Getting contrapuntal: trying new things in celebration of poetry month

This beautiful poem crossed my path and alerted me to contrapuntal poetry:

Moana Means Home_ A Contrapuntal by Terisa Siagatonu _ Poetry Magazine.jpg

Then I went on the hunt and came across some more:

HUM Finished for Now

You can hear and see Jamaal May perform this one on YouTube

Then there’s a whole section on contrapuntalism at Hello Poetry And on Soundcloud there’s this one:

So the Writers Writing group played with contrapuntal and I decided (in imitation of Siagotonu) to try to weave together three poems. We did free writing on different subjects, worked those into individual poems and then worked them into each other. Depending on the choices you make you can get a nicely unsettling different poem each time. The juxtapositions sometimes flowing together beautifully, sometimes provoking a meaning you didn’t intend, sometimes setting your teeth on edge.

Wear red for courage I

Wear red for courage 1.jpg

Wear red for courage 2.jpg






It’s the PopulesQue I’m interested in

I’ve been thinking for a while about what it’s like to live in an Empire. These thoughts are provoked by the imperial behaviour of the United States in the world and by that country’s presidential election fervour. My feeling has been since the Bush 2 era, that if the rest of the world is going to suffer the effects of who lives in and wields power from the White House, then we too should vote for that country’s president. (On social media we certainly all behave as though that choice was ours already!)

I’m not really interested in the conquering of peoples and the military expansion of empires, I’m more interested in the life, choices and compromises that go on under the bureaucracy (strong or weak) that is inevitably imposed once the conquering is done. (And in our case if you consider how some of us were ‘conquered’ by the US, its very much in the realm of the cultural, intellectual, rather than the physical — although bear in mind that all that culture the US shares with us is backed up by a formidable desire to use force to maintain those investments.) I’m interested in what status people who didn’t vote for the conqueror have, what options, what manouvrebility. I’m interested in their cultural choices, how they take on and lose languages, how they morph their clothing, accents, personae, interests and tastes, how they raise their children under impositions subtle and not so subtle.

So I bought two books I thought might enlighten me somewhat: Mary Beard’s SPQR and Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager Cixi. I was working on the assumption and impulse that when puzzled by the present, scratch in the past for some useful insights, and use a guide whose instincts you trust — in this case I know Mary Beard to be a serious thinker about women’s positions and issues and I’ve already read Jung Chang’s wonderful Wild Swans.

These two books really have little to do with each other. Beard is a historian of the Roman Empire and a classicist at Cambridge and Chang is an author  (who also holds a PhD) with two major books about China already published (Wild Swans is a generational story of her grandmother, mother and her self, and Mao: The Unknown Story with husband Jon Halliday, which I’m now reading). Beard’s book is about an empire of a very long time ago but which lives with on powerfully in the Western imagination, Chang’s book is about a single individual, a woman, sitting on the cusp of change at the turn of the 20th century, and so just behind us in time but from a corner of the Earth whose history we (over here in the Western hemisphere) know so little about. Both books’ intentions collide somewhat with mine, but they nevertheless reveal some very interesting things about empires. But first a quick plot summary.


Beard’s book is about empire under the emperors and the first thousand years of Rome and how it shifted from a republic to an empire. The SPQR of the title is deliberate and not just cosmetic. It stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Roman Senate and — the Q in SPQR — People”) and she uses it to gauge the shifts in governance from that intention when Rome was a republic all the way through to the autocratic rule of a single man (the Caesars), the increasing irrelevance of the senate and the wholesale abandonment of the presence of the people who were instrumental in electing the two consuls who were in the top tier of governance when Rome was a republic. Beard’s interest is in this shift from limited democracy (only citizens who were men could participate) to autocracy. Except for a chapter at the end, the book mostly focuses on this period and spends a lot time on the various emperors even while admitting that to focus on the character of the man at the top of the pile might tell us very little about a system and the lives lived in it.


