ‘Norwegian’, but I don’t see what is wrong with that. We fly the saltire, we celebrate Christmas on the 25th December and Rabbie Burns a month later. But we also fly the Norwegian flag on the 17th May and we speak four languages at home. Let the children make of that what they will.

Norwegian vimpel

Norwegian vimpel

Raising the Scottish vimpel

Raising the Scottish vimpel

Not the tidiest, huh?

Not the tidiest, huh?

Because let’s face it: for those of us lower down the academic ladder, reviewing books is scary.

There are pros and cons. Of course there is the free book. That said, I have reviewed a book for which I’d already forked out a considerable amount of money, because the review request just came too late for me. But I said yes anyway. Why? Well, it is actually satisfying to give back to the academic community. I don’t intend that to sound trite. And yes, putting your name alongside your review gets your name known.

And the cons? It’s hard work. A wholly positive review is rarely good, or even justified. There is (almost) always room for improvement in (virtually) every book. Therefore, in agreeing to write a review, you also agree to make fair criticisms. There is a difference between a fair criticism and an enraged response. While differences in opinion are reasonably easy to justify, it can be very difficult to respectfully state why you simply did not enjoy a piece of writing. We all know that not every reader will enjoy every writing style. We all know that the writing style should not mask the message of the text, even for a reader who does not enjoy it. But sometimes, the writing style can be so against what I find pleasurable to read that the message of the text is lost. How much that is to do with a text being poorly written or with me being a poor reader is difficult to judge, and even harder to write about. Finally, you cannot write a review without reading the book thoroughly, every word. That means that you can’t just skip a boring paragraph. You can’t decide that one essay out of collection is so bad by the third page that you need to give up and move on to the next. No, you have to stick it out. And, if you’re going to be a purist (which I am), you need to read it in order. So no reading the most relevant or interesting sections first (because, when I do that, I don’t always read the rest). Start to finish, just as nature – or the editor, or author – intended. For this reason, I would be unwilling to review a book that I did not already intend to read cover to cover.

The books I have reviewed I have done so for a similar reason that I review conferences, or live-tweet conferences: it helps distill my thoughts. My book reviews have three versions on my hard drive. The first is my raw thoughts, a record of what I thought in the moment, before knowing what comes next. Then there is the first review, which is more than a first draft. In that, I make a first distillation of the raw thoughts, yet still allow some emotion through, because that is what gives the review a personal voice, honesty. Yet that first review is not suitable for publication. No, the first review is for sharing with close colleagues, those who might actually want to know your untempered thoughts on the book, yet who deserve the structure of a polished review (i.e. without the drivel of the raw-thoughts version). These same colleagues, if willing, are very helpful for the second review, the review for publication. They can help tone down severe criticism or effusive praise, and, if they have also read the book, can offer viewpoints which may or may not be incorporated into the final published version, but which are nevertheless interesting and useful to know about. (Here I would like to thank Peter Davies and Anna Zayaruznaya who have both filled this role at various points.) The second review, then, is for the journal. It is metered in both criticism and praise, it covers all the major chapters in the book within the word limit (no mean feat), it situates the book in relation to past, present and future scholarship, and it should be understandable to readers outside of the field.

The structure of the review will vary as to its destination. If you have been asked to review for a publication which is dedicated to book reviews, that review will be longer, more detailed, and more thorough than a review for a publication in which reviews are the mint sauce to the meaty scholarly articles. Additionally, if the book you have been asked to review is entitled Intricacies of Baroque Parasol Craftmanship your piece will be different if it is for Historical Umbrella Quarterly than it would be for Perspectives on History. (Yes, I made up those names.) Indeed, when I read a book for review, I actually read it with the future review audience in mind, and their invisible presence shapes the review in all of its various stages, from raw thoughts to polished version.

