Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Re-Markings Celebrates Fifteen Years, 30th Issue (March 2016)

Re-Markings, an international refereed biannual journal of Research in English, celebrates Fifteen Years of its publication with the Thirtieth Issue, Vol. XV No. 1, March 2016

Inspirational Tribute from Dr. Tijan M. Sallah
At a time when the thoughtless mercenaries of dogma, religious and tribal extremists of all stripes, faiths and colors; bloody in their binary taxonomy of the world into us and them losing sight of our singularity as humans; at a time when these faith-mercenaries brandish their inhumane weaponry wanting to drag a sane world into a nihilist abyss, I am reassured by the 30th issue of Re-Markings, a journal that provides a generous platform for  the sharing of stories, essays and criticisms of what is magnificent in our being human albeit molded by the rich diverse cultures of the world. When I read any issue of Re-Markings, I get reassured that Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" was wrong. His framework was too cynical of human nature, asymmetrically weighed to the darker side of human nature.  Re-Markings is an avenue for the brighter side of human nature, a journal for the "Dialogue of Civilizations," the hybridization of humanity that the late Senegalese poet-President Leopold Senghor so ceremoniously championed. It is a journal of critical and creative exploration of the world's great literatures and cultures a platform for global enlightenment. May its next 30 years be that of growth and continued vibrancy as its first.
--Dr. Tijan M. Sallah, former World Bank Executive, is the most significant living Gambian poet, short story writer, biographer and essayist. He is one of Africa's most important writers following the generation of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. His most recent books are Dream Kingdom (a book of selected poems), Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light (a biography) and Harrow: London Poems of Convalescence. His works have been broadcast over the BBC and the National Public Radio in the U.S.

Highlights from the Issue 

Down the Rabbit Hole: Alice and the Eccentric Lewis Carroll
Jonah Raskin

Note: Jonah Raskin’s essay is a befitting tribute on the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll), the author of the Alice books as well as renowned poems such as “Jabberwocky,” certainly loved young girls as much as he loved word play, though he certainly wasn’t a pedophile or a Humbert Humbert of the sort that Nabokov depicted in Lolita. A quintessential eccentric Victorian who imbibed much of its prudery, Carroll also deconstructed a great of the mythology of the Victorian age, including its reverence for queens and Queen Victoria in particular. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), both of them works of fantasy and the fantastic, show just how elastic the English novel as a genre has been ever since its origins in the age of Daniel Defoe.

The two Alice books also suggest that novels that are deeply rooted in particular times and places can often transcend them and achieve a kind of universality, though one wouldn’t want to argue that Carroll’s books will automatically appeal to all readers in all places and at all times. Still, the furtive Alice who seems to be able to go almost anywhere – including down a rabbit hole – and who can change her shape from small to big and back to small again, has been translated into more than 100 languages – from French to Russian and Hindi - ever since she first appeared in print and apparently won the heart of Victoria herself.

A new hefty, attractive volume, The Annotated Alice, that contains both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There – along with copious notes and essays –provides an opportunity to revisit two classics of nineteenth-century English literature. The illustrations that accompany the text, especially John Tenniel’s sketches for the original edition of the first Alice book, enhance The Annotated Alice, though the notes are laborious and pedantic and tend to detract from the narrative itself. The Devil is often in the details, but readers probably don’t need to know that in the original manuscript titled Alice’s Adventure Under Ground, the White Rabbit drops a nose-gay not a fan.

Carroll himself, who disliked pedantry but loved fun and games, would probably want to spoof the dozens and dozens of notes that miss the larger themes and get lost in obscure details. He might have suggested a footnote about the psychedelic rock song “White Rabbit” that was written by Grace Slick who had grown up with Lewis Carroll and that was performed by the Jefferson Airplane near the height of the 1960s counterculture. Slick understood Alice’s drug-like experiences that alter her perceptions.

Yes, indeed, Dodgson enjoyed the company of young girls and often took their pictures. An Anglican cleric, a mathematician, a poet and a photographer – in short a real polymath – Dodgson attended Oxford, moved in artsy, and craftsy Pre-Raphaelite circles, contributed to magazines such as The Comic Times, and achieved success as a best-selling author in his own day. In order to express his deepest emotional and intellectual selves and to present his most caustic views of his own society, Dodgson apparently had to take the pen name Lewis Carroll. He also had to insinuate himself into the elastic body and the nimble mind of a seven-and-a-half-girl who tends to be more intelligent than the so-called adults that she encounters, whether they’re humans or animals, from the White Rabbit to the Dodo, the Walrus, the Dormouse and more: a whole tribe of beasts who straddled the wild and the civilized.

Novels of ideas as well as social satires, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass sometimes seem as though written by a wild Russian writer, such as Gogol, for example. Like Gogol and Dostoevsky, too, Carroll found the life of the mind fascinating. Alice, the original underground girl, anticipates Dostoe-vsky’s underground man. She goes down into the lower depths to discover her true nature.

