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Is Every Piece of Writing an Act of Confrontation?
Some reflections on my work and motivations as a writer
Is Every Piece of Writing an Act of Confrontation? Some reflections on my work and motivations as a: News
“There can be no progress without head-on confrontation.”
― Christopher Hitchens, Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays
“But this was what happened when you didn't want to visit and confront the past: the past starts visiting and confronting you.”
― Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park
This essay is a personal reflection on some of the philosophical considerations which motivate me as a writer, especially of fiction. Part ii contains an extensive reflexive analysis of my published works, including detailed outlines of their plots and subject-matter.
My modest accomplishment to date as a creative fiction writer includes the publication of three novels and a selection of short stories. I’m already what is referred to in derogatory terms in the publishing world as a ‘mid-list author.’ When I was on a book tour in South Africa in 2011, promoting my second novel, my publicist was decidedly coy whenever I broached the subject about the response to my new work. She confessed that, ‘it’s been difficult, because what people want nowadays is something funny and light-hearted. Or a crime novel set in a foreign country which isn’t too close to the bone, something that isn’t so … aggressive.’ As I was there to promote an explicitly literary novel about the nature of white guilt, containing a vision of a dystopian Africa, I obviously felt this was more than a little pointed. To be honest I felt a little guilty.
Yet, whenever I think over my publicist’s description of my writing, I ultimately conclude that there’s no reason to deny that my work is direct, pointed, raw and, yes, in tone and subject-matter it’s unflinchingly aggressive. In fact, the primary impetus in my small oeuvre to date has been concerned with confronting issues by writing about them. This is largely because as a white Zimbabwean male I find my literary sensibilities have in essence become defined primarily by a confrontational inclination, and only secondary to this by the desire for denouement and closure. In the nouveau hegemonic ideology of Zimbabwe’s post-independence, I’ve been forced to find a medium of response to the inflammatory accusations that have been constantly levelled at me as an individual within the context of my country’s political discourse. From the onset of my creative predilections, I’ve always inherently been a disciple of Orwell’s dictum that no writing “is genuinely free from political bias.” Deprived of the legitimate authorisation to mount a defence, and a voice with which to make it, I’ve been spurred on in my attempts to write in a mode which is not only highly personalised but directed as a specific response to the issues facing my country and my status as a citizen within in it. In de facto terms, I realise I’ve been an ardent post-colonial writer from the very beginning.
Essentially I’ve always viewed narrative as a vehicle to confront the issues which surrounded me, which grate at my conscience, or which otherwise seem inexplicable to me. I then set about to tackle them head-on through the act of writing, to reconstruct them in fictive terms, and having felt I’ve worked through the issues via this confrontation, only then do I seek ‘closure’ through fictionalised, aesthetic or imagined terms. In his essay, ‘Why I Write’, George Orwell says, “I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” I have always identified strongly with this statement.
As a result, I think the material in my novels often propels my characters into a defined trajectory: they are ordinary individuals forced to act beyond themselves in order to confront extraordinary events and situations. They act as signifiers of this very confrontation, as active agents in the confrontational process. They bear the brunt of whichever ‘issue’ I choose to burden them with and I often feel that a character of mine needs to suffer somehow in order to make the symbolic transcendence from affliction to catharsis, from victim to survivor, from amorphism to affirmation. This formulates my own indirect way of attesting to an ideological political process through the practice of writing itself: outcomes prevail over inertia, retribution and regeneration is at least made possible on the page if not in the palaces of the powerful. At the end I hope to feel cleansed of the issue at hand and believe I can put it aside and move on. Well, at least this is the theory, the intention.
And so I don’t shy away from the fact that engaging with this form of discourse can be unsettling and unpleasant. Albert Camus, in his essay, ‘Le Mythe de Sisyphe’, wrote: cherchant ce qui est vrai ne cherche pas ce qui est souhaitable, (seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable) and I’ve always kept this close to me as a writer. For better or worse I engage with the society I inhabit and feel compelled to explore it.
My first novel, Unfeeling, was a way for me to begin to respond to circumstances that troubled me. In this case it was the senseless havoc created by the violent seizure of white-owned commercial farmland in the early 2000’s in Zimbabwe. At the time of the first wave of farm attacks, I was a young schoolmaster at a boarding school which catered predominantly for the offspring of the farming fraternity. When it became apparent that the attacks on farms were not an isolated overspill of the frustration voiced by discontented war veterans of the struggle for independence, but a militarized operation directed as a matter of state-sanctioned policy and conducted by organised militia, we knew we had an unprecedented crisis on our hands. Students would return to the school after weekends witnessing unimaginable horrors on their beloved farms; violence and intimidation meted out to their loved ones, loyal farm workers and animals, as well as the wanton destruction of their lands and property.
