Tag Archives: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Celebrating English PEN at 100

Recently I attended online an award ceremony for the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga. She was being honoured at the British Library with the PEN Pinter Award for 2021. In turn she had nominated, as a writer of courage, Kakwenza Rukirabashiya, from Uganda, who read from his account of arrest and torture: Banana Republic: where writing is treasonous

Tsitsi Dangarembga

The event was moving, not only for the celebration of these brave writers facing opposition in their countries, but also because we were reminded that English PEN is 100 years old this year. Few international organisations in defence of human rights have lasted a full century. We should celebrate the work of the organisation, its purposes and those it supports.

A brief history

Founded in 1921 by novelist, poet and playwright Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, with John Gallsworthy as its first president, the organisation boasted from the beginning many well-known writers of the time: May Sinclair, Radclyffe Hall, Vera BrittainEM Forster, WB Yeats, Joseph Conrad and HG Wells. It spread quickly to other countries.

In 1940 in wartime it issued it Appeal to the Conscience of the World, a plea for the protection of freedom of expression. The text was written by Storm Jameson and signed, among others, by Vita Sackville-West and Rebecca West. In 1948, in the wake of the Second World War, its Charter was agreed in Copenhagen

Its first principle is as appropriate now as it was more than 70 years ago:

Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.

There are currently 145 PEN International centres, in over 100 countries. The current president of English PEN is Phillipe Sands. 

Activities

The phrase Common Currency, from the Charter, has been adopted as the name of a series of events this year to mark the centenary. See the website for details.

The PEN Pinter Prize has been awarded annually since 2009, in memory of the playwright Harold Pinter. The criteria for the award are taken from Pinter’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 2005. It is presented to the artist who casts an

‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world, and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’.

As I said, this year it was Tsitsi Dangarembga. I reviewed her 1988 novel Nervous Conditions earlier this year, and I’m currently reading the second book in the trilogy, The Book of Not. The third novel, This Mournable Body, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year.

The Hessell-Tiltman Prize is awarded for non-fiction. Among the winners was David Olusoga for Black and British in 2017. I am currently reading this book too.

The PEN/Ackerley Prize is awarded annually for autobiography. 

English PEN also have several campaigns and other actions. There is the Writers at Risk programme, and a programme to support translators and translations: PEN Translates. An outcome is The World Bookshelf, a list of more than 100 translated titles. Bringing writing to new languages is an important part of sharing ideas and of free expression. 

Reflections

I notice, as I have included links from the posts on Bookword blog, how many of the early PEN supporters I have read and been impressed by. And how many prize winners I have read over the years.

I also notice how significant women writers have been from the start. Not only was English PEN founded by a woman, now renown more for this action than her writing, but many of the activists and presidents have been women, and this year’s PEN Pinter winner is a woman of colour. 

And since I enjoy the adventurousness of much writing in translation, I look forward to exploring The World Bookshelf. One volume of short stories is already on my tbr pile: a present from my daughter: Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Tilted Axis press (2020). 

Sadly, I think that English PEN will be needed for the next 100 years, but this year let’s acknowledge and celebrate its achievements over its first hundred. 

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Filed under Books, translation, Women of Colour

Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine?

In the last year I have been promoting books by women of colour on this blog. Every month I have read and reviewed a book and every week I have promoted a post from this blog about a book by a woman of colour on my twitter account. My intention is to amplify the marginalised voices, contribute to the discussion generated by these writers. 

I recently read an article by Yaa Gyasi that got me going, made me question my motives and effectiveness, as I expect she intended. It was published in the Guardian in March 2021 and headlined

White people, black authors are not your medicine

You can read the article here

What does Yaa Gyasi say?

Yaa Gyasi is the Ghanaian-American author of Homegoing (2016) and Transcendent Kingdom (2020). She lives in the US. In her article she argues that white people are not moving quickly enough, are still imbued with racist attitudes. In the US ‘they have failed to contend with the legacy of slavery’. I would say that in the UK we have failed to deal with the legacy of colonialism.

Public interest in her work was revived by the Black Lives Matters movement last summer and Homegoing appeared on anti-racist reading lists. But she found this very disappointing for the questions being asked of her at literary events had already been answered, she claims, by James Baldwin in the ‘60s and Toni Morrison in the ‘80s.

She concludes that white people are responding inadequately when they just buy books by black authors. The ‘just’ refers to not going further and reading them.

So many of the writers of colour I know have had white people treat their work as though it were a kind of medicine. Something they have to swallow in order to improve their condition, but they don’t really want it, they don’t really enjoy it, and if they’re being totally honest, they don’t actually even take the medicine half the time. They just buy it and leave it on the shelf. [Guardian article 20th March 2021]

I’m going to note in passing that she cannot know that white people treat the books in this way, although many of us might. More important is the question she goes on to ask:

What pleasure, what deepening, could there be in “reading” like that? To enter the world of fiction with such a tainted mission is to doom the novel or short story to fail you on its most essential levels. 

This tokenism – look at the shelves behind my face on zoom and you can see lots of books by black writers! – this taking your medicine – I’ve bought the books, I’ve done my bit – is clearly an inadequate response. She quotes Lauren Michelle saying

Someone at some point has to get down to the business of reading.

Yaa Gyasi declares

… I also know that buying books by black authors is but a theoretical, grievously belated and utterly impoverished response to centuries of physical and emotional harm. 

I must point out that that sentence I have just quoted begins with this clause:

While I do devoutly believe in the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change, I also know …

I am not sure how the two parts of the sentence are connected unless she is saying that she knows that the books aren’t read, because things are not changing, the power of literature is not being realised.

Promoting books by Women of Colour

I too believe in the power of literature to challenge, expose, provide alternatives, to deepen understanding and even to change. I will continue to buy, put on my shelves, and read books by women of colour and blog about them. I don’t regard it as taking my medicine. I will enjoy reading the books because they are books, and many of them are excellent, revealing, eye-opening and brilliant. 

I hope to read them without believing they were written for me and people like me, a white middle class woman of a certain age. Recently I read and reviewed Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988). She is a Zimbabwean writer, and this was her first published book. The introduction made it clear that one of its notable features was that it did not assume a European reader. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (2019), set in Ethiopia at the time when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (as it was known), also makes few concessions to European readers in its use of indigenous vocabulary and names. 

I hope to see beyond the story to the deeper currents. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) keeps peeling back the layers to expose the damage done physically, psychologically, socially, financially, politically, even lexically by slavery. Her ‘highly vocal ghosts’ must be heard.

Some writing provides joy. In Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016) I was pleased to meet Morayo da Silva, a flamboyant, generous, educated older woman born in Lagos, living in San Francisco, created by a Nigerian-American. You should meet her too.

I loved Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019) and the richness of the characters in her multi-layered novel. The novel is innovative in form and structure, her restless style reflecting life in the city. The best book I read in 2019.

And so on.

These are great books, not medicine, not tokens, books worth reading for their own merits. I treasure their challenge, what they give me in depth and how they contribute to my determination to be part of change. 

So, I have bought a copy of Homegoing, and it is not on my shelf yet, but in my tall pile of books to be read. I’ll go on reading and reviewing and promoting books by women of colour. I know this alone will not bring about the change I want, but it’s a step and, at the moment, it’s the least I can do.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour