The great winter return to books, to reading, and to writing
Autumn can be a sad time. The warm sunny days are over, the evenings are closing in and another year has gone – but – I can at last hide myself away. I can write all morning, read all afternoon and spend the evenings immersed in TV dramas. Indulgence and delight lie ahead first in front of my computer, and then by the wood fire in our cosy sitting room
The Booker Prize and la rentrée littéraire 2019
The Booker Prize shortlist is out – four exciting new writers and two of my favourite – and controversial old ones. Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte are on the list. All the writers are engaged with the problems of contemporary life – Lucy Ellman experimenting with literary form in Ducks, Newburyport. I personally am keen to read Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo but the other two writers, Chigozie Obioma and Elif Shafak sound really interesting too.
Here in France, it is the time of La Rentrée Littéraire when literature is celebrated and I think of the many French writers who I love from Georges Simenon, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Dumas and Hugo, and Houellebecq – all read in translation I have to admit. Its quicker that way and I have so many books on my To-Be-Read pile. It is also the time when schools start again and its the time of year for literary prizes like the Prix Goncourt – one is even chosen by school children. It’s the time that new books are launched on the market and it’s the time for Book Festivals. I plan to participate in two book festivals this year, to launch my three new books, and you, my readers, are all invited to all of them!
Autour du Livre: The Vic en Bigorre Literary Festival
Yes – Autour du Livre may be a small and local affair but I’ll be there once again and so too, will be Nick Inman with his brilliant travel guides and Clara Villanueva with her two novels, I, Carmela and Les cheveux de la gitane and Our readers are invited to come and meet us and the many local writers, historians, and illustrators. It’s a pleasant way to spend some hours – there will be music and food and people ready to talk about reading, writing, and books. It’s fun and it deserves your support.
Anyone who loves to read or to write is deeply indebted to those small independent bookshops devoted to keeping books and literature alive in your local community. One of the best is La Litote run by Nathalie Curiel The delightful La Litote (A litote is when one says less and more is understood – otherwise – it’s a negative that suggests a positive) a bookshop in Vic en Bigorre has a fabulous selection of children’s books, exceptional cards, graphic novels, local and travel information and the latest French novels. This month it will also have mine on display. Nathalie is kindly going to host the launch of my new books this month. I will be posting more about my launch next time.
Here is a poem about autumn –
When the alarm’s blood curdling cry caesars open the womb of the bed, I am born into the darkness of night. When uncomfortable daysquints from its perch on the western streetlight I open my ears and hear the sound of car engines shifting in the direction of work. When the sun, reluctant with excuses, sticks its neck out of the east Iclose up my dreams and make a late start to yet another winter.
There are occasions when something is said or written that strikes you with real force. A discussion between Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy over African artefacts in European museums did just that for me. It’s a topical subject right now. Emmanuel Macron is talking of the repatriation of African artworks to their homes in Africa. Way back in 1991, I was invited to a seminar about the preservation of cultural property in Livingstone, Zambia, organised by Grazyna Zaucha. I personally argued for cultural exchange and interchange as essential for human creativity, which preserves human autonomy and freedom. I saw this as a sharing of ideas both visual and actual which benefit us all and I questioned the value of an art object over its maker which I saw might enrich institutions, not culture.
The spirits have fled our culture
A few years later I was on a short course at St Martin’s School of Art. We visited the British Museum and were asked to make a 3D object in response to that experience. I am still very proud of what I conceived, crude as it was. I made a cardboard Neo-Classical Museum filled with dead bodies, tombs and valuable golden objects and I showed that all the spirits, all the ghosts, all the meaning had fled away from the building. I was thinking specifically of the Egyptian tombs and other funerary exhibits at the time. I’ve always enjoyed museums but that day I felt that Europeans valued objects more than ideas. We look at statues, stained glass, and painted walls and no longer experience the spirits they were made to evoke. While colonisation is what humans have always done and will continue to do whether they colonise place, space, race, ideas or the ether, colonisation is a blind, blunt, brutal power grab that simply cannot understand what it colonises. This is why this action by France is so important for Africa and for us all.
Learning from Zambian artists
The most important thing I learned in Zambia from Zambian and African artists, was that “art” is not the stone, the bronze, the canvas, the ink, or the physical object. Art is what happens when someone interacts with the art, the act, the music, the dance the word, and with the artist’s evocation of the spirit. Art is the spiritual experience that happens in the spaces in between the art and its audience. Performance is the evocation of the other rather than the physical which occupies a liminal space that exists in time. It’s one that can only be occupied by the spiritual, the metaphysical, the ephemeral and the ineffable. I worry that today some Zambian artists may lose this understanding and only make art for money. I do know money is needed – I too, make nothing from my art and books! I need you – I need readers. You are my reason for existing.
As Sarr says, – an artefact is not just a material expression of something. For Africans, these objects do not signify the material world. For them, the world is material and spiritual. Some of the artefacts were made to witness the invisible world. It’s very interesting to compare the vision and the conceptions of what are artefacts and what are not.
The Shades of the Ancestors
It’s gratifying to discover that one’s instincts about art, culture, and spirituality are understood and shared by other thinkers and creators. I am working on a children’s story about two Zambian kids who are sent on a quest to a museum in Europe by the Shades of their Ancestors. They have to find a mask that is needed for a rain festival because without it the spirits cannot come. They must bring it home to their village. The theft of important ritual objects from Africa continues as I write.
Museums are wonderful and important
Don’t get me wrong. Museums matter. Museums change and increasingly curators are committed to preserving not just the physical object but the spiritual subject too. I learned so much from my visit to the Quai Branly museum of African art in Paris. Many years ago I visited the Livingstone Museum. Two things struck me with force. One was the small amount of money paid to Zambia by the colonial company who acquired its copper mines. The other was the living spirits testified to by the curators, that danced around the ritual objects kept at that time in the museum basement.
When I was a kid, few of us had bookshelves of children’s stories at home. There were fewer books for children and they were solid tomes. I was lucky. My mother took me to the only public library, the Queen Victoria Library in Salisbury, Rhodesia. It was a remarkable 50 year-old building, but that was of no interest to me. I wanted to go inside to the rows of greyish-green hardback books in the children’s section and find a book I hadn’t yet read. Remembering that library and those books didn’t make me feel sentimental, but it did explain why writers like me face huge difficulties in finding readers right now, in 2019.
eBooks and digital publishing
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a technophobe. I love my Kindle and the enormous library it transports so lightly across continents whenever I fly. I love the fact that someone I’ve never met, at the other end of the planet, can discover my book in the cloud and download it in a twinkle of time. I find it exciting that my books are space travellers with audible voices – Read More and Comment …
I recount my first year in London as an exile and the unmarried mother of a mixed-race child in the Swinging Sixties.
Writing these three books challenged me in ways that I didn’t expect because I had to engage with the truth of the stories I tell. It was a fascinating aspect of writing that I imagine all writers have to consider. The close relationship of these three books to each other and to me certainly focussed my mind on the delights Read More and Comment …