Nikesh Shukla: Unwelcome Welcome
Edinburgh International Book Festival
August 15 2017
Bristol-based novelist and diversity activist Nikesh Shukla recently contributed to and edited the much-talked about book of essays and personal stories of 21 people of colour in the UK, The Good Immigrant. He leads a discussion with two of the contributors, Coco Khan and Miss L, which was informal and spirited. The book contains essays from many of the current leading lights of young culture and informed debate, including Riz Ahmed and Reni Eddo-Lodge. It was a sell-out talk, cheerfully and humorously chaired by Daniel Hahn, a writer and translator who was both shortlisted for and a judge for the Man Booker International Prize. In between some good-humoured jokes, he chaired an important and much-needed discussion in this Brexity climate of hostility towards immigrants.
Nikesh’s initial trigger for creating this collection was being invited to speak on a diversity panel on many occasions over a period of years, without seeing much progress in the acceptance and promotion of writers of colour within the publishing world in between. He yearned for the kind of book in the UK that we are seeing coming out of the USA discussing issues pertinent to people of colour in a racist society. He personally knew several great writers like Riz Ahmed that he could commission, and managed to raise funds easily through a Crowdfunding project, sidestepping the usual publishing routes with all its problems. The indignation at this sorry state of affairs comes through, rightly, without apology. And to the equally infuriating idea that now Blackness is ‘in’ and ‘cool’, he exasperatedly exclaimed, “It’s not a marketing trend, it’s our fucking lives!” Miss L is an actress of Asian origin and read her story ‘The Wife of a Terrorist”, about the disappointment of being typecast and held back by well meaning white tutors and audition judges. Coco Khan read us a hilarious and disturbing account of dating on the sly while living in a mainly Asian area of East London, and, as she put it bluntly, atttempting to get laid at her mainly white university just like everyone else, but running into problems being “Brown around Town”. Her own blog has helped to normalise and give a voice to young Muslim women navigating overlapping and sometimes conflicting subcultures within the U.K., and is now writing for the Guardian as well as other publications.
Nikesh said the book had two jobs; realising the power for people of colour in seeing themselves as visible, and for white people to fully humanise people of colour by realising the ‘universal experience’. Nikesh read his story ‘Namaste’, with its infuriation at cultural appropriation and the lack of respect for the origins of whatever trend happens to be fashionable and lucrative this season. The questions were from curious and concerned white people of various ages, who brought the discussion briefly to the burden of representation, getting past tokenism and what needed to be done in order to move forward. As expected, it comes down to the gatekeepers of power. In this case, who decides what gets commissioned, many of whom are benevolent but rather sheltered in their experience. Who perhaps unconsciously and unwittingly stand in the way because of their own preconceptions about people who don’t look or behave exactly like them. But there was no time to break this down further, which was a shame. We need details and strategy in this area to be able to fuel the kinds of ideas and momentum to move forward more swiftly.
It might just be a measure of my age, being at least 15 years older than the panel, but it did seem like many of the themes of the conversation among British people of colour were the same themes being discussed almost a generation ago, in the days when the theories of cultural theorist Stuart Hall were in the forefront. The difference, I think, this time, is perhaps the range of voices and the keen interest taken by the mainly white audience of all ages. In this, the book has served its purpose. At minimum, a solid platform has been created for people to have their voices heard, to express their frustration and disappointment at the systematic, structural racism that still unfortunately exists in this country. Are enough gatekeepers of power and the white consumers of culture listening and willing to move forward now? We will be all the richer for a true diversity of voices in a multicultural Britain where noone is made to feel like an unwelcome outsider, and there will no longer be any need for Nikesh to be wheeled out unwillingly to sit on another ‘diversity panel’. Because it will be completely normal to be accepted as fully British, whatever colour or religion you happen to be.
Reviewed by: Lisa Williams
Nalo Hopkinson, Ken MacLeod, Ada Palmer & Charles Stross: Rockets to Utopia?
Edinburgh Book Festival
August 18 2017
A panel of award-winning science and speculative fiction writers from both Scotland and the Americas blended their diverse perspectives for a fascinating conversation around speculative fictions imagining hopeful futures. Ada Palmer is a historian from Chicago who’s just published Seven Surrenders, the second in her Terra Ignota series. Jamaican-Canadian Nalo Hopkinson is the author of novels Sister Mine and many others. Representing Scotland were science fiction writers Ken MacLeod, author of many books including the Corporation Wars series and Leeds-born Edinburgh writer Charles Stross whose latest book is the Delirium Brief.
