still stepping slowly forward

There’s a whole lot of things I’ve been thinking in relation to the final uzwi comment here. So much that I’m not sure where to start so I’ll start from the bottom, with the idea that you are ‘desperate to preserve your experience one moment, and desperate to get free of it the next’. In my current writing this is my central problem. I live so much in the moment and have such a spontaneous response to life that I struggle to write about what has happened – even if only a week ago – because of the sheer exhaustion in the present. I had an extraordinarily rich writing time in Angola this year, where I was travelling alone for three months across the country, and while I delighted in the writing (I filled three notebooks of 200 pages each, and even more hundreds of pages on my laptop) at the time, now that I am here in Johannesburg looking at the material, revisiting it, I wonder about the Angola before this trip. What about last year’s Angola? And the Angola the year before? What about the Angola of 1998? I feel my memories of certain intense times in the late nineties slipping through my fists, even if I clench them so hard they might manage to retain water. It all slips away. Perhaps not even the memories – for they are always there, even though they change & I have lots of notes from those days too – but the feeling that accompanied that period has gone. Naivety has been replaced with cynicism. I want to go back, I want to go back, but I yearn to forget it all and never remember those days ever again. So even when I return to my notes, I struggle to believe them, to take them  (as) seriously (as I feel I should).

I’m very attracted to the idea (further up in uzwi) that you just shoot and shoot and shoot and then do the cutting. This is what J does with his films. Shoots hours and hours and hours and then tries to find the narrative. I think this is what I try to do too. Amass material and then make sense of it. It is, and this is very telling, the exact opposite of what a lot of journalists do. Many reporters these days decide what the story is, even write the script before they arrive in country X or village Y, and then get the material to match their preconceived ideas. It’s the main reason I reject and loathe so much journalism. Even the less crude among the media are very much sold on their own notions of what is and go out to confirm that.

What I like to do is to simply let go and see what happens. During my recent travels I would wander away from wherever it was I was staying and just wait and see who began to talk to me, who offered me into their home, and who waved at me on the street. And then I would let their lead take me, and so I followed an old lady through a large city and a huge sprawling market to her home (a small hut) where she cooked me dinner in soapy water. I didn’t ask her much, but let her ask me questions, turning the journalistic process on its head. If she told me to sit and stay, I sat and stayed. If she told me to eat, I ate. If she told me to smoke, I smoked. I surrendered myself to her. And I did this over and over again for three months.

But I’m not – at the moment anyway – turning this into fiction. I’m writing it as it is. I’m writing what happened. Reportage you might call it. But I hope in some ways you won’t. Because I notice that if novelists write fact, no one minds if it’s fiction and draws on imagination; if journalists write fact, and also draw on imagination and let their minds wander, people stamp their feet and shout That’s Not True.

As a South African theatre director said to me the other night, Ethics get in the way of everything. Or did he say I hate ethics, stay away from ethics? Something like that. And the longer I live, and the more I write, the more I agree with this. Ethics – whatever they are – get in the way. They get in the way of beauty, and in the way of honesty, and humour and knowledge. I’m pushing in the other direction, so far from where I came, and I’m hoping I can be as brave as he is, as he appeared to be, that South African director.

I think all I can try to do is write ‘found material’ into an ‘arrangement’ and then hope that ‘after a lot more operations, the found material ends up as a thematically driven narrative’. Somehow that makes it sound quite easy, though I know it’s not. But it makes it sound possible, achievable.

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11 thoughts on “still stepping slowly forward

  1. I love your description of putting yourself into the hands of the people–that alone would be a book….if you could write it as clearly as you have written it here. Something I do with ideas for painting (there are a LOT of them): I write them down in lists in various notebooks or drawing paper scraps that I pin to my painting wall, but often I let them hover in my mind and I wait to see which ones last. It is surprising to find that some are impervious to time and subsequent events, and are usually the ones that become physical objects.
    …except for the ones from dreams–they are written across the brain like hieroglyphics incised into my irises.

  2. Joan Didion once commented that she generally has a point of view, although she does not always recognise it. ‘Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to try and find out what bothers me.’

    Which is cool. I don’t know whether many journalists have the curiosity to find out what bothers them about anything, but I doubt that many are encouraged to take up this approach, or have the resources to do so. Which is a shame, really.

    I really like your blog. Thank you.

  3. Goy, Didion is an interesting example. And of course we all have a point of view, we are all subjective, and full of preconceptions in our lives. But I think there is a big difference between acknowledging that we aren’t the objective typing-talking machines that some of the media industry would claim we (journalists) are, and actually going out to prove a particular ideology (as, for example, you see on CNN at its most crude, or the BBC on, for example, Zimbabwe). When I followed my old lady to lunch, I was taking in a whole range of opinions and thoughts no doubt largely related to being a woman who grew up in London in a doctor’s family. I’m a white Anglo-Saxon in my 40s. All this will affect how I see and what I see and how I write it. It will also affect how the old lady responds to me, where she takes me and why – indeed – she decides to take me at all. But that’s very different to me thinking, ‘ah, perfect, here’s a poor old African lady I can write about as a victim who is starving’ etc etc. Do you see what I mean?
    And yes, I think you are right: a lot of journalists probably don’t think about what bothers them less, perhaps, out of a lack of curiosity though than a lack of humility. Especially western journalists travelling South. Resources matter, that’s true – but if you can’t do the job sincerely and honestly I think it would be better not to do it at all. For it is not simply a shame, it’s very damaging.
    Thank you so much for writing and for liking the blog. I’ll take a look at yours too! Very best.