Carroll’s two Alice books, both of them philosophical works about language and meaning, are also related to those two English classics that feature animals in the leading roles including Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows (1908) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). Though the Alice book aren’t as grim as Orwell’s satire of totalitarianism, they are infused with subversive wit that lashes out at the injustices of the English judicial system, the absurdities of the aristocracy and English upper class obsessions with good manners and good morals often to the exclusion of genuine humanitarian concerns.

Carroll understood that in order to look deeply into one’s own society it helped to remove one’s self from it in the manner of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Indeed, the Alice books create alternative universes of the sort often found in science fiction and fantasy.

To go into dark places, it helps to have a sense of lightness, too, Carroll realized. So, the Alice books are playful, irreverent and comedic. For Carroll, life is a game and a dream, though it’s also a nightmare and deadly serious.

“Off with their Heads!” the Red Queen cries out and means it. Then, too, the Walrus and the Carpenter lure the unsuspecting oysters from their beds only to devour them. It’s a cruel world indeed in wonderland and through the looking glass. If the novels have a moral, that moral might be this: the world is an absurd and a perilous place, so watch where you step and be careful of whom you befriend. Moreover, things and people are rarely what they seem to be. But Carroll also suggests that we ought to accept the new, the unknown and the other, that we follow the White Rabbit down into his rabbit hole, though danger lurks everywhere.

Like Alice, who grows up literally as well as figuratively over the course of her strange, existential adventures, and who learns to laugh and to cry at the same time, readers often feel that they’re pushed and pulled in opposite directions, and that their worlds are turned upside down and inside out. “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the White Queen says in the second of the two books. On at least one occasion, the closer Alice gets to things the further away they appear to be.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass both keep readers on their toes. Children are not likely to appreciate the puns and the verbal pyrotechnics; unsuspecting adults might also miss much of the fun especially if they don’t pay attention to the word play.

Like a good writer, super smart Alice is aware of the art of narrative; before her adventures come to an end she thinks about how she’ll turn them into a story. And so the books in which she is the main character are also about the art of narrative itself.

Rereading Carroll, or reading him for the first time, one can’t help but notice how many of his phrases, images, characters and concepts have infiltrated popular and mass culture, from “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes,” and “un-birthday presents” to the Lion and the Unicorn, Tweedledum and Tweeledee and to “wonderland” itself.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Alice cries out at the beginning of chapter II, “The Pool of Tears,” suddenly aware that she has forgotten how to speak “good English.” Lost, indeed, without her native tongue, she finds herself and comes of age. She also learns to speak again in English that might not be perfect, but that’s good enough for Carroll and for all the readers who have loved Alice and who have traveled with her on her wild ride into wonderland and the world behind the looking glass.

  • Jonah Raskin is the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation and A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature. He has taught journalism, media law and the theory of communication at Sonoma State University, U.S.A.

Imprints from the Rainbow Nation:
A Conversation with Imraan Coovadia
Nibir K. Ghosh
Imraan Coovadia is a writer and director of the creative writing programme at the University of Capetown, South Africa. He is the author of a novel, The Institute for Taxi Poetry (2012), winner of the M-Net Prize, and a collection of essays, Transformations (2012) which won the South African Literary Award for Creative Non-Fiction. In 2010 his novel High Low In-between  won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg prize. He has published a scholarly monograph with Palgrave, Authority and Authorship in V.S. Naipaul  (2009), two earlier novels, and a number of journal articles. His most recent book is Tales of the Metric System (2014). His fiction has been published in a number of countries and he has written for many newspapers, journals, and magazines in South Africa and overseas, including the New York Times, N+1, Agni, the Times of India, and Threepenny Review.  His Research Interests include Eighteenth- and nineteenth century English and American literature, philosophy and literature, political and social thought of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries including Adam Smith, Hazlitt, Hume, Edmund Burke, and Swift, and contemporary fiction. In this conversation with Nibir K. Ghosh, Imraan Coovadia addresses issues and concerns relevant to his art and ideas against the backdrop of the changing contours of South Africa.

Ghosh: Imraan, it’s a pleasure to greet you from the city of the Taj! Rabindranath Tagore called the Taj “a tear drop of love on the cheek of death.” How would you like to describe your impressions of this monument of love you saw during your visit to India?

Coovadia: Coming across the Taj Mahal, in India, is like what I imagine coming across the Earth in space might be like—a dreamlike place.

Ghosh: Any thought of South Africa obviously brings one to think of apartheid. Having been born and brought up in South Africa, what memories of the repressive apartheid regime do you recall as a citizen of the nation?