The Bosco Theatre is a circus style tent which is a new addition to the Book Festival, allowing its expansion into George Street. It can be noisy and a little distracting, as the tent flapped noisily in the breeze and allowed the sounds of Friday night revellers to intrude on the conversation. However the quality of the debate and the well-regulated and careful chairing by Pippa Goldschmidt made it a great experience. The first question to the panel from the chair was what each of them considered a utopia to be. Charles suggested that rather than a utopia being prescriptive, it was ‘simply’ an inverse of the golden mean; basically a system that minimized harm to others. Nalo referenced Thomas Moore’s Utopia, written in 1516 in Latin, and said she was suspicious about any utopia that included slavery in any form. That utopia was always an evolving process, which must include thought about how citizens can and should get along with each other. Ken used California as an example of a place that could be a utopia for some and a dystopia for others, with its over reliance on automation keeping us from our full destiny as useful and well-rounded humans. Amy agreed on the fact it was subjective, that it is necessarily a moving target because it has to feel better than our present reality to be regarded as a utopia.
The discussion moved on to how inclusive a utopia should be. It is generally regarded amongst science fiction authors and readers now that artificial intelligences should be afforded the same respect as human beings. Should this be anyone or anything the reader recognises as fully human? Or should we not anthropomorphize things or animals but just extend the boundary of what we should pay full respect? Did the authors feel a pressure or expectation of them as authors in this particular genre to explore and create visions of utopias? Nalo said she had her own personal expectations of herself in her writing. However, it was sometimes problematic. Using her novel Midnight Robber as an example, she suggested that the plot has to steer the characters into struggle and strife in order to fulfil the conventions and expectations of an exciting story. One strategy is for stories to take part outside the main culture, like in Star Wars, so that the utopia becomes as a reference point for any dystopia. Ken comes from a well known political background and his novels often reflect themes of exploring possibilities of communist and anarcho-capitalist ideas. He feels that there is a strong pressure to create the possibilities of utopia in people’s minds, seeing as it’s currently easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, drawing chuckles and agreement from the audience. He turned down involvement in a recent project for a graphic novel set in Scotland, as the rest of the contributors were fixated on imagining a ruined, flooded, dystopian Scotland, and he felt that he didn’t want to plant this in the imagination of young readers.
They broke down the distinction of utopia as either and adjective or a noun and took the examples of Orwell’s 1984 and the immensely popular Hunger Games series for young adults. Ken pressed the need to look carefully at the message of hope in the book, as although the Hunger Games is set in an extreme dystopia, the heroes successfully fight and win against it. They suggest the future of speculative fiction lies in looking at other cultures to bring fresh ideas and rework old mythologies, and that this kind of fiction often has to capture a particular point in time to be effective. Nalo discussed the impact of Japanese science fiction after the devastation and US occupation after the Second World War, featuring the iconic Astroboy, the original hero of science fiction. Intensely political, with utopian ideals prevailing despite a devastated landscape, but using veiled language to describe their oppressors. It was a unique generation involving international teamwork that gave it such a powerful focus. His name was even mentioned during a 2007 UN Peace conference, as people proclaimed ‘Let’s make a future that would not make Astroboy cry!’
The discussion moved to whether the role of science was essential in a utopia. Ken’s ideal being more of low tech ecotopia, where technology is necessarily limited, and work shared. However, in order to be credible for modern readers, it has to have a base level of necessary machinery to cut out the most difficult and energy-consuming labour. As they quoted historian Mary Beard, machinery for food production is indispensable, given our swelling world population, but brings up a very important question of who does the most disliked labour? Isn’t this the base of most of our inequalities and power struggles in all our societies? And what happens if a machine becomes your peer? Ken referenced William Morris as offering us a Marxist depiction of a utopia of a new England after a revolution. Nalo told us about her story Soul Case being influenced by the reality of the Quilombo, a Maroon (runaway slave) society in Brazil that managed to create not just an autonomous but a fully welcoming and inclusive society.
Ada points out the way that we draw on and feel nostalgic for certain periods in history is important, reminding us that the future is going to care about our present as it looks back in time, and decide why there should be a level of respect for ideas and arrangements of people in society. Nalo made the point that we should think about technology in a more expansive way to include song, which I thought was a fascinating idea. The elaborate systems of oral history that has been so important across the world in keeping traditions and history alive, is a technology in itself. As she suggested, if all the libraries burnt down, griots would be able to use the powerful medium and system of song to pass down history through the generations, placing its importance on a level with what we in the West refer to as ‘technology’.
