Subjects That Matter
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
A few days ago I read the now infamous piece on mental slavery by Ben Okri.
It seemed to make sense at the time. So I tweeted a link to this article in The Guardian, thinking that others would be interested too, maybe even impressed. What struck me most at first was the idea that it’s not so much the stories that count but ‘the way they are written’. A calling for oblique ways to ‘illuminate something significant’. That seemed justifiable. Or so I thought.
Except that the article had already been read, and read quite differently no doubt by thousands, at least, and that it had caused considerable dismay. So I looked again.
The gist of it was that black (creative) writers are bound by ‘mental slavery’ if they mainly write about the big historical subjects for black people. Okri gives the examples of slavery, poverty, and racial injustice. Now, I struggle to grapple with the term ‘black issues’ – we all have connections and we are all part of the history. My own family is far from all white, and I wonder how some of us, my mixed family included, conceptualise our own stories in colour divided terms. But that is for another time.
So back to Okri. “The first freedom is mental freedom”. I struggle with this, too. I understand the psychological theory, but I also know that there is some dreadful history that can never be forgotten or ignored. Being ‘free’ is sometimes code for being in denial. Charmed individuals may be able to look down from a higher mental or spiritual plane, but to me the concept of mental freedom is in many ways just as limiting as it attempts to be liberating.
Solomon Northup (12 Years a Slave) may have been able to squeeze ink from blackberries in order to write his story on a scrap of parchment, but would anyone dare to claim that he was mentally free when writing what is undoubtedly a fascinating story ? Okri might suggest we have moved on from this time, but surely this story comes from not so long ago. Great works are so often borne out of great struggle and pain. This is an extreme example, of course, but asking anyone, in modern or historical times to feel ‘mentally free’ before they can be considered a story-teller of worth is potentially, if not actually, quite grotesque.
Okri seems to operate as an intense artistic wonder. As a Booker prize winner, no less, he perhaps feels entitled to be artistically escapist, mystical and free. And there is no doubt there are readers, not just the judges, who love his work. Acknowledging his credentials, I once purchased a copy of In Arcadia. It caught my eye, I felt it was about time to give him a try, and it was on sale in a bargain book bin in Slough High Street. I managed barely a few chapters before realizing it was not for me. Way too abstract and flighty. I can handle timelines that jump around, but I simply wasn’t gripped at all by his airy themes and all that juxtaposition between his chosen subjects. So I cut my losses. 99p wasn’t too much to lose after all.
So if the Okri style is not for all of us, how else can stories be written ?
T.S. Eliot claimed that “human kind cannot bear very much reality” (The Four Quartets). A fancy concept, again. And again I tend to disagree. Reality may be difficult to bear, but we simply have to bear it, not escape from it. The results can be surprising and rewarding. Liberating, even.
Much has been written in response to Okri’s piece. I will not offer a long list of subjects that are still written about in works that many readers regard as deeply meaningful and life-enhancing. I would just mention the stories of one writer who has brought me a rich wealth of history and learning in wonderful literary form, in which the subject is fairly clear for all to read. I refer to the novels of Andrea Levy. (The issue is not confined to African writers, of course).
Levy’s subject matter and presentation are not subtle, as Okri would prefer. But they are also not simplistic. Her stories require a great deal of thought by the reader, and they have considerable literary value in a myriad of ways. The Long Song, a tale of bitter and violent times on a Jamaican sugar plantation is a great fictional work as well as a powerful piece of history.
Small Island, the story of Jamaicans coming to Britain to start a new life, only to be rejected and abused by so many, is equally a brilliant fictional representation of life, but one grounded in historical facts and emotional truth. These stories are both chastening and inspiring. They are thought-provoking and enlightening.
Rather than continue with a list of writers and subjects here, I will point you in the direction of a superb response by another favourite writer and commentator or mine and many others. Rowena Mondiwa has written a wonderful reply to Okri’s challenge. In her article, Mondiwa sets out a host of subjects that black writers feel understandably and justifiably drawn towards. Subjects that perhaps could be covered in social commentary, but are also still necessary in literature, and are frequently brilliantly conveyed in creative form. See below for the link.
I would also recommend the views on this subject of @SofiaSamatar and @Keguro if you'd care to track them down.
We have so many wonderful writers and subjects that make deep impressions on us as readers. Many of these bring us pain as well as pleasure. It might be tempting to say there will come a day when some subjects are no longer relevant, but this still seems a long way off. And in the meantime, any kind of literary device, whether blunt or subtle, direct or indirect, lightweight or deep, is all valuable.
Ben Okri has caused a bit of a stir, and he has his headline. But he also has his head in the clouds. What interests me more is the vast outpouring of statements and values in response to his call for a lighter style of literature. Not all the response is blunt. Not all of it is full of suffering and heaviness. But some of it is weighty, and it is a load that cannot simply be put down and left behind. Difficult subjects matter, as do the way in which they are presented. They advance life, and they advance the literary cause.
© Eddie Hewitt, 2014