Edinburgh: extreme storytelling

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For the past three years, I’ve spent a portion of August in Edinburgh. In fact, twelve months ago I was there to speak at two events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – a wonderful experience.

But even when I don’t have an official reason for going, these days I tend to feel the call of the north when the brief British summer glimmers into view. And, marvellous though the book festival is, I have to confess that another extravaganza in the Scottish capital has first claim on my heart: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Running since 1947, the annual four-week celebration of all things performance-related is the largest arts festival in the world. This year sees more than 50,200 performances of 3,269 shows from 48 countries taking place across the city.

The variety is extraordinary. If you want to witness South African dancers transforming themselves into a 16-legged beast, you can find that in After Freedom Productions’ I Am Rhythm. If politics is your thing, you could take yourself along to a garden shed in South College Street and get involved in the reading of the 2.6m-word Chilcot report into the Iraq War (or you could have done until it ended after 284 hours and 45 minutes last weekend). And if it’s comedy you’re after, you can take your pick from the hundreds of aspiring stand-up comics and famous names gurning from posters fixed to every lamp-post, phone box and – likely as not – person who stands still too long on the Royal Mile.

The venues are as different as the acts they house. While specially erected tents accommodate some of the bigger shows, numerous shops, businesses, bars and institutions throw open their doors to host performers in their basements, back rooms, lecture theatres and garages. This year, there are 294 performance spaces operating in the city – among them a venue in Blackwell’s bookshop.

Depending on what you choose to go to, you could find yourself wandering the halls of Edinburgh university, scrambling into the store room of a shop, or squeezing into a police box or camper van (both of which have been used for shows in previous years).

As I writer, I always find the Fringe hugely inspiring. I love the energy and excitement. I relish the inventiveness of the performers, and the weird and wonderful characters you encounter both on and off stage.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about it all for me is this: for all their diversity, each of the 3,269 shows is an attempt to communicate something. Every time the house lights go down in venues large and small, someone is trying to tell a story that will hold the attention of a frequently tired, sometimes rowdy and occasionally downright difficult audience for an hour.

Meeting this challenge every day for the best part of a month requires performers to have guts, energy and a creative approach. This may involve mining episodes from their lives for material, as comedian Alice Fraser does in her show The Resistance, which draws on her childhood in her Holocaust-survivor grandmother’s ramshackle home in Sydney. They may get the audience to take part in the action, as happens in the moving and wonderful play Every Brilliant Thing, in which members of the public are drafted in to play characters in the story.

They may take a historical episode and use it as the framework for their performance, as magician David Narayan does in The Psychic Project, a show based on American studies into the possibility of using mind readers as spies in the late-twentieth century. Or they may make it up as they go along, the way that improv-comedy group Austentatious do with their hilarious improvised performances of a never-before-or-since-read Jane Austen novel inspired by a title provided by a member of the audience.

Not every show works (although I should say that I enjoyed all four of the above). But in many ways, that is beside the point. The attempt to communicate is what counts, the daring to take the conch and step to the front of the stage.

As I return to my desk this week and attempt to pick up the threads of the draft of my next novel, the stagefolk of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will be my inspiration. They will remind me that though storytelling can sometimes be a messy, intimidating business, it is also a great wonder and privilege because of the opportunity it offers human beings to connect.

None of the joy and power that has filled my last few days would have been possible without the bravery, determination and ingenuity of those performers, who each found their own ways to share their stories. What matters is finding the gumption to try.

Photo of posters and fliers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (2012) by Jim Forest on Flickr.com.

Cambodia: the end of an era

Newspapers are not what they used to be. If you’ve had anything to do with the media in the last ten years, you’ll have heard a lot about dumbing down, loss of quality, the death of print and so on. In fact, depending on who you speak to, you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole industry is choking and dying right before our very eyes as we all stand round snapping photos and tweeting about its last moments.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact the search for my Cambodian book reminded me of one of the most exciting things to happen to journalism in recent years.

