Q&A: Literary scholar and novelist Elleke Boehmer on ‘Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds’

Yesterday evening marked the beginning of ‘Great Writers Inspire at Home’ – a series of workshops running over the next term at the University of Oxford which puts reading groups into dialogue with contemporary British writers, including Aminatta Forna and Nadifa Mohamed. These conversations between readers and writers form part of a larger research project led by Professor Elleke Boehmer that explores how Black and Asian writing has shaped and evoked new ways of thinking about Britain, and Britain in the world.

This project ‘Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds’ asks pressing questions about the experience of reading, and how literature impacts the ways in which we see ourselves and the world. As part of this a number of reading groups have been asked to share their reading experiences of a selection of novels or poetry collections (including Forna’s The Memory of Love and Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy, Zadie Smith’s NW and Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover!). They have recorded their discussions and are also posting responses on the project website.

Elleke Boehmer is Professor of World Literature at University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). She is a founding figure in the field of colonial and postcolonial studies, internationally known for her research in anglophone literatures of empire and anti-empire, and for books including Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (Oxford UP, 1995) and Empire, the National, and the Postcolonial, 1890-1920 (Oxford UP, 2002) investigating transnational links between anti-colonial movements. She is also an acclaimed novelist and short story writer, most recently of The Shouting in the Dark (2015).

 I interviewed Elleke about the drivers and approach for this new research project, and the conversations she hopes to start through it.

Kate Haines for Africa in Words: Could you start by telling me a bit about where the spark for the ‘Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds’ project came from?

Elleke Boehmer: There were two sparks for the project. The first was a longstanding frustration with ways in which world literature and postcolonial literature (not to say all literature) in the academy is defined by and large in an instrumentalist way. Readings are motivated by the same instrumentalist agendas: you read for race, you read for gender, you read because you are going to produce some form of resistance or some form of dismantling the structures of power or some form of writing back. As a creative practitioner myself, I have found those kinds of readings and those kinds of approaches to be very narrow. Postcolonial writers, as much as any other writer, are craftspeople, they are wordsmiths, they work their language in order to tell a powerful story or to write a moving poem, and not restrictively to put a message across or to mobilize a certain agenda. So that has been a longstanding frustration that I talked about in an essay called ‘A postcolonial aesthetic: repeating upon the present’ in the collection Re-routing the Postcolonial that I didn’t expect to get the kind of audience or the kind of coverage that it did. When I was writing that and thinking about postcolonial aesthetics, what that might look like, I quickly saw that there is something about the word postcolonial that is oxymoronic with aesthetic. So I wanted to interrogate that, to break that down, to ask why that was so. So that was one spark for this project.

The other spark was the work that I’ve been doing for several years with a group including Terence Cave – an Emeritus Professor of French Literature at Oxford and an inspiring critic. We’ve been looking at cognition and reading, what happens when we read. What does the imagination do? What is the imagination? How does the imagination operate in our brains and how is it activated or sparked by a book, by a story? I became involved in that project first and foremost as a novelist, as a storyteller. The project researchers wanted to understand where I was coming from in framing, presenting, styling my stories as I did. I found that so exciting that I wanted to scale up those questions and those experiences by involving other writers and more readers.

Part of my interest in this as a critic is in trying to get away from the word text. Text is so much associated with poststructuralist critique, and I’m much more interested in the idea of story, or novel, or whatever literary genre it is, to look at that on its own terms and not as a text, as a piece of code. I want to try to get away from the idea of language or literature as a code for something. I’m interested rather in what it does with our brain, with our cognition as we read. It’s an interest in how the imagination works. Again my point would be in relation to postcolonial literature that the imagination works as dynamically, as vividly, as colourfully when we read a postcolonial novel or poem as when we are reading another kind of novel or poem. There is something about what we could call the aesthetic brain that is stimulated in the same ways when we read the one as when we read the other. I’m hoping that researching these ideas through this project will become a way of shifting how postcolonial literature, including African literature, is read within the university and at schools.

KH: Given postcolonial is a word with a multiple and contested history, and is therefore a term that can be quite difficult to connect to or relate with outside of that particular history and those conversations within the academy, could you say a bit more for our readers, many of whom aren’t academics, about how you personally understand this term and what it means in the context of you work?