Science fiction is a huge role to play in not just affecting politics but also inspiring scientists and social scientists, and a great way to discuss the ideas inherent in the concept of intersectionality. The audience members all looked liked they’d just left a meeting of Mensa, also asking further incisive and brilliant questions, and I was hugely inspired to start to delve in to the world of science fiction, joining the rest of the well informed, enthusiastic fans in the audience. I feel that I have been missing out for too long.
Reviewed by Lisa Williams
The Last Poets @ the EIBF
Despite there having being a major war fought in the United States of America over the issue of slavery in the 1860s, over the next century or so, the Southern States in particular disenfranchised the free negro, using apartheid as a principle & divisory socio-politcal instrument. Cue Rosa Parks sitting on a bus, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers &… The Last Poets. Springing from the vibewells of Harlem, several incarnations of the same ethos began to move & motivate the American mind. ‘Niggers are scared of Revolution,‘ they sang on their seminal first album, a call to arms which ultimately ended up in the Pax Obama. Considered as progenitors of hip-hop, they half-chant invective observations over a wild percussive sound, & work really well as socio-political sound-artists.
The Last Poets @ the EIBF consisted of a chit-chat with their pseudo-biographer, Christine Otten, a Dutch novelist who’d attached herself to both the mythomeme & the physical personages of The Last Poets, & created a novel about their story, rather than a conventional biography. This was published at first in Dutch, in 2004, it was only last year that it came out in English translation. ‘She’s a white, Dutch girl,’ said the Last Poets to inquisitive voices asking who the hell was this lady with an accent exploring the rock pools of their lives, ‘but she’s… OUR white, Dutch girl.’ During the talk, one could really feel that Otten’s presence was appreciated in the tight-knit world of the Last Poets, that she’d done a good job penetrating the egos, bringing out the humanity & telling ‘a decent story.’
The Last Poets – Baba Donn Babatune, Umar Bin Hassan & Abiodun Oyewole – are drifting back into the public consciousness, with a voice still resonant today – especially in the middle of all this Trump nonsense. After playing a gig in Edinburgh the previous night, the Last Poets are finally pouring their wisdom & love into the Scottish diaspora, & enjoying the experience immensely, comparing black subjugation to the English oppression of the Scots. So much so, that the talk spilled on for far longer than it should, but trying to get these guys off stage was hard work; neither they nor us wanted the moment to end, but when it inevitably did so, everyone just felt that little bit better leading & living their lives.
Reviewer : Damo
Paul Auster – New York Storyteller
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
18th August 2017
Cliché: ‘A giant of American Literature’. Justified: “he can out-Roth, out-Updike and out-Franzen the greatest” (Financial Times). I wrote earlier this week of selecting a flagship event for the Festival; well, unless I missed something else, this one would take a lot of beating. The sponsorship of the University of Edinburgh managed to net an appearance by an author for whom one can soon run out of superlatives. The problem of how to describe him doesn’t stop there. His first novel, The New York Trilogy…
Now hold on a minute! The New York Trilogy is a collection of three, separately-published novellas, only later gathered into a single volume. Start again. His first novella, City Of Glass…
Stop right there! What about Squeeze Play? That was published three years before City Of Glass. True, but under a different name. What is more, on being given a copy of both the trilogy and his latest book 4321 to sign by a fan this evening, he remarked very clearly “Ah, my first one and my latest one.”
And there we have (already) a wonderful set of contradictions, when it comes to Auster’s world. His real world and his fictional. The trilogy uses the genre of the detective novel not to unravel a mystery the way Hammett or Chandler or Paretsky might, but to raise questions about identity and reality, existentialism and the absurd, meaning and meaninglessness. 4321, not only his latest but his largest work, presents four parallel stories where the same protagonist (possibly) lives four separate lives (possibly) in the turbulent 1960s. City of Glass contains sparse, economic sentences such as “Quinn had been prepared for this and knew how to answer”. In 4321, however, Auster has mastered the perfect, long sentence, many of which last a whole paragraph, some of which seem to go on for pages; “I started writing a different kind of sentence,” Paul said. “It had a kind of propulsion, a paratactic urgency. I wanted to create a different tone.”
