Is your reading really ‘useful’? Maryse Conde in Cape Town

I’ve recently picked up Tim Parks’ collection Where I’m reading from,.  The essay, Writing Adrift in the World critiques post-colonial literature studies

I tutor students from England, studying, or practising, creative writing. They too now move in an international world… They too have taken courses in world literature, or at least post-colonial literature. They are familiar with the big international names – Kundera, Pamuk, Eco, Vargas Llosa, Roth, Murakami.They know who won the Nobel, the Man Booker International Prize, The IMPAC, the Pulitzer. Exciting as it is,  Pamuk,for example, may offer a strong sense of place, but it is one increasingly addressed to those outside Turkey, rather than to the Turkish themselves; is the young English writer to talk about England to a foreign audience?

He goes on (at some length) to argue for the significance of a geographically specific literary canon. I’ve been thinking how odd this criticism is after reading The Story of the Cannibal Woman a book set in Cape Town, written by a Guyanese author, who now divides her time between the US and France (the book is translated into English from the original French). Elizabeth Schmidt argued that‘the book’s essential question is outlined from the start: What happens when a woman who feels she can’t get out of bed must get out of bed? What happens when a black, childless woman, from Guadeloupe originally, with no source of income, finds herself stranded in a rich white neighborhood in Cape Town?’ Whilst I would agree the frame for the book is the death of Stephen, murdered when out for a packed of cigarettes, and Roselie, his wife’s mourning process, it is much more ambitious and far-reaching than this, using the personal to ask questions about relationships, migration, history.

What do you do with the past. What a cumbersome corpse! Should we embalm it, idealise it, and let it take over our destiny? Or should we hurriedly bury it as a disgrace and forget it altogether? Should we metamorphose it?

ACH001699826.1307681683.580x580.jpg%22 height=250>Her wiki pages mention her autobiographical influences, and her feminist commitments. Like Roselie in the book, Conde has lived and worked in francophone Africa, after study in France. She uses the character of Roselie to ask questions about how couples can have completely different views of their experiences, the complex post-apartheid politics of relationships in South Africa, as well as to explore ideas about home and migration. In places this is similar territory to Zadie Smith, asking the uncomfortable questions about how people can live together when dealing with the realities of societies that aren’t as accepting as the brochures claim.

As Roselie tries to find out how she can mourn Stephen, and the police question her account of his death, she sets herself up as a psychic, meeting other travellers and residents scarred by their experiences of South Africa, of migration. She is shown as subtly understanding their troubles, offering healing, even as she struggles to resolve her husband’s motives, his choices, not least on the night of his death. Roselie presents one story to us at the beginning of the book of their relationship.

He used to work in London. Listening to him, Roselie was as fascinated as if an astronaut had described his days on the MIR space station. So people spend their time wallowing in fiction, getting worked up about lives they have never led, paper lives, lives in print, analyzing them and commenting on these fantasy worlds. By comparison she was ashamed of her own problems, so commonplace, so crude, so genuine.

As the novel develops, this cliché of a pick-up is undermined, both by her memories and the investigation into his death. The police ask her questions that hint at a late night meeting. She tries to find out more through his former students, his colleagues. Conde takes us through a series of antagonistic dinner parties of the past, and Stephen becomes an increasingly unpleasant figure, pushing Roselie into career choices, antagonising her friends by deliberately challenging their opinions. Conde’s resolution to the ‘puzzle’ of Stephen is more obvious to the reader than it is to Roselie, who greets the police revelations with shock. More complex, and unresolved, are the reasons she was with him in the first place, for so long, beyond his initial ‘rescue’ when she had been left by a previous lover in another African town.400%22

Conde’s work is nationally and internationally recognised, most recently by the Man Booker International shortlist for 2015. So does this make her a target for Parks’ list of ‘not particularly useful’ writers? I don’t know how Parks’ students react to his scepticism on the value to their translation of world, or post-colonial, fiction. Perhaps they know (as I don’t) whether he is ‘just’ being provocative, as a writer of essays for the NYRB. I would encourage them to consider this book, just in my seat as a reader first, an international one second.

An academic review accessible here (including an explanation of the ‘cannibal’ reference):és_The_Story_of_the_Cannibal_Woman

Parks’ original published article:

Reading guide from the publisher:

Categories: Research, Studies, Teaching, Reviews & Spotlights on...

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3 replies

  1. This does sound like a wonderful book.

    I am frustrated by Park’s argument. I am a white male reader in Canada with a strong interest in international and foreign fiction. The criticism that writers are increasingly writing for an international audience is spurious and offensive. Not only are readers increasingly international, so are writers. White South African writers for example have often been accused from within the country for not addressing post apartheid issues every time they put pen to paper. It is important, yes, but so are other universal themes that inspire writers to write and readers to read. Does Parks have a problem with the fact that so many “international” writers – Latin, Chinese, African, Indian and so on – have read widely in the English and American literary canon? Do writers read Dostoevsky to learn about Russia or because there is a fundamentally timeless quality to his work?

    Many international writers do not live in the countries in which they grew up or that inspires their writing. Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai has spoken about the problem of definition for international writers. He argues that sometimes the only place such a writer can write from is the hyphen. As a Canadian I am rarely engaged by highly localized writing. I am however intrigued to see how writers from elsewhere employ Canadian settings. I am also fond of writers who have migrated to Canada but address that experience and/or set their work in their country of origin. Arguing, as Parks does, that Pamuk should be writing for Turkish audience to tell them what they know is akin to saying Turkish readers should only read indigenous Turkish literature. Why translate anything at all?

    Sorry for the lengthy comment.


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