EB: Postcolonial in a nutshell is about seeing from the vantage point of minorities and marginalized peoples. So attaching postcolonial to the word literature or the word writing, postcolonial writing, points us to writing that voices perspectives from the margins. It is still the case that even though we live in an interconnected, networked world, there are centres or hubs within those networks that have significantly more economic power than others. That there is a network doesn’t mean that there is a level playing field. This project is about redressing some of these balances and speaking up for the inequalities, the sharp gradients of power, that pertain between the centres and the margins. This is a kind of advocacy but I’m a bit careful about that word because I also think that postcolonial writing needs to be read on its own terms as powerful writing, as powerful voices from perspectives outside the global North.

KH: And this particular project is framed through the lens of Black British and British Asian fictions – rather than say postcolonial fiction more broadly published and read in Britain. Could you talk a bit about the reasons for this?

EB: I need to talk a bit about the word world in order to get to the answer to that question. So part of my thinking about imagination, the reading mind and what happens to cognition when we read, has to do with how a book calls upon us as readers. How it invokes our interest. How it compels our attention. And that is to some extent, not wholly but to some extent, to do with how it builds a world for us, how it places us in the world. Thinking of certain ways in which the curriculum has narrowed in both schools A-level courses, English courses and at universities, I’ve been struck by the kinds of worlds that are implied by literary courses. They are worlds that are still arranged according to a map in which Europe or America or Europe-and-America are the centre, and other worlds, if you like African worlds or Southeast Asian worlds, are arranged in a peripheral position to that centre. So moving on a step, I was interested in asking what kind of world is described or implied by novels or poems written in this country but by writers who might also identify with other worlds. In other words writers for whom this world, that of Britain, that of Europe, is not the centre but is one among other centres — African-born writers, for example. So it is a question here of identity and it is a question of how certain kinds of identities are called up by what we read. I think ultimately we read either to have our worlds confirmed or to have our worlds challenged. There are two kinds of readers really – although this is very simplistic – the one kind of reader who when they visit a bookshop go for what is familiar. And there is another kind of reader who tends to go for what is different, strange, and adventurous. So I am interested in stimulating the questions that might be asked by that second kind of reader, in relation to domestic fiction, British writing, but that may carry the sense, the flavour, the imagination of other worlds. There is question here of trying to plait together, or to intersect those two sets of interest, British and postcolonial, at the same time.

The reason for choosing to get readers engaging with say Nadifa Mohamed’s work, Black Mamba Boy in particular, or Aminatta Forna’s work, is that Britain is one place amongst others for the heart of those novels, in terms of the emotional attachment of those novels. And that makes them to me both postcolonial and worldly in very interesting ways, and also causes their work to be quite disruptive of some readers’ expectations. When you pick up Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy at first it looks quite conventionally postcolonial. It is a travel story involving a young African boy growing up. But by and by, and certainly in the final quarter of the narrative, when his travelling has moved into an extreme realm – I mean he has travelled so far, beyond the war, beyond his marriage, to Palestine and on to Britain – there is something that is so disruptive and interrogative of both postcolonial and British readers’ expectations in that story that causes it in interesting ways to query what we might think a Black British novel looks like.

KH: And why did you particularly choose Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love as one of the books to share with the reading groups?

EB: There were a couple of reasons, but one of them was that the dynamic between the characters is unusual and interesting. Whether that novel is read from a postcolonial critical standpoint or whether from a contemporary British standpoint, it moves between worlds, characters from Britain (Adrian) and from Sierra Leone (Kai), and so explores emotional relationships that are not conventional. The postcolonial novel is generally understood to involve some kind of conflict, some sort of politics, some sort of struggle. And without avoiding the civil war that is at the heart of the story, Aminatta Forna is at the same time taking her work into a very different sort of domain, and asking some searching questions of the reader regardless of the kind of cultural expectations they might bring to it. Regardless of whether they go to her work because it is British and worldly, because it is global, or because they may have heard something about her background, or the kind of attention that she garnered with The Devil that Danced on the Water and the potentially political reading that this first piece of writing invoked. So there is something about jostling readerly expectations that The Memory of Love undertakes or stimulates that we thought would work particularly well in combination with the other works.

KH: Can you talk a bit about the methodology of the project and how you are engaging with reading groups?

EB: We are giving the reading groups virtually no guidance at all, intentionally; other than to ask them, not only in their own private readings but when they come together to talk about that reading, to reflect on what the experience was of reading that novel or poem. How did the book speak to you? This isn’t a question asking them to focus on their emotions only – you know, at this point I felt sad, or here I felt terrified and then I was contented when everything resolved itself. To give an example, in Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy, towards the end of that novel you get a very strong sense that the writer is relaying the oral narrative of Jama the central character. And that comes through in certain taglines: ‘and then Jama said’, with the name Jama continually recurring. Now, an alert reader, a reader alert to their own reading, would start to notice that. They would be either irritated by it or simply notice it. And it is that noticing that we are hoping the reading groups will be able to reflect on. I anticipate this is going to be more of a struggle with the school groups, because the teachers are the leaders of the school reading groups and all the teachers that I’ve spoken to have tended to ask things like – should we be talking about simile and metaphor? To which the short answer is no. Just reflect on your reading experience.

