Archive for Culture

“The Art Of Being Other”: my lecture at the University of Zurich, 4 October 2017.

PART ONE:
THE OTHER AND WHY WE NEED IT

I don’t think I am saying anything controversial when I say that, in the Western world, we are currently living in the Age of The Other. For the last few hundred years, the modern world has been very largely shaped by white heterosexual men, and we are now in a period where that order appears to be changing. The Other – that is to say, anyone who is not white or heterosexual – is feared to be taking over. It is absolutely true that the recent election results in the Western world can be explained by a popular revolt against the ruling elite. But that is only a partial explanation, and I think that the entire explanation is much more unsettling, if not sinister.

When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, there was a rush by many commentators to explain his victory as due to the “economic anxiety” of his voters. The initial data seemed to support this view, with twice as many white working-class voters voting for Trump as for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Yet a deeper analysis of the numbers showed something different. A study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic Magazine found that, and I quote, “financially troubled voters in the white working class were more likely to prefer Clinton over Trump. Besides partisan affiliation, it was cultural anxiety—feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment—that best predicted support for Trump.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/05/white-working-class-trump-cultural-anxiety/525771/

We saw a similar pattern in the UK, when the country voted to leave the European Union; an event known as the Brexit referendum. Brexit was explained, just as Trump had been, as a working class-revolt against the elite. I thought that this was strange, given that only a year before the working-class had been given a chance, at the general election, to vote that same elite out of power – and they had re-elected them. Something was amiss. My suspicions were confirmed by a piece of research published earlier this year by the London School of Economics, or LSE. To quote that research,

“Keen to distance themselves from charges of xenophobia, Vote Leave worked hard to dispel the notion that their cause was powered by generalised anti-immigration sentiment. Where immigration was mentioned, the issue, it was claimed, was not numbers but control and fairness. Why should unskilled East Europeans get in ahead of qualified South Asians?…Yet academic research raises questions over this interpretation. First of all, immigration was key. Second, and more surprising, is concern over non-European immigration. The problem of unrestricted low-skill European immigration was repeatedly flagged during the campaign, so many assume people voted Leave because they were primarily exercised by the issue of East European immigration. This turns out not to be the case. What’s striking – and no one is talking about – is that British voters prefer EU to non-EU migrants…This pattern of preferring immigrants from inside the EU to those from outside holds across all social groups in our data.

UK voters, including Leavers, care more about reducing non-EU than EU migration

What’s most interesting to me about this research from the LSE is one particular sentence: when they say that “what’s striking – and no one is talking about – is that British voters prefer EU to non-EU migrants”. When the researchers say “no-one”, they have clearly not been listening to years of warnings from non-white and non-EU migrants about the degree of xenophobic sentiment in the UK. These findings are remarkable because, even though they were received by many as some grand revelation, they were – to me at least – not at all surprising.

And then we turn to Germany, where I have been living for the last three years. Here we see that the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party has claimed over 13% of the vote in the general election. Here we saw the same pattern. In the media, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the fact that the AfD appealed to voters who were victims of the country’s economic inequality. Yet this analysis again ignored the research. I quote, from an article in the German newspaper Deutsche Welle:

“a study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW), published in April, nearly 34 percent of AfD sympathizers belonged to the top fifth of the population, while fewer than 10 percent are worried about their own personal economic situation. This was backed up by a TNS Infratest survey released in March, that found that 79 percent of AfD supporters described their personal economic situation as “good” or “very good.”

http://www.dw.com/en/are-afd-voters-the-same-as-trump-voters/a-36345438

We could go on, and on – to examine the rise of the far-right in the Dutch elections, the French elections, the Austrian ones. But I think the pattern is clear. Not only is xenophobia a common factor in each of these election results, it is also one which comes as a shock to many voters.

I want to talk about this shock. It is often based upon what is known as “white privilege” – that is to say, when white people are unaware of racism or don’t have to be, because it doesn’t affect them directly. There are times when I feel like calling it “white innocence”. It constantly amazes me that a country can have such a shocked reaction when the xenophobia of a large part of its population is revealed.

This is because of white innocence. Not all white innocence is deliberate. Some people simply don’t know how bad racism can be, because they don’t see it as part of their daily lives. But there’s the other kind of white innocence, the wilful ignorance of what is happening, and that is thoroughly, utterly dangerous.

How does this innocence manifest itself? It’s to be found in all those people who choose to look away from injustice. Those people who avoid the awkward conversation about racism at the family dinner table, who don’t speak up when the hear anti-Semitic jokes in the dressing-room or on the golf course. It is to be found in the cowardice of the people who cringe when they hear open bigotry among their friends or relatives, but remain silent. It was James Baldwin who best expressed this state of affairs. In “Notes from a Native Son”, he wrote that:

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

Monster is a strong word. And rightly so. I also think that it is accurate. I think that there is a certain amount of denial that we all need in order to maintain life as it is. I think that most of us have the need to believe that, fundamentally, we are good people. There are some senses in which I am probably a monster. As a meat-eater who until a few years ago ate fast food fairly regularly, I have been complicit in the deaths of many thousands of animals. Increasingly, I find it hard to justify my consumption of meat on moral grounds.

It is difficult to call ourselves monsters. We are good people. We love our friends and our partners and our parents. We are good children, not monsters. It is this same cognitive dissonance that lies behind the results of a poll conducted in the US. That poll was carried out by Ipsos between late August and early September, for Thomson Reuters and the University of Virginia Center for Politics. It took place a few weeks after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, during which a counter-protester was killed by a white supremacist. The poll found that, and I quote, “while there is relatively little national endorsement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists “there are troubling levels of support for certain racially-charged ideas and attitudes frequently expressed by extremist groups.”

Furthermore, the poll noted that:

“While only 8 percent of respondents said they supported white nationalism as a group or movement, a far larger percentage said they supported viewpoints widely held by white supremacist groups: 31 percent of Americans polled strongly or somewhat agreed that “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage,” and 39 percent agreed that “white people are currently under attack in this country.”
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/reuters-poll-white-supremacist-views_us_59bc155fe4b02da0e141b3c8

What has happened here? Well, I think that white innocence is at work. There is an understanding that to be seen as a racist or a white supremacist is a Bad Thing. But there are also widespread and deeply-held fears of non-white people. These are not, as is often argued, views that are held subconsciously. Earlier this year Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a US-based data scientist, examined a series of Google searches in order to see if he could detect previously undiscovered levels of racism. He found that, and I quote at length, “In my work with Google search data, the single most telling fact I have found regarding hate on the internet is the popularity of the word “nigger”…Searches for “nigger jokes” are 17 times more common than searches for “kike jokes”, “gook jokes”, “spic jokes”, “chink jokes”, and “fag jokes” combined. When are these searches most common? Whenever African Americans are in the news.
The frightening ubiquity of this racial slur throws into doubt some current understandings of racism. Any theory of racism has to explain a big puzzle in America. On the one hand, the overwhelming majority of black Americans think they suffer from prejudice – and they have ample evidence of discrimination in police stops, job interviews, and jury decisions. On the other hand, very few white Americans will admit to being racist. The dominant explanation among political scientists recently has been that this is due, in large part, to widespread implicit prejudice. White Americans may mean well, this theory goes, but they have a subconscious bias, which influences their treatment of black Americans….There is, though, an alternative explanation for the discrimination that African Americans feel and whites deny: hidden explicit racism.”

