In the era of rapid globalisation the exemplary novelists seem to be those who successfully transcend their homelands and emerge in a place where their work can acquire a universal relevance. In many ways Jamal Mahjoub personifies this condition. He was born in England, raised in Sudan, and has lived in London, Liverpool, Khartoum, South Wales, Sheffield, Aarhus, Cairo and Barcelona. He has produced seven books of literary fiction, and three crime novels under the pseudonym Parker Bilal, all of which encompass multiple and diverse settings and generations. Stacy Hardy speaks to Mahjoub about the vocation of writing in a time of shifting expectations.
Jamal Mahjoub: People have always had trouble categorising me. There’s an unknown factor that makes publishers and journalists uncomfortable. I started publishing at least 10 years before any of the writers you mention. I don’t think what I was doing then was in vogue. I didn’t really fit in. I came after the old postcolonial generation, the so-called Empire Writes Back gang, [Salman] Rushdie, Anita Desai, Timothy Mo, and so on. I didn’t really belong to them, but whatever was coming next hadn’t really arrived. My first novel was about a half-British/half-Sudanese character who feels divided and ill-at-ease with himself and wanders into the civil war. Today he would be on his way to Iraq to join Islamic State (IS).
No doubt the decision not to settle in Britain was a factor. I was conscious of not wanting to become fully assimilated. I didn’t want to lose that edge, which is central to the way I write. I lived under the quaint illusion that it was all about gathering experience, learning to write, experimenting, and travelling. I thought if you were true to the vocation of writing then others would pick up on that.
I think it’s part of what literature has become – an appendix to the main cultural sphere. Everyone is struggling. The prime concern of journal editors and festival organisers is to promote their brand. Granta is a good example of that. Hay-on-Wye is another. They don’t really seek to enable serious debate. They provide a platform for established celebrities, and the cultivation of new ones. It’s difficult to value the literature because with the number of books being published it’s impossible to read them. And the world has changed. What was peripheral is now central, but the centre did not yield gracefully. The elite, who used to decide what was worthy, have penned themselves into a corner and refuse to surrender. Broadsheet newspapers used to lead debate, now they struggle to follow it. There is no longer any continuity in literature. It is deemed a minority interest, which is why the books sections of newspapers are trimmed down and devoted to quizzes and top ten lists. One of the reasons why the publishing world has been in crisis for the last 20 years is because it has been downsizing expectations. With digitisation it may begin to level out – books that publishers and booksellers might not deem worthy could still find an audience. To read the rest of this article online, subscribe.
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Stacy Hardy: Your first books were published by the legendary Heinemann African Writers Series, which has been much lauded but also much criticised. What’s your view on the series?
JM: When I came in it was on its last legs. Those who were passionate about the literature, and the series, were being replaced by management types. The series was tremendous in transmitting literature from Africa to Africans. I can’t imagine where my understanding of Africa would be without those books. The quality of the work still stands out. It played a role in educating the continent which shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s easy to dismiss as having been too influenced by politics at times, but when I read young African writers who are just starting out today I wonder what they have been reading.
SH: You regularly appear on panels focused on both Arabic and African literature. What do you make of the rift between northern and sub-Saharan Africa, which is so pronounced in literature? Is it because of language? Politics? Economics? Who is enforcing it and why? What will it take to bridge this divide?
JM: It’s a strange thing, this perpetuation of old divisions. I’ve heard Algerian writers calling themselves “white” to explain why they have so little in common with sub-Saharan writers. Sudan is a perfect example of what happens when you deny your diversity; you get half a century of civil war followed by the breakup of the country. It can only be explained by ignorance and prejudice, which among intellectuals is shameful. There were movements 30 or 40 years ago in Sudanese poetry, for example, which sought to unite the country culturally. The late Nubian writer Idris Ali wrote scathingly about the prejudice in northern Egypt toward the south. But it works both ways. There is a lot of prejudice south of the Sahara toward North Africa and Arabic speakers in general. Again, it’s an example of the centre dividing the periphery. Instead of questioning the stereotype, people tend to reinforce it. What really astonishes me still is the lack of traffic between colonial language blocs in Africa. The francophone/anglophone barrier is still going strong. Very little French literature is translated into English or addressed. Beyond that there is the lusophone and the Arabic, and other languages: Wolof, Swahili, and so on. The Caine Prize is the perfect example of this. Which Africa are we talking about?