I was whiling away a quiet moment or two on the Guardian Books site when an article about the Cambodian genocide by Madeleine Thien caught my eye. Thien is a Canadian novelist, so I couldn’t include her book, Dogs at the Perimeter, on my Cambodian list, however, given her expertise on the country, I decided to leave a comment asking if she could recommend something I could read.

Less than two hours later, Thien replied with a full list of suggestions. I was delighted and more than a little surprised. Despite having written for various publications myself, I realised I’d been used to thinking of journalists as somehow operating in a different, parallel universe, a world that readers could not reach.

And yet here was one of these mysterious beings replying to me out of the blue. All of a sudden the article flickering on the screen in front of me seemed to switch from being a closed, finished thing, to an ongoing, evolving process. It was as though, instead of publishing something that was fixed and definitive, Thien had given a seminar in cyberspace and thrown the floor open to questions from the world.

Thien seemed particularly passionate about In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, a book that was due to come out that very week. ‘I hope this book will find its way to readers everywhere. It is an astonishing novel, brilliant, heartbreaking, and deeply courageous. A truly unforgettable piece of literature,’ she wrote. That was good enough for me.

Inspired by Ratner’s own childhood, the novel tells the story of seven-year-old Raami, a Cambodian princess who is evicted from her luxurious home in Pnomh Penh along with the rest of her family when the Khmer Rouge seize power in 1975. Caught up in the mass exodus from the cities as the regime seeks to eliminate all traces of education, culture, privilege and power, Raami endures four years of hard labour, starvation, abuse and terror in the party’s brutal new rural order – a world where her imagination is her only escape.

Few writers use imagery more richly than Ratner. Whether she is describing the sun yawning and stretching ‘like an infant deity poking its long multiple arms through the leaves and branches’, the gardener covered in butterflies ‘as if he were a tree stalk and his straw hat a giant yellow blossom’, or the way a marsh shimmers ‘as if at any moment it would spit out the sun’, the writer excels at finding arresting ways of bringing experience to her readers. This stands her in particularly good stead when it comes to the darker elements of the story, where the fear and sadness she builds are almost tangible. It also makes the more whimsical passages, particularly the exchanges between Raami and her haunted poet father, marvellous and engrossing where they might be twee and obvious in another author’s work.

Ratner’s consciousness of the value and weight of words is coupled with a profound sense of the importance of storytelling, which runs through the book. Various characters speak about the power of tales to connect people across time and space. Indeed, Raami’s faith in them is such that, in the final moments before he is taken away, she runs after her father begging for one more story, as though the mere act of narrating might be enough to keep him with her and save his life.

Like the novel itself, this belief in the power of telling is rooted in Ratner’s experience. She writes movingly about her motivations for rehearsing her family’s traumatic history through fiction in her ‘Author’s Note’ at the back of the book. The story is, she tells us, ‘in essence, [her] own […], born of [her] desire to give voice to [her father’s] memory, and the memories of all those silenced’.

As such – and given the unrelenting suffering and misery that makes up much of the book – it is perhaps inevitable that the narrative occasionally gets bogged down in emotion. While no doubt true to the experience of many children in such extreme circumstances, Raami’s repeated assertions that she is responsible for all the bad things that happen become a little wearing. There is also a slight problem with the narratological need to keep raising the stakes and ratcheting up the tension when the family has lost nearly everything from day one.

But these are trifling things by comparison to Ratner’s achievement. Looked at as a whole this is a powerful and beautiful debut from a writer committed to finding new ways of telling stories and taking the reader to heart of the matter. The world can always do with more of those.

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

Guinea: history reclaimed

Guinean author Camara Laye is best known for his novel The Radiance of the King. In fact if you search for Guinean literature in English, you could be forgiven for thinking that this work is the only book from the Francophone African nation, which is made up of more than 24 ethnic groups, to have made it into the language of Milton, Shakespeare and Dan Brown.

I’ve certainly not been any able to find any other translated Guinean authors (although I’d love to hear about it if you have), so, in the interests of not making the most obvious choice, I decided to read one of Laye’s lesser known works: The Guardian of the Word.