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jul/09/everybody-lies-how-google-reveals-darkest-secrets-seth-stephens-davidowitz
It is James Baldwin, again, who I think is most important here. In an interview in 1963, he said that:

“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger,” he said. “I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it… If I’m not a nigger and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-i-am-not-your-negro-raoul-peck-feature-20170119-story.html

Why do some white people need the nigger, or the other? Why do they need to lash out against those different from themselves? I think that some white people need it because, in a time of such uncertainty – of surging social and economic inequality – they need to point to someone, to a group of people, and tell themselves: “well, life may be terrible, but at least I am better than them.”

In the three months following the Brexit referendum, charities reported that crimes against LGBT people had risen by 147% compared with the same period in the previous year. The victims of these attacks reported that they had been abused by people saying “now we can get these people out of the country and you’re going to be next”.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-lgbt-hate-crime-rise-galop-home-affairs-youre-next-a7419111.html

This may be uncomfortable for some, but I feel that a significant part of the Brexit, Trump and AfD sentiment is based upon a visceral, almost primal desire for some form of purging – to return to a time when things were clear and clean and straightforward. To some extent, these voters need The Other, because to hate them is a reassuringly firm feeling in turbulent times. It’s here that I would like to introduce the best analysis of economic anxiety that I have read anywhere. It came from Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in a magnificent essay for GQ Magazine, entitled “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof”. One of Ghansah’s interviewees, an elementary school teacher in South Carolina, said that:

“Trump showed us this, that we underestimated how vulnerable and precarious self-esteem is for white, working-class people in this society. They not only see the white elites, but then they see…black people, coming from behind, eclipsing them. And, they say, ‘What are these people doing up there? What has happened to me?’”

PART TWO:
BEING THE OTHER

If you are Other in some parts of the Western world, then you need to work out not only how thrive but to endure. That may sound like a dramatic statement, but all the same I think it has some weight. I say this only because a good friend, a black woman, has recently moved from Berlin to Stockholm, since she believes she is less likely to suffer racial violence there. Around this time last year, she was pushed off her bike by an elderly white German woman as she cycled past. Several other friends, in the lead-up to the US election, reported a rise in levels of racist aggression in the street. One was sitting on a train when a passenger sneered at her and then showed her his Nazi tattoos. Another was beaten up by his taxi driver. I detailed these incidents and other yet more grave ones in an article for the New York Times in February 2017, entitled “Fake News Meets German Racism”. The piece was met in some quarters with fury, as some people asked why I was trying to make Germany feel guilty for its welcoming nature.

Now, I am not saying for one second that the Western world cannot be a dangerous place if you are white and male. I am saying that, if you are a woman, or gay, or transgender, or non-white, then those dangers – then those risks of emotional and physical danger increase sharply, often exponentially.

Of course, women know this very well. As a dark-skinned black man who identifies as queer or bisexual, I know it too. In Berlin, the problem has become more intense in the last few months. I believe that Angela Merkel’s decision to provide a million Syrians with refuge from the war is one of the bravest and most praiseworthy political decisions of the modern age.

I say this not only because of the horrific fate which Chancellor Merkel helped many Syrians to avoid, but also because of the significant logistical challenges of helping the Syrians in their new home. Merkel has paid a political price for accepting these challenges, facing not only fierce criticism from her rivals but also losing a significant share of her vote in the general election.

http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/integrating-refugees-in-germany-an-update-a-1147053.html

It has not been easy for Merkel. In early 2016, in Cologne, an event occurred which a fellow journalist described as “a game changer”. At New Year, hundreds of men “of north African appearance” perpetrated the sexual assault of dozens of women. Though the perpetrators were overwhelmingly German-born, it was the Syrians who received the bulk of the backlash, with Merkel’s refugee policy being blamed for these attacks.

https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/2016/01/how-deal-new-years-eve-sexual-assaults-cologne-and-hamburg

It would later emerge that the Cologne attacks had a profound effect on the psyche of the German public. The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, Germany’s leading NGO in the fight against far-right extremism, published a paper on how Cologne had led to the reawakening of the old trope of the foreign sexual predator.

There were no positives to be drawn from the AfD’s capture of 13% of the vote in the German elections. There were only the smallest consolations. I heard some non-white friends say that at least people would now believe them when they said that there was a problem with racism in Germany.

I can only say, from my own experience, how exhausting racism is. I would like here to read you a post that I wrote in July this year; it is a little long, but I think it explains how racism feels as well as anything I have written. It is called:

“Racism breaks my heart.”

Racism breaks my heart. I am writing this directly after reading the official confirmation that Adama Traore, a young black Frenchman, died of asphyxiation after being detained by police. I am writing this right now because the feeling is raw, and I need to express what this is like – this helplessness. Racism doesn’t always break my heart. Sometimes it is just an inconvenience – like 4am last Sunday morning, when listening to music on my home from a great night out with my friends, and my journey was interrupted by a tourist who leaned into my path and asked me for drugs. I can shrug these moments off. Yet they accumulate until I can’t ignore them, and then a tide of sorrow rolls through me, so deep and wide that I succumb to it.

Two nights ago a friend of mine stepped off a train in Berlin and three white Germans serenaded her with a chorus of “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger”. Yesterday I saw a video of a 48-year old Nigerian man who was dragged off a train in Munich by two inspectors – though he had paid for his ticket, he had not presented his ID – and, howling, had his face pressed to the concrete. The journalist who posted the footage, for her trouble, received a hailstorm of threatening phone calls from the far-right. Today, I read the news about Adama Traore.

Racism breaks my heart. There are days you look in the mirror and wonder how you can negate it. If you can dress more smartly in certain settings – if you can avoid certain areas. But then you realise that you can’t. To the racist, a monkey in a nice set of clothes is still a monkey. There are days you wish there was an app on your phone that allowed you to travel through the world on stealth mode.

Racism humbles you. You can be as successful as you like but there are still those – so many of those – who will not see you as fully human. It’s a strange world. Some would advise me to concentrate only on those who are enlightened, who are not prejudiced – but I am not convinced that the majority of people in our world are like this. From London to Rio to Bratislava to Cape Town and elsewhere, I have seen too much severe social and economic inequality of which racism was the root. We daily tell ourselves that most people are good, but I am not even sure what that means anymore. What use is being good, what use is being the decent silent majority, if deaths like those of Adama Traore don’t cause that majority to roar? What use is outrage at injustice if it is never spoken?

I’m aware that when I write about racism, many people may tune out. To those people, I would like to say this: I wish I could tune out too. I wish I could hang my dark skin on a line somewhere, and carry on with one less problem like the rest of you. Because life’s hard enough already, isn’t it? Life’s hard enough trying to hold down that job, and trying to keep your partner happy after all those years, and mending those ailing ties with your family. Life’s hard enough without walking the streets of different cities, fearing that you may be too big, dark and dangerous for people’s comfort.

Of course this isn’t how I approach every day. It’s just that there are some days when you find your soul heavy with grief at the death of a sibling in prejudice you never met – last week her name was Bianca Roberson, this week his name is Adama Traore – and, on those days, your eyes brim with tears as you type, because in that moment being black is an almost unbearable burden. Days, I am sad to say, like today.

Racism breaks my heart. #JusticePourAdama

PART THREE:
HOW TO MAKE “THE ART OF THE OTHER”

How, as someone who is Other, should I make my art? That might sound like a silly question. You might just think: “it’s easy. Just get out a piece of paper, or pull up a blank screen on your laptop, and start writing.” But I do not think it is as easy as that. I believe that the way the Other – anyone who is not white or heterosexual – is portrayed in popular culture shapes the way the Other is treated in our world. If we artists continue to produce work filled with stereotypes, then we encourage the world to judge queer people and so on according to those stereotypes. And you only need to look at Nazi-era propaganda to see how that ends up.