This event was sub-titled ‘New York Storyteller’. Every time Jackie McGlone, chairing the event, mentioned an aspect of his writing, or hinted at a question, Auster would take the topic, either squarely and obliquely, and run away somewhere with it. Often relevantly, often interestingly, always away. And always taking the listener along. A New York storyteller is precisely what Paul Auster is.
He read a long passage from 4321, in which he described Ferguson the protagonist (which one – does it matter at this stage? Not until we read the book in its entirety, and then it will become relevant, or so we hope) dealing with the certainty (to him) that the world and what was happening to it – the Vietnam War, International reaction, US politics, New York politics, campus politics, personal opinion and experience – was made up of concentric layers. The passage itself was fascinating, not only for its introduction of this mental impression, but the facts it was conveying, the people, the names, the organisations and their initials and acronyms, jocks and radicals, politicians and protesters, counter-protesters and cops, and every so often, almost without breaking the flow, Paul would insert a note of explanation for the Scottish audience, a footnote, a snippet of commentary. And it felt like part of the continuing storytelling. He also gave us the opening paragraph, which contains a piece of humour which depends on the reader knowing about the Ellis Island immigration process in 1900, and a little bit of Yiddish on top of that. In a way it’s an old story, but I won’t spoil its retelling for you. I will say that in order to appreciate a little piece of incidental humour, Google the Empress of China’s maiden voyage.
Jackie McGlone steered Paul onto the subject of politics and the current situation in the USA. Could anyone have come up with a fictional character like Donald Trump? Yes, Alfred Jarry, who created Ubu Roi in 1896, only without all the orange. Comparing the situation in America today with that of the 1960s, Paul referred back further than that, to the founding and expansion of the United States:
“We haven’t gotten anywhere, we’re just exactly where we were half a century ago. Nothing has changed. And then, you know, you start to question the very fundamental building blocks of the country. This great country of America is built on two crimes, two enormous sins – the extermination of the Indians and slavery of black people. And we’ve never really faced up to these things, never confronted them, and I think it has poisoned us, and now it’s coming out more and more and more again, another wave of racism and nationalism of the ugliest sort.”
“I can’t keep quiet. It’s too dangerous. It’s too serious to stand back and watch the country melt… A lot of the American system will be eroded by the time Trump leaves office. We need to keep beating the drum.” Paul admitted to being pessimistic, citing the way that Donald Trump had used Goebbels’ ‘Big Lie’ principle to slander Barack Obama, and by the time of the election he could utter any falsehood and would be trusted by the people who had come to heed him.
But of course, tempting though it is to harp on about the political situation in the United States, and though to do so caresses the confirmation bias of Brits who, like myself, do not like the political flavour of things there, this was supposed to be a literary event, we are supposed to remember what Paul said about his books, his low-tech methods of writing, his seven day working week, and our excitement at such a major work’s publication after an apparent gap of seven years. The solid ovation and the queue of people wanting books signed attested to that. The combination of the Festival, the University of Edinburgh, and the author delivered.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson
Edinburgh International Book Festival
18th August 2017
It must be daunting to face an audience, even a small one at one of the Festival’s smaller venues, but to have to do so on one’s own because the person who was due to share the stage has had to pull out takes a lot of nerve. It would have been fascinating to have seen and heard iO Tillett Wright, but – let’s face it – Penny Pepper is now a veteran of appearing in public, having emerged from behind the pen name of Kata Colbert many years ago to become both a poet-performer and an advocate for people with disabilities, and if anyone could carry it off she could. I think this does challenge the Festival programming; a joint Wright/Pepper event would have been in interesting mini-colloquium, but either one of them could easily fill an hour with something unique.
Penny was primed and prompted by poet Ryan van Winkle (and yes, that is his real name), whose enthusiasm did occasionally cause him to talk over her more than a host should, but I’m guessing that was his delight in being there. It’s picky of me to mention it, I know, and by-and-large he did all that a host should do at one of these presentations.
With the rain beating on the roof of the Garden Theatre, Penny read from her new book of memoirs, First In The World Somewhere. She has been an avid diarist for most of her life, and each section of the book, she told us, is introduced by a few lines from her journal. Such is the style in which she has written this – narrative, almost prose-poetry in places, the first passage she read out interrupted by curses and racist comments from her stepfather – that it was impossible to say where the journal extract ended and the creative memoir started.