Finally, I try not to forget the virtue of silence. My grandmother always used to say ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. Following that to the letter might make for a very short book review. Putting it in a more scholarly perspective, the ‘feedback sandwich’ was drilled into me both in teacher training and in research training: whatever may need to be said in the middle, buffer it with two slices of good, positive bread. Here, dwell on the contribution the book makes for future scholarship – generating debate is a good thing, after all, even if that debate might be against the book (in the reviewer’s opinion). However piquant or pleasing your sandwich filling, the bread can cleanse the palate.

Two final nods. First, Pat Thomson’s blog post on writing a book review is a must-read: patter, 22 July 2011. Secondly, Elizabeth Eva Leach, professor of music at Oxford and winner of the 2013 Dent medal, recently tweeted (6 Aug 2013): ‘Really wish I were more often sent MSS before publication. I’d far rather be helpful than moan in post-publication reviews. #academiclife’ (@eeleach). Both of these got me thinking. One for being such a great tool (thanks Pat), the other about the (relative) finality of publication, and of the pre-publication process. Lengthy and stringent as it is, it is not infallible.

Reviewing a book is an opportunity to closely read a text, and to interact with it in a way not otherwise possible. It is not a competition; it is an engagement, a critique, a discourse (with all that entails). There is some room for creativity, and personality too. But you don’t have to accept every request. It is my opinion (and practice) that a few, well-thought-out reviews are better than a greater number with potentially lower quality thought and judgment, though I admit that there are doubtless many who are better – and faster – at reviewing books than I am. So feel the fear and have a go – and don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Read Chinelo Okparanta’a story here.

——

.                       Love is always something special to a friend.

What is love if not for children? I can’t tell.                           .

.                       Love is never something shameful to defend.

Barren lands produce no fruit; an empty well.                          .

.                       Spread those arms and let me see inside your soul.

You are all I have, my hope, my joy, my gain.                         .

.                       Sing a song of glory; tell of tales untold.

I release you though you’ll never know my pain.                        .

.                      Speak those words to those who wish to save the world.

Look at me my child, look close and learn from me.                        .

.                       Spread those wings until such ceaseless joys unfurl.

Love is greater when it learns to set love free.                        .

.                       When you fly please take love with you to the sky.

When you leave me to my sorrows let me die.                       .

Mamma og barn

Other responses from:

Kola Tubosun – http://www.ktravula.com/2013/06/no-not-america-but-love-a-review/ and http://nigerianstalk.org/2013/06/20/no-not-america-but-love-a-review/

Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva: http://walkingdiplomat.blogspot.com/2013/06/bev-is-blogging-caine-america-by.html

Chika Oduah: https://chikaoduahblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/my-thoughts-on-chinelo-okparantas-america/

Veronica Nkwocha: http://veronicankwocha.com/2013/06/24/my-thoughts-on-america-by-chinelo-okparanta/

Aishwarya Subramanian: http://www.practicallymarzipan.com/2013/07/chinelo-okparanta-america.html

Ben Laden: http://uninterpretative.blogspot.no/2013/07/blogging-caine-chinelo-okparantas.html

Lexzy Ochibejivwie (Africa in Words): http://africainwords.com/2013/07/12/blogging-the-caine-prize-thinking-through-chinelo-okparantas-america/

Created in response to Elnathan John's 'Bayan Layi'

Created in response to Elnathan John’s ‘Bayan Layi’

I think I’ll let the graphic speak for itself. But of course, please do read the story here.

Other responses from the carnival:

Kola Tubosun: http://nigerianstalk.org/2013/05/19/the-children-of-bayan-layi-a-review/

Veronica Nkwocha: http://veronicankwocha.com/2013/05/22/my-thoughts-on-bayan-layi-by-elnathan-john/

Beverley Nambozo: http://walkingdiplomat.blogspot.com/2013/06/bayan-layis-kuka-tree-review-of-bayan.html

C.E. Hastings: http://africainwords.com/2013/06/17/bayan-layi-blogging-the-caine-prize/http://africainwords.com/2013/06/17/bayan-layi-blogging-the-caine-prize/