Coovadia: I’ve used many of these thoughts in my work but here are two: in 1987, in my final year of school—I had been sent to an English-type boarding school in the Natal Midlands—there was not one word about the armed conflict raging in the province around us, and which claimed 20000 lives. After 1990, one of the few commercially successful novels in the country offered a nostalgic look at those same boarding schools.

Ghosh: "Never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another."  In the light of this characteristic statement by Nelson Mandela, the icon of the anti-apartheid movement and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, can we now presume that “oppression” in any form is a thing of the past in South Africa?

Coovadia: No, no, and no. South Africa, and the South African economy, is shaped by two different original sins: (1) the need to have another person labour for you, at the point of a gun if necessary; and (2) the vast moral and individual underworld which was created as a result of this first need (along with the fact that the edge of Europe and the colonies predisposed us to the construction of such an extensive underworld). Those two facts are ever more obviously true now than they might have been in 1990 when people tried to assimilate us to an American-type model of racial reconciliation.

Ghosh:  What striking similarities or differences do you see in the literature written during the apartheid and the post-apartheid periods?

Coovadia: These two literatures are dominated, overwhelmingly, by colonial and then post-colonial kitsch, along with a few writers working carefully between the veins (along with a writer like Coetzee who simultaneously repudiates and exploits a line of racial and cultural kitsch, whether through a revival of decades-old postmodernist strategies or through a resurrection of something much older and only apparently more dignified Calvinism of the old school).

Ghosh: Written in 1948, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic novel on the apartheid. In Lewis Gannett’s words: “In Alan Paton’s novel the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony.” What other works come to your mind that could come close to the popularity that Paton’s work enjoyed?

Coovadia: Nothing good. From inside the country, and knowing the reformist English reflexes of Paton’s world, one might not even want such a book again.

Ghosh: After the release of Nelson Mandela and the repeal of the notorious apartheid Act, many writers were asked, “what will you write about since the primary topic has gone?” What are some of the prominent issues and concerns that engaged the attention of contemporary writers?

Coovadia: Making money, genre fiction, comics, selling books in the United States, vampires, werewolves, and trolls. Sometimes borrowing themes and topics from newspaper articles, or postcolonial criticism, and representing them as the new thinking on Africa.

Ghosh: What were the factors that initiated you into creative writing? Since most of the universities in the U.S. have creative writing programs on their curricula, did you ever think of enrolling in one of such courses to get a hang of what creative writing is all about?

Coovadia: I did enroll in the Cornell program almost twenty years ago.

Ghosh: Do you frankly believe that creative writing can be taught?

Coovadia: I think there can be spaces at universities which let writers develop, argue, waste time, read books, read each other’s stuff, think, whatever. Teaching is not the right word for it, I guess. There’s so much useless stuff that happens at universities, so many useless papers produced in the humanities (alongside a much smaller percentage of great work), that we might as well put them to some good use.

Ghosh: Famous writers like Jean Paul Sartre were essentially philosophers. With your philosophy background, did the thought of writing philosophical fiction ever cross your mind?

Coovadia: Yes, but a lecturer of mine once said, “cinema must be cinematic.” (i.e. no voice overs). Novels should be novelistic, even if that’s a big and strange category. Tolstoy’s characters have ideas and change them and change their minds and hearts (as many critics have pointed out). Dostoyevsky’s characters are ideas incarnated. Therefore Tolstoy is infinitely greater.

Ghosh: In a recent interview, Salman Rushdie stated that he was actually in love with cities rather than countries. You have lived in London, Melbourne, Boston, New York and Durban. In what way did the experience of living in such diverse cultural settings shape your creativity?

Coovadia: It let me forget that there are kinds of creativity which society values—building an interesting business, helping to create a new gadget, or whatever, finding out something about how nature really works—that are as or sometimes much more interesting and productive than literary creativity. If you live in the same place, I think you’re more likely to understand that.

Ghosh: You have acknowledged that writers like Gunter Grass, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Saul Bellow, even William Wordsworth “have cast a spell” on your writing. Have you ever been bothered by what Harold Bloom calls the “anxiety of influence”?

Coovadia: Yes, sure. Actually Harold Bloom was my Shakespeare teacher.

Ghosh: In what way, then, have you allowed your creativity to be free from being influenced by these writers?

Coovadia: It’s hard to say. When you see too much of someone in yourself, you naturally recoil (but not from rejection but because you’re conforming to a thought outside your own observations and deductions). On the other hand, our ways of seeing are shaped by reading and writing. Eventually, I hope, you can see past or around or in the margins of the writers who’ve shaped you, but only with the help of experience.

Ghosh: What aspects of Naipaul’s life or work motivated you to write Authority and Authorship in V.S. Naipaul?