SH: Over the past few decades we’ve seen a backlash against postcolonialism and Marxism in general. It’s been accompanied by a move away from the overtly political writing of an earlier generation of writers from the continent, personified by the Chinua Achebes and Ayi Kwei Armahs of the world. Many younger writers have justified this move as a backlash against “one-dimensional” or “clichéd” perceptions of writing from Africa. You have a more complex reading of the situation that positions it very much in Western hands and reads it as a result of Cold War politics, the second Gulf War and the fatwa against Rushdie. Can you say more?
JM: I think literature serves the age it lives in. The nation-building process, post-independence, involved glorifying past deeds: the struggle, the noble history. Writers played their part and those who were best rewarded were those whose ideals chimed with the Marxist ideas that were in vogue among university academics in the West. Those who were inclined towards Africa saw the literature as a tool for political emancipation of the working class. The literary qualities were either overlooked or brushed aside in favour of the unequivocal message. This came to an end roughly at the time I started publishing. The Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and with that went Marxist-dominated cultural politics. One could make the argument that African literature is still subject to the appetites of the West, and will remain so until African literature can support itself without relying on an outside audience. Of course, reading the work has grown more sophisticated, but it is still vulnerable. Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa” is really a parody of the kind of format that we can all agree is outdated, which plays well to an audience of apologetic white liberals. I think the situation is more complex than that. Years ago there was a criticism of Arabic women writers tackling certain subjects in the hope they would appeal to feminist critics and publishers in the West, in other words producing texts that would lend themselves to translation. I think a similar argument could be made in some cases in African literature. It’s not the obvious case that Binyavanga sends up, it’s more insidious than that.
SH: It seems today the only politics that the literary market readily embraces relate to censorship or feminism – both worthy causes, of course, but why limit it to that? Who is setting this agenda? What does it enforce?
JM: I once got taken to task for suggesting that publishing is dominated by women, which is as close to being a fascist misogynist as I’d want to get. Yet, in 25 years and about 11 books I have never worked with a male editor. There are men in the business and I don’t pretend that there is full equality or that men do not dominate the upper tiers, but women clearly have a presence, and that is how it should be. Women read more than men. A sweeping generalisation, I know, but I’ll stick to it until someone proves me wrong. The literary market is just that, a market, and publishing is a business. It’s not surprising therefore that publishers try to cater to what their audience wants to read. Feminism is the only strand that survived the demise of Western postcolonial sympathy for the Third World, as it used to be known. In a world where political ideology has been replaced by complex cultural and religious differences, feminism cuts a clean line through the murky waters.
As for Rushdie, I think in his case censorship was swiftly replaced by celebrity. The case was hijacked for political means, largely because nobody on either side actually read or understood the book. The people who died in Pakistan and Iran took it for granted that the book was an insult to Islam. Even London’s literary critics admitted they hadn’t read The Satanic Verses. Translators said it was impossible to translate. A cause was created out of a book that very few people ever actually read. I think that sums up our age. We talk about books now without reading them. Literary criticism has become what Gore Vidal used to call “book chat”. The corollary of this is that literature used to be about seeing things from a different perspective, getting outside of yourself, whereas now it is very much about affirmation; confirming your opinions and who you are. Identity politics short-circuited the whole idea of objective reading. People think it is genuinely a valid literary criticism to say they don’t like a certain character. As if their personal distaste for a character justifies dismissing a story. This is ignorance disguised as understanding.