Caracalla or Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus

Beard does pay attention to the Roman idea of citizenship and its fluidity which is very interesting. She shows that as the empire spread it made citizens of a whole range of peoples who came under its dominion. It was also possible to be freed as a slave and get citizenship at the same time. The shift from non-citizen to citizen did not involve any real formality and no tests or proofs (so unlike today). Connected to the political identity of citizen is of course the status of slavery, which in Rome, unlike the colonial era, did not make slaves of particular kinds of subhumans, but was imposed on conquered people and their progeny. Slaves had all sorts of identities and all sorts of jobs in the Roman empire, they also moved from slave to free fairly regularly. Beard also tells us about the emperor Caracalla who made 30 million people across the Roman world into citizens in 212 CE. Why is a bit mysterious, Beard and other historians can’t quite work out the motive. This new status for Gauls, Germans, Britons etc, however didn’t mean a lot because of the emperor system and because to exercise any real citizenship capability one had to be in Rome. Many of Rome’s citizens never went anywhere near the capital. And increasingly, she points out, neither did their emperors, with many of them governing the empire from other cities. Other forms of stratification were used effectively to make sure that there were always two classes of people, regardless of citizenship, the honestiores and the humiliores.

Empress Dowager Cixi

Cixi entertaining women from the American legation in Beijing.

Chang’s interest in writing this book seems to be a reclamation of dignity for a fascinating regent who was thoroughly demonised by the western powers of the time. We don’t know Cixi’s birth name, but she came from a Manchu family and so was put into the parade to be chosen as  a concubine for the emperor (Xianfeng) when she reached the right age. The Manchus had conquered and ruled the Han Chinese for centuries by this point (1850). Cixi was chosen and immediately ranked quite low among the concubines in the Forbidden City in Beijing and it was only the birth of a son that suddenly catapulted her out of this lowly position and into higher status. Another concubine had been raised to the status of Empress (Zhen) and had a daughter (pleasing but not as important as a son) and these two women negotiated a working relationship which was to outlast the death of their husband emperor and circumvent his will.

In short, Emperor Xianfeng had fled Beijing because of war with Britain (this is opium war time), and was living with his household in a mountain lodge. He became ill and died and in his will stipulated that his son become emperor but that a group of male advisers act as the regent until his coming of age. Cixi conspired to return with her son (called Zaichun and a toddler) and Zhen to Beijing before the body of Xianfeng did (it was paraded through villages and towns on the route with his advisers accompanying it). In the time she gained she convinced Xianfeng’s brother Prince Gong that the interests of the empire and emperor would only be served if she and Zhen were the regents. By the time the advisers arrived the coup was in place and they were charged with fabricating a will and executed on her false testimony. Cixi had trawled the history of Imperial China to find a convincing precedent for a female regent and for the dual regency with Zhen. Part of her determination to dispense with the male advisers was their adherence to Xianfeng’s fierce policy of resistance to any form of accommodation with the Western imperial powers seeking a foothold in China. Cixi, Chang shows, was a forward-thinker and was determined to engage with the British, French, Germans, Italians, Swedes, etc for the purposes of modernising the army, overhauling the education system and putting in place a more functional bureaucracy. She thought she could do deals, earn a lot of income, haul China into a new era, stave off war, and put the country into a strong enough position to control its own fate. In addition to the Western powers Cixi also had to juggle the rapaciousness of Russia and Japan, its two nearest neighbours with designs on parts of China, and manage the already-existing but rapidly deteriorating relationships of tribute with independent Tibet, Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan.

Top row from left: Emperor Xianfeng (1850-1861), Empress Zhen, Prince Gong, Prince Chun. Second row: Emperor Zaichun (Cixi’s son, ruled 1861-1875). Third row: Emperor Zaitun (Prince Chun’s son adopted by Cixi, ruled 1875-1908) and Zaifeng (another of Prince Chun’s sons, regent and father of Puyi (bottom picture, 1906 to 1949).