Coovadia: Durban, where I grew up, is a mirror image of Trinidad. Durban has Indians in the city, Africans in the countryside; Trinidad is (roughly) the reverse. Naipaul helped me to hear and see this situation. And, like so many writers and philosophers, including, say, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy, he demands that you eventually put up your defences against him.

Ghosh: J.M. Coetzee has called your novel, The Wedding, “A tender love story, rendered in prose of dazzling comic wizardry.” How did you find the experience of blending romance and reality with existential melodrama?

Coovadia: I’m not sure. I wrote that book at the age of 21, slightly more than half a lifetime away.

Ghosh: Your novel, Green-eyed Thieves, follows a curious mix of characters that are half-criminals and half-philosophers. It has been called “a daring novel of divided selves and cultures, inspired crime and brotherly betrayal.” What is your take on this comment?

Coovadia: I think most comments on novels are drawn from the same kind of factory that produces the predictions in fortune cookies.

Ghosh: What made you decide on the title of your Tales of the Metric System? Does it have anything to do with South Africa’s adoption of the metric system and the attendant changes?

Coovadia: Yes. South Africa adopted the metric system in 1970. I wanted to write a novel which would cover the period of my life (not for self-centered reasons, I want to say, but because that’s the period I feel responsible for). So the adoption of the system with its paradoxes—a system of rational measurements, associated with modernity, but introduced successfully by an authoritarian state—seemed like a useful counterpoint to the book. But the closest imaginative sources were post-Communist films—Kieślowski’s Dekalog, and Christian Mungiu’s Tales from the Golden Age.

Ghosh: Though the title has a mathematical overtone, it deals with issues that are vitally significant—apartheid, post-apartheid, liberalism, black consciousness, racialism etc. Since it celebrates, in a way, South Africa’s transition from struggle to power, would it be wrong to call it a political novel?

Coovadia: I’m not sure it celebrates anything. But I suppose it’s political, only it’s not operating within the basic political framework of friend and enemy, innocence and guilt.

Ghosh: When you state in Tales of the Metric System that “only monsters could slay monsters,” are you endorsing the fact that violence is the only answer to violence in any form?

Coovadia: Violence is only the shallowest form of monstrousness. There are many non-violent and yet cruel forms of monstrosity. I also don’t think writers need to find answers. Or even questions. There is an independent value in trying to see the world naturally, without the distorting lenses of praise-and-blame.

Ghosh: How important is magic realism to your choice of the fictional format that you use in your works?

Coovadia: Not important, I think, except by rejection. At least, in the past ten or fifteen years, I’ve been much more interested in what you can do with realism.

Ghosh: I am quite intrigued by your recent novel, The Institute for Taxi Poetry. Could you elaborate on the term “Taxi Poetry”? Does it depict a journey motif or is it a means of bringing poetry or other creative renderings closer to common people?

Coovadia: The idea is that the taxi system (the vans or matatus which most working-class people use in Africa) develops its own cultural system, a class of taxi or transport poets who record the experiences on taxis, trains, ships, etc.

Ghosh: Solly, in The Institute for Taxi Poetry, confesses: “Taxi poetry makes nothing happen but that is the very same nothing which makes absolutely everything matter.” Is it your own opinion?

Coovadia: I don’t know. But it’s my version of the Auden quotation below. Once you realise that poetry is virtual experience, and that most writing is also virtual, it then may strike you quite how much of human life is virtual, or imagined, or inferred, or mediated.

Ghosh: In his own time P.B. Shelley called poets “unacknowledged legislators.” In our time W.H. Auden, who once concurred with Shelley, retracted his opinion and said “Poetry makes nothing happen.” What, according to you, should ideally be the role of a poet or writer?

Coovadia: I don’t know. I’m not sure we can say, as Joseph Brodsky did once, that poets are the air force and novelists are the ground troops, of consciousness. I don’t know if we’re in advance or in the rear of society. In any event the role never feels comfortable. It feels even more retrograde now when technology, science, and law are the most living parts of society.

Ghosh: Winnie Mandela once remarked, “Maybe there is no rainbow nation after all because it does not have the colour black.” In the light of this statement, what is your message to the youngsters born in the post-apartheid era?

Coovadia: I have difficulty coming up with a message to my own children.

Ghosh: What is your view of contemporary India?

Coovadia: This is a long question. Obviously I, and many Indian South Africans, feel connected to India in some way. And in many ways India is centuries ahead of us in terms of tolerance. And India, like China, owns the future. But I also fear that being Muslim in India is too much like being a Somali in South Africa.

Ghosh: Thanks so much for the delightful conversation.

·         Dr. Nibir K. Ghosh has very recently been conferred the prestigious UGC Emeritus Professor Fellowship. Among the select 100 recipients from all disciplines, he is the sole recipient of the award in English in the entire country. He has been Senior Fulbright Fellow at the University of Washington, Seattle, U.S.A. during 2003-04.

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