SH: You seem to refuse the divide between politics and identity that characterises so much writing today. I’m thinking here about the character, Makana, from your crime trilogy. It is Makana’s liminal status as an exile that makes him such an adept navigator of Cairo, able to fade into the background because nobody pays attention to an African migrant. But when someone is needed to investigate a problem, being an outsider makes him highly employable: the system in Egypt is so corrupt that no one trusts the authority. Could Makana’s trickster methodology open up a third possibility for writers – a way to survive in a global world without abandoning history or political rigour?
JM: Makana represents what I like to think are the best qualities of the Sudanese. He grew up in a world in which women were strong and ruled the household. He didn’t have a problem with having a wife who was better educated than himself. Much of what we see of Sudan, and of the Muslim world generally, is filtered through the intolerance that pervades political Islam. It has little to do with the praxis of most people in those societies, because it is eclipsed by the actions of the extremists.
It’s interesting to draw a parallel between Makana’s liminal existence and that of the writer in a globalised and digitised world. Perhaps you have put your finger on why I chose to turn to crime fiction. I’ve basically lost faith in the idea of literary merit being rewarded. Globalisation produces a backlash in the form of provincialism, which is why prizes tend to get less rather than more diverse in whom they reward. People’s tastes, also, tend to shy away nowadays from the big cosmopolitan frames and back towards a much narrower prism. Genre fiction offers the possibility of finding an audience that is looking for entertainment. I believe that crime readers’ appreciation of a well-constructed tale trumps any resistance they might feel; you can write about what you like so long as the story is effective.
SH: In a short fiction titled A History of Amnesia you write about an “information revolution” that grips the planet. Humanity is entirely subsumed into an endless cloud of information and then finally destroyed by a lethal virus that eats everything. Yet, out of the nothing, stories slowly begin to emerge and with them humanity is reborn. The piece was written in 1995, but seems entirely prophetic.
JM: If I were to rewrite the story today I’m not sure I would end it as optimistically as I did then. I think I was trying to say something about how our need to tell stories overrides whatever consequences the nature of those stories, or history, has in store for us. There is a fundamental need to tell, to recount, to describe what is happening around us; so much so that we cannot see what we have become. Audio-visual media seem so convincingly complete that we cannot imagine that there might exist a knowledge external to them. Literature serves no meaningful purpose to most people who did not grow up reading. Unless you have experienced it, the knowledge and understanding that come from deep reading, the way it educates the mind, as opposed to the amassing of facts, is of no significance. It is the nature of knowledge that is changing and this is going to affect the way our brains work. A similar shift took place when literature began somewhere back in the fifth century BCE. When poets began to write down their verse rather than memorise it they were distrusted. Any knowledge that was not committed to memory was not considered to be true understanding. Nowadays we are so rushed to keep up with the present that writers complain about not having the space to concentrate because of the internet.
SH: You’re a judge on this year’s Etisalat prize, one of a handful popping up on the continent. Like the US$100,000 Nigeria Prize for Literature (which is sponsored by Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas), Etisalat comes with a big corporate sponsor. Why do you think African corporations are suddenly supporting literature? Do prizes like this have the potential to really shift anything? Do they offer an alternative to the Caine prize and others offered by organisations in the West?
JM: For the same reason that corporate power and governments have always supported culture – because it makes them look more like civilised people than profit-hungry capitalists. It’s a vulnerability that artistic production has always had, and always will. Writers, painters, sculptors, all depend on sponsors. Who knows, in the future this may be our only way of surviving. Plenty of writers live from winning prizes. Better that than teaching. The new prizes coming from within Africa, I see as a good thing. Why should they depend on Western benefactors when there is plenty of money sloshing around in Africa? I’d like to see people like Mo Ibrahim doing more. I mean, rather than throwing money at ex-heads of state, why not invest in the future? These prizes will only have an impact when they start picking serious contenders. It’s going to take time, but they definitely offer an incentive. There’s always the danger of creating a culture of stardom; one prize and you’ve made it. The Caine Prize has to take some of the blame here. There is no magical formula that transforms you into a literary star. Writing takes time. It’s one of the few things in its favour.