Jeffrey Zuckerman: http://www.airshipdaily.com/blog/the-caine-prizes-prehistories-elnathan-johns-bayan-layi

Chika Oduah: http://chikaoduahblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/my-thoughts-on-elnathan-johns-bayan-layi/

Aishwarya Subramanian: http://www.practicallymarzipan.com/2013/06/elnathan-john-bayan-layi.html

Ben Laden: http://uninterpretative.blogspot.no/2013/06/blogging-caine-elnathan-johns-bayan-layi.html

Written in response to Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: ‘The Whispering Trees

So your hopes are dashed,
And your mother is gone.
Weep if you will, then,
Keep in with the throng.
You still have your dignity,
You still can be strong
You still have your love
Which has lasted so long.

Come away, O blind man, come to us and play!
We have whispers and laughter, here the wild waters flow.
Come join your family, leave the weary world below,
One time you tried, but she summoned you away.

Oh it’s anger you want, then?
Try that if you will.
Live in your head then,
And struggle uphill.
Imagine they mock you
When they love you still:
Lash out and curse them,
And love sends its bill.

Come away, O blind man, come to us and play!
We have whispers and laughter, here the wild waters flow.
Come join your family, leave the weary world below,
Two times you tried, but she pushed you away.

Come find your dignity,
Let faith bring you peace
Forgive those who hurt you,
Let insight increase
Lay down your burden
Amidst the deceased
Give unto others
Till life grants release.

Come away, O blind man, come to us and play!
We have whispers and laughter, here the wild waters flow.
Come join your family, leave the weary world below,
Three times you’ll try, and the third time you’ll stay.

(OK wrong bit of world but the colours of the polar night are suitably eerie...)

(OK wrong bit of world but the colours of the polar night are suitably eerie…)

This week’s posts on the Caine Prize blog carnival:

This week’s contribution to the ‘Cain Prize carnival’. Written in response to the short story ‘Foreign Aid’ by Pede Hollist, available to download here. Thank you, Pede, for this vivid snapshot of a place and its people, and what happens when the self-made ‘American’ man goes home to keep the promises he made a lifetime ago.

———–

Balogun Bro-yankee is not a nice man
Hands out the money like anyone can
He thinks with his knob and he yells with his gob
Believes in machines and his grand masterplan.

From Wikimedia.org: in public domain.

From Wikimedia.org: in public domain.

Women and kiddies are objects indeed
One is to please and the other breeds greed
Corruption, disruption, destruction, seduction:
They take and they fake but they’re always in need.

But wait: there are some who are not overthrown
Who value their virtue, their knowledge, their own
Skylarks midst loansharks and proud oligarchs –
They may spread their wings but they’ll always fly home.

Imagine a future which might just be bright.
Where friends make amends, whatever their plight
Forget it, you left it, you bet it, regret it:
Minista owns all; your sister was right.

Yet were you surprised to find trouble and strife?
That dollars breed daggers: run for your life.
Homeless and haunted, dumb-ass and daunted,
Return to your lair, to your prison, your wife.

————-

Other members of this week’s carnival procession:

The miracle is not that we are here, it is that we are here together.
That the seasons turn about us, and we watch it all.
That the moon waxes and wanes but love endures,
That life springs eternal, when death is but a breath away.

I come to you with unseeing eyes, broken bones, wounds of pride.
I come to you with hope and dread, fear and pain, guilt and prayer.
You come to me with commanding presence, broken shackles, assured faith:
Lay your hands on me, remove my bonds, let me be free.

They are the wanderers, the lost, the forgetful,
They need your power, your storm-fraught words, your lust for grace
Your certainty sweeps me in its wake. We must not fail them.
They believe so hard, their blindness leaves no room for doubt.

Written in response to Tope Folarin’s short story ‘Miracle’, nominated for the Caine Prize and available for download here.

