Monday musings on Australian literature: On labelling writers
Today’s post was inspired by a tweet from Aminatta Forna which led me to an article she’d written titled “Don’t judge a book by its author”. The Guardian led the article with the following pull quote:
I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer …
It’s a fascinating article that raises some meaty issues. It is, I recognise, about writers and writing in general, not just Australian, but I’ve decided to write about it in my Monday Musings series because it touches on some issues I’ve talked about here before.
But first, Forna’s main thesis … it’s that labelling (or classifying) is “the very antithesis of literature”. She starts with the practice of labelling writers. Now, I admit, I am guilty of this. I have categories and/or tags on my blog for “women writers”, “Australian writers”, and so on. I’m a librarian/archivist by training and I find classification useful to support searches for specific information. Forna would possibly ask why we might want to search by such labels or categories, but I’ll come to that later.
As a librarian/archivist, I also know the limitations of categorising. How, for example, do you categorise Forna herself? She was born in Scotland to a Sierre Leonian father and a Scottish mother. She has lived in several countries but now lives in London, I believe. I decided, somewhat uncomfortably, to opt for British writer. We librarians also know about the implications of categorising, and Forna explores some of this too. The white male writer, she says, is “the only one called simply ‘writer'”. This is all very interesting, but is just the entrée to her main point, and to the main reason I wanted to talk about her article here … so let’s move on.
She argues that labels are the antithesis of literature because “the way of literature is to seek universality”, while labels are limiting. She uses the example of China Achebe who is “often called the grandfather of African literature”. As labels go, she argues, it isn’t the worst that could have been “pinned” on him, but the problem is that he “often found his universal themes overlooked in favour of an ethnographic reading” of his novel Things fall apart. Forna’s point is that
Writers do not write about places, they write about people who happen to live in those places.
This certainly rings true for her own The hired man, which I reviewed last week. She provides very little detail about the particular war it concerns, but focuses instead on its impact on people.
This sense of limitation extends further, however, as Forna explains. She posted, she said, a question on Facebook:
Where did the new orthodoxy arise that writers must only set stories within their own country of origin or nationality?
If you’re a regular reader here, the penny might now have dropped regarding why I am writing about this article here. It relates to my discussion last year concerning white Australians writing about indigenous Australians. I quoted Margaret Merrilees expressing concern about non-Aboriginal writers fearing “‘appropriating’ Aboriginal experience”. Forna reports that one respondent to her Facebook post, British (ha, she labels this writer!) writer Linda Grant, suggested
it’s about authenticity … And probably came in with post-colonial studies. If white people can’t appropriate the experiences of the oppressed for fiction then it no longer becomes possible for anyone to write outside their own experience.
Forna then quotes another writer, the Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie, continuing this point:
What started as a thoughtful post-colonial critique of certain types of imperial texts somehow became a peculiar orthodoxy that essentially denies the possibility of imaginative engagement with anyone outside your little circle.
I think you get the drift without my going on. The political issue, as we’ve discussed before, has a lot to do with power. It requires sensitivity and awareness, if you’re the majority, but it should not deter writers from exercising their imagination. Forna talks about “authenticity” – and some writers’ fear that they can’t authentically write about a “culture” not their own. But what is authenticity, she asks, and who’s the judge.
I’m not going to continue with Forna’s argument here, because you can read it yourself, except to say that Forna concludes that “a novel is a work of imagination” in which the writer offers to take the reader on a journey. It’s a journey, she says, in which the novelist uses imagination to show readers something they have not seen before, and in which, readers, in return, bring their own experiences and imagination. I like it …
We have though moved quite a long way from the initial point regarding labelling and classification. Forna does return briefly to it suggesting that “sometimes we need labels just to describe the thing we are talking about”. I’d agree. I’d also say that sometimes we need labels for practical reasons, such as to identify issues or problems and right them. We Australians, for example, need to hear indigenous stories, but if disadvantage, prejudice and/or the commercial imperative mean these stories don’t get out, then we need to find those writers and support them. To do that we need to label them – don’t we?