SH: You’re currently writing a non-fiction book on Sudan. Why the move from fiction to non-fiction? Does the switch signify a loss of belief in the power of fiction to represent reality and change things?
JM: Originally, I wanted to write about the situation in Darfur. It gave me the incentive to return to Khartoum after nearly 17 years. I found myself fascinated by the city, what had changed, what had remained the same, and realised that everything I had ever written somehow hinged on my relationship to it. So it became a book about how we create our own identity, in fact and in fiction.
As I began to write, I realised that the line between fact and fiction was a lot greyer than I had thought. So that became a challenge in itself. The book is far from finished. It’s alive in my head and I’m trying to create a space to sit down and concentrate on it. It’s the first time I’ve tried to write an extended piece of non-fiction, and using such autobiographical material and the experience has made me wonder about the conventions of both fiction and non-fiction. If non-fiction offers a challenge it is to avoid these tropes.
SH: In your novels you depict Sudan less as a geographic place than as an event, a gathering of constantly changing parameters: physical and geographic, social and political, cultural, religious, ethnic and perceptual. Was it a mistake to seek a geographic solution to Sudan’s conflicts?
JM: Sudan never consolidated itself as a nation. The northern Sudanese who took over the reins of the country in 1956 were supremely unprepared for what lay ahead. The country was as alien to them as it was to the British administrators who ruled before them. It was a failure of the imagination: there was an inability to evolve, to rise above the inherited hierarchies recognised by the British, and the old ethnic, religious and racial prejudices that had been handed down over centuries. This is not to say that there were not people around who advocated an alternative, but it wasn’t pursued and eventually all efforts were trumped by the use of military force.
The problems of Sudan are really the same as anywhere else. Spain springs to mind. Scotland also. Wherever there is a lack of representation you are creating inequality which will, sooner or later, lead to a rupture. In Sudan’s case ignoring the South’s demands for more autonomy meant nearly half a century of civil war, which, aside from the death toll, has devastated society and left the country in ruins. Secession was, ironically, an external, neocolonial solution to an internal problem and thus had little chance of success. So, today we have internal conflict within South Sudan, along with ongoing conflict in other parts of the country. Geographical solutions simply divide the problem into smaller parts, but the issues remain unresolved.
SH: At the end of the great Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, the narrator realises it’s his passivity that has ultimately destroyed him. Observing the wreckage of a catastrophe he could have averted, the narrator says, “All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision.” It seems to me that there is a lot at stake, that there is an urgency to act now, before it’s too late… but what decision can and should we make?
JM: Tayeb Salih’s novel works on so many levels, but ultimately strikes an almost mystical note. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Season of Migration, I don’t think I’ve ever fully understood it, but it seems to me that we have reached a critical point, as a planet, in terms of climate change, unequal distribution of power and resources. It is no longer possible to go on as before, and yet we must find a new way to go on. The old mechanisms are breaking down; political elites, economic divisions, national borders, north and south. We are approaching a medieval scenario where the wealthy live comfortably sealed within their walled cities, while the rest of us are hammering at the gates. The Arab insurrections took 30 years of oppression to arrive and were swept away in three. I don’t think they are over. I think we expected too much from them in too short a time. There is still much to be done. There is an obvious link between Tahrir Square, the Occupy Movements, the Indignados, and now Mong Kok. The world seems to be in a constant state of protest. Perhaps this is the river we are now in, and it’s up to us whether we sink or swim. So long as we, the silent majority, do not act, we will remain at the mercy of the extremists, whether they are the forces of unbridled capitalism or religious absolutism of one creed or another, all of which thrive by playing themselves off against one another. Everything now, to paraphrase James Baldwin, is in our hands. The parameters have changed but what remains is the need for us to pull together in order to break out of this tailspin and to achieve not a country, but a world, our children can live in. [/ppw]
This story features in the edition of Chronic Books, published April 2o15, the supplement to the Chronic. Through dispatches, features, interviews and reviews, we explore the reach of public relations and petrodollars.
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