As regent this is what she did: Chang shows just what a clever, creative deal maker she was, how interested in engaging with the western powers, how keen to modernise China in all respects. When her son came of age (and he’d had a very traditional and rather useless princely education involving Confucian philosophy and calligraphy) she had to step down as regent. His friends, and especially his tutor, guided his rule and it was entirely unprepared for the realities of rapacious western colonialism with its armies and resort to aggression to get what it wanted. Again Cixi engineered to make herself regent and she did this at a point when her son and the empire were weakened by war. After he died Cixi stayed in place as regent by adopting another son (Zaitan) who was the child of another of her husband’s brothers (Prince Chun). When he turned out to be fairly useless in her eyes as an emperor she had him put under house arrest and simply continued to rule. When Cixi was dying, so was Zaitan and she did not want him to outlive her, so she had him poisoned to hasten his death. She then named her great nephew Puyi the emperor and as regent his father Zaifeng. Her modernising project was however too patchwork and too late for China. Japan had invaded Manchuria and Russia was pressing down from the north. Cixi’s death was the moment for nationalists under Chiang Kai Shek and communists (funded and promoted by the USSR) to seize parts of the country (this story is taken up in Mao). Puyi is the “last emperor” who was then installed by the invading Japanese in 1932 after the occupation of  Manchuria in the state of Mandchukuo as the “chief executive”. After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, Puyi was imprisoned as a war criminal for 10 years.

Harem wallsChang does an extraordinary job of rescuing this woman from the layers of dusty history but also of refuting the western powers opinions of her which have become the dominant truths about her and China of the time. I’m very pleased to have made the acquaintance of Cixi, an imperial ruler with all the tools of power at her command and with the blindnesses of her age, upbringing and education. She banned the foot binding of women and she elbowed her way out of the stifling, isolated life she was intended for in the harem of the Forbidden City behind very high walls. She’s complex and fascinating in Chung’s hands and through her eyes. She was obviously ruthless and believed she knew what was best for China at the time but Chang gives her both humanity and context.

So what’s to learn about empire as a form and its insiduous methods?

In one of the end chapters in SPQR Mary Beard turns her attention to living under the Roman empire. She shows that the sprawl of the empire was very difficult to manage without the collaboration of local elites and she says that when rebellions broke out against Rome it was because Romans insulted or disrespected these fragile agreements. Beard says: “The rebellions we know about were not the work of high-principled, or narrow-minded, nationalists. Getting rid of Romans was never the same as an independence movement in the modern sense. Nor were they driven by an excluded underclass or religious zealotry. Religion often confirmed the aspirations of the rebels and provided unifying rituals and symbols… but rebellions were not specifically religious uprisings. They were usually led by the provincial aristocracy and were a sign that the relationship of collusion between local elites and the Roman authorities had broken down. To put it another way, they were the price the Romans paid for their dependence on collaboration.” (page 512-3).

Beard uses the British Boudicca’s situation as an example: Boudicca was the widow of Prasaturgus, leader of the Britons in Eastern England, who, when he died left half his kingdom to his daughters and half to Rome with the intention of ensuring peace. Some Romans then moved in to take all of his bequest, they raped the daughters and flogged the widow. This then led to a rebellion which resulted in the Romans destroying three towns and killing inhabitants indiscriminately.

The Boudicca statue in London on the bank of the Thames.

“As usual in these rebellions, short-term success on the part of the insurgents and terror on the part of the Romans was followed sooner or later by a resounding Roman victory.” (page 513-4). Sounds very familiar of events today.

Beard also briefly touches on the rise of Christianity and the deep puzzlement this caused among the polytheist Romans who were used to taking on gods as they spread their empire. Beard says in Roman understandings gods always came from somewhere (Isis from Egypt, etc) so the monotheism of the Christians was a serious challenge as this god had no fixed place, but also this god upset the universal understanding that the poor and the subhuman (the “humiliores”) were not destined to be that forever. Beard claims that the very shape and size of the empire was exactly the vehicle that allowed Christianity to spread, to imbed itself and finally to assert itself as the religion of empire. “The irony is that the only religion the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.” (page 520).

