Spare me, Doris

Politely, one might call this a crisis. Background: I’m reading The Golden Notebook and I’m already feeling ashamed that I’ve not read it before. [‘But I thought you were really into African writers?’ ‘Doris Lessing! You mean you aren’t familiar with all her works? Oosh.’ ‘You call yourself a writer?’] I’ve bought The Fourth Estate edition from 2014, which begins with an essay by Lessing — they call it Preface — which she wrote in June 1971. The good bit is this: she explains that she advises students of literature to choose books by browsing, to pick up books that they are attracted to, to drop them when they bore them, to skip the parts that drag on, and — most importantly for me — ‘never, never read anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement’. Phew. So that’s erased the shame.

But then there’s the bad bit. It goes like this:

… the real history of Africa is still in the custody of black storytellers and wise men, black historians, medicine men: it is a verbal history, still kept safe from the white man and his predations. Everywhere, if you keep your mind open, you will find the truth in words not written down.

Maybe not the truth, Lessing, but certainly a truth. (When does one ever find the truth? I’d argue her on that one.) But it’s the previous sentence that sends me running. Inevitably. I’ve spent several years working hard, pushing and struggling, to write down a certain history of a certain African country. I wouldn’t claim it was ‘the real history’, no. It’s an attempt into a history. An attempt to twist through several versions of that history. But it’s unashamedly written down. (I crossed that out because one of the reasons it took me so long was precisely because of the high levels of anxiety I felt about being a white predator of a black history.) On the page. By me, the white [wo]man whose predations are all hers.

I’ve made so much fuss about the writing of it. About the fact of getting it onto the page. Into a book. A hard, physical thing to be loved, and touched, and covered in glory. I’ve fought hard for it. I’ve defended it all over the bloody place. I’ve even written to a certain bookstore about it, encouraging them to stock it more widely. I’ve delighted when finding it on the main shelves of Daunts. I’ve drooled over emails and Facebook messages from readers, some of whom I know, others complete strangers. I’ve held it and weighed it, smelt it, stroked it, gazed at every square inch of it over and over. The object that is the book — my book — matters hugely to me. It’s proof that the project I set out to do despite the “advice” of so many nay-sayers — ‘Angola? No one will publish that here.’ ‘Get real, girl. They won’t be interested in Angola. They speak Portuguese. It was the 1970s.’ ‘Look, you need to understand that Africa just doesn’t sell.’ ‘My marketing department would laugh me out of the room if I told them I had a book about Angola. You do see that?’ — actually did come off. I pulled it off. I proved them wrong. It’s there now, in black and white, between covers as hard as the trunk of a tree. People can buy it, borrow it, steal it and read it. Reviewers can review it. Judges can judge it.

And then I read this. ‘Never let the printed page be your master.’ Lessing’s advice again, yes. And I’m taking her very seriously. I’ve agreed with a lot of this preface. And then she goes and writes that, and I read it just at the moment when the printed page has become less a master for me than a kind of God. Or a kind of devil. A nightmare. An addiction. Quite a lot like taking ecstasy in the 1990s, including the come-down three days later. I have come to equate the book with the fact of a certain set of momentous and bloody events in Angola. The existence of the book has made concrete the event, if you like. I can see that now. I can grasp the potential damage, the profound danger.

And yet, and yet — for the writer (fuck, how pompous that sounds) I (I mean *I*) must have a defence for all that work — I went out of my way to undermine the book. The book undermines itself, its sources, its evidence. It is always fuzzy, wobbly, unstable. I didn’t seek to write the *real* history of *Africa*. I sought to undermine the attempt to write it by writing it and undressing that writing all the way. It was a project of destabilisation. Destabilising myself. Destabilising the white [wo]man’s historiography project in *Africa*. Destabilising text. Destabilising history.

I may be kidding myself.

Lessing concludes:

it is not only childish of a writer to want readers to see what [she] sees, to understand the shape and aim of a novel as [she] sees it — [her] wanting this means that [she] has not understood a most fundamental point. Which is that the book is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought and discussion only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood, because that moment of seeing the shape and plan and intention is also the moment when there isn’t anything more to be got out of it.

And when a book’s pattern and the shape of its inner life is as plain to the reader as it is to the author — then perhaps it is time to throw the book aside, as having had its day, and start again on something new.


Photography by artist Gali Cnaani
Photography by artist Gali Cnaani