Perhaps you think I am being dramatic, but the problem is a severe one. Compare the media’s treatment of Mike Brown, who died at the hands of a police officer, with its treatment of Stephen Paddock, who has just murdered upwards of 50 people in Las Vegas. The first details to emerge about Paddock’s life was that he was a quiet man who loved country music. The first details to emerge about Brown’s life was that he had a fondness for marijuana. The instinct of Western media, for so many profound historical reasons, is so often to humanise white murderers and to demonise non-white murder victims. When making new work, I feel a particular responsibility to confront that dynamic. We do not create art in a vacuum.

Look, too, at the representation of people of colour in fiction. I quote an article from Marykate Jasper, writing in February 2017:

“The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which has been tracking the number of books published by and about people of color since 1994, announced their numbers for 2016 on Wednesday. For children’s books published last year, approximately 22% were about people of color, and 12% were written or illustrated by people of color. Currently, people of color constitute 38% of the U.S. population.”

Only 22% of Children’s Book Characters Were People of Color in 2016

At a time when non-white people are being reduced to stereotypes in the political arena, I believe that representation matters more than ever. I feel an obligation to write non-white characters who, if not necessarily heroes, are nuanced, well-rounded – in other words, fully human.

There can be a danger in this. I believe Junot Diaz has written about the pressure that non-white writers feel to be the voice of their community. You have to be careful not to be some kind of self-righteous mouthpiece – well, you can be that if you want to be, but it rarely makes for good art. Then you have the warning from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of “the danger of a single story” – of writing a tale that people then take to be representative of an entire community.

As much as you can, you must avoid the “Other Gaze”. That is to say: you may want your work to resonate widely, and in doing so you may try to make it as accessible as possible. The danger in doing so, though, is that in order to reach a wider audience you reproduce familiar and even comforting tropes.

How do you avoid all this? You can never guarantee how readers will receive your work – in some ways, that’s part of the fun of being a writer. But you can help yourself by being self-aware. Here’s one example.

A few years ago, I began writing a version of Romeo and Juliet, based in a fictional African nation that I had created. The romance was to take place between two black men – one of whom was a freedom fighter suspected of bombing the town centre, the other one of whom was a detective investigating the case. It was, I thought, something that could be a moving love story – it would bring in themes of homophobia, of tribal conflict, of forbidden love.

But I didn’t write it, and I’m glad I didn’t. Because, at the time, I was a queer black man who didn’t believe that love between two black men could ever end well – that our society was so violent towards us that any romance was doomed to fail. And, without realising it, I had begun to reproduce that narrative. I didn’t write the novel because I believe that it’s time for gay black men in fiction to have happy endings. That’s why I applaud the director Barry Jenkins for making Moonlight.

That was several years ago, but I am still not immune from the danger of viewing black people only by the oppression that they suffer. Last year I began writing a novel, entitled “Make Us Human”. The title – ironically enough – referred to the one-dimensional way in which the media portrays black people. The novel was about how a black boy is killed by a neo-Nazi, and how the investigation into his death tears the family apart. The black boy, Michael, was a model student and an excellent footballer, yet in death he is made out to be a drug-using troublemaker.

The start of a novel on race and immigration that I was too angry to finish.

I didn’t finish this novel, and I am glad I didn’t. Because, in the end, it was still framing the story of the black family primarily in terms of its suffering. A few months ago, I published the first seven thousand words of the novel online, and the response was incredible – several friends asked if I could finish writing the book. But I declined. Black people, I thought, are so much more than our pain.

So, I have told you of two novels I have not finished. What is the use of being an artist if I don’t actually finish any work? Well, here is the good news. At the start of this year, I visited the German town of Wurzburg, where I spent a weekend retreat at a place called the Institute for Philosophical Progress. There, I was able to set out the philosophy behind the work that I intended to make this year. I came to the following conclusions.

We are in a time where forces of repression are in the ascendancy. In America, we see a President whose daily ignorance and bigotry is often overwhelming. We are seeing the victimisation of the Other from Myanmar to Egypt to Holland to Iraq. I can therefore do one of two things. I can either write work that reacts to the mood of the times; or I can urge and create a positive vision of the future.

Given that I am of African heritage, and that my work features African protagonists, I think that this makes me an Afrofuturist.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/your-far-out-guide-to-afrofuturism-and-black-magic_us_5711403fe4b0060ccda34a37

In short, I want to spend the rest of my life writing stories where people who look like me help to contribute to a better world for us all. My work will be inclusive. It will encourage people who are not The Other to empathise with refugees, with immigrants, with non-white people, with queer people.

Last year I wrote what you might call an Afrofuturist novel. It is called “The Trauma Thief”. It is a sci-fi thriller set in London in the near future, with a fourteen-year old black girl as its main character.

It’s taken a while for me to realise this, but most of my favourite artists are Afrofuturists. There’s Outkast, with just two of their seminal albums – ATLiens, and Aquemini. There’s Janelle Monae. My favourite song of all time is Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” – the extended version, of course. It’s closely followed by “Expansions”, by Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes, whose lyrics – though they may seem embarrassingly simple – are as rousing as any I have heard:

“Expand your mind
To understand
We all must live
In peace together
Extend your hand
To help the plan
Of love through all
Mankind on Earth”

The modern version of Lonnie Liston Smith’s classic track is probably Kendrick Lamar’s “Fuck Your Ethnicity”, from his Section 80 mixtape. I quote:

“Now I don’t give a fuck if you
Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, goddamn it
That don’t mean shit to me
Fuck your ethnicity.”

In this song, Kendrick advances a radical, beautiful vision of the Other, one which I share. One where the Other uses their vantage point from the edge of society to bring everyone in society together.

I am not proud to say that in my teens I had homophobic views. I am proud to say that, when I realised that I was bisexual in my twenties, I learned empathy for so many other marginalised groups. I realised, to quote the poet Stacey Ann Chinn, that “all oppression is connected”.

This, I think, is my unique opportunity as a member of the Other living in Western Europe. I have, to some extent, faced discrimination from the existing social order, but not enough to stop me doing the work that I need to do. I am in an extremely privileged position, and I acknowledge that. I have a platform where I can help to make life easier for people in more hostile environments.

I am also lucky, in a very particular sense. When society casts you to its fringes, it gives you a perspective from which you can critique it. It is very hard to observe the grand vehicle that is our society when you are speeding along in its front seat. It’s much easier to watch it from the pavement as, often thoughtlessly, it rushes onwards.

I have made this pledge with my work – that my art, as the Other, may at times be scathing, but ultimately it will be optimistic. It will try, as far as I can, to follow the vision of the African feminist Jessica Horn, who set out a political philosophy as inspiring as any I have heard. She said, in an interview with AfricanFeminism.com:

“I claim feminism as a political home, and feminist as a political identity because I believe the feminist proposition that the root of injustice in our world and in the lives of women in particular lies in patriarchal power and its friends racism, classism, homophobia, ableism…and that in order to transform the world we have to challenge patriarchal power. Whenever you challenge unjust power there will be backlash. But I believe in the possibility of justice for all, and for full choice, full happiness, full opportunity and lives free of violence in these gendered bodies we live in. I believe freedom is possible. Anything you believe in is worth fighting for.”

Horn continues:

“ My feminist utopia begins in our bodies, as our first and last home, as the only thing that is ever really ours-as the space that life is made real. My utopia is a world where we all live free, healthy, pleasurable, agented lives in our own bodies. It requires political, economic, social and cultural systems that enable embodied freedom for all. Oh and there must be art too. Lots of it.”

This is a joyful vision, one which Horn has described as “revolutionary love”. It is an ideal of which I may fall short, but I will try, as far as I can. I will try.

My response to Matt Haig on identity politics.