Although Penny has happy memories of her father (still alive when she was a child) teaching her to read before she went to school, ‘home’ eventually became, in her words “a prison, Hell.” She did not want to live “the designated life of the cripple,” and so, full of Sex-Pistols-fuelled rebellion, decided to move from her rural home to an independent life in London. This took extraordinary self-belief because, as she told us, even the language of independence for the disabled did not exist back in the 1980s. One way of taking hold of her own life was to show off in her choice of clothing. Breaking out of stereotyping was also a way that a disabled person could express “a universal experience,” talk about love, sex, fun, even write to the Pope (yes, she did that – it’s a long story and I hope you hear it straight from the poet’s mouth some time).
The late seventies and early eighties was the height of the era of the fanzine. That’s a concept that the blogging generation would be hard put to get its head round, but this medium of do-it-yourself, audience-participation samizdat was where ‘Kata Colbert’ first emerged. A letter of hers was ‘Star Letter’ in Jamming magazine, and she issued a poetry cassette under the title of ‘My Heart Is Like A Singing Bird’ – she owned up to us that titled was borrowed from Christina Rossetti.
Ryan van Winkle quoted her as saying that “‘crip sex’ is still a taboo,” to which she replied “The taboo is a social construct… the body perfect is a construct… My bottom line is be human, it’s a human issue.” She also rejects, as a construct, the ‘charity model’ of disability, with its implication of gratefulness on the part of the recipient. She talked about having addressed the House of Lords and served on all kinds of diversity panels, notwithstanding her objection to the construct and the expectation that largesse was something to be handed down to the grateful. She talked about her good friend the actor Liz Carr, about Margaret Thatcher, about St Francis of Assisi (she was delighted with the idea that the birds he preached to might have been the carrion-eaters on the city dump when he became disillusioned with the people of Assisi), about her best friend Tamsin, about boyfriends, about Bill Grundy interviewing the Sex Pistols, and lots more.
If I have one… well… not a complaint but a regret, it’s that because the event was to promote her memoirs we didn’t get to hear her poetry. But there’ll be plenty of other opportunities to do that. Check your local What’s On! I had a chance to chat to Penny afterwards, and that was fascinating because she is utterly charming and much more approachable than some Festival celebs, but our chat is not what this review is about. Many thanks to Penny, to Ryan, and to the EIBF for allowing us to spend an hour with her.
Afterthought: do you realise that Penny Pepper has no Wikipedia entry? Get that sorted, someone.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson
David Olusoga @ The EIBF
Thursday 17th August
David Olusoga is a rather handsome mixed-race gentleman – half-Geordie, half-Nigerian – who has recently blazed an educatory trail of enlightenment across the world. His mission has been a continuation of the salvage jobs on black history made a generation previously by historians such as Peter Fryer. Through these joint efforts, the invisible voices of the African diaspora that permeated the white world, often brutalised by chains, are given at least some breath. The core of Olusoga’s directive is that there is something of a watershed moment taught to all our children, that British history remembers only the abolition of slavery, & chooses to ignore the desperate unholy years before emancipation. The same classroom texts are also stuffed full of spinning jennies & factory chimneys, but nowhere do we read of the cotton fields of America which were the lifeblood of the Industrial Revolution.
Olusoga is a man of spring temperament; charming, gentile, soft spoken, he expertly wove a comprehensive tapestry of his subject matter for a packed house. Then came the thirty minute Q&A, all chaired consummately by Celeste-Marie Bernier, & it turned out that Olusoga has almost accepted defeat, that the classroom is not the place to educate our future generations on black British history, but we should leave it instead to demographics, & perhaps TV programs such as the ones he produces on the subjects. This left an unusual aftertaste, for when something vitally important needed doing about rewriting black history, Olusoga actually did it, but has then almost lost faith in what he has done. Even so, the forest of hands that remained straining at the end of the Q&A is proof that there is a lot more debate to come on black history, & it is through passionate historians like Olusoga & those to come that this will hopefully occur.
Reviewer : Damo
The Power of Translation: Nick Barley introduces Daniel Hahn, Kari Dickson, and Misha Hoekstra
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Sq.
16th August 2017
Many events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival are hard to ignore. In some respects picking events to go to is rather like sifting through a longlist, narrowing it down to a shortlist, and deciding who gets the prize of your attendance. We all have our own views about what is, or was, or will the best event this year. However, when a contending event is chaired by the Director of the Festival, who was also the Chairman of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize panel, and the event includes a fellow judge who happens to be the Festival’s go-to-guy in matters of translation, and one of the other participants translated one of the shortlisted books, AND the remaining participant is a fine translator in her own right (reviewer pauses here for breath), that event has to be on the mother of all shortlists.