The trauma I witnessed these students suffer formed the basis of my motivation to write and my initial instinct was to direct my fury at what I perceived to be a sole collective enemy: the regime, the dictator, the despot, the ruling party, the militia. Given the implicit threat this enemy posed to my own (white) state of existence, it was easy for me to channel my vitriol and fashion a narrative of raw resentment. When I sat back and reviewed a first draft of the novel, I anticipated experiencing the effects of its therapy, a release of all my negative energy, but was immediately disappointed at what I would describe simply as the text’s inertia. Although there was a clear order of events, a determinable plot featuring aspects of what was happening in the country, there was also very little internal choreography to balance these actions, establish character’s motives or reasons for what I depicted as unfolding.
It was apparent that while setting out to recount those events by portraying the injustices of the enemy, I had failed to render anything really substantive from the inquiry. In relation to those injustices, I had not accepted or taken into account my own complicity as a white writer writing from a subjective white man’s mentality. I realised then that I needed to first confront myself in order to unlock the key to understanding what was ultimately troubling me. The reason that first attempt at writing failed was due to my inability to turn the pen on myself. I remember being acutely aware of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Digging’ which concludes:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests
I’ll dig with it.
I’ve always suspected ‘Digging’ represented a conscious didactic determination on Heaney’s part to excavate the nature of Irish nationalism through his own inward exploration, to turn inwards on his own past which he acknowledges – as must we all – was aligned inexorably to that of his troubled surrounds. The one and the other are inseparable from each other, and I realised this as an important lesson in relation to my own writing. From then I began to write not only about what troubled me, but to write about my own troubled understanding of those same events. This small yet significant difference represented for me the dichotomy between writing about something and writing within something. A prerequisite of the novel, I began to realise, given its duty to signify humanity in motion, is to be written from within.
Unfeeling deals with a character called David Baker, a youth whose external circumstances see him witness the seizure of his prized family farm and subsequently the brutal murder of his parents by hired militia after his father refuses to cede ownership of his land to a politico of the regime who has arrived to lay claim to it – herself a caricature of the ruling party ‘fat cat.’ Davey, unable to come to terms with the loss of his parents, sets out from boarding school on a hike across the country in order to reclaim what he sees as his birth right. He makes it back to the farm, retrieves a loaded gun from a secret hiding place and confronts the ‘fat black woman’ who he finds lying on the bed in his parent’s old room. However, she is already dead, poisoned ahead of his return by the former farm workers loyal to the family. Disappointed that “someone has beaten him to his prize,” Davey fires a shot into the dead woman’s belly anyway but afterwards feels no immediate catharsis, no end to his tormenting grief: “And in death she somehow seems more alive than ever, her actions, her deeds, and it’s him who is still dead. His heart won’t bleed.”
That Davey is deprived of his symbolic justice relates directly to what needs to transpire within him and his own internal confrontation with who he exactly is. The truth is that he himself is “a trespasser, an encroacher, an assailant” whose inherent arrogance at assuming he is the heir to the wealth and prosperity the farm seems to leave him deprived of the ability to feel in the wake of the tragedy which befalls him. This is because he believes that an act of revenge alone will appease him. Not even his quasi-picaresque odyssey through the bush wilderness where he is forced to experience a sequence of episodic encounters with elements of realist Africa for the first time in his life force him to break with his obdurate white mentality. His attitude is so engrained within him since birth by the “credo of the white farmer” that he feels entitled to ignore the true reality of Africa around him. In the end, he is guided to salvation by his guardian, Marsha De Wet, who forces him to confront what has become of a young buck he callously shot on the farm one morning, but failed to track down and kill humanely. Davey’s long history of mistreating animals, of encroaching into their territory as a callous hunter, places him in a similar position to that of his family’s assailant who has acted with tacit political backing to plunder what she sees fit. Davey’s ultimate acceptance of his own small degree of complicity is what allows him to finally confront his grief, to at last “sift through scenes from the past, this perfect haunting of memory.”
While writing Unfeeling I was well aware of the need to challenge myself on a number of these issues, perhaps truthfully for the first time in my life. I had to ask myself: what currency did the ideological perspective of the typified white farmer hold with myself as a white man? Did they speak and act on a level which represented my own mind-set? Was my sympathy for his plight inclusive of my acknowledgement of his many faults and shortcomings? Was his fate indicative of my own? And in identifying with the sentiments and mind-set of the farmers, what space had I left for empathising with the black victims in this saga, whose numbers vastly outweighed those of the white man yet whose fates remained largely unheralded and undocumented? I felt a responsibility to balance the external happenings with an internal awareness of their larger context from my position as a white African writer myself. In this sense, the writing of the novel forced me to grapple with the notion that in order to render validity to my subject matter, a degree of personal immersion into the subject itself is non-negotiable. In retrospect that is an obvious, commonplace statement. It did, however, force me to accept that writing (perhaps of any genre) can never be viewed as a fundamentally objective exercise. Perhaps then, at its purest level, seeking ‘truth’ is all that matters to the writer and this truth is attainable upon an examination of what lies within as much as what lies without. As clichéd as this appears, this understanding did afford me some sense of ideology as a young writer.
