As a young reader I experienced craft as a form of ethnography while I was searching for welcome. Certain styles of writing schooled me in how to be good; others showed me how to be other. Some (a very few) were breathtaking: they voiced hybrid worlds without translation or explanation, opening lives through language that forged sentences that could not be written any other way. When I write, the lessons of those times are in me.
I break down elements of craft to work towards the emancipation of a way of seeing. To say, fuck it. I want to capture what I loved in that work that welcomed me: the syntax made of a marriage of ethics, politics and aesthetics, the confidence to trust the reader, to trust one’s own voices. I write in the knowledge that there is nothing to lose by saying the difficult thing in common/uncommon ways, knowing that the beauty of a line lies in the alchemy of doubt, adrenalin and risk. Mainstream judgement of what is ‘good’ is based on elite opinion, curated over years. It is necessarily corrupt. I’d rather write an ‘ugly’ line, to such eyes.
Ethics, aesthetics, politics. I read of these linked modes in 2013, when I was working on my first novel, and employed on a precarious contract, teaching the complete works of J.M. Coetzee. I was reading Gayatri Spivak’s essay, ‘Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee and Certain Scenes of Teaching’, which understands Coetzee’s novel Disgrace as an intertextual King Lear story through a line of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, ‘My unfortunate country, you will have to be equal in disgrace to each and every one of those you have disgraced millennially.’ Systemic violence, racial and gendered trauma haunts the reader across time and texts, knotted together by a word in Spivak’s translation: disgrace.
Through the fusion of these three, I found the epic, hyper-real register for that novel We That Are Young (2017), a translation of King Lear stitched with the words of Urdu poets, Hindu epic texts and more. That understanding helped me to articulate five young, multilingual minds going mad in an age of absurdity, while shaped by two faith-time cycles: one linear, tied to capitalism and death; one infinite, as energy can never be created or destroyed. The book is set in the disgrace of the ruins of Empire, amidst the rising fascism of contemporary India hurtling towards its consolidation of Hindu settler-colonialism in Kashmir.
Intertextuality. With its roots in the Latin textere: to weave. Traditional hand-craft becomes literary practice; becomes critical theory. Becomes a political imperative and an act of recognition: of complexity, of nuance, of long, inseparable histories of pain.
Aftermath, my second book, on the language of terror, trauma and grief following the Fishmongers’ Hall attack in November 2019, is the fullest expression I can make of this. It is a lament, drawing on texts from Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck and nourbeSe philips’ Zong! as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng to weave a shattered sense of trust back into a reckoning with the racism of British carceral society, our literary role in that. By voicing our mixed present, I make a new future. This is craft as a form of survival. In the book, following those women and women of colour writing for our lives, I call it radical hope.
Image © Bruce Aldridge