Part anthropological account and part novel, with a dollop of sermonizing thrown in for good measure, the book focuses on the month Laye spent recording the stories of renowned Guinean griot (storyteller) Babu Condé in the village of Fadama in 1963. Beginning with the quest of brothers Moké Mussa and Moké Dantuman to hunt the fearsome Buffalo of Dô, the tales broaden out to bring in a huge cast of historical and mythic characters who contributed to the rise and eventual break up of the medieval Mali empire, and reveal a world of magic, mystery and rich heritage.

Laye makes clear from the start that he has high ambitions for the work. Through recording these stories, which to him ‘constitute the soul of ancient Africa’, he hopes not only to preserve the region’s history before development sweeps it away but also to prompt ‘the awakening of a new civilization’. As he explains at length in his opening his chapter, ‘Africa: Voices from the Depths’, Laye regards traditional stories as essential to his compatriots’ developing a sense of identity and a society that is more than a mere emulation of the European structures they had imposed on them until the mid-20th century:

‘Should not the wisdom of the Ancients and of their past serve as an example to our rising generations? In a continent where the heat in certain regions reaches 40° in the shade, should our African “emancipation” consist of the three-piece, all-wool suit and the bottle of scotch? Should it not rather have its source in our own deep roots in the distant past, and, at the same time, in the opening up of our new frontiers to universal values?’

However Laye’s impassioned appeals and his fascinating descriptions of the steps he had to take to win the privilege of recording the stories – from wearing certain garments to observing particular forms of etiquette – are just the prelude to Condé’s tales. Bristling with proverbs, rich imagery and bursts of humour, these accounts show storytelling at their best. As a Western reader, I found myself continually surprised by twists, turns and tropes that were like nothing I had come across before: where the hero would pick the wrong girl in the European fairy tale, he picks the right one and then comes to grief another way; where Western legends are usually content with mighty men having one formidable mother, here the tyrant Sosso is carried to term by three women, transferring between wombs every three months; and where marriage is usually a happily-ever-after scenario in the stories I grew up with, it is here the start of a battle of wits and (more often than not) sorcery between husband and wife.

Indeed the graphic nature of the storytelling, both sexually and in terms of the violence it involves, is often shocking. Maghan Kön Fatta’s eventual conquest of his wife Sogolon, who casts spells on him and refuses to sleep with him until he threatens to slit her throat ‘like a chicken’, makes for challenging reading, not least because the couple seem to get along very well after Fatta has his way.

Now and again, Laye’s passion for what he is doing threatens to overwhelm the narrative. At points in the stories where the rhetoric gets too grand or digressions with unnecessarily detailed cultural exposition and musings on the role of women creep in it’s tempting to wonder quite how much of the work is as Condé told it. More than once, Laye’s Uriah Heapish protest that ‘We are but the modest transcriber and translator’ seems to ring a little hollow.

But this does not take away from the book’s charm or how engrossing it is. If anything the subtle tug-of-war between oral storyteller and modern novelist adds to the richness of this fascinating text, which itself records a story that was shaped and embroidered over generations as the griots passed it down. I wonder what, if any, version of the saga is told in Fadama today.

The Guardian of the Word (Le Maitre de la Parole) by Camara Laye, translated from the French by James Kirkup (Fontana, 1980)

 

Papua New Guinea: novel techniques

This was one of several recommendations from Bernard Minol at the University of Papua New Guinea Press and Bookshop. Although I had not found many Papuan books in my initial searches, he was keen to stress that there is a thriving publishing scene on PNG – and the large number of recommendations that he and his colleagues gave me certainly seems to bear this out.

Mata Sara (Crooked Eyes) by Regis Tove Stella follows Perez, a young Papuan man, as he arrives in the Australian capital to take up a postgraduate scholarship. Disorientated and homesick, he sets up home with three other wantoks (literally ‘one talks’ – speakers of the same language in Tok Pisin) and the friends set about making a new life in a culture very different from their own.