IMG_4168

This evening I came home from a discussion about race and identity in Europe to see that the above post by the author Matt Haig was being discussed vigorously on Twitter. Since I was in a reflective mood, and because I was struck by how many people were grateful that he had expressed these views, I thought that I would write a response. There’s a lot to unpack here, so it may be longer than I intended.

“1. Identity politics. It’s everywhere right now, isn’t it? Judging people on what they signify rather than their character.”

Like Mr. Haig, I don’t think that anyone who is the object of discrimination is particularly comfortable in being judged on what they signify rather than their character. In an ideal world, we would all just be people, celebrating our differences and ultimately cherishing our common humanity. In that world, Trayvon Martin would still be alive. Of course, and sadly, we don’t live in that world. Mr. Haig – and this may just be the imprecision of his language – refers to identity politics, such as he defines them, as if they are something that certain groups created from thin air. Instead, they arose from very distinct and sustained forms of oppression, and I think that it is important to acknowledge that.

The examples which Mr. Haig names are interesting, and I think that a main flaw in his argument here is that he deals in absolutes. It’s possible both to acknowledge Caitlin Jenner’s bravery in relation to her gender and to critique her politics – and many people do. It’s possible both to acknowledge Sadiq Khan’s qualities as a politician and the symbolic importance of his victory in this current climate – and many people do. The same was true of President Barack Obama when he first took office. If anything, in my view, it made President Obama’s triumph doubly compelling, and doubly remarkable. He was both the outstanding presidential candidate and he was the first black president in a country which only a hundred years before saw black men being lynched and fed their own genitals. In this context, to acknowledge his identity did not diminish his achievement: instead, it amplified it.

2. “Twitter is full of identity politics. Statements about how you will never understand what it is to be Mexican/black/a woman/depressed unless you have lived experience.”

I think those statements are fine in themselves – I mean, I think they are basically just true. You can’t truly understand how depression feels if you haven’t felt it. In Mr. Haig’s own words, “it’s hard to explain depression to people who haven’t suffered from it…[it’s] like experiencing life on earth to an alien.” I can’t truly understand what it feels like to be Mexican because, well, I’m not. I sense that this is Mr. Haig’s main frustration – that we are rigidly ascribing characteristics to ourselves of a particular minority group, that we should break free of these straitjackets. To some extent he’s right – not all Muslims have exactly the same experience of being Muslim, or Christians exactly the same experience of being Christian. But what he fails to acknowledge is that there are, broadly speaking, similar issues that people from particular groups will face in certain situations. That’s not so much identity politics as day-to-day life. What Mr. Haig also fails to acknowledge – or seems to – is the extent to which that lived experience is being ignored, and the terrible effects that this has in our society. If more politicians paid attention to the lived experience of women, then we wouldn’t have such oppressive abortion laws; if people were more attentive to the lived experience of those with depression, then there wouldn’t be such stigma about mental health. When Mr. Haig writes “I hate all this stuff”, he can also usefully consider how much people who suffer due to our society’s prejudice hate the fact that their suffering goes unacknowledged.

3. “The use of ‘old white man’ as an insult that automatically disqualifies someone from a debate.”

Looking at it from Mr. Haig’s point of view, I see his frustration – if you’re having a discussion about an issue, it can be disconcerting to be told that you’re wrong simply because of who you are. In intellectual terms, it’s also not much of an argument. Yet this is where Twitter can be pretty much the worst possible format for such debates, which can descend into slanging matches. In a debate, you get several minutes of speaking time to make your arguments. On Twitter, you get a split second; what’s more, you’re publishing your thoughts on a platform where many people who have never had the chance to speak their own minds with such freedom are fed up from hearing from and presumably being talked down to by the archetypal ‘old white man’. Therefore, whenever an ‘old white man’ tweets a supposedly patronising opinion, he may have a sensation similar to that of a lamb opening its front door to a wolf. The ‘old white man’ is unlikely to feel enriched by such an experience, but he can usefully reflect, in time, upon where the anger comes from.

4. “We are all the same, when you place us next to sea-horses, but identity politics wants to chip away at our sameness and reduce us to differences that don’t actually reflect who we are.”

I don’t think that identity politics, as Mr. Haig defines them, sow the seeds of division in our society: I think that they are the fruit of that division. I happen to agree with him that there is a real danger in assuming that everyone from a particular marginalised group thinks the same. They don’t: that’s the kind of intellectual laziness that allows “community leaders” to go on television and position themselves as the exclusive voice of Muslims and the white working class, skewing the public discourse in ways that can be dangerous. That being said, it is useful – no, necessary – to reflect on the similar ways in which people from a particular group may be oppressed by a certain set of laws or traditional practices.

5. “We are becoming a world where we are all judging the shell, and not the soul.”

If true, I would argue that this isn’t the fault of marginalised groups, but the fault of public figures and policymakers who should and do know better. There are countless people fighting daily to be seen as just as human as their fellow citizens – just look at refugees, or the Black Lives Matter movement. If those drowning refugees were judged by their souls and not their shells, they’d still be alive.

The most striking thing about this post is that it discusses the apparent defensiveness of marginalised groups – their retreat into “identity politics” – without providing any context for why those groups might have become defensive. It therefore gives the impression that these marginalised groups merely tumbled into despair and even self pity and victim-hood without so much as a nudge from racism, misogyny, homophobia, and/or transphobia. Mr. Haig criticises identity politics as the cause of society’s ills as opposed to its symptom: and, to that extent, I think that his analysis is intellectually incomplete.

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ADDITION:

After I had subsequently tweeted that an excessive focus upon identity politics could be used to further repressive agendas, I was sent the following private message on Twitter by someone whose views I respect very much. I think it is a useful addition to the conversation, so I have asked permission to reproduce it below.

“I think my essential problem is alluded to in your piece, about how it broadens out and flattens individualism and the worst end of it responds by a misuse of intersectionality, forming a hierarchy of suffering and indulging in the narcissism of petty differences. I tend to broadly agree with your piece but do worry about this aspect as well as the tendency to see every identity only through the lens of suffering rather than experience or culture. If that makes sense.”

 


“Magic realism is just freakin’ fun” – my conversation with novelist Leone Ross

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Leone Ross, the acclaimed novelist, short story writer, editor and lecturer in fiction, has a very busy few months ahead of her. She has just had two short stories published – The Woman Who Lived in A Restaurant, by Nightjar Press, and The Mullerian Eminence, in Closure: Black British Contemporary Writing. She has also contributed an essay, How To Write Weird Shit/Magic Realism, to The Art of the Novel (Salt Publishing), and has just completed her third novel, One Sky Day, following the success of All The Blood Is Red (1997, nominated for the Orange Prize) and Orange Laughter (1999).

I spoke with Leone about her new story for Nightjar Press, where she beautifully brings together magic realism and erotic fiction. It’s the tale of an unusual love triangle, where a woman falls for a man so deeply that she vows never to leave the restaurant where he works; and, where over time, the restaurant falls for both of them too. It’s a superb story of passion, magic and food, the execution of which is beyond most writers. Below is an edited version of our conversation, where we discussed prose style, politics, Leone’s career to date and her plans for the future.

When I first got this story, I read it as a piece of erotic fiction; but what’s very interesting with this work is that it’s very restrained.

In this case, yes.

Looking at the technique of writing erotic fiction, what are the challenges in this artform?

Well, I suppose I can start off with a little anecdote. What occurs to me is that there is a small story around this story. I was asked to write just a small piece of erotica for a collection – this is years ago now. So I wrote this. And I was told by the editor at the time that it wasn’t explicit enough. So he wanted more sex in it, and he wanted more explicit sex. And the problem is that stories do tell you what kind of stories they need to be. And it occurred to me that putting one more ounce of sexuality into this story would have been exactly the wrong thing for it. So I then had to hurry and write another story. Essentially, the editor was saying, “just have two people fuck and put it on a piece of paper, please”. In his defence, we understood each other, and I had written for him before. He certainly wasn’t suggesting that that’s the way you write erotica. So for a while I thought “this is not a piece of erotica at all”, and I just thought of it as essentially a very painful love story.