My second novel Of Beasts and Beings was even more consciously introspective. It addressed the theme of confrontation, and the possibilities and limitations of literary confrontation, head on. Here I decided to tackle the nature of white guilt explicitly, positioning myself as a writer-teacher directly into the narrative and only thinly disguising incidental details of myself. The diarist who narrates parts of the novel is named ‘Ian’ and he has a surname beginning with the letter ‘H’. Hence my own consciously derived pseudonym of ‘Ian Holding’ stood as a signifier to indicate that the direct intent of the narrative lay in its overt pretence as a discourse about the nature and effects of writing itself. This was a deliberate choice driven by the structure of the metafictional conceit around which the whole novel rests. This teacher-writer sets about to construct a faux narrative as a deliberate attempt to write himself into his country’s dark history, to seek a way in which he can become at last an active participant of good intent, as opposed to a passive bystander who is neither intellectually nor actively engaged in his environs.
The intentions behind Of Beasts and Beings arose from a time when I was continually questioning my role, status and existence as a citizen of my country. The weight of ‘colonial baggage’ was still very much at the forefront of national social consciousness. The politicised black Africans used it as political capital, while the white Africans elected to ignore it in a fashion which would suggest this was a largely conscious choice tantamount to an abdication of responsibility. These issues of white denial and white mentality were ones I was eager to confront in a more direct manner than in Unfeeling where although white mentality was examined it was in direct correlation to a specific set of extraordinary events within a definitive contextual environment, for example, the land invasions. For Of Beasts and Beings I wanted to remove that defined context and strip away any limiting principle that would confine the explorative aspects of any narrative. While the imagination of the writer-teacher is creatively fluid, there are no particularly extraordinary circumstances which define his day to day existence; he is under no immediate external threat beyond the corrosive awareness of a deepening economic malaise.
In the novel, my teacher-writer protagonist stops his vehicle at an intersection one night and observes the sight of a desperate man wheeling a heavily pregnant woman in a barrow along the rain-swept, potholed streets. In hindsight he suspects the woman likely to have been in labour, but at the time his initial reaction is to consider the incident a set-up and to take fright at the notion of being approached by a desperate black man in the pitch darkness. He drives away. His guilt begins to torture him: “What is the best way to pay due recompense for my role in this crime? To atone for my failure to help that man and his wife in their moment of need? What is to be my punishment? How will I suffer, as they have suffered at my hands?” His response is to begin a compulsive writing project in which he assigns himself the role of a beast of burden, a donkey, which is taken captive as his narrative opens and is enslaved to a group of refugees who must escape the apocalyptic nightmare of a land torn apart by factional violence which has spilled into outright genocide. One of the refugees is a heavily pregnant woman, (an unlikely Madonna figure in what ultimately becomes a parody of a modern day nativity tale) who the donkey is forced to pull along in a makeshift cart. The allegory functions as an analogy to slavery: the donkey is enslaved to its captives; it must perform a task of manual labour at their instruction; it’s muzzled and denied its voice; it’s chained and denied its freedom. The journey is one of endurance and survival.
Initially content that he is engaged in a cognitive simulacrum of the same journey – mentally ‘enslaved’ to the task at hand in return for the freedom of atonement – he then realises an unfortunate paradox: far from conducting an exercise in appeasement, far from inserting himself into the position of someone he has prejudiced, far from successfully writing himself into his country’s dark past, he has in fact redoubled his initial ‘crime:’ “I – the donkey – we – were never their slave. Paradoxically, by the mere fact that I controlled their every move, their every facet of being, by the instance that I plucked them out of my imaginings & held them forcibly in this narrative, I enslaved them. As author I am their master, they my slaves. I have been controlling their destiny, their fate was in my hands.”
Realising the futility of his pursuit leads him to a second revelation: “I know I haven’t done them justice, given them a real voice, made them real human beings. I didn’t see them beyond significations of what they stood for & hence they never stood a chance. In this admission alone I find the entire weight of my failure come down on me.” Ultimately he sees that in framing the initial incident within a fabled context he has created little more than a stereotypical representation of the very people he wished to reimagine (and even serve) in humanist terms. At best he has created a pastiche of race relations from a white perspective. Here his headlong confrontation with the circumstances of his own failings as a human being result in sterile conjecture and his only option lies in deconstructing his text and then recreating it again with a conclusion that is expunged of all contextual exposition, where racial prejudice and inhumanity is non-existent.
Granted Of Beasts and Beings is implicitly conceited. Above and beyond all of this there lies of course the further metafictional reality which cannot be ignored: that the overall novel is still the work of one writer – Ian Holding – and as such the computations of it being a ‘piece of writing about writing about writing … et al’ become nonsensical. This artifice aside, my overarching intention was to suggest that in fact there are limitations to how purposeful self-conscious writing can actually be. That beyond a certain point a theoretical discourse can be rendered counter-productive. In essence the novel is about very simplistic concepts: humility and humanity. If the writer-teacher had only acted on these principles when his fate intercepted those of the woman in the barrow and her husband, then what followed – a magnum opus of pure shame and guilt – would not have proven necessary. However, the simple reality is that prejudice exists as a default human response, tragic as this is. In this alone I maintain that my novel holds currency.