But as the days go by, they become increasingly uneasy. Ghostly presences in their flat and rumours of a murder there in years gone by set them on edge. More suspicious still, there seems to be an odd connection between the dimdim (white person) Kate who befriends Perez, her friend Wilmott and life back home…

The clash between Western culture and traditional Papuan life is the central theme of the book. Coming from a place where ‘the belief in ghosts and spirits is part of daily existence’ and ‘women fly at night’ to 21st century Sydney – where CCTV cameras capture every move, homosexuality is accepted and immigrants are treated with suspicion and sometimes downright racism – the students discover much to challenge, unsettle and alarm them. Sometimes this can be very funny, as when Perez dreads meeting an anthropologist because of his memories of the Western academics he encountered back home:

‘Since a child, I had always dreaded anthropologists with their long white beards, round-shaped glasses which conjured up an image of a white monster, watching every move ready to pounce on you. Whenever I saw photos of Father Christmas, I immediately connected them to anthropologists and gradually I also dreaded Father Christmas.’

Such light-hearted observations, however, are indicative of a much deeper sense of disenfranchisement born of a conviction that Papuan culture is treated as little more than a specimen by much of the rest of the world – something to be prodded at, picked over and interpreted in Western terms. ‘It is through their eyes that the world sees us, not our own eyes’, says Perez, explaining to Kate: ‘Many outsiders have written about my country out of their private visions […]. They just want their friends to believe they are great explorers and discoverers.’

This leads to a great deal of resentment, which is articulated through lengthy passages of conversation between the friends in which they frequently express (sometimes unjustified) criticisms against the Western world. While Stella tries to balance this by having Perez emphasise that the concept of ‘crooked eyes’ – or skewed perspective – is common to all people, and therefore likely to be true of them too, the lack of characters or events to counteract the accusations is problematic. The dialogue is also frequently repetitive and stilted, as though the friends are talking purely for the benefit of the reader peering in on their cosy world.

It’s a shame, because when events drive the narrative forward, the book is compelling. The early section, where Perez moves into the flat on his own and experiences some uncanny occurrences is gripping. Sadly, though, this momentum is not carried through into the latter half of the book. Here, the increasingly labyrinthine plot, which takes in tribal chiefs, lesbian abuse, long-lost relatives and a paedophile ring, becomes ever more difficult to buy into. This is not helped by shaky motivation for some of the characters’ decisions. Some readers will also find the male characters’ casual expressions of misogyny and homophobia difficult, although they may of course be further evidence of the young men’s ‘crooked eyes’.

Perhaps the issue goes back to the central theme of the book. By using the Western novel form to tell a Papuan story, Stella may have highlighted the limitations of the ‘dimdim  way of doing things’ when it comes to cultures where storytelling is predominantly oral. Significantly, as has been the case in several other novels I’ve read from countries that were colonised by Western powers in the past, Stella puts some of the dialogue in the latter stages of the book in the characters’ mother tongue, Tok Pisin, thereby shutting the English-language reader out from these exchanges. It’s as though the novel form itself is an imperialist throwback, which exerts rules and constraints that writers from countries where it is not the traditional form of storytelling may prefer to disobey or subvert.

‘That’s what’s wrong with you dimdims. You don’t believe in other cultures,’ says Perez. Perhaps he’s got a point.

Mata Sara by Regis Tove Stella (University of Papua New Guinea Press and Bookshop, 2010)

Marshall Islands: telling tales

The Marshall Islands posed a dilemma: preliminary research showed that all storytelling on this remote archipelago in the Pacific was done orally. As far as I could find out there was no such thing as a Marshallese writer.

Beginning to wonder if I was going to have to fly to the Pacific to listen to the stories myself, I contacted Peter Rudiak-Gould. An anthropology PhD student at Oxford University, he has written a textbook on Marshallese and Surviving Paradise – an account of the year he spent as a volunteer English teacher on one of the Marshall Islands. If anyone could help me, surely this was the man.

Rudiak-Gould came back with two suggestions: Melal: A Novel of the Pacific by Robert Barclay (a non-Marshallese national – although he did grow up in the Marshall Islands) and Marshall Islands Legends and Stories collected from indigenous storytellers by Daniel A Kelin II, a non-Marshallese national and Director of Drama Education for the Honolulu Theatre for Youth.