What’s interesting to me is that of the women who have read this, every single one thinks that it is absolutely sexy and totally horny. Then I was like, “oh, so this is erotica”. And I was reminded again that erotica does not need to be explicit. And, of course, what is erotic and what we find sexy and will respond to viscerally in that way is entirely subjective.

What I loved about it was that there was so much build.  There was so much narrative and so much context, so when you had a sex scene it was the culmination – it didn’t feel bolted on. It didn’t come a moment too early in this story, and the characters were so fully realised by the time the sex happened that the sex wasn’t a way to explain the characters. Sometimes you get these stories where the sex is the part of the exposition. But I don’t feel that in this story.

I suppose I tend to do that. I realised this recently as well. Erotica, as you know, is not primarily what I do; but I suppose, when I do do it, I feel like it’s a slow build. Often the sexuality – be it a kiss, or full-blown sex – happens structurally towards the end of the story. That may just be because I’m a limited kind of writer, I’ve no idea; but therefore you do have that sense of building up to it, because sex is just part of the rest of it rather than the point of the story. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, absolutely. It’s almost limiting to call it an erotic story, because it’s a story about how human character is expressed through eroticism. That just happens to be the prism through which they express it.

Yes. Or, in this particular story, I am trying to express humanity through sex and other things.

Yes, there’s so much else going on.

We pay attention to sex because it’s sex. But actually I’m trying to say something about humanity through emotion, through food, through architecture. So we pay attention to the sex because it’s sex, do you see what I mean? I don’t start out saying “I’m going to write a story about this”. At some point in the creation and the drafting, I will decide what it’s about. But ultimately – and much more with short stories, I’m particularly self-conscious with novels – but with short stories, I often let them become what they are.

I won’t be coy – this is, in some ways, based on a real experience. And if I was aware of anything at all, I was aware of wanting to explore sacrifice – the erotic nature of sacrifice, and the ways [in which] people, particularly women, can do this. We can make these oddly intricate decisions about our emotional lives and not have very much fun in the process, and yet there’s a multitude of experiences even in painful things. So this woman loves this man. And also, I think she’s become used to this life, of living in this restaurant, of absence – because they don’t ever actually have sex, that’s the point, they only kiss each other, they’re not allowed to have sex. They’re not having sex in that moment in the kitchen, they’re just kissing. And they’re checking very carefully in the restaurant around them if they’ve done the right thing – because the restaurant is jealous, and won’t let them, but allows a certain amount of intimacy, because [the woman] lives there.

Right.

So they are being controlled by the restaurant. And the suggestion is also that they are being controlled by his ambitions, because he is very much in charge; but at the same time she is also in charge. Other people come and beg him to let her free, but ultimately he says “she won’t go! So what do you want me to do?”

That’s what amazes me about this story – she really gives herself over to this dynamic, and embraces it by the end. And, actually, maybe there’s something comforting in that.

There may be elements of BDSM in here as well, in that she has given over the control. Essentially a version of this happened to me – I won’t go into it, but a lot of people around me wanted to characterise me as the victim in this dynamic. But there were periods of time in which my patience for the dynamic felt empowering.

I want to talk more about you, actually. Because the story’s great, but you’ve written a lot of other work too. One thing you do is that you blend magic realism and erotic fiction –

Increasingly, yes.

And those to me are two distinct disciplines, with their own sets of rules. They require two sets of expertise. How easy, or how difficult, have you found it to blend the two?

I don’t know that I have found it easy. I think that this feels like evolution.

Right.

So it feels like an intellectual and creative evolution. My first novel was extremely realistic: it was was about three women living in London, and one of them gets raped, and the fallout of that. It was an answer to Mike Tyson, who had raped Desiree Washington. And my second novel, Orange Laughter, had elements of oddness because apart from anything else, although it talked about the Civil Rights movement, it talks about memory and it involves a ghost. So I was getting there.

Not having published a novel for many, many years now – for complicated reasons – in the meantime I was publishing relatively consistent amounts of short fiction. So that’s where I began the journey. I began to ask myself serious questions about what pleased me on the page the most. I began to feel less like I was doing my political duty.

That’s interesting. I think it was Junot Diaz who said, in an interview that I read quite recently, about writers of colour feeling deep down that they would have to be the voice of a community.

Totally.

As a football writer, I think I’ve been lucky. Because I write about football, I never had that challenge of being “the black football writer”. It was just down to writing about the analytics of football. It was almost like football was a bit of a meritocracy in that sense. So I escaped having to fly the flag for black people, if you will.

I know what you mean, and I know what Diaz means. Because at twenty-odd years old – what age was I when I published my first novel, twenty-four or twenty-five – I felt like I should, like I had to, and I also wanted to [write about political issues]. I thought, “this is a tremendous responsibility, and also a kind of power. My family is politicised, my community is politicised, and it needs me”. And I was also working at The Voice newspaper; so there were all these ideas around what I should do. But I also wanted to, and I still want to. I’m not saying that I’m not a political animal. But I’ll tell you something. You write about politics a thousand times better than I ever did, even as a journalist. And I make this point importantly, not just to praise you. It is in watching a younger generation speak of politics, and find impassioned, beautiful language for politics, that has made me in the last ten years realise: “that’s not my inclination. I don’t do that very well”. I become so enraged that I can’t express myself effectively in that way. So actually, increasingly, I want to look at the human condition – and social justice, of course, because the patriarchy is always going to pop up.

Yes, of course.

But I realise that what I’m good at, what I’m getting better at, is combining this sense of oddness, which is magic realism, with – and I think this is still political, even [now] – for a woman writer to write of sex.

When you talk about politics, I find that interesting, because – to me – the human condition is inherently political.

Quite, I agree.

And in my non-fiction I love writing about politics, but in my fiction I think I reject politics explicitly, because I think that those novels are too didactic. So, for example, I was working on a novel a year and a half ago, and I got thirteen thousand words into it, and I stopped writing it; and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.

Why?

Because it was a novel about immigration.

But I would love a novel by you about immigration.

But here’s the problem I had with it. It was not a novel that I consciously felt I had to write, but subconsciously I felt I had to write it – I didn’t realise that at the time. I realised that because I went away for a month, and when I came back here’s the thing – the characters had not been talking to each other in my absence.

Yes.

That realisation to me was so powerful. And when I read your work – The Mullerian Eminence, or anything else – the characters are so alive. What I think is so powerful about your writing is that the author is completely absent.

Really?

Yes. You combine these two ethereal forms – magic realism and erotic fiction – and, as a result, whenever I read your work I find it completely immersive. There are many strengths to your work, but to me this is the abiding one – that it transports the reader.

Well, I’ll take that! And yet it is still political. I suppose I can’t get away from a sense of what is to be addressed and spoken of in the world; what is to be uncovered and explored in the world. And it still remains ironic that [even now], many young women are called upon to be more sexual than they ever have been, and yet are not free.

I still have never done a reading of erotic fiction that has not involved some fool man – and they are young, admittedly – coming to me at the end of the reading and saying “Hi! How are you doing?” And I’m thinking, yeah, you know I didn’t write erotica for you to come and chat me up afterwards?

I’m writing magic realism for a simple reason. It’s this: it’s fun. I was the kid who loved Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, who always loved weird crap, and so it took time for me to give myself permission to write weird crap. It took [reading] Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez at university for me to think, ‘oh my God, the adult version of weird crap, that’s so cool!’.