My influence for examining this theme was largely derived from a number of literary sources in which I identified with the theme of atonement or reparation for a past deed, the root to which lies solely in confrontation. One very close and obvious influence was Atonement by Ian McEwan, in which his protagonist also strives to construct a version of the past in order to make amends and at the end remarks, “It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.” In Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, one of his ever unreliable narrators, a famed detective, strives to decipher the fate of his mother, from whom he was separated as a child in war-torn Shanghai. At the end of his long search he says, “There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.” These two summations I feel grant some relief to my own fictive attempts. In retrospect they both might have made excellent epigraphs to Of Beasts and Beings.
Meanwhile, it’s true to say that a formative influence on me as a writer has been the post-structuralist theory of Michel Foucault. In his seminal essay, ‘Qu’est-ce que l’auteur?’, he writes, “It would seem that the author’s name, unlike other proper names, does not pass from the interior of a discourse to the real and exterior individual who produced it; instead the name seems always to be present, marking off the edges of the text, revealing, or at least characterising, its mode of being.” He is talking of the ‘author function’ which he later describes: “we are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meanings begin to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.” And: “The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.” My interpretation of Foucault’s theorising here has always been to derive confirmation of the belief that a discourse and its author share a relationship that is fundamentally inviolate: that, in essence, the notion of fiction itself is reduced to a defunctive concept if we try to divorce the characteristic individuality of the author – which includes his entire persona – from the semiotic markings of his creative output. Foucault’s elaborations on the ‘author function’ are diffuse, but for me he characterises (and this is in opposition to Barthes’s central argument in ‘Death of the Author’ which I will address later) what is an instinctual given: the text is the writer. And if the text is the writer then authorial motive must predefine the text in isolation.
As affirming as all this was to me with regards to my first two novels, I then found I had grown weary of subscribing to a technique of narrative construction which is too overtly author-centric. Beckett advocated for the elimination of the author-voice altogether, and I now began to wonder whether it was possible to write myself out of my texts entirely whilst still engaging with the act of writing itself as something that was still by nature confrontational. An unrealistic as this seemed, an experiment for me came in the form of my short story ‘The Black Suit’ where, for the first time, the subject-matter and motivation for the narrative were all entirely imagined, unfounded in reality and entirely the antithesis of my earlier literary output.
The story unfolds with what I would best describe as a kind of intentional Kafkaesque ‘reduction’ – in the sense that much exposition is scaled away in favour of a stark realism, but an obliqueness in which time, place and plot are all variously undefined. The unnamed protagonist has killed his abusive alcoholic father, euthanized his pitiful mother, and then fled his poverty stricken mining town peopled by poor white trash with only a black suit which both haunts him and serves as his only indicator of what has transpired. He has no sense what he is doing or where he is going. His immediate actions prove to be both aimless and yet undercut with a euphemistic potential for actions which are both violent and symbolic of a vague supplication for pity. He comes to town in a pickup truck with a black suit hanging in the window and leaves a few days later without it. Within that polarity of expression rests a density of meaning which is never extemporised upon. The meaning – if there’s any – rests in the tonal atmosphere of what is presented in the text alone, the arrangement of letters and words, its semantic framework; the fact that something exists at all.
As gratifying as this ‘experiment’ was I must admit that it represents the extreme of my attitudes towards my own writing; if indeed the ‘Black Suit’ has ‘meaning’, then as author I remain pleasantly oblivious to it. And yet it’s distinctively in my style, it’s constituted from my syntactical footprint, my register and diction, my author’s ‘eye’. It has an element of the bleak realism which is a telling feature of my regular idiom. Because it’s definitively ‘mine’ and yet so unreceptive to any calculated intention both pleases me and yet also conflicts with my sense of usual purpose as a writer. In contrast, my longer fiction has been (perhaps by necessity of course) very much controlled acts of writing with stringent intentionality prefigured into their authorship.
Despite being de caractère, I must still accept that ‘The Black Suit’ embodies literary confrontation of a sort; its very being serves to challenge the paradigm of my writing methodology; it was a deliberate attempt to defy the established structure in which I was so invested. In essence it represents to me a kind of anti-writing, but writing which still by its very coming into being sought to address, approach, encounter and experience the nature of the white African. Ultimately I must accept that even trying to write myself out of my text placed me in direct conflict with my own authorial sensibilities. What’s more, it underscores my suspicion that there can exist no such thing as a truly ‘passive’ text. For all its lack of intentionality, ‘The Black Suit’ still deals with issues which are inherently close to my realm of concerns. Perhaps I could allow myself to concede that as a genuine piece of writing, the story unintentionally marked a development for me as opposed to a divergence. However, viewed as a compendium to my novels, it confirms that my overall arc as a writer to date has been inclined towards this issue of ‘confrontation’ on some level.