Cixi’s China

I have a few thoughts about Chang’s book and empire. The one is the great irony that Cixi worked hard to bring China into conversation with the modernising world (and she even put in place schools that taught technical and practical learning), but all three of the emperors she put in power were still closeted within the Forbidden city doing calligraphy during these extremely tumultuous times. Their total unpreparedness for the world outside is quite startling. When her son took over as ruler and the Japanese were threatening to invade, his response was not to think of armies and weapons or even some preparations but to do nothing because the Japanese were simply an inferior culture according to his schema of humans and so would not prevail.

The second very interesting detail is the baying at the gates of the British, French, Germans, Italians, Swedes etc who were determined to force China to open up trading ports and lands for them to mine, extract and conduct business. The outrage with which they insisted that this was their right is extraordinary. Then on the occasions they went to war for these desires, they levied reparations off China for losing, all upheld by the ‘international community’. What they used to justify these wars and demands was that China was backward, needed to be modernised, and that its people needed to be hauled into a new century — by them. Lack of ‘civilisation’, lack of ‘education’, lack of capitalism, were all sins that damned China to interference and exploitation. Again, sounds eerily familiar in recent debates about why Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran need to be invaded and set to rights.









Odessa-Vienna-Paris-Tunbridge Wells-Tokyo, a family and their netsuke

Hare bookEdmund de Waal’s story of his family and their netsuke, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, has been called overly precious by some reviewers and overworked and belaboured by others, but I found myself constantly intrigued. I also thought it to be better constructed than his next one (which I read first), TheNetsuke hare with amber eyes White Road. Netsuke were made by the Japanese to fulfill a fun
ction as toggles on clothing and were crafted out of ivory, bone or wood. The crafters often gave them ingenious forms — animals, people, actions (both mundane and salacious). As De Waal (who inherited 264 of them) points out, they are also just the right size for a hand and pocket and holding and carrying them can be a great pleasure.

Emmy in Vienna

The way De Waal builds the book is to trace across history and cities the movement of a Jewish Russian family from Odessa who built a fortune by brokering the storage and movements of grain. Scions of the family then moved to Vienna, then on to Paris (each time building large extraordinary houses and contributing to the life and fortunes of the local Jewish community, even while attempting to assimilate and becoming more secular). And finally De Waal’s grandmother landed up in England. During a late 19th century craze for all things Japanese the netsuke and a vitrine to house them were bought by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of his great grandfather, Viktor. Charles then made a wedding gift of them to Viktor who was living in Vienna. The vitrine was put into Viktor’s wife Emmy’s dressing room and the netsuke became play things for her children (Elisabeth, Gisela, Ignace and Rudolf) when she was changing clothes (there were multiple reasons to do so every day in Emmy’s Vienna).


Ignace Ephrussi
Uncle Iggie in Tokyo with the netsuke

In March 1938, the Vienna home was attacked by Nazi sympathisers and the family had to leave. The house was turned into a headquarters for the Nazis and the maid kept on as a servant. This woman sneaked the netsuke into her pocket day after day as she cleaned and then stored them under her mattress. Viktor’s daughter Elisabeth (who would become De Waal’s grandmother) had married a Dutch man and moved to Tunbridge Wells. After the war she returned to discover that Anna had saved the netsuke and so this collection landed up in England. In 1947 her brother Ignace (De Waal’s uncle Iggie) visited while making a major decision to go work in the Congo or Japan. When the saved netsuke came out, he decided on Tokyo and took the netsuke with him. De Waal himself encountered the netsuke when he was on a scholarship studying pottery in Japan in 1991 and was introduced to them by Uncle Iggie. On Iggie’s death he inherited the 264 pieces.
Netsuke 4That’s the story. The telling is more complex (although keeping someone else’s family tree in your head across five countries and seven generations is complex enough). De Waal likes to travel as a story teller, to go to the actual place, to get a powerful sense of it. He says that the story is located in three rooms: “The first of the three rooms is the study in Paris in the 1870s of the art-critic Charles Ephrussi, the model of Swann in Proust, hung with Impressionist paintings by Renoir and Degas. The second room is the dressing-room of my great-grandmother Emmy von Ephrussi in the vast Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. The third room is that of her son Ignace, my great-uncle Iggie, in Tokyo in the 1970s, an apartment looking out across central Tokyo.”