Setting aside the issue of whether literary prizes help perpetuate an attitude to fiction where gatekeepers tell us what is and is not ‘literary fiction’ as opposed to popular fiction, this event was outstanding for the way it gave an insight into the art and science of translating. It was so fascinating that by one third of the way though I forgot I had to review it and found I had stopped taking notes. So what follows are impressions. This will not be the last time I will say this, but an hour, with forty-five minutes of chaired talk and fifteen of questions and answers is too little for events like this. On the other hand, the audience leaves with its curiosity whetted and a book or two on their shopping list. Nick Barley, in the chair, steered things with great ease, and the early intervention of a question from the auditorium about dialect enabled him to bring that very issue to Kari Dickson, who recently worked on a Norwegian text full of dialect. The Norwegian language exists without the burden, some would say, of a ‘Received Standard’ version. The country’s population is roughly the same as Scotland’s, but spread out over much further. Every town – every village, every valley, according to Kari – has its own dialect, and all are regarded as valid ways of speaking Norwegian. But translating a remote Norwegian dialect into English is a different matter. In the UK dialect and accent are the fuel of value judgments. So rather than translate into an identifiable dialect from a British region, Kari chose to construct one. That’s not without its problems when, in two adjacent lines, someone shouts “A want t’fuck,” which looks as though it ought to be Lancashire-speak, and someone says ‘thar’ for ‘there’, which seems distinctly Appalachian.
The problem of whether to translate a well-known Danish phrase by using its well-known British equivalent was also raised. Misha Hoekstra translated Dorthe Nors’s Man-Booker shortlisted Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Those words are a precise translation of how learner drivers are taught the skill of turning in Denmark. So why not call the translation ‘Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre’? The answer is that the English translation also goes on sale in North America, where the routine for turning a car is taught differently again. So the decision was made to stick to a direct translation. But then there was how to render the idea of a pedestrian crossing – in the end that became the transatlantic ‘crosswalk’.
Misha and Kari gave us readings in Norwegian and Danish, and if beforehand we had been tempted to think of all Norse languages as being somehow interchangeable, hearing them spoken in juxtaposition highlighted their differences in sound and cadence.
Perhaps the ‘star of the show’ – if that is a valid description – was Daniel Hahn. He is no stranger to the Festival, and when asked to speak about the books that had made it onto the Man Booker International shortlist he spoke rapidly, fluently, and clearly. If there was anything I would liked to have time to ask him directly, it would have been a follow-up to his remark in answer to a question from the audience about punctuation. The questioner had noticed a difference between the speech marks used in Norwegian and English texts. Although the question had been directed to Kari, Daniel intervened to say that the practice was to aim for the most ‘neutral’ usage in the target language. It had been in my mind to ask about the danger of assuming that the target language in a translation, particularly if it is the translator’s own, is somehow a neutral medium. But I didn’t get the chance to ask it, and it didn’t really matter.
Yes, these sessions often seem to short, and yes they often raise more questions than they answer, but that’s no bad thing. And as long as the Festival keeps serving up events like this, I’ll be only to happy to go along to them.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson
Teju Cole: Blind Spot
Edinburgh Book Festival
13th August 2017
Teju Cole is hard to pin down into a category, and I expect he likes it that way. An award-laden Nigerian-American author, photographer, art historian and critic, including for the New York Times, Teju was talking with Chicagoan Elizabeth Reeder, currently Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Glasgow University. The hour began with photographs from his new book displayed on the screen, as he read the poetic and intriguing text that accompanied each one. It’s a huge, 300-page tome of both photographs and accompanying text, which takes longer to read than a novel of similar length due to the time taken to study and reflect on each image. He’s the author of four books, seemingly unrelated, but actually forming a loose quartet of themes. Reeder talked about Cole’s circular technique of ‘return’, looking at something again and again to explore it in a different or deeper way, similar to the spiral-like structure of Toni Morrison’s more complex novels.