  4. p.s. Goy, I might just add that some of the best paid journos are the worst. But I won’t go into names. Money is definitely not everything!

  5. Mia – you have given me an idea here. Thank you so much. Putting myself into the hands of others as a book itself. This will help me progress, help me keep going. But I think it’s important – the idea that the journalist becomes the subject. J, my other half, did this very successfully in a very good film he made about Mali, about a Tuareg family in the desert. There are superb bits of footage in whcih they are talking about him but he doens’t know they are. They say things like: “Did you see him yesterday when he fell off the camel and still kept filming?” and “What’s he up to anyway? Is he an aid worker or something?” and I thought this was hilarious and important: he allowed the people being filmed to comment on the filmer, he allowed acknowledgement of his presence as opposed to pretending he was a blank camera and wasn’t really there, as so many docs do.

  6. “Ethics” can mean different things in different contexts. There’s what I call “purity ethics”, which is essentially a set of rules separating clean from unclean food, practices, utterances etc. – this is absolutely in the way if what you want is to tell the truth. But there is also what Badiou calls the ethics of a truth, which have to do with fidelity to some event that makes the “purity ethics” of its surrounding context suddenly irrelevant. That is about remaining “steadfast in the truth”; which is not the same as maintaining a good opinion of oneself (staying “pure”).

    I wonder how this might play out in journalism. As I’m not a journalist, I can only guess at the details; but the “purity ethics” of journalism would seem to be a filter through which everything has to pass – “show more of this…show less of that” – in order to maintain either “neutrality” (broad conformance with commonsense opinion, with deviations on either side recorded but always recorded as deviations) or some moralising narrative which it is seen as wicked to question. (The place of the reporter in this narrative is especially sacred). What would count as an event here? Some moment in which the reporter is committed, rather than merely “embedded”, and in which their subsequent reporting becomes part of a “venture of responsible action”?

  7. Dominic, I’m woefully ignorant about thinkers and philosophers (forgive me). But I like Badiou’s idea that you outline here of “fidelity to some event”. As you ask, what would count as an event? Committed not embedded has to be a good start and a venture of responsible action, yes. I think this is how I have tried to work in relation to Angola. I’m not interested in flying all over the world and ‘covering’ (up) lots of countries. Don’t even go there. But obviously that is how journalism works, largely: the more widely you travel, the ‘better’ you are. This is foolish. A long term commitment to a place, to understanding a particular area of work is important, though it’s amazing the number of times I have been told to “get over Angola” by people within the media. It’s seen as a bit of a joke to keep revisiting a place.

    But moving away from that, tell me, what is it to be “steadfast in the truth”? The importance perhaps in the word ‘in’ as opposed to ‘to’. And further questions: obviously a lot of my ethical dilemmas have been very much blocked/focused/knotted around race and culture, and where I ‘come from’ and my own country’s history. The British in Africa. Who has the right to write Africa?

  8. I have rather mixed up Badiou and Bonhoeffer here, and not for the first time; I won’t get into the detail, but “venture of responsible action” is Bonhoeffer and “truth procedure” is Badiou. Both refer to something that happens over time, and without certainty of justification, so that “steadfastness in the truth” is not simply a matter of sticking to your guns but of going on rather than reneging or falling back. The truth isn’t a judgement given in advance; it has to be ventured, enacted. This is certainly true of any writing project that isn’t just hackwork, filling out a template.

    Now it seems clear to me that no-one automatically has the right to write Africa – no-one possesses the right, given in advance, to speak for Africa. That isn’t to gloss over the special difficulties that “the British in Africa” ought to have with it. But if you think about what you have to go through, the long apprenticeship you have to serve, to be entrusted with the oral tradition of a place – Cheshire, for example, where Alan Garner writes from – it’s evident that just being born there isn’t enough. You have to “come into” a place that is not simply given. I don’t believe that Chinua Achebe, for example, started out with a sense of entitlement as such; his writing made its own place, earned its own voice. The place of the writing (its internal, symbolic space) folds in the place it was written about (or “from”, or “towards”); its voicing is a hearing of other voices. Achebe’s complaint against Joseph Conrad was that he abused the hospitality of Africa – that his text did not return that hospitality. It may function effectively as a parable of colonialist consciousness, but there is nowhere in Heart of Darkness‘s “image of Africa” where an African can live.

  9. Oh Dominic, I quite agree with you on the Heart of Darkness and indeed of Achebe’s criticisms. And I have also wondered really, how I could be entrusted to write London, though I’ve lived in that city for most of my 40 years on this earth. I like this idea of having to venture and enact in truth. Isn’t that also wrapped in the notion of praxis? Or am I mixing my philosophers… Is there any Bonhoeffer or Badiou you could point in my direction that I could ‘venture’ into without toooo much pain?

  10. Funnily enough, both the Bonhoeffer and the Badiou books I have in mind are called “Ethics”. The Bonhoeffer’s quite heavy, though, and you might find the theological language offputting (given that it’s a work of Protestant theology…). Whereas Badiou’s Ethics is a short and zesty polemic, which might well infuriate you for other reasons, but which lays out the notion of an ethic of truths very clearly.

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