Both sounded like contenders, but in the end I plumped for the Kelin. This was because I was curious to see what the country’s traditional stories were like, but also because I wanted to test how it felt to read stories that were originally told in another medium. I had a suspicion that folk stories transcribed and set down in a book might have the dry, correct feeling of exhibits in an old-fashioned museum: neatly curated and labelled, with all the life and sense of their original purpose sucked out of them. Would Kelin, himself a performance artist, have managed to preserve some of the immediacy of the tales?

The 50 stories in Kelin’s collection present a broad and intriguing picture of Marshallese folklore. These are creations in which the impossible is commonplace: whales sleep on the roofs of houses, women fly, children are born 12 at a time and kingdoms exist at the bottom of the sea. Sometimes containing explanations of aspects of island life – such as how turtles first came to the nation or how women learnt how to survive childbirth – they weave a complex web of duties and preoccupations, in which the importance of hospitality and respecting customs and authority jostles with a love of ingenuity, wit and cunning. There is the youngest son who defies his older brothers to feed his family, the iroij (chief) who strikes a deal with demons and gets washed out to sea when he fails to keep it, and the fishermen who lose the art of magic fishing because they do not pay attention to their elders.

Even more interesting than the stories themselves are the potted biographies of the storytellers and their incidental comments (included in italics), many of which reveal an extraordinary sense of connection with the tales they are telling. ‘They invited me to eat with them that day. If you ever stop by my island, I’ll show you the hole where the boys stayed,’ says Tonke Aisea at the end of a story about brothers tricking a demon, while Jeljel Jerbal leans out of his house to point out where the boy who wrestles a demon to death in his story lived.

This sense of ownership is complemented by Kelin’s explanations of the lengths he had to go to to obtain permission from the local iroijes to hear the stories  – the right to tell and listen to the stories is only granted to a lucky few – and the narrators’ moving comments about the slow death of their tradition through the westernisation of the younger generation. In addition, there are the illustrations by local artist Nashton Nashon, which give the book a striking character – so striking in fact that a woman on the tube even asked me what the book was about because it looked so unusual.

There’s no doubt – particularly in the tales with a lot of poetry and song – that something of the experience of hearing the stories in person is lost in the book. There were points when I found my ears straining in vain to catch the voice singing or chanting far away across the sea.

On the whole though, it was hard not to be impressed with Kelin’s passion and diligence and his evident efforts to present as much of the experience of listening to the stories as he could, even down to including photographs of many of the narrators. It made me glad that I had trusted him to transport me rather than making the trip myself. Besides, who’s to say whether I would have been allowed to hear the tales when I got there?

Marshall Islands Legends and Stories told by Tonke Aisea et al, collected, edited and translated by Daniel A Kelin II, illustrated by Nashton T Nashon (Bess Press Inc, 2003)

Lebanon: the greatest story ever told?

I will always be grateful to Cairo-based book blogger M Lynx Qualey. Shortly after I launched this project to try to read a book from every country in the world, she wrote a post giving me her tips on the top Arab books available in English from the last five years. It was the first of many instances of kindness from people all over the world whose support and interest are making it possible for me to access literature from every sovereign state.

It will probably take me several years to try everything on Qualey’s list. However when I revisited the post recently and saw Hanan al-Shaykh’s retelling of the classic One Thousand and One Nights among the suggestions for Lebanon, I knew I would have to give it a go. After all, its heroine Shahrazad (or Scheherazade as she is more commonly known) is the most referenced figure in all the world literature I’ve read so far this year.

The premise is audacious: when cuckolded King Shahrayar vows to marry a different virgin every night and have her killed the following morning, the vizier’s daughter Shahrazad takes it upon herself to protect her countrywomen by wedding the king and then distracting him from his murderous plans by telling stories so engrossing that he is forced to keep her alive to hear the next instalments.

Facing a level of pressure to perform that not even JK Rowling can have experienced in the run up to the publication of the last Harry Potter novel, Shahrazad has no option but to deliver. Ingenious and playful, she weaves a web of tales bristling with intrigue, erotica and inventiveness. Lovers turn into birds, decapitated heads talk, people are buried alive, and curses and sorcery abound. And as each story draws to a close, it spawns another calculated to keep the King and the reader hooked.