This post is part of the Caine prize carnival, organised by Aaron Bady at the New Inquiry. It’s not Machaut, it’s not medieval, it’s only vaguely multimodal (so far), so why am I writing about it?

St Francis

St Francis receiving the stemmata. Found through a creative commons search (Wikimedia commons).

One of my goals this summer is to develop my creative side. Back in my undergraduate days I specialised in composition and dreamed of having my work performed at the Proms (who says I don’t still? Doesn’t everyone?). I’ve had the occasional piece published or professionally performed, but most are sitting in a rather battered file by my desk, trying their best to keep out of the way of small, clumsy feet. I have always enjoyed creative writing and have great plans which may or may not ever be realised. So far, so banal.

If you’re still reading, then you can be let into a realisation that I am still coming to terms with. I intend to write a monograph. An academic one about my research, aye, but not an inaccessible one. (Impenetrability is not my style.) It has a plan, it has support from my institution, and senior colleagues are all encouragement. All it requires is for me to sit down and do the dirty. And that is daunting. Very daunting. This summer, then, is my preparation time. The more I write, the more I will be able to write. The more confident I feel in my output, the better the product will be. The more at home I am with my creative leanings, the more multimodal my finished book. The more peaceful my soul.

One of the biggest things my journey into multimodality so far has taught me is the limits of my knowledge. I might be pretty hot on Machaut and medieval stuff, but multimodality spans such a broad range of topics that I am in awe of my colleagues who are able to meaningfully link them together. And so I am Branching Out. For the next few weeks, as part of the Caine prize carnival for which I have volunteered myself, I am going to let the stories take me on a journey to – broadly speaking – Africa. A continent I have never visited. Every week until July I will read a short-listed story, and blog my response. (For a list of the co-participants, see below.)

The first story in fact takes Nigeria to the United States. Already I can hear resonances in my readings. I am lucky enough to be working with the editors of a collected edition of essays on exile literature (Axel Englund and Anders Olsson), and thus have recently been on two journeys from Algeria to France (through the contribution by Gabriela Seccardini), as well as one from the New World ‘back’ to the Old, via north Africa (that of William Bamberger). There are, of course, more contributions which deal with exile writers (or those writing about exiles) in the United States. (I think I will have to devote a blog post to this entire fascinating volume in due course.) At the recent Multimodal Research Seminar in Lesbos (which I blogged about here) Tormod W. Anundsen gave a presentation on his work with expatriot musicians (the group ‘Afrisa’) from the Côte d’Ivoire presenting ‘Africa’ to schoolchildren in Norway. Interestingly, Anundsen questioned whether postcolonialism is a wholly useful way of thinking when professionals choose to exploit their ‘otherness’, whether for educational, profitable, or other purposes.

And so postcolonialism raises its head. I might as well deal with it now, lay my cards on the table, and admit that one of the reasons why I have never studied non-European literature at a professional level is because I have no inclination to delve any deeper into postcolonialism than I need to. Perhaps, when faced with this huge mound of critical thought, I feel the fear of the unknown, the other – yes, I am well aware of the paradox, thank you. But, for me, what my feelings boil down to is this: people are people, whoever they are, whenever they are, wherever they are. They are capable of supreme wit, of bringing great joy and sadness, of moving me to tears through their works, their images, their stories, their arts. People are also capable of unspeakable cruelty to their fellows and to the world around them, and the world is just as capable of inducing suffering on its occupants. ‘Twas ever thus, as a delve into history (or, for that matter, the Bible) confirms.

Let me put that another way: the fact that the Caine prize is for African literature, and is immersed in and surrounded by the politics of that fascinating and vast space, is not what I will focus on in my contribution to the carnival. Others, vastly more knowledgeable and capable than me, are already doing that. What I hope to offer is a series of personal responses, as a human being, a reader, a writer. If I hadn’t already been enriched by the first offering I wouldn’t be writing this; it is my hope that I may pass on some of that richness in my turn. That is all.

List of other participants in the Caine prize carnival, with links to their responses: