Elleke Boehmer, novelist and Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford, is the author of four novels, Screens Against the Sky (1990), An Immaculate Figure (1993), Bloodlines (2000) and the recently added Nile Baby (2008). She is the General Editor of the Oxford Studies in Postcolonial Literatures, and is involved with ‘Making Britain’, a funded project of the Open University and University of Oxford researching the historical contributions of South Asians to the social, cultural and political life of Britain in the period 1870 –1950. Among her publications are Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (1995), Empire, the National and Postcolonial, 1890 – 1920: Resistance in Interaction (2002), Stories of Women: Gender and Narrative in the Postcolonial Nation (2005), Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature, 1870 – 1918 (editor, 1998), and the bestseller, Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship (editor, 1990). Professor Boehmer has published stories in literary magazines and anthologies, and many conference papers and essays in journals. She has also served in various literature development roles in the UK and South Africa.
Afam Akeh: What are the important thoughts and experiences informing the writing of your new books, the novel Nile Baby (Ayebia, 2008) and the critical biography, Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008)?
Elleke Boehmer: I should begin by saying that the two books were not written as companion pieces, nor were they written concurrently. I worked now on Nile Baby, and now on Mandela, in staggered bursts. But, as if in illustration of how narrative writing can perform and resolve questions in non-narrative writing, and vice versa, as the writing proceeded it became clear that I was working on a particular theme or issue in common, which can be summarised in the phrase: Africa, the measure of the human. As I pondered Mandela's iconic achievement, I became increasingly more aware that at the centre of all he has done is embedded the idea that Africa is not remote from understandings of the human, as western knowledge has long portrayed it, but provides some of the central measures of humanness - where humanness is defined as reciprocity and contingency, together. ‘I am well because you are well'. How Nile Baby fitted into this is that it tracks the tale of two children in England, in 2002, who discover a tiny embryo corpse in their school lab, and gradually unravel - not to give the whole story away - the non-English and other than European measures of its humanness.
AA: Tell us more about your novels and interest in prose fiction, and how you would locate the additional contributions of the new novel?
EB: As I was saying, the work of visual imagination that goes into a novel, in this case Nile Baby, sharpens and sometimes resolves those bigger questions that we wrestle with in other work - what is a human being, what can be done in these finite circumstances we all inhabit, we with our infinitely yearning selves? And, in the case of Nile Baby specifically, can we define our humanness outside of and in contradistinction to what we might call the things of the spirit. For a writer such as myself, profoundly sceptical of the existence of other worlds, Nile Baby is surprisingly full of what can best be described as haunting, intensely physical haunting. Read in one way, it might even come across as something of a ‘noir' and Gothic tale.
AA: Regarding your work as a scholar of world literatures, for which you are well known, and your art as a novelist, for which you have won critical commendations but are less celebrated, is it the case that your readers and observers have followed the lead of a seeming self-definition as, first, a scholar, then a novelist?
EB: Oh, I hope not! I dread to think of readers reading my work for a putative scholarliness, or for its scholarship. Then again, I myself have at times been guilty of being what JM Coetzee calls a ‘strong' (directive) reader (and perhaps writer), while always trying none the less to take my lead from the impulses and suggestions of the book. But I'd not want readers to bring a fixed expectation to my fictional work, to read for race or boyhood or whatever, but rather to take the lead of the story. It is true of course, as you imply, that my literary work has been bifurcated into criticism/scholarship on the one hand, and novels and short stories on the other, partly because my day job - the work of world literatures - has so often bled into my writing time. I've cursed this bifurcation many times, but have been too chicken to give up the day job, and have also of course been stimulated by it, with respect to the writing of my fiction also.
AA: With your novels Nile Baby and Bloodlines as examples, can the plots and themes of your novels be read simply as other means, fictive means, by which you progress or tool your discourses on the transboundary realities and possibilities of the colony and postcolony?
EB: I like ‘transboundary realities'. As a descriptive phrase it fits Nile Baby, and indeed Mandela's life work, very well. Yes, continuing an impulse that has been running through what we've both been saying here, the novel does offer a medium, the medium of imaginative performance, to investigate such possibilities. But the novel is also not ‘simply another means'. Prose writing is of a piece with itself, an autonomous space with its own formal demands, and its own sources of understanding.