As in Ajit Baral’s The Lazy Conman and Other Stories and Rafik Schami’s Damascus Nights, cunning is prized above honesty, with many of the characters rewarded for using their guile to achieve their ambitions, often at great cost to their slower counterparts.

Shahrazad seems to enjoy sailing close to the wind herself, with many of her stories featuring people who need to save their lives by spinning yarns. ‘I must use my cunning to defeat his demonic wiles and barbarism,’ she has the fisherman say of the jinni in her very first story, as though winking at the reader over the listening king’s head.

The tales become a platform for Shahrazad to air other themes close to her heart too, chief among them the role of women. Her stories feature many strong female characters, among them Zumurrud who cross-dresses to become the wisest king her nation has ever seen, and five sisters who ‘regard men as a deadly disease’ and present a compelling defence of their lives as single women.

Not being familiar with other versions, I can’t tell how much of this comes from the original work and how much Al-Shaykh has reimagined (any insights from other readers would be much appreciated). There’s no doubt however that her narrative (written in English) is lively and approachable, as well as brimming with descriptive delights. The poet Abu Nuwas’s description of women as being ‘capable of sewing knickers for a flea’, for example, is just one of a myriad of memorable images that leap off the page. The only sticking point is the repeated misuse of ‘mortified’ to mean ‘horrified’ – a small niggle, but an irritating one in a novel in which the choice of words has the power to kill or cure.

All in all, though, this book is a delight. Featuring criticism at its most raw, it lays bare the mechanics of great storytelling and throws down the gauntlet for all would-be wordsmiths in the millennia to come. No wonder everyone’s still writing about it.

One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Syria: the power of words

 

‘Don’t squander your precious words… Words are responsibility’

I had my doubts about this one. Having picked it up on a whim in Foyle’s (which makes it one of the handful of books I’ll be reading this year that are easily available on the UK high street), I began to question its authenticity as an example of Syrian literature when I realised it had been written in German.

After all, I’d had so many intriguing recommendations for literature written in Arabic that it seemed hard to justify deviating from those for the sake of what may turn out to be a sort of hybrid fiction, caught between the Arab and Western worlds.

In fact award-winning author Rafik Schami, who emigrated from Syria to Germany at the age of 25 and holds dual nationality, makes the difficulty of telling stories across cultures one of the themes of this book. Incorporating the tales told by the seven friends of Salim the coachman, Damascus’s best storyteller, in an effort to lift an enchantment that has struck him dumb, his witty and engrossing narrative includes a discourse from Tuma the emigrant, who, having lived in America for 10 years, attempts to explain his time in the West to his friends.

Describing how he found it difficult to speak in the US (‘How are you going to talk to people who don’t have the faintest idea about the things that really matter to you?’), he then goes on to discover similar difficulties in trying to interpret Western culture for his friends. In the end, frustrated by their repeated dismissal of his words as ‘fairytales’, he decides to lie instead.

At this point, it’s hard not to picture Schami smirking at his typewriter (he wrote this in 1989), and to wonder how much of the colour of the Damascus he describes, ‘a city where legends and pistachio pastries are but two of a thousand and one delights’, is shaded in for the benefit of his European readers.

But what cuts through this playful jousting with truth is a sense of the crucial importance of communication. Storytelling is a vital force in the novel: it’s the way that cafe owners keep their customers coming back each day, how deals are done and friendships cemented and, in many of the stories, a matter of life and death. What matters is not the truth or otherwise of what is related but that it is related.

Set in 1959 against the uneasy backdrop of the United Arab Republic, a union between Syria and Nasser’s Egypt, which saw the region awash with secret police and transistor radios designed to allow the government ‘to proclaim the one and only valid truth’ because ‘governments in Syria, without exception, made a habit of proclaiming peace and order just when they were on the verge of collapse’, the novel’s presentation of the need for a plurality of voices and accounts is deeply moving. It finds its echo in the events of today and deserves to be read in the West, the Middle East and throughout the world.

Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami (translated from the German by Philip Boehm). Publisher (this edition): Arabia Books (2011)