As for the workshops, the hope is that the readers will come together and talk collectively with the other groups, and perhaps also just with other interested readers – these are open workshops. The focus is just reading. Through this we hope that the conversation will become more interactive and exploratory, but focused on how these books worked for the readers and what kinds of worlds they called up for them. In the second half of each workshop the writer being discussed will read from the chosen work and will answer questions from the readers. That will be very interesting as again it is an unscripted dynamic, it will be an experiment. And then towards the end of the workshop we would also like to interview individual readers as to whether their view of the book has changed as a consequence of the discussion. I hope to encourage a sense that everything can be said. It is possible not to like the book, not to like the central characters, but hopefully also to be able to articulate why. The primary question is really: how do you the reader feel invited in by this book, and what was it that facilitated that invitation. And in relation to these specific postcolonial British novels and poems, what I’m interested in exploring is whether there is something about them that does so in a particularly distinctive way, by pushing at the boundaries of the known world.

One of the aims of the project is to widen a sense of what British writing might entail, what the constituency of British writing is or British writers are. And to make that possible, the website will then become a resource where readers who might be interested in broadening their reading portfolio could go both for information about such writing but also for stimulation as to what a reading process involves.

KH: When you talk about this research looking for something distinctive about the way in which these texts enable entry into other worlds, to what extent you are looking for patterns and commonalities in terms of how these readers rooted in the British context encountering these stories and poems respond, versus looking for commonalities at the level of form and style?

EB: I should preface my answer by saying that I’m not sure at the end of the day that there is going to be a conclusive response or a neat answer to this question of whether there is something imaginatively, aesthetically, poetically that identifies and defines the postcolonial, world literature in English text over others. Back in the 90s when postcolonial critics tried to identify what it was about their work that was distinctively postcolonial, they always pointed to content. It had to do with retelling Kenyan history, or dramatizing the Biafra war from the point of view of civilian characters. It tended not to point to formal concerns, formal questions. When Sam Durrant came along and asked questions about mourning, whether there were certain rhythms around mourning that could be distinguished in post-traumatic, postcolonial texts over others, that was a notable occasion: a postcolonial critic asked a question specifically about form, and probed this question of structure or texture rather than content. Subsequent to that there has been discussion I’m thinking of several conferences I’ve been to where people have asked of postcolonial writing, if it’s not mourning, and it’s not trauma, then what is it that defines this work? What might this thing be that identifies a postcolonial piece of writing? It is fruitful for this project that this question remain open, dynamic, troubling, and possibly irresolvable. At the present time I’m not sure that there is anything distinctively formal we can point to that distinguishes a piece of postcolonial writing from other writing. And that is why the focus of this project has moved to reading and reading practice, as there is possibly something in that relationship between the work, the writing and the reader that might be distinctive in a postcolonial sense, by contrast. That there are ways in which the postcolonial book, novel, poem is pushing at boundaries, pushing at the readers’ sense of the known world, the world that they are particularly comfortable with or their power to imagine other worlds. Perhaps there is also something about what J.M. Coetzee calls ‘the sympathetic imagination’ that is particularly activated or stimulated by the postcolonial text.

Aminatta Forna published a piece in the Guardian in February ‘We must take back our stories and reverse the gaze’ where she talked about The Memory of Love and the different perspectives offered to the reader by Adrian on the one hand and Kai on the other. And Kai because he has grown up in Sierra Leone, in that context and because he has experienced the civil war at first hand, he draws the reader right into the heart of that situation. You know he knows. He has strong memories, he has a familiarity with the smells, the sights, the textures of life in that context at a time of war which Adrian doesn’t have. And there is an amazing thing that happens in the novel, that I would like to think perhaps pertains to the other writings we are looking at too, that through the perspective of one character, we who are unfamiliar get drawn in and our perspective is transferred to a character who is right inside that context. So we keep oscillating between that perspective of the outsider, which is what we remain as readers, and the perspective of the insider, which is what we are given through internalizing the story as part of our reading. That is my interpretation of what Forna was saying. She was talking about the need for African stories to be voiced, African stories to be written, African stories to be read worldwide. And she offered the dual perspective in her own novel as one way in that struck me as incredibly enabling and helpful in terms of this project.