The images ranged from a young boy in sea water wearing a black glove, eerie simple wooden crosses at the US-Mexican border, a potentially ominous water standpipe in Brooklyn, scenes in London, Lagos and the French countryside. He lets us see these snaps of life through his personal lens, anchoring each one with a snippet of story, history and meaning; the pathos of the the disabled daughter like ‘an astronaut far away from home’, and the beauty of ‘the bunting of vintners’ blue nets’. The name Blind Spot plays on several ideas. The lack of meaningful reference points, our blind spots when looking at unfamiliar peoples and places that are barely, superficially or falsely represented in the mainstream. Cole’s own brush with temporary blindness in 2011, which no doubt spawned a renewed appreciation for the gift of sight, and a sense of double vision; looking outward and inward at the same time. Because he is a multi-media artist, when his work is in a gallery, he is able to play with form, structure and logic to different effects, and may just compress his show into just 7 chosen slides. He’s open to new forms, including live performance, depending on whatever channel the work needs to express itself through, and has been inspired greatly by film.
Cole regularly revisits, in his own words, several particular themes. Human fragility and the uncertainty of the body, issues of faith and religion, and thirdly, political tension, and quotes the enduring influence of Homer’s Iliad on his world view and art. Because he is both a photography critic and photographer, one set of skills and knowledge intimately affects the other. He admits that the text can both explicate and complicate, which provoked of the audience members to ask for more explanation. “I don’t know,” he said with a smile, “I could just make something up.” He suggests that having words with pictures forces the viewer to slow down and gaze at the pictures for longer, even though he humbly suggests that the images themselves are “aggressively banal”.
Reeder wondered about travel and how it informs his work. He said the work was never about travel per se, but more “how to go to places and be completely depressed”, making his the anti-travel memoir. He explained that although certain symbols have become instantly recognisable symbols of a place, acting to supposedly differentiate it from other places was often actually false representation, being only espoused by a tiny minority. Scottish men in kilts, for instance. He prefers to look under the surface and find the essential differences in the history of what created the peculiarities of that particular place, precisely because each place has a vested interest in suppressing its own history.
Yet the love for the art forms themselves is strong. As well as to make people think in new ways, his goal is also creating pleasure. His satisfaction comes from the fact he is able to shape and prepare an experience for the reader/viewer. Just like a pianist playing legato, where the flow of the notes creates the beauty and the feeling of pleasure, good writing does exactly the same. His metaphors and worldview lean to his Nigerian background and culturally holistic patterns of thought and debate, such as allowing ‘windows for spirits to get in and out’. We’re keenly aware that we are just being allowed a peep into his vast, hidden depths and wish he could continue in his humble and softly-spoken way, with what he finds most difficult and we find so wildly compelling; ‘making his vulnerability formal’.
Reviewed by: Lisa Williams
Sunil Khilnani @ the EIBF
Mon 14 Aug
India, India, India, how does one make sense of India. Well, in his book ‘The Idea of India’ Professor Sunil Khilnani certainly tried to grasp & bottle at least some of the distilled spirit of that megaland. Now, 70 years exactly since independence, he is offering a new book, a brave attempt somewhat, to create a history of India using only 50 biographies – that is 50 lives out of the many billions of Indians who have made the subcontinent their home. In the Q&A at the end of Sunil’s 30 minutes, he was asked whether 50 was enough. His response that more than a 100 had made his short-list, but since whittling them to 50, he was happy with the result. ‘One does not miss an amputated arm,’ quipped Sunil, & we were all ready to accept his judgement. Indeed, Sunil speaks with authority, & is pleasant to listen to, rather like taking the mountain railway through the Niligris Hills; slow, sure, with spectacular views.
It was my first visit to this year’s bookfest, which I found expanding into George St like a great novel one is writing just can’t quite get to the end. ‘Just one more sub-chapter, to embellish the second sub-plot…’ Entering the Studio Theatre with me were acolytes of Indian culture history, & of course fans of Sunil’s 50-part podcast series which formed the basis of his book. The ultimate caveat of the work is to strip away some of the myths of Indian history – & their politicization – & to present them in a relatively orderly fashion like some feral & unchecked Oxford Dictionary of Biography. A life is, in Sunil’s words, ‘a critique of society,’ & among the pages, billionaire tycoons sits alongside the Buddha & Vivekananda, while Gandhi is celebrated for his media manipulation during his protests marches, while at all times the very latest research, including declassified documents, buoys up the body.
