AiW Guest: Sarah Middleton.
It has become hard to imagine living in a place where there’s a constant supply of electricity. In Cape Town we experience load-shedding, like the rest of the country, as a measure to prevent the collapse of our power grid. The real-life implication of this is that from 4pm – 6pm, on the day of the Man Booker International panel discussion, there was no electricity at the University of Cape Town.
The power was back on by the time guests were seated, and Jameson Hall looked grand, illuminated by green uplighters and decorated with boxes of foliage, the ubiquitous ferns. A small group of elderly women bustled into their seats behind me. Shortly after the panel began to speak there was another power cut, and the lights, cameras and sound went off, only to flicker on again to the accompanying cracks of multiple power surges. These cracks continued for a few minutes while the speakers blinked away their surprise. At every crack the white-haired women tittered behind me.
UCT’s Vice Chancellor, Max Price, opened the proceedings with a quote by Ben Okri: “When you can imagine you begin to create and when you begin to create you realize that you can create a world that you prefer to live in, rather than a world that you’re suffering in”. He connected this conceptually with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign that had been so central and newsworthy of late (#RhodesMustFall), saying that the students were engaged in this same act of creation. Elleke Boehmer, despite the distractions, began riffing off the Okri quote. She said of the reading and judging process, “we have had our faith in the imaginative power of the written word confirmed and re-confirmed”. Of the global South, she said that its very definition, and the question of who belongs to it, is something that literature can help us to answer. Starlings swooped through the hall, singing.
The notion of the global South needed explication, and was described as that ambiguous and oxymoronic name that refers to anything and anyone “under the Southern Cross”, in Boehmer’s words. Edwin Frank suggested that world literature, which includes literature from the global South, has been accused of being “homogenisingly exotic”, and comprising mainly books “written to be translated into English”.
The many varieties of English in world literature, however, “create a more and more various English”, or rather “many Englishes”. Frank added that historically, literature was intended to be translated, because it offers a response to our human curiosity, and especially the eternal question of “what’s going on over there?”. Just as Jane Austen offered a woman’s perspective, he said, Faulkner told the North of America all about the South, and thus “the other world”, and “the other side” became a crucial thread in the development of the novel.
The speakers were eloquent and respectful. “What have my predecessors left me to say?” said Wen-chin Ouyang. She need not have been so humble, she could tell us all something about “what’s happening over there”, being born in Taiwan, raised in Libya and now living in London via the States. Ouyang also spoke of translation, and how it “usually goes in one direction”. She suggested that if authors felt free to write beyond one language, one nation-state and one culture, the literary world they created would be enriched by being “multiple in its centres” and voices, and not bounded by geography.
Elaborating on the theme of the evening’s discussion, Dame Marina Warner pointed out that the global South requires there to be “two poles”, and that there is a difference in what the South means “to the imagination” and what it means in actual present day reality. This is evident in the works that have featured on the shortlist, where many protagonists are children. Warner explained that this demonstrates the hopefulness of the South as Keats imagined it when he wrote “O for a beaker full of the warm South”. But within these stories lies the presence of the sickness and poverty that might attend life in the South, the constant reminders of colonial legacies and persistent structural inequalities.
Question time began, with UCT’s Meg Samuelson opening the floor. One of the first questions was regarding postcolonial theory and the ethics of “imagining the forbidden other”. Boehmer offered the view that literature and the arts “are unique” in that they are sympathetic and do not attempt to appropriate or possess. Nadeem Aslam was responding to this same question when about 25 students trooped silently into the hall and stood before the stage with a banner proclaiming “Rhodes Must Fall”. This, for those of you who live “over there”, is the vibrant and ongoing protest over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that has occupied pride of place on UCT campus. The story made news headlines when on 9th March, in a protest against institutional racism at the University, a student named Chumani Maxwele threw human excrement at it (notably the contents of a portaloo container in reference to inadequate service delivery).
Aslam politely waited until the protestors were assembled before continuing with his discussion. “I am from Pakistan,” he said later on, “so this did not frighten me”. The students stood for a while, staring stolidly at the audience. When Aslam attempted to speak directly to the protestors they ignored him, with their backs resolutely to the stage. The white-haired women whispered amongst themselves. “He’s talking to you!” said one. It turns out that he was talking to them in order to thank them for participating in the creation of a world that they would prefer to live in. It felt unreal, and somewhat embarrassing to be sitting in a fern-filled hall listening politely to intellectuals, when outside there was a storm of real-life issues, and students were (and still are) feeling hurt, and angry because of the slow pace of transformation at the University. Which is not to say that their voices were ignored, as the panel engaged conceptually with the protest throughout the proceedings. On the contrary, it even seemed as if the subject of literature from the global South was subsumed beneath the events that were happening on campus, catalyzed by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.
Literature can act as connective tissue. As Boehmer suggested, it is one of the most sympathetic art forms. Warner, in answering a question about the parameters of selecting the shortlist said, “we did decide to look for what we didn’t know”, and as Ouyang pointed out “it’s always beneficial and productive to think beyond your position”.
From the position of Jameson Hall here in Cape Town, the rest of the world looks far away. Subsequent to the MBI meeting the statue has been removed for “safe keeping”. There has not been a final decision on what will happen to the bronze effigy, but it is clear that it is not “safe” in a public place, where it has such an incendiary effect. The power outages continue, but we adapt as we must, and read, and think about “what is happening over there”. Sometimes, more importantly, we think about what is happening over here.
Sarah Middleton has completed a Masters in English Literature at the University of Cape Town. Her thesis focused on the mythology of masculinity in the Western novels of Cormac McCarthy. She is currently freelancing as a writer and editor, teaching English Literature at UCT, and drinking copious amounts of tea.
Ten writers are on the judges’ list of finalists for the sixth Man Booker International Prize, an award of £60,000 which recognises one writer for his or her achievement in fiction.
The finalists’ were announced by the chair of judges, Professor Marina Warner, at a press conference at the University of Cape Town on Tuesday 24 March 2015:
- César Aira (Argentina)
- Hoda Barakat (Lebanon)
- Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe)
- Mia Couto (Mozambique)
- Amitav Ghosh (India)
- Fanny Howe (United States of America)
- Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya)
- László Krasznahorkai (Hungary)
- Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo)
- Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa)
The judging panel for the Man Booker International Prize 2015 consists of writer and academic, Professor Marina Warner (Chair); novelist Nadeem Aslam; novelist, critic and Professor of World Literature in English at Oxford University, Elleke Boehmer; Editorial Director of the New York Review Classics series, Edwin Frank, and Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS, University of London, Wen-chin Ouyang.
For more information and links on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign see #RhodesMustFall
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