Charles Ephrussi
Charles Ephrussi

So he starts in Paris to find Charles’ home which is now the Hotel Ephrussi on the rue de Monceau. Charles is a most fascinating character and he was not so interested in the family business, so he became a collector and critic of art and for a time was a part-owner (from 1885) and then editor (from 1894) as well as a contributor to the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, the most important art historical periodical in France of the time.


Then De Waal goes to Vienna to find the Palais Ephrussi on the corner of the Ringstrasse and the Schottengasse, the home of Viktor and Emmy. And finally Tokyo to the apartment Iggie shared with Jiro — the whole way following the journey of the netsuke.
This form of storytelling melds past and present (the houses in both Paris and Vienna which he can and can’t visit are fulfilling other functions today, but they still stand), and personal family stuff with big major historical events. It deals with the unknown and the famous. It traffics in the lost and the found, the destroyed and the preserved. As a reader and a writer, I like this degree of layered complexity. It also raised some very poignant political issues: as De Waal treks across Europe to unearth the lives and choices of his very rich, very privileged ancestors we learn that as Jews — no matter how well assimilated and educated — they were still living on the edges of these cities in countries that had an uneasy accommodation with their Jewishness. De Waal says: “It makes me wonder what belonging to a place means. Charles died a Russian in Paris. Viktor called it wrong and was a Russian in Vienna for fifty years, then Austrian, then a citizen of the Reich, and then stateless. Elisabeth kept Dutch citizenship in England for fifty years. And Iggie was Austrian, then American, then an Austrian living in Japan. You assimilate, but you need somewhere else to go. You keep your passport to hand. You keep something private.” (Page 326).

Netsuke 10We also don’t know the names of the crafters who made the netsuke and we realise that those who bought these trinkets in the 19th century didn’t care to know them. It was Iggie who had the netsuke assessed in Tokyo in the 1970s and then some of the carvers regained their names. De Waal says: “When I go to my cabinet I find four small tortoises climbing on each other’s back. I look up the number on Iggie’s list and it is by Tomokazu. It is made from boxwood, the colour of a caffe macchiato.” (Page 327).






Martyrs or tricksters: the truth about writing

Liz GilbertThis Easter weekend I have had my head completely rearranged about writing. I now can’t remember why I ordered Liz Gilbert’s brightly-coloured book Big Magic or what I was expecting from it when I did, but maybe some “eudaimon” was at work already – calling, enticing, leading, suggesting, poking at my unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the writing status quo in my own life.

Not many of us who write almost all the time dare to call ourselves “writers”. We wait until we’ve been published, critiqued and acclaimed and then we think about adopting that name. But then, a little later, we reason: “I don’t make a living this way, I still hold on to my job because I could never make money from my writing, so actually I really am not a real writer, not yet.” I have written my entire life – first as a child at school and play, then as a teenager and young adult who wanted to be a poet, then as a journalist, a subeditor, a commissioning editor and now as an academic researcher and teacher of writing to others. I write a blog about genres of writing, a strong interest now which I pursue with a passion that surprises me. Since 1981 have made my living from writing in multiple forms and clothed and fed myself and my family through it, and yet the question “Can I call myself a writer?” persists. Continue reading “Martyrs or tricksters: the truth about writing”

Yet another dog book — not!