Magic realism is just freakin’ fun.  I feel like me when I am writing magic realism. The idea that I should walk into a room, and make a cup of coffee, and the cat should just conversationally turn itself inside out – it amuses me. It appeals to my sense of mischief, and I love that, and I feel like a kid when I do it. The reason I write erotica is because I live in a world where people still have a problem when a woman uses the word “fuck”.

You’ve just finished writing a new novel, One Sky Day – I’m intrigued by that. Can you give us a taste of what it’s about, and what inspired it?

There is a very particular story that goes with this novel. The first thing to say is that I have no publisher for it. I have a couple of people sniffing around, but I have no publisher. So it’s probably important to say that, because I want a publisher, please! So, it’s been a long time coming – and yes, you’re right, it’s a culmination of trying to work out what my style is. But also, it’s the culmination of many years of being blocked. So I’ve probably been writing it for the best part of ten years. I couldn’t write for a long time. I couldn’t write because I thought, in the way that young writers do who know nothing, I thought that Orange Laughter – which was published at the very end of 1999 – was going to make me rich and famous. And of course I did, because I was still in my late twenties, and had that kind of ignorance.

But you also had a track record. You were in the ascendancy.

Well, yes, and I hoped this would be the one that hit. And don’t get me wrong, Orange Laughter did very well. Things all looked good. At one stage, it was even in Oprah Winfrey’s hands. And I think I felt like I had worked very hard – and I worry that this sounds very entitled –

No, it doesn’t. Being a writer, being an artist, is often all about momentum.

Right. I felt I had momentum. But it certainly didn’t give me any kind of great financial remuneration, and things began to die off a little bit; and, in one way, I became frightened, that maybe I was not very good. And Orange Laughter took up a lot of emotional space – it remains a very intense novel – and I became immersed in it myself. And one of its characters kept talking to me. He wouldn’t stop talking to me. In the end, Xavier, the protagonist of my latest novel, came from me asking myself how he differed from this [particular] character in Orange Laughter.

Before you go, please tell me some more about One Sky Day, and about Xavier.

Xavier is a thirty-nine year old masterchef, living on an island called Popisho. “Poppy Show” is a Jamaican expression – it means “to be foolish”. So if I’m making a poppy show out of you, I’m making a fool of you. So that’s a kind of in-joke for the Jamaicans. Xavier’s wife wife died a year ago, and he is still depressed about her death; and he has basically been forced by the governor of the island to do a very particular thing. The governor’s daughter is about to be married, and he’s running for election again, and he’s decided to have this day of feasting and rejoicing during his daughter’s nuptials. And he wants Xavier to help him and join in with this poppy show, with this foolishness. It’s almost like when the royals got married recently, and there was a holiday; what made me laugh about that is that it is the spirit of my novel, that idea of distracting the masses while Rome burns. So that’s what’s happening; this governor has called my main character to help him and to distract people from the fact that they don’t have running water, and that there’s a huge amount of money being siphoned off from the country. Basically, he’s corrupt.

And Xavier hates that he’s corrupt, and he’s pretty pissed to have been pressed into this thing, but he’s busy being depressed in his house, and being addicted to moths. In this society, moths are like heroin.

What’s he doing with the moths?

He’s eating them. So the book covers one day in his life, in which he has been forced to leave the safety of his home – he’s become practically agoraphobic in his grief – and cross the country, looking for items for the wedding feast. He’s been asked by the governor to cook the most romantic meal in the world for these nuptials, so he’s forced to be part of this farce. But really it’s also a day’s journey in which he wakes up, he realises what’s important, he fights the moth addiction. He has a moth in his pocket for the entire day – someone’s given him a quality moth and he’s trying not to eat it for the whole day.

Sounds terrific. This sounds like something Guillermo Del Toro would direct.

Hahaha!

It sounds so visual.

I suppose our generation of writers writes in a very visual way. And he’s living in an island where strange things happen; where everybody has magical powers. They’re almost bored with this crap. You’re born with very long legs, or the speed of a cheetah, or whatever. And people get irritated with it – it can cause all kinds of problems in your life. And what you do for your profession is associated with your magic as well. So, when you’re born, the midwives look for the magic; if you’ve got speed, then you’ll end up as a messenger boy. And his magical power is that he can season things with his hands. So he doesn’t need pepper and he doesn’t need salt or spices, he can just touch the meat and it’s done.

The only other element to it is that it is a love story. You know that principle of “the one that got away”?

Haha, we all know that.

There is a woman who he loved a long time ago, who was engaged to be married when they met, so she was unavailable. And she is also crossing this same island at the same time as him. So it really is the story of two people crossing the island, who both love each other still.

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If you would like to buy Leone’s short story, “The Woman Who Lived In a Restaurant”, you can do so here. If you would like to know more about her work and her upcoming readings, you can visit her website, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter. Another excellent short story of hers, “The Mullerian Eminence”, has recently been published in this anthology.

My new articles for The Economist on innovation and the future.

Late last year, I was commissioned by The Economist to write some articles on innovation and the future. I thought I would put them in one place, in case you’d like to read them in a spare moment or two. I hope you have time to take a look, and that you enjoy them.

  1. A wider cast: the ethics (and economics) of diversity in film
  2. Time over money: Wandering the world with the New Rich
  3. Holograms and the democratisation of modern football
  4. Softly, softly: the future of impact investing
  5. Spontaneity and the modern office
  6. In praise of “techno-optimists”
  7. The rise of the countryside

 

Australia suffers horrific humanitarian intervention.

Australia was in turmoil today as a terrifying invasion took place.  “The people are in shock”, said former Prime Minister John Howard.  “We’re really hurting here.”  The invasion occurred yesterday night, and was apparently triggered by Mr. Howard’s entirely innocent comments that he did not believe that a genocide of Aborigines had taken place in his country.  No sooner had he uttered these words that a group of radical academics descended upon Australia, armed to the teeth with a set of irrefutable historical records. “We didn’t stand a chance”, lamented Howard.  “it was a massacre.”

Full details of the conflict are only just emerging, but the early reports are horrific.  According to Howard, he and his fellow troops of genocide-deniers kept trying to blame the laziness of the Aborigines for their current plight, but the academics “just kept shoving us back into historical context.  Man, they were really rough with us.”  The academics, having landed in Sydney under the cover of darkness, advanced at dawn to all the largest educational institutions, where they established safe havens for rational argument.  From here, they spent their first day broadcasting from self-made radio stations, and generally telling the awkward truth about past colonial misdeeds to anyone who would bloody listen.

So bewildered was Howard by this ongoing assault that he is unsure what to do next.  “We might contact the UN”, he said. “Every country has a right to self-determination, and my Australia has the right to remain as firmly in denial as possible.” Howard also had strong words for the promoters of this dangerous new ideology.  “Militant realism is spreading everywhere like a cancer, and it must be stopped”, he warned.  “The violent progress of facts is the single greatest threat to Western civilisation.”

For Brown Girls: on Karyn Washington, and Sara Baartman

This weekend I was saddened to read of the death of Karyn Washington, the founder of the website “For Brown Girls”.  The reports that she had taken her own life at the age of just twenty-two, following her struggle with depression, were the first that I had heard of her excellent work. If I had known of it sooner, I would have forwarded it to my friends and relatives long ago. The aim of her website is a wonderful one: it was, in her own words, “created to celebrate the beauty of dark skin while combatting colorism and promoting self love! FBG was created to celebrate darker shades of brown- to encourage those struggling with accepting having a darker skin complexion to love and embrace the skin they are in. However, women of all shades may take away from FBG the universal and essential message of self love and acceptance.”