Professor Khilnani began his upper education in Edinburgh – he did his A-Levels here – & hearing him speak on his return to the city, the ghosts of his long-dead tutors were immensely proud as they filtered into the room to hear their protege speak. Incarnations, A History of India in fifty lives, is a fine moment in academic history & may become the bedrock for all Indian biography, which up until recently has been firmly entrenched in hagiography. That land is just too vast to focus on a single individual – a fifth of humanity dwell there as I write – & stories are better told when minds & movements mesh, & through works such that presented by Sunil will enable Indians & the world at large to obtain a deeper grasp of history, to dismiss the corrosive stereotypes.
Reviewer : Damo
Magnus Mills – The Vinyl Countdown
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Sq.
14th August 2017
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a 12-inch LP.” Well, no, not exactly. Though I have to say that if an event is touted “High Fidelity meets Kafka” that’s what I would expect. In fact Magnus Mills’s ninth novel, The Forensic Records Society, starts with Keith Moon’s off-mic shout of “I saw yer!” from the end of The Who’s ‘Happy Jack’, or so he told us today in the Garden Theatre.
When I visit the Book Festival I like to go to events about books I haven’t read. That way I know that if I want to read the book by the end of the event it has been a success. I haven’t read The Forensic Records Society. So do I want to?
Magnus Mills was introduced to us by broadcaster Joe Haddow. In contrast to Joe’s genial scruffiness, Magnus appeared as a tall, lean, unsmiling, quiet-spoken, suit-buttoned-up wight. That was a front. There’s a dry wit lurking not far below the surface. There’s also a man who knows vinyl, who knows how long ‘Complete Control’ by The Clash lasts, who has a collection of nine hundred vinyl singles all filed alphabetically. He’s a man who knows vinyl geekdom first hand.
Although Magnus says that The Forensic Records Society comes from his imagination, not his experience, that the pub in which the eponymous Records Society meets is not actually his local – the Pineapple in Kentish Town – and that the characters who haunt the novel are not based on anyone he knows, I am certain that there must be one or two knowing winks here and there. The book’s basic premise is that a handful of enthusiasts start a record club in a private room of a pub. The club has very strict rules, its founder, according to the event blurb in the Festival brochure, is a man of uncompromising dogmatism. When a second record club – The Confessional Records Society – is set up in the same pub on a different night, and is more arcane, more impenetrable than their own, their narrow microcosm begins to experience a power-struggle. Magnus has certainly come across the kind of defensive/counter-offensive dogmatism he portrays, if we believe what he says about someone’s reaction to a casual remark:
“I just said I thought the White Stripes were just messing about most of the time […]
I felt like I was in court!”
Magnus read some extracts for us, and in between slipped a couple of 45s onto a fifty-year-old deck he had brought along. ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by The Kinks, that was fine, but Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Man Of The World’ developed ‘wow’ and had to be taken off. No matter, as the extracts from the novel were intriguing enough. He has a style of writing that, if I didn’t know better, I would say hadn’t changed since he was about sixteen and was still trying to impress us with the way he handled the English language. There were no contractions, no couldn’t, no wouldn’t. Characters didn’t ask, they “demanded.” A character “adopt[ed] a casual manner,” or “offered words of consolation.” The dialogue was full of bewilderment and awkward pauses. But that worked! It all seemed to fit the narrative voice of the novel, and to be just right to express obsessive geekery. Magnus owned up to having “a sarcastic manner,” and it showed in the extracts he read out. That also reinforced the impression that it is a very ‘male’ novel – most of the characters are men – but that seems okay, as obsessive hobbyism tends to be a very ‘male’ thing, as Joe Haddow pointed out. In any case, Magnus says, he doesn’t really understand women, so why do them the disservice of writing about them from a position of ignorance.
Magnus Mills was brought up in a family where the paterfamilias did not believe in and did not allow commercial broadcasting – there was no ITV, no Radio Luxembourg, certainly no Radio Caroline. In a way Magnus has steadfastly refused to move on, he does not own a CD player. Just those nine hundred singles and fifty-year-old deck with wow. Joe Haddow reminded him that vinyl records were making a comeback, and he said that he had bumped into a teenage girl in the street:
“I said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a record player’, and she said ‘Yes’. I didn’t know what to say next.”
So do I want to read The Forensic Records Society? Yes, I rather think I do. Further than that, notwithstanding its being full of male characters, I’m going to recommend it to my wife. Those awkward pauses in the dialogue remind me of a Discworld novel, and she likes those. Ha! Discworld! See what I did there?
Reviewed by Paul Thompson