My third novel, What Happened to Us, did, however, mark a conscious attempt to strip away this constructed theoretical artifice and sought to tackle actual confrontation itself as its main subject matter. Here confrontation meant not only squaring up to a direct implication in a singular horrific event of life-changing magnitude, but also confronting the nature of ‘white guilt’ itself – a theme, on reflection, which runs throughout all my writing: a statement which seems obvious in light of what I’ve already realised in the course of this essay, but which at the time was nonetheless not an overly conscious objective or forethought: although, granted, perhaps it’s an inevitability when one writes about white protagonists injected into an African landscape and all that [land]scape represents as a cogent symbol of racial and cultural division?
Daniel Walker is a thirteen-year old trapped in the last throes of that liminal age where he’s on the cusp of a deepening sense of his place in a corrupt and mendacious adult world and yet still lingers in the veiled oblivion afforded him by the blinding naivety of childhood. It’s worth stating what childhood for a white child in a country like Zimbabwe constitutes, for there is an undeniable coat of privilege which shields such a youth from the otherwise cruel depravations of reality which widespread poverty and historic subjugation yield up to young, ever-opened eyes. Daniel is nicknamed ‘Danny’ by his family and friends because, naturally, the softening and infantilisation of such a name serves as an implicit marker of the kind of escapist and fantastical life he’s been enjoying when the novel opens: at every turn his parents have provided for his existence in a pleasure-world bubble of warmth, shelter and abundance. He kicks around by the pool, he plays the white boy’s sport of cricket, he tears around his suburban paradise on a bicycle terrorising ordinary black people who are out trying to make an honest living simply because his lifestyle is so comparatively affluent as to render him bored and in continual search for pleasure, the next ‘kick’. In a way he has therefore already grown up with an unknowing yet burdened weight on his shoulders: one wrong step, one misdirected word or deed and suddenly the veneer of his youth will crack and fail to protect him from the force of an angry and mounting resentment against him (and this goes for any white kid; any white person). Indeed, his father already bears the scars of his battles to protect his sovereign business interests from being marked out and ‘acquired’ (appropriated) as part of a nationalisation project to ‘correct colonial imbalances’: perhaps a symbolic punishment for inheriting a generational transfer of minority economic prosperity while the majority of the country’s inhabitants wrestled with marginalisation and the abject penury which accompanied it. But for the ‘sins of the father’, young Daniel carries something of a ticking time-bomb strapped round his waist; a metaphoric suicide vest of sorts which will detonate the moment he pushes the bounds of his naïve childhood petulance too far.
This moment comes as the novel opens and the youngster is out courting trouble at the local market by provoking the vendors on what is probably the hottest and most unbearable day of the year and then blithely (but unknowingly) urinating on an election poster bearing a portrait of the President: “I think what happened to us started the day I was out playing on the streets and I accidently pissed on the president’s face.” There are three labourers nearby who may or may not have seen what could constitute a grave and highly inflammatory offence and who then seemingly follow Daniel home as he becomes increasingly aware of his error and the sudden reality of the political dispensation which hangs over the country and infuses everything with its grim machinations. The uneasy tension the possibility of his indiscretion causes sits with him sharply and triggers off a new awareness in him that something about the atmosphere (besides the insufferable heat) is being ratcheted up to almost breaking point. When a few days later the house is attacked by men who perhaps bear a similarity to those who followed him home – although this in itself is a problematic matter of racial profiling and stereotypical association – Daniel believes he is responsible for provoking the attack and leading them to the very doors of their home.
Compounding the immediacy of this guilt is the gradual understanding that something truly horrific happened to his sister, Rebecca, during the break in – a violation so unspeakable that his family’s instinctive way of dealing with it is to prohibit all mention of its actual true nature to him which not only casts him as an outsider to the intimacy of his family’s new-fraught struggles, but also starts to establish a psychological neuroses around his sense of coming into manhood himself; the realisation of what damage a fully grown sexualised male is capable of doing to a woman. While the men who broke into his house were clearly intruders, he similarly begins to rationalise his own maturation as an intrusion into the very innocence of existing and being, as well as an affront to the very sanctity of his own familial bondage. Hounded by the guilt of his own burgeoning sexual awakening and the unstoppable fetishization of sex which accompanies the privilege of white adolescence as an entitled rite of passage, Danny – who gradually becomes a more hardened ‘Dan’ – believes that to halt his ‘corruption’ of innocence and to fully atone for his complicity, he needs to arrest this development and thus resorts to a dangerous habit of self-harming in the form of puritanical quasi castration rituals in order to punish himself for the sins of adult man against his sister. Parallel to this he begins a fantastical and increasingly infantilising obsession with somehow proving himself the rehabilitated ‘hero’ by somehow bringing the intruders to justice. Thus he enlists the help of a crooked cop called Zach and so enters the seedy realm of corruption and political intrigue, ultimately being caught up in a larger complicity as he is exploited for apparent symbolic reasons as Zach is ultimately only out to inflict a brutal lesson on Daniel about the dangers of daring to demand retribution in a country continually collapsing in on itself in a cycle driven by unresolved racial division and bitterness.