Mark DotyMark Doty’s Dog Years is just simply a very beautiful book. It’s beautifully written, beautifully molded. It’s an exciting book because Doty CAN write dogs in such a way that they are totally believable as the animals they are (which relies on close and loving observance), he also makes clear and meaningful human attachment to dogs (which takes introspection and careful autoethnography which doesn’t assume we all have the same kind of relationship with them). He has melded in this book a light touch on politics and cataclysm (he lived through 9/11 in New York and the death of a partner with Aids), relationships with humans and animals, his own career and commitments as a writing teacher and poet, and his homes and travels. Writing plus relationships (with humans, animals and place) plus politics and clear unapologetic sensibilities. The resulting work is seamless, which is so impressive. If I go back to the other books I’ve been reviewing (see Dogs x 3) they all slightly disappoint me because they come down heavily on one aspect of emphasis (fact, science, overly personal, journalism tone, idiosyncratic forgive-me-for-my-style, to be rough on books I have nevertheless liked) but Doty does exactly what I aspire to as a writer who crosses genres — gets the combination so right it’s dazzling but subtle.

Often authors who try to combine different genres of writing resort to fragmentary styles or interlaced chapters which do the one type of writing or concern and then the other and even though this distinction is clear to the reader as an interpretive method, it often feels clunky. Doty has chosen the interleaving method where each chapter is followed by an entr’acte (“between the acts”) in italic. But instead of signalling “here is real life” in non-italic, and here’s the instrospection on it in italic, we get a mixture of all kinds of sidebars which deal in a multitude of interesting details, thoughts and commentary. So as readers it doesn’t feel like we’re taking heavy treads through the book — right foot, left foot — so much as inhabiting a very interesting head — Doty’s — as he makes his way through a multifaceted story of many losses and many gains.

It’s a beautifully constructed book which treats a reader with respect and has an expectation that this reader brings intelligence and humanity to their reading. Now for his poetry…

Form-fitting, brain-bending theory

FormsI’m not going to apologise for being overly excited at what I think is a highly original and unusual contribution to thinking, analysing and being political emanating from literary theory. And I’m not going to apologise for the feeling that because this contribution speaks directly to some frustrations I’ve had living in this world of research, theory and analysis, that I might be overstating its case. Towards the end of last year I read Michael Wood’s review in the London Review of Books of Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Despite the review, I was intrigued (maybe ensnared) by the subject matter and set out to find the book which took quite some determination before I actually located it online and managed to buy it.

I then waited a bit once it arrived because it felt like this book was going to open up something important and I didn’t want to spoil it, or discover I’d been wrong. But I so wasn’t wrong about it. However, at the outset I need to say that Caroline Levine is a literary theorist steeped in Victorian writing (and this is the soil which provokes her thinking but doesn’t contain her range of ideas), I, on the other hand am a shameless magpie with an interest in the literary, a job in media studies and a weariness about grand theory (especially now that we’re living through another revolution and still talking the same talk of the previous ones, as though more and louder will be the trick).

So how to start? Continue reading “Form-fitting, brain-bending theory”

Jesuits, Quakers, Cherokees and Nazis: a story about ‘China’


Ever since reading Edmund de Waal’s The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts I’ve been holding up all the pottery and crockery in my house to the light to examine whether it’s made of porcelain, how white/translucent it is, and turning it over to know what its provenance is.

I picked up this book because of its title thinking it yet another commentary on the very fierce race debate of the moment but discovered an entirely different preoccupation. This is an unusual quest of a book made by a potter who has become something of a superstar artist constructing large pottery exhibitions/installations in some of the world’s most renowned galleries. It’s also the second of De Waal’s book dealing with pottery: the first was The Hare with Amber Eyes, for which he won the Ondaatje Prize (among others). Hare tells the story of 264 netsuke hidden in a mattress during the Second World War and so not seized by the Nazis and which then landed up in the hands of an uncle who De Waal lunched with weekly. Netsuke.jpg

The White Road is about porcelain, an extraordinary material and one which provoked a race to find the secret to its whiteness and hardness. As De Waal explains the Chinese had and used the secret for nearly a thousand before any one else discovered what it was: a mixture of porcelain stone (petuntse) and kaolin heated to very high temperatures in a reliable kiln. Production was centred on the city of Jingdezhen and was fuelled by European desire for porcelain for many centuries. Because he works with and reveres the medium himself, he sets out to visit the source of porcelain in China and then to understand how it began to be made in Dresden and Plymouth; how the code was cracked and who did it.