AA: Did you feel summoned to privilege matters of gender and sexuality in aspects of your work, in Stories of Women, for example, and in the studies of J. M. Coetzee, Yvonne Vera and Tsi tsi Dangarembga, perhaps because these subjects were sometimes crowded out by the preferred male discourse interests in migrantcy, national identity politics and aesthetics, which your books also engage?
EB: My concern has constantly been that women writers just as much as male writers have been energised about questions of selfhood, home, belonging, form, nation, transcendence, and so on, though they may have approached these questions in different ways, using different, sometimes more muted or shocking kinds of language. The issue of canonicity never ceases to preoccupy me: in such a fluid and commodified field as ‘world' writing, what is it that survives? There are minority voices worth listening to, but where are the channels through which to promote them?
AA: What is your recent experience of African literature - the texts and authors, publishing trends and criticism? Any comparative thoughts, looking in from the outside, or writing around and about the continent?
EB: In my opinion, African writing has been too bogged down in recent decades in the problem of who may speak for whom and in what medium. These questions of authenticity, of representativeness. But the situation may now be shifting in positive ways, as more writers from the internal and external diasporas begin to participate in the literary conversation about Africa. It's fascinating to me that a writer like Coetzee, who wrestled with these questions for years by way of an audacious turning away to a high modernist classicism, a Joycean I-do-not-observe-these-strictures, is probably, bar Achebe, the most widely read and admired literary writer from Africa in the world today.
AA: Would you locate your work as also belonging to the African literary heritage and canon, or simply to world literature? Does this still matter?
EB: Yes, I'd venture to say that it probably still matters. Despite the transnational flows of the global market, literature will continue to be for some considerable time I think categorised in national ways. Sometimes it's frustrating to me, this indelible link of birth certificate and literary descriptor. As a writer of migrant experience it should be possible to occupy several different national and transnational categories all at the same time - for me, African, British, Atlantic. It should be, but it probably isn't yet.
AA: In ‘Postcolonial Writing and Terror', your contribution to Issue No 57 of Wasafiri, you explore the possibilities for explaining, negotiating and resolving the boundary disputes of an increasingly boundless world through a sense of mutuality, shared spaces and cross-boundary "commitment" to the "continuation" of all life. Are there commendable contemporary models for any consequent dialogue with the aggrieved of history, including postcolonials, who may respond only with bounded commitment to their own national, racial, religious, gendered or other cultural particulars, as determined by inequities in global power distributions?
EB: Shared spaces can be negotiated, perhaps especially by the aggrieved of history, who are more aware than most of how precious, and difficult to secure, such spaces are. A commitment to the continuation of all life happens powerfully in all forms of self-expression - song, poetry, dance, and the story - wherever those particulars you mention can be asserted and acclaimed.
AA: Why do you think your 2004 editorial re-introduction of Baden-Powell's scouting manual, Scouting for Boys became a bestseller, and are you hopeful for a similar reception for Nile Baby?
EB: Go baby go! Scouting for Boys was the success it was I think because it appealed to different audiences at several different levels. Imperial relic though it may appear from one perspective, it also carries a green or eco message, it speaks to fitness and body image cultures, it shares the worries of those concerned about masculinity and how to be a man in the contemporary world, and it transmits all of these themes with a certain lightness and humour, and along a powerful story-telling trajectory. Nile Baby is a quest tale involving two 12-year-old friends who by the end of the long weekend in which they fall out, drift apart and then re-unite, arrive at a very different place from where they began. Quest and journey motifs are compulsive agents in stories across cultures, and few can resist those moments when, as in this novel, the macabre becomes miraculous. My hope is that Nile Baby, too, will find compelled readers everywhere.
Afam Akeh, like Gerald Manley-Hopkins, is a poet-priest, and the author of Stolen Moments (Malthouse Press, 1988) and Letter Home (2007).
Poet Afam Akeh (UK) in Conversation with multi-valent Elleke Boehmer (UK), Novelist and Scholar
A telephone conversation with Peter Van Toorn
July 04, 2008
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