Breaching the borders
Elleke Boehmer ushers me into her study. The building that houses Oxford University’s English Department is being rebuilt and the crashing noises that are all around are not exactly conducive to calm reflection, though through her window you can see the St Cross churchyard, resting place of Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, and the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. Elleke is a novelist and critic born in South Africa, of Netherlands origin, but who has settled in Britain: an appropriate background for someone bearing the title ‘Professor of World Literature in English’.
Elleke had mentioned to me, in the course of writing a foreword to our latest anthology of short stories, One World Two, that she was planning a major essay on developments in ‘world writing’ since 2000. So we agreed to meet to talk about what on earth this term means. What makes the stories featured in this magazine – and those by the other 75 authors featured in the four collections that New Internationalist has published this year – distinct from any other short story? And what makes one novel part of the ‘world writing’ strand and another not?
Oddly enough, though ‘world writing’ has only really taken flight since 2000, Elleke starts off by referring to the German literary giant Goethe, who mentioned it as long ago as 1839. ‘He’d just read a Chinese novel and it opened his eyes to what was happening outside of Europe. He looked forward to a new age of world literature. So you could say the strand of world writing interest and criticism comes through from Goethe to the present.’
In the late 20th century there was a strong ‘postcolonial’ strand of literature and criticism, and that still exists. It ‘tends to be much more political in its interests and focus, whereas world literature puts the predominant focus on aesthetic questions – style, form and genre and whether these things actually migrate across language and national borders or not’.
Danny Moloshok / Reuters
As the Oxford Professor of World Literature in English, Elleke might be expected to fall into the latter camp but actually she straddles the two – and actively tries to act as a bridge between them, mapping out the common ground.
What perhaps most distinguishes ‘world writing’, though, seems to be the audience that people are writing for. Until recently writers tended to write primarily for their own nation – and that was particularly the case for those who saw their art as part of a struggle for national liberation. Now, however, authors are writing for readers well beyond their own national boundaries – and often have relocated to other countries in order to develop their writing or to cultivate opportunities.
In a way this is built in to the very structure of the Caine Prize for African Writing. Whereas this began as an African-British initiative – and the Prize is still awarded in England each year – each winner has a spell as writer-in-residence at Georgetown University in Washington DC, and many past Caine Prize winners and nominees have since become attached to universities in all quarters of the US.
‘Everybody makes the transatlantic beeline to the US,’ says Elleke, ‘I think because of those creative-writing programmes where there is a real hunger to bring in African writers – Nigerian writers in particular; I think it’s partly the Chimamanda glamour effect.’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might be considered the most identifiable face of ‘world writing’. Her classic novels set in Nigeria – Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2007) – resonated with readers all over the world. She graciously donated a previously unpublished short story to our One World anthology, which included many writers who were just starting out on their creative journey. Then, in 2013, the same year as she published her third novel, Americanah, she reached a whole new audience when part of her TED talk ‘We should all be feminists’ was sampled in Beyoncé’s hit song/video ‘***Flawless’.
Beyoncé’s connections with world writing do not stop there, it seems, as Elleke explains. ‘Beyoncé has also now launched on to the world stage the Somali poet Warsan Shire. She was the poet-in-residence at the London Olympics and writes the most fantastically moving poetry about migration and the Mediterranean, about leaving your home – amazing. Anyway, Beyoncé quoted her on [her latest album] Lemonade and that took her into a different league.’
We return to the key question: ‘Is there something about a world short story, novel or poem that distinguishes it as being of that domain and not of the nation? Is there something about how it appeals to the reader, about its vocabulary, that makes it more worldly than national?’
‘Some of these stories are cognizant of the fact that the axes of economic, social and cultural power in the world are shifting’
‘I would say that there is actually something recognizably worldly about Chimamanda’s writing,’ says Elleke. ‘It is both oriented to Nigeria and yet also really interested in a generous, open-hearted way, in other cultures, interested in African America, interested in collaborating. So I would say – although this may be controversial because it may seem to be imposing a Western tradition – I would say that there are certain features of this kind of writing that allow us to talk about it as worldly rather than as national.’
I make the point that the attempt to step beyond your own national borders as a writer necessarily makes you part of the world in some ways. When the Nigerian writer and critic Ovo Adagha and I were gathering the writers and stories for One World Two, we were struck by how many of the writers had some kind of dual nationality, having been born in one country but having moved to one or more since. And the story from that book featured in this magazine, ‘Ghosts’, by Ana Menéndez, speaks to this sense that fiction is crossing national frontiers – the story is set in Florida but involves an immigrant from the Czech Republic being cast back to her own roots as she comes to terms with the suicide of a young Cuban man. All these different origins and perspectives collide, as they must in the lives of any migrant.
‘I’m fascinated by the terms of address,’ says Elleke. ‘Who is the reader that the writer has in mind? Who are these works being written for? I think that has absolutely changed if you compare 1990 with 2015: 25 years on, I think postcolonial or world writers are doing something very different now than they were doing then. They had much more of a national audience in mind then.’
I ask if she thinks they now have the expectation that they can speak to the whole world.
Frank Rumpenhorst / DPA / PA Images
‘Yes. You can track this in the work of a pretty prolific and established writer like Caryl Phillips. When he was writing The European Tribe or some of his early novels he had in mind a British audience – maybe Black British to some extent, but certainly British – whereas now it’s clear he has in mind a transatlantic audience. Think of an Australian writer like Richard Flanagan, who won the Man Booker Prize two years ago for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Through his war themes and his environmental themes he is appealing to worldwide audiences, even though he is a self-consciously Australian and quite nationally focused writer.’
It seems an interesting notion to me that Elleke is consciously including established white writers within a world literature framework based on the themes they choose to tackle.
‘I would say that – I know not everybody would – because otherwise we perpetuate a kind of apartheid in our reading of the novel or the short story. I’ll cite here one of my students, Edward Dodson, who is writing a thesis in which he is making a compelling case – I was sceptical at first but am persuaded now – for reading Alan Hollinghurst and Julian Barnes as postcolonial British writers. So, yes, through thinking about those important, urgent issues that pertain to the whole planet – environmental questions, questions of minorities – all these writers appeal to a worldwide audience. Take Han Kang, who won the Man Booker International in May for The Vegetarian. She’s a Korean writer and that is a Korea-specific novel but at the same time, because it’s about jealousy and divisions within families, the author has a much wider appeal.’
We also talk about the sense in which world writing, in escaping its national strictures, is pushing back other boundaries. The latest Caine Prize anthology The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things gives a real indication of this. FT Kola’s ‘In The Garden’, which is showcased in this magazine, is extraordinary both for its writing and its subject-matter, while Namwali Serpell’s ‘Zo’ona’ has four different narrators, bridging classes, races and countries, and is innovative in structure and style. Stories like these are taking the Caine Prize into a different place entirely.
‘A more cosmopolitan space, perhaps. This is a loaded word, again, but some of these stories are distinctly more cosmopolitan, while also cognizant of the fact that the axes of economic, social and cultural power in the world are shifting. There’s a sense of solidarity or involvement across borders in the Global South and Europe isn’t really a space that these stories are that concerned with any more.’
Writing ‘for the world’, then, is proving to be liberating for authors and the work they produce can take readers on an even more intriguing journey as a result. Let the adventure begin…
The full version of this interview is available online at nin.tl/worldfiction