Of course What Happened to Us is fundamentally about a boy confronting a past trauma and about his view of his family doing likewise. It this regards it nestles, perhaps along with Unfeeling, into the sub-genre of what is called Trauma Fiction. In his article ‘Archives of Troubled Childhoods in Contemporary African Fiction,’ Edgar Nabutanyi cites an argument by Wendy Hesford as put forward in her polemic, ‘Reading Rape Stories: Material Rhetoric and the Trauma of Representation’ that “narratives create spaces for survivors to theorise their own experience and talk back.” This idea interests me in that I feel there’s the possibility that Daniel possibly reconstructs certain events and theorises about others in order to suit the convenience of his own outlook and immediate perspective. It’s his way of defining a truth which is he able to cope with. Generally, it’s atypical for a Zimbabwean teenager to engage with trauma directly, but yet they do so without being particularly conscious of it. Nabutanyi also cites the theoretical influence of Maria Pia Lara. He says, “particularly useful in my reading of fictional archiving of African troubled childhoods is Lara’s argument that ““the effort to communicate something relates necessarily to the question ‘who’ is speaking.”” In a sense, it’s plausible to argue that fictional depictions of African troubled childhoods give a voice to these ‘subalterns’ to craft through pain a kind of agency which, according to Homi Bhabha, provides the terrain for the emergence of new strategies of selfhood and identity.”
Reading into this, it occurs to me that there was perhaps a critical difference between my previous novels and What Happened to Us which rests in my choice for a narrative point of view; of who is speaking. ‘Who is speaking’ might in turn answer the question as to whether there can be ‘the emergence of new strategies of selfhood and identity,’ or in other words, relate back to one of my initial lines of inquiry about how effective literature is as a means of conflict resolution can be, or whether it has a genuine transformative ability? Does Daniel Walker, for instance, forge a new identity – positive or negative – in his confronting of the ordeal he experiences?
Unfeeling was written in the third-person and Of Beasts and Beings a mixture of the two. Both narratives are very controlled by an authorial omnipotence. Even though Davey Baker is an adolescent, and his stream of consciousness voice is often dictated by the register and outlook of a teenager, his world and the language which creates the subtext in which he exists it is still determined by a stylistic structure which belongs to the other characters as well and consequently the entire novel. That style is determined by its author and to some extent this is arguably limiting to those character’s ability to act as ‘free agents’ within the text. Of Beasts and Beings is entirely a controlled construction. In addition, both novels are set in a post-colonial era, yet one in which a colonial consciousness ultimately imbues and inhibits the discourse itself. Although this consciousness does not entirely dictate the attitudes and pronouncements of these characters, this historical legacy is still inescapable from them. In a way, as Alfred Rangarirai Musvoto argues in his article ‘Narrating the country: A Rhodesian girl child’s account of the colony’, these adult narratives are often “self-censoring for the sake of political correctness.”
In contrast, he says, “The utilisation of the girl child's voice authorises an uncensored account of the colonial space” and in What Happened to Us I at least attempted to create – via the boy child’s voice – more distance between my own (prejudicial) interference with the text and my narrator’s (uncensored) telling of it by allowing him to operate in an ‘historical present’ framework. In turn this allowed him the ability to ‘theorise his own experience and talk back.’ That events unfolded in this manner from the point of view of an adolescent who is not widely cognisant of the larger political, historical and social nuances of his environment, also somehow enabled me to render them from a subtler perspective. The mere fact that the boy must, for the sake of engaging the reader with an authentic narrative voice, be somewhat ignorant of his greater surrounds was, I think, constructive in rendering the tone of the narrative somewhat an authentic rendition of such a traumatic predicament.
Indeed, the whole concept of narration with regards to the issue of general confrontation itself is interesting to me. By making Daniel Walker a thirteen-year old Zimbabwean first person narrator, I intentionally prohibited myself as a forty-year old Zimbabwean author from interloping into his perspective of the world around him. Daniel, born towards the mid-00’s needed to have an entirely different outlook to myself, born at the end of the 70’s. The issues he confronts – the socio-political context behind the attack, for instance, his naivety over falling into Zach’s trap of corruption and collusion – had to all be engaged with from the perspective of ‘who is speaking’. In essence the realisation of all of these manifestations and implications needed to be entirely devolved from accepting the importance of the narrator’s salient rights to ‘create spaces to talk back.’ The challenge for me was to make these themes part of the discourse by somehow seemingly to avoid them at all: it was a matter of surrendering myself to the chastity of the text. To refer back to Bathes’ ‘Death of the Author’, he suggests that Mallarmé’s “entire poetics consists in suppressing the author for the sake of the writing” because, ultimately, “it is language which speaks.” Here, I think it was absolutely paramount to ensure that it was Daniel’s – and only Daniel’s – “language which speaks.”