Washington’s mission was as beautiful as the skin of the girls whom she sought to celebrate. I have long wondered and worried about the difficulty that black girls and women face in everyday life, and through the lives of my family and friends I have seen this problem with uncomfortable clarity and frequency. As any one of them can tell you, it’s not that they merely experience racism and sexism separately: it’s that the two prejudices seem to have some sort of strange multiplier effect, intensifying the discrimination that they receive. There’s one person I know who was hounded out of a job because her colleagues couldn’t stand to take orders from her; another whose peers felt so threatened by her progress that she, too, was shown the door; and yet another, who was made to feel as unwanted as an old piece of office furniture before dispatched by her company of several years. The ample sums that they quietly received via their employment tribunals told its own story.

The objectification of black women for the amusement or revulsion of others has been going on for centuries, both before and after the most lurid example of Sara Bartmaan, the “Hottentot Venus”.  Baartman, for those who don’t know the story, was a black woman who was taken from South Africa in the early nineteenth century and paraded around Europe, often in a cage, for the entertainment of the public. Those who came to see her gawped at and mocked her dark skin and large buttocks, which were both supposedly signs of racial inferiority. After her death at the age of 26, her dehumanisation continued, her genitals being pickled and displayed in a French museum.

If Baartman’s suffering was the tale of a racist attempt to destroy the black woman, then Washington’s life can be seen as one more necessary and successful effort to reassert her worth. Indeed, the legacy of the “Hottentot Venus” affair is firmly with us: it can be still be seen in the pages of our fashion magazines and on our catwalks, with insidious effects elsewhere. In October 2009, the online dating site OKCupid revealed from an extensive analysis of its data that: “men don’t write black women back. Or rather, they write them back far less often than they should. Black women reply the most, yet get by far the fewest replies. Essentially every race—including other blacks—singles them out for the cold shoulder.”

I asked a good friend about these findings and she nodded wryly in recognition: after all, what could you do? What can you do when people are conditioned to call you bossy or aggressive or intimidating?  What can you do, as the writer Bridget Minamore has noted, when people have so often been told that you are strong or “fierce” that they have forgotten or never realised that you can be tender?

Well, if you can, you find strength in yourself, in solidarity and the love of those who truly value you, and if you’re truly lucky you’ll stumble across lives like that of Karyn Washington.  Judging by the experiences of several people whom I know well, I think that being a black woman can at times be emotionally exhausting, given the assaults that are frequently launched on their self-esteem. I am therefore grateful to Karyn Washington for making the lives of countless girls and women of all colours so much happier.  I also hope that her legacy is a world where black girls don’t have to be brave, or tough, or any of the rest of it; a world where, quite simply, they can just live.

“We Are Proud To Present”: a reflection on a magnificent play.

I had the privilege, on the penultimate night of its six-week London run at the Bush Theatre, of seeing a truly outstanding play. Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, directed by Gbolahan Obisesan, and staffed by a great cast, the production took a look at one of the 20th century’s forgotten genocides. (The play’s full title – “We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero Of Namibia, Formerly Known As Southwest Africa, From The German Sudwestafrika, Between The Years 1884 And 1915” – is so long that it needs a sentence of its own. From now on, I will refer to it as “We Are Proud.”) The funny thing is that, though it had been vigorously recommended by Anthony Anaxagorou, one of London’s leading poets, I only ended up seeing “We Are Proud” on a whim. Having absent-mindedly made a note to buy a ticket, but then procrastinated in doing so, I stumbled across an extremely negative review in The Daily Telegraph. In the course of a two-star excoriation, Dominic Cavendish wrote that the play was one of “shockingly inadequate dramatic power” and stated that its “mouthful of a title was the closest the evening [came] to being succinctly informative. The play, he continued, “might equally be restyled: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen: Prepare to be Bludgeoned over the Head with some Racially Loaded Dissension Between a Group of Actors Who Seem Insufficiently Prepared for Rehearsals Let Alone a Public Scratch Performance.”

Well, wow. Cavendish’s opinion was so at variance with the reviews given by both my friends and mainstream media that I had to take a closer look, and so within minutes of reading his withering dismissal I had booked myself a seat. As a result, I ended up witnessing a production almost every bit as moving as “The Season In The Congo”. “We Are Proud” was superb. Its premise was a clever one: it followed a cast of six actors – three white, three black – as they attempted to make an improvised reconstruction of the brutal repression of the Herero people by the German army. As the action progresses, the four men and two women begin to fall out over the form that their work should take. The white cast members are increasingly determined to tell the story from the perspective of a German soldier writing tender letters home to his loved one, whilst the black cast members begin to express discomfort that the narrative of the slaughtered Africans is being abruptly shunted into the margins. “Are we just going to sit here and watch some white people fall in love all day?” askes one of them, exasperated. “This is some Out-Of-Africa-African-Queen-bullshit you are all pulling here right, OK? If we are in Africa, I want to see some black people.” The metaphor of Germans telling the tale of empire through their missives was a fitting one: Africa’s sands were merely a parchment across which they could scrawl the carefully-edited versions of their heroism.

As the actors navigate the emotionally fraught territory of just how we tell the story of the past, their conversations become more tense; the black actors asking that the action addresses the uncomfortable truths of bloody conquest, the white actors looking to embrace denial wherever they can find it. This dynamic is perfectly expressed in a scene where a German soldier, having shot a Namibian man dead for trespassing on land that was only recently his own, then writes home to his girlfriend as if nothing untoward has happened. “Dear Sarah”, narrates the white actor, more and more anguished, “I’m writing to you today. Today is a day. Just a day. Like any day.” Eventually, overwhelmed by the scale of this falsehood, the actor falters and turns to his colleagues, breaking character. “Can I have a minute?” he pleads.

This scene, and this play as a whole, goes to the very core of imperialism: that it was crucial for the Germans and their European counterparts to deny the humanity of Africans. If they had not done so, then it would have been unbearable to murder them in such industrial quantities. In this context, it is fascinating and disturbing to hear the soldiers making jokes casually featuring the word “nigger” as they go about their daily genocidal business. These jibes, the type you might now hear in a private members’ club after too many drinks, are the direct descendants of those first racist instincts which seeded the Empire. A few years later, of course, this racism was to find horrific expression in the Holocaust: and there was something poignant here in the fact that the Herero, regarded as the bravest and strongest of all the tribes in Namibia, were almost wholly exterminated with barely a whisper beyond the continent. Eight in ten of them perished either under German gunfire or out in camps in the unforgiving desert: eight in ten.

Revealingly, Cavendish writes in his review that he thought the cast’s “contrived in-fighting might carry a greater charge [in the US] than it does in a country that experienced the terror of German imperialism at closer hand.” This is a curious form of one-upmanship, given that Drury is African-American, and that the continent of her heritage arguably experienced the terror of German imperialism at closer hand than anyone. Ironically, Cavendish has apparently fallen prey to the same myopia as the white actors in “We Are Proud”: he takes a discussion of black genocide and focuses it around white people, lapsing into an analysis of which Western nation suffered more from the advances of the Nazis. To quote one of the black actors, “that story doesn’t have anything to do with Africa”.

Moreover, I think that Cavendish’s central contention, that Drury’s script is guilty of sensationalism, is unfair. If anything, the unparalleled sadism of imperialist white supremacy was somewhat understated in this play, only represented at timely moments: and, in between these, there were several welcome passages of comic relief. The play’s closing scenes, by contrast, were utterly unsparing, pervaded by silence and leading to a finale as unsettling as I can recall. There is no catharsis here, no rousing Morgan Freeman-style voiceover to make it all better. The truth is there, as terrible and bitter on your eyes as the noonday sun, and good luck if you have the guts to take a look.