We’ve started now to get some of the recordings back from the reading groups – these ingroup reading discussions that only Erica Lombard, the research assistant, and I will be listening to. And what has been amazing is that the lay readers, the readers from all walks of life around Oxford, have really related to that kind of push-pull of the familiar and the strange, particularly I noticed in Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy. Here – summarising obviously  they kept feeling that they were both being pushed out to a very different context in the world and pulled right in at the same time; right in to that terrible situation when Jama’s friend is tortured and then killed, or the very bewitching situation of the courtship of Bethlehem. So they recognized ‘war’, ‘romance’, and they felt pulled into the heart of that very different situation. They felt familiarity and strangeness at the same time: two things going on at once.

There was a fantastic moment in one of the recordings where one of the readers said that as a consequence of reading that novel that they had now started to notice people around Oxford, around the Cowley Road, who are clearly from elsewhere be they immigrants, or refugees, or people on their way through. Saying essentially ‘I am now noticing people I did not notice before’. It was a real moment when we heard that. It really did make the project come alive.

KH: Moving forward from here, what is it for you that is ultimately driving this project?

EB: It revolves around two key words, which for me are key in the approach to reading that I’m trying to explore. The one is trust, and the other is truth. The underlying idea is that a book, a story, a poem, is an act of communication. It is the writer, or indeed the performer, wanting to convey something call it a message to an audience or a reader. Wanting to convey a truth. We have this notion that fiction is all about make-believe, fantasy, making something up. But actually the storyteller, the writer, wants something to come across. Even though we might think of it as a fiction or indeed dismiss it as a fiction, nonetheless it is a story, a truth, from their particular context. There is a wish for it to be perceived as true in some sense.

And then there is also the act of trust that is in operation. So the reader or the listener trusts that the writer or the storyteller wants to convey that truth. Again it isn’t a question of just making it up. When I tell you a story, I want you to trust me with the truth of the story and I want to trust you that you will receive the story and that you will be open to my story. The project homes in on this idea of literary writing as essentially communication, as saying something serious and true and indeed real about the world from the perspective of that writer or that storyteller. This is absolutely fundamental to the idea of voicing African stories that Aminatta Forna was also talking about. As readers we want to hear these stories and we want to trust them. We want to believe that they are true in some sense.

Another key phrase, my third and last, is beyond code. For me, reading doesn’t mean finding something lying behind the words, like a decoder, something that we have to dig down for, or unravel, untie or break open. Instead I want to develop the sense of the meaning that is being transferred, or the truth, as lying on the surface of the page or being visibly there in the story. That act of transference of the story or poem or song from the speaker or the writer to the reader or the audience is fundamental. I as storyteller want to give you something and I believe it to be true and I want you to share in that truth.

KH: It is interesting that when you are talking about the heart of this project that you talk occupying a space as both as a storyteller and a critic. Do you think there are ways in which this research project will inform your own writing process?

EB: Absolutely. It is already happening even in my academic writing actually. Sometimes I feel that artists, novelists, and indeed critical writers perhaps don’t always pay attention to the needs of the reader. But if we think about novels, books, poems, as themselves acts of communication, rather than as ‘only’ works of art, that immediately puts the reader front and centre. You are trying to convey something. For my own part as a writer, this has made me much more attentive to how my words are coming across. A very simple example would be that I’m simply using shorter sentences. Comparing my own writing three years ago to now, I simply am using shorter sentences. I feel it’s more considerate for the reader.

I’m trying to describe a spectrum in terms of how we view a novel or a poem, either as an act of communication on the one hand or a work of art on the other. What is going to be really interesting about this project is to see how the writers line up on that spectrum. When pressed do they see their work more as a work of art or an act of communication? It is an open question and something that will recur in the conversations as they unfold. For myself, I’ve moved along the spectrum away from ‘work of art’ and more to ‘act of communication’. There are still some writers who for very understandable reasons are very attentive to shape, structure, form, the beauty of the work. So it is going to be interesting to see how that shapes up when we put them in conversation with readers.

The event series Great Writers Inspire at Home – a conversation between writers and readers – is free and open to the public (register here). It will be running on Thursday evenings at 5pm in the Radcliffe Humanities Building at University of Oxford between now and the end of June, featuring writers including Kamila Shamsie, Bernardine Evaristo, Daljit Nagra, Nadifa Mohamed and Aminatta Forna.  For more information about the project or this series of public events email: erica.lombard@ell.ox.ac.uk

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