All six novels of Kazuo Ishiguro’s are exquisitely rendered in a very subtle first-person voice which bear the striking quality of being both wholly distinctive as separate characters (each quite unlike Ishiguro himself) and yet instantly recognizable as Ishiguro’s trademark style. This is some feat of writing. Malcom Bradbury in his critical work, The Modern British Novel (1878 – 2001), writes of Ishiguro: “Every one of his books touches some of the large historical events of the century … but always indirectly, at an angle, and from the standpoint of a few chosen moments or glimpses taken from the perspective of the displaced figure or the quiet observer.” I find the essential narrowness of Ishiguro’s characters to be a powerful statement about narration itself: beyond every narrator a larger manifestation of the world exists and continues to exist in perpetual motion. I realise that a successful narrator should function alongside the larger manifestations of history while not being entirely consumed by them. Beyond the comprehension of Daniel Walker’s experience an even more sinister and malign world exists. I believe that confronting this world by paradoxically asserting oblivion about it was in essence a more powerful trope to consider. But does this still render the action of the writing as much a confrontation as a statement of language? Can any piece of writing be free from its confrontational parameters? Whether Daniel’s account is designated a ‘passive text’ is another issue to consider. It might be possible, after all, for a reader in a foreign country to dismiss my novel as ‘not too close to the bone’ and raise no internal reflection to bear upon its contents? Does this make it passive?
The word itself – confront, confrontational, confronter – denotes the act of going towards something with intent as opposed to taking up a position of neutrality in relation to it. As writing for me is a way of answering back, I accept that I stand rightly accused: I am an aggressor. But my next question, and one I often like to explore, along with some of its derivatives, is broadly as follows: is all writing an act of confrontation?
The question in its immediacy also relates to the deed of writing itself. What lies before the writer and his poised pen is the same empty vastness which every artist must face: the creation of an expression, hopefully true, hopefully resonant, that comes out of the nothingness which unfolds around us all. When I look at this statement I realize that there is nothing revelatory at all about it. I know with certainty it’s the condition every writer finds is the reality of their predicament. It’s the starting point of the process of writing. It’s a logical and systematic basis for the realisation of the task ahead, the chore of creating something out of nothing. Any artistic expression is essentially an existential one insofar as the art must itself grapple with its own singular and isolated purpose; it must fight to forge a meaning within the parameters of its own limited and predefined form. In his published lecture, ‘Existentialism is Humanism,’ Jean-Paul Sartre argues, “Il n'y a de réalité que dans l'action” (“there is reality only in action”), and in my own writing I’ve often used this as a stark basis from which to accept that the veracity of the creative process only attains value in the physical transferal of thought and imagination into the craft of writing itself. The act of writing is what creates some kind of parallel reality that functions as meaning on an expressive level. Given that writing takes place at all, is the act itself immediately and exclusively confrontational? In other words, is every act of writing, no matter how intentional, a confrontation between nothingness and something?
The other day I was listening to my favourite podcast: Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Review from BBC Radio Five Live. Each week listeners email in posing questions relating to cinema which are then discussed. In this episode, the following question was raised: does there exist an entirely positive movie, one in which there is absolutely no negativity or sadness whatsoever? The issue was discussed at length with reference to a multitude of films of almost every genre, period and nationality and concluded with Kermode and Mayo failing to find a single example. Every film, they decided, has some element of negativity in it even if this is perceived as being negligible in relation to the overall tone of the piece. For narrative to function, there must be at the very least be an elemental conflict, of an internal or external nature, that a character must navigate. Even reduced to simplistic theoretical terms, for instance in Gustav Freytag’s Die Technik des Drama, each component mapped out in his ‘pyramid of dramatic structure’ – exposition, rising drama, climax, falling drama and denouement – must contain, for the purposes of drama itself, the residue underpinnings of conflict. This in turn dates to Aristotle’s Poetics and his proposition for the need of drama – whether comic or tragic – to contain a central contest or agon. In a modern context it appears to me obvious to say that the textural elements which constitute developments in narrative construction have simply created a veneer of ambiguity which disguises this base classical structure. However, I’m always interested as a writer in exploring the question as to whether there exists such a thing as a ‘passive’ text: a discourse which is not by its very conceptual nature primarily aggressive, but has been brought into existence to function as an agent soliciting, or requiring for it to exist, no response? Also: can the writer make himself a passive entity in his own discourse? Is it possible and plausible for me, despite my prior inclinations and instincts, to withdraw my footprint from my own narrative, to permit complete transference to another ‘voice’, and thereby to shed my designation as a literary bully and ‘aggressor?’