In her introduction to the play, Drury writes that “I sometimes think that the most tragic death is the death that is elided over as history is canonised. That elided death doesn’t participate in the process of metaphysical care that creates culture. It is not remembered, studied, imagined. That death is stripped of its humanity, which seems to be, if not a fate worse than death, perhaps a death worth than death. And perhaps, in turn, allowing that death to remain unimagined makes us a bit less human.”

Drury’s work, brought to life by these actors, is a beautifully overwhelming tribute to Namibia, and the Herero people in particular. Due to the racism that has shaped our society, there are children not yet born whom our world has already decided are less equal than others. “We Are Proud”, in all its cantankerous and challenging magnificence, is one more vital tool in reshaping this dangerous narrative.

UK poetry scene produces a very special Sunday night in Stratford

Something very special happened last Sunday night. Kat Francois, an excellent poet in her own right – she can point to a BBC world slam championship, as well as several headline slots at leading events and festivals – hosted the tenth anniversary celebration of her celebrated weekly poetry night, Word4Word, at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. The longevity of the night, which is free to all-comers, is remarkable enough in London’s fickle entertainment landscape. Its success is a tribute to Kat’s endless efforts and the steadfast support of her partner, the poet, photographer and DJ Rob ‘Sloetry’ Covell. Despite an evening of bracing cold, the event was welcomed by a full house, with something like a hundred people clustered around a series of tables.

The greatest beauty of Word4Word, I think, is that the poetry here is utterly unrestrained: its performers aren’t just gifted writers, but they have perhaps the greatest attribute of any artist, which is the bravery to express that which is most personal. There was no subject deemed too taboo; each topic, be it quiet heartbreak or the anger left by generations of slavery, was raised and powerfully examined, the house falling silent with shock or falling about with laughter. Francois, whose skills as a stand-up comedienne came to the fore, stitched the night together with warm, engaging and occasionally waspish asides, whilst Covell’s playlist had several people swaying in their seats, then sprinting to his DJ booth to see which sublime tune he’d just rolled out.

The format of the celebration was straightforward: each artist, be they poet, singer or rapper, was given a slot of five to ten minutes to stand up and do their thing. It was all here: from a young drama group mentored by Francois who formed a three-man spoken word chorus, telling a tale of the bitterest loss; to the souful storytelling of songwriters El Crisis, OneNess, and Dionne Reid; and the magnificent vocals of Delicia, whose imperious tones would put many an X-Factor finalist to shame.

Star poetic turns also came from the outstanding newcomer Kareem Brown, Word4Word stalwart Justice Lyric, Tshaka Campbell, Kemi Taiwo, Deanna Rodger, Lyric L (whose hilarious dramatisation of a Kat Francois poem was comedy platinum) and Mark Thompson, whose address to his wife, on the seventh anniversary of her diagnosis with cancer, was one of the night’s most moving moments. My personal highlight of the night was an astonishing piece by Yomi “G.R.E.Ed.S” Sode, an open letter to the President of Nigeria’s wife in criticism of that nation’s proposal to legalise child marriage. After his performance, which moved several to tears, Sode was himself overcome with emotion; in those few minutes, he produced as compelling a piece of live artistry as I have seen in several years.

The night was fittingly closed by AmeN Noir, whose new documentary on the UK spoken word scene is already attracting excellent reviews: it was only right that someone who has taken such care to document the genre’s past should end a night of rare commemoration and celebration. Kat Francois and her friends have created something truly special with Word4Word, and it will rightly be regarded as a cornerstone of this scene for many years to come.

Othello and domestic violence

I’ve just watched Othello at the National Theatre, which was a privilege, and which also made me see the play in an unsettling new light. Like many, I had never perceived the core of the play to be about racism, but jealousy. However, I was struck for the first time by the extent to which domestic violence pervades the narrative. Both the protagonists, Iago and Othello, murder their wives, having spent the entire play being largely dismissive of their opinions. Othello, for all his talk of loving Desdemona “not wisely, but too well” appears not to love Desdemona so much as the idea of her: even in death, she is somehow not fully human but, rather, is his “pearl”, with whom he has ultimately done as he pleased.

There are two main reasons, I think, why I am currently looking at Othello through an even grimmer lens than usual.  The first, and most visceral, was the sight of Othello with his hands to Desdemona’s throat, which was uncomfortably resonant given the recent images of Charles Saatchi gripping the neck of his wife Nigella Lawson.  The second, and no less troubling, was the recent release of a series of papers by the World Health Organisation; in which, reported the Associated Press, “experts estimated nearly 40 percent of women killed worldwide were slain by an intimate partner and that being assaulted by a partner was the most common kind of violence experienced by women.”

These papers, based on global studies made between 1983 and 2010, also found that “30 percent of women are affected by domestic or sexual violence by a partner.”  Moreover, though there was some divergence in results between regions, the numbers remained brutal in their sheer weight:

“The rate of domestic violence against women was highest in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where 37 percent of women experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner at some point in their lifetime. The rate was 30 percent in Latin and South America and 23 percent in North America. In Europe and Asia, it was 25 percent.”

When the lowest incidence of domestic violence worldwide is 23 per cent across an entire continent, then it’s pretty clear that we are dealing with, in the words of WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan, “a global health problem of epidemic proportions”.  These figures are compelling evidence of a systemic failure in the way that men are being brought up and otherwise socialised to relate to women.  They reveal a global culture of misogyny so overwhelming that it is difficult for many of us to look it long in the eye.

Yet look at it long we must; and then deconstruct and dismantle it with forensic care.  The National last night fell into the most horrified of silences as Othello slowly squeezed the life from Desdemona, an appropriate metaphor for the shame and denial that currently surrounds this culture.  Meanwhile, this magnificent production was a reminder that theatre may be one of many highly effective tools for taking this culture to task; and, with that in mind, here’s to its continued success.

James Gandolfini and divas

James Gandolfini has passed away at the age of just 51, and I’m trying to work out why I have been so moved by the death of a total stranger.  It’s partly because he played the toughest of roles, Tony Soprano, with a thoughtfulness and compassion beyond almost any other actor of his or any other generation. Maybe it was the gay hitman he played in The Mexican, an otherwise bland film, where you found yourself rooting for him to be happy. Of course, there is also something unbearably sad about the passing of someone who, through his performances, gave so much to so many.

But I don’t think it’s either of those.  I think it’s because of the sheer humility of his path to the top.  Like many in his profession, he grafted in low paid jobs for years before getting his casting in The Sopranos, a casting which by several accounts was a very great risk.  They could easily have hired someone better known, or conventionally better looking.  But they went for him because, despite everything against him, he was the best.

James Gandolfini was a true artist.  And when I say that, I mean that his primary joy came from the work.  To him, the craft was first.  We artists live in an age – maybe we have always been in such an age – where we are continually reminded that, in order to be successful, we must be pushy and ruthless and overbearing and aggressive.  And, whenever many of us are told such things, we quietly think “but can’t my work just speak for itself?  If I produce work of sufficient beauty, won’t that alone make me shine”?

That’s why James Gandolfini was and will forever remain such a wonderful example.  From the accounts and anecdotes emerging today, he was a warm and humble man who made the very best of his talent.  He reminds us, vitally, that it’s possible to make it all the way, and not be a brute or a diva.   We are so often told that an artist’s work should be viewed separately from their personal life, that how they treated others has no bearing on their legacy, but I have always disagreed with that.  My greatest inspirations have always been artists whose gifts and achievements were matched only by their sense of humanity, which is why I think I will always have Kurt Vonnegut on a pedestal.  For his work, and the life that he led, it looks like Gandolfini should be on one too.