The intention at the beginning is to visit three mountains, three sources (Jingdezhen in the 17th century with an outpost of Jesuits observing closely the making of “China”, Dresden driven by a greedy German king and enlightenment scientists, Plymouth in the 19th century where Quakers are experimenting with materials and temperatures and which involves a battle with the very famous Mr Wedgewood and his business). But then things get messy and De Waal has to detour via Versailles (to get a sense of astronomical demand driving a market), and then to the colonies and plantations of America (where unscrupulous traders tried to buy Ayoree Mountain from the Cherokee because of its kaolin), and then to Dachau, where he discovers a thriving porcelain factory serving the greed of the Nazis for crockery and figurines during the Second World War.

De Waal is an idiosyncratic and quirky writer which has made many a reviewer quite frustrated with his episodic, switching style (and the layout of the book; spacy, short paragraphs) but I found myself intrigued and interested in his shifts between art making, autobiography, history, archive work, pure preoccupation with a process and then, of course, ploughing through the muck and murk of colonialism and capitalism and the horror of Nazi fascination with “China”.

We also don’t escape the effects of working with porcelain: a dust so fine that it causes lung diseases and which has had devastating effects on the health of hundreds of generations of workers in Jingdezhen. De Waal tells us that when Ai Weiwei did his installation at the Tate Modern by covering the turbine hall with porcelain seeds (all purposely made in Jingdezhen), the exhibition had to be closed within a few days of opening because of the dust created by visitors walking on the seeds.





Scratching the skin (rather than…)

Meg Samuelson, a literary theorist from UCT, made an interesting statement at the recent Rhodes University English Department symposium on nostalgia in Southern African literature. At the same time as declaring herself to be a theorist immersed in feminist and psychoanalytic techniques for dissecting literature, she remarked that perhaps it was time to abandon deep excavations of texts for hidden ideological meanings and pay attention to “reading on the surface”.

Meg Samuelson.jpg

Samuelson was dealing with Zoe Wicomb’s book October (a story about an academic living in a sort of exile in Glasgow who returns to Namaqualand, which of course has powerful parallels with Wicomb’s own life) and suggested that in this book Wicomb (the astute theorist of literature as well as award-winning author) was “asking us to read differently to Mercia [the English professor character in the book], differently to our discipline. To read on the surface [as one does a photograph or screen] and ask ‘what is it [the text] laying bare for us?” Continue reading “Scratching the skin (rather than…)”

Future nostalgia

The English Department at Rhodes University recently ran a symposium on nostalgia (“Nostalgia and disillusionment in the Southern African literary imaginary”) and having had a recent visit from Jacob Dlamini (author of the still-controversial Native Nostalgia), I decided to attend. Probably the most interesting insight of the day was shared by a few of the presenters and came from a very interesting Russian academic (who died this year) called Svetlana Boym which deals with how nostalgia affects the future.

Svetlana Boym

In fact Boym, an academic and artist (essays, plays, photography) fled the USSR for the US in 1981 and made the dealing with the past via nostalgia central to all her work and ideas. This very startling idea (which is the title of her book on the issue, The Future of Nostalgia) is encapsulated in a paper called “Nostalgia and its Discontents“.  Boym says: “Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” She goes on to say that nostalgia is most often connected to loss of home or place but actually it is a longing for a different time — “better time, or slower time — time out of time not encumbered by appointment books”.

But then comes the very interesting thought: nostalgia is not always retrospective, “it can be prospective as well” — “the fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future”. Continue reading “Future nostalgia”

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