I’ve alluded already to Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author,’ and find it an intriguing argument, but to be honest I’ve always wondered what an author himself or herself is meant to make of it? I’m undecided. To comprehend that “the modern writer (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text; that he is in no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends his writing,” forces me to extinguish all traces of the very expositional intent with which my motivation to write in the beginning is predicated on. I am, however, more partial to his statement that, “the true locus of writing is reading.” As a writer I’ve never been taught to write, in a way that one is taught, say, arithmetic and grammar. In principle I believe the output of a writer to be directly related to both the input of what he or she has read combined in direct proportion with what he still needs to read. If anything, an artist is often the sorry product of what they are not. Other writers are what make writers, but it’s essential that this is a purely self-realised achievement, that insights such as awe, association and epiphany are parts of the unbidden transcendence between text (teacher) and reader (pupil/student of writing).
A writer is therefore a constructive reader, writing in order to read his own text, to codify the chaos of his own internal discourse. To consign the author to oblivion as Barthes and his contemporaries advocate also denies the same reader a free interpretation of a potentially infinite text. This I can’t accept, but another question which potentially interests me is in connection with the welfare of a reader in general. Is reading an isolated and inclusive act of confrontation as well? When I engage with a text I’m primarily entering into a sphere of resistance between my cognitive decoding of what typographical structure I encounter and the manner of meaning which can be extrapolated from the language therein. In that theatre conflict arises because my imagination must fight to create a holographic representation of whatever it is my mind deciphers from the semantic formulation and syntactical presentation of words on paper. An area of psychology which interests me is ‘Narrative Transportation Theory’ or the ‘Transportation-Imagery Model of Narrative Persuasion,’ – the work of Melanie Green, Jeffrey Strange and Timothy Brock – in which they propose that it’s possible for a reader to adopt their attitudes and intentions in relation to the degree of their submergence into the dimensions of a text they are reading. As a writer (who is simultaneously a reader) writing from an overtly confrontational position, I’m intrigued as to whether this has occurred to me in the past and whether it occurs to me during the writing of the full length work of fiction. Does writing ultimately change who I am?
I also wonder to what degree these inquiries relate specifically to me alone? In other words, although they might occur unknowingly by natural process whenever pen is put to paper, I’m curious to explore the extent to which I – as a white African writer writing about African themes which calibrate my own specific latent conflict with Africa – am more self-conscious than other writers? Does this limit me as a writer or provide direction and impetus to my body of work and my literary ambitions?
Overall, I guess what intrigues me is the question of how effective ‘literature as confrontation’ is as a means of cognitive conflict resolution; whether catharsis and closure is genuinely possible through the act of writing or reading? Does my reading and writing actually bring about a genuine understanding of an issue at hand, along with a sense of appeasement? Or is the stark reality more a matter of conscious and willing association and empathy with an artificial device that is in reality completely incapable of functioning beyond its own material composition? Does literature and art actually have any transformative ability, or do we assimilate the impression of transcendence with the act of reading, writing, viewing and listening in collaboration with the inherent understanding we have developed that this alone is the intention of any artistic expression? After watching Hotel Rwanda or reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or viewing Guernica or listening to Britten’s War Requiem do the feelings and emotions we experience in response actually matter given that beyond the limitations of the medium of artistic expression, the events depicted still happened and exist in an historical dimension, the outcome of which is unalterable?
Finally: am I just kidding myself that any of this actually matters?
Aristotle: Poetics, Oxford University Press, 2013 (trans. A. Kenny)
Barthes, R: ‘Death of the Author’ from Aspen, (no. 5 – 6), 1967, (trans. R. Howard)
Bhabha, H: The Location of Culture, Routledge, 1994
Bradbury, M: The Modern British Novel (1878 – 2001), Penguin, 2001
Brock, Green, Strange: Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Functions, Psychology Press, 2002
Camus, A: The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Penguin Classics, 2000
Easton Ellis, B: Lunar Park, Picador, 2011
Foucault, M: ‘What is an Author’ from Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, Methuen & Co, 1991, (trans. J. Harari)
Freytag, G: Freytag’s Technique of Drama: An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art, BiblioBazaar, 2008, (trans. E. MacEwan)
Heaney, S: New Selected Poems 1966 – 1987, Faber & Faber, 1990
Hesford, M: Reading Rape Stories: Material Rhetoric and the Trauma of Representation, College English, 1999
Hitchings, C: Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays, Atlantic Books, 2006
Ishiguro, K: When We Were Orphans, Faber & Faber, 2000
Lara, M.P: Moral Textures: Feminist Narratives in the Public Sphere, Polity Press, 1998
McEwan, I: Atonement, Jonathan Cape, 2001
Musvoto, A.R: ‘Narrating the country: A Rhodesian girl child’s account of the colony’ from Commonwealth Youth and Development, vol. 11, issue 1, 2013
Nabutanyi, E: ‘Archives of Troubled Childhood in Contemporary African Fiction’ from Postamble, vol. 7, issue 2, 2012
Orwell, G: Why I Write, Penguin Great Ideas, 2004
Sartre, J.P: Existentialism is Humanism, Yale University Press, 2007, (trans. C. Macomber)
©Neal Hovelmeier (Ian Holding), 2020
Is Every Piece of Writing an Act of Confrontation? Some reflections on my work and motivations as a: Text
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