Part 5 #HayFestival: The Iconoclasts

You are probably suffering from Hay Festival fatigue by now as you notice that just 2 1/2 days spent there produced a whole week’s worth of output. Anyway, after a short lull yesterday, here is the last of the posts on this topic. 

I mentioned in my first post that Hay Festival does feel a bit like it should be part of the Henley Regatta, Ascot Races, Wimbledon summer circuit, although in a fairly muted way. But the festival organisers are trying hard to incorporate more diverse voices into the programme and some of these events have been attracting a considerable crowd. Nevertheless, it is amusing to play the game of ‘spot the false liberal’, who’ve come to the event to establish their ‘tolerance credentials’ and are slightly nonplussed or unmoved by what is being said. [I suppose this is where my status as an ‘outsider’, albeit a white one who speaks English with a flawless accent, comes in handy. I lull them with a false sense of security and the then – wham! – am hit with a vicious side-glance or nervous rictus.]

The Dylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi is perhaps the kind of black man that the Hay audiences are most comfortable: born in Zambia, he came to the UK as a child, is well-educated and widely read and speaks with the required accent (this is important when I compare him to the other two below), has published two poetry pamphlets before his debut volume Kumukanda, and has been winning accolades from the established literary community, including residencies, shortlistings, judging poetry competitions, being poetry associate at the ICA and so on. In other words, he has played by the rules and been successful, so we can think of him as a ‘good immigrant’. If he had arrived in a suit and tie, it would have been like Sydney Poitier in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’.

I’m not saying this to make fun of the poet, who was indeed most impressive and felt no need to pander to the audience. Yet it has to be said: he was signalling all those things which the largely pale and posh audience could understand and accept. But I really enjoyed it when he started talking about growing up in a multilingual home, that Bemba was his first language but English is the only one he can express himself in poetically, and that he feels the loss of that native tongue. He talked about the different texture of languages when you grow up multilingual, how you search for the chewiness of a particular word which might be missing in the other language. He was very modest about his poetry, saying that the moments when he feels most like a poet are when a word or line or poem takes on a life of its own and he says to himself: ‘That’s not absolutely awful!’. But that feeling never lasts too long.

Kumukanda is a rite of passage in his ancestral tribe, one that he never undertook back home, so in his poetry he describes the rites of passage of an immigrant black child in Britain. He told us about being discriminated against, listening to pirate stations and rap and making mix tapes, his discomfort with his own admiration for Eminem, the ‘white man’ who made rap acceptable. Yet in his poetry he warns against those easy generalisations, against typecasting of black people. His poetry is witty and just the right amount of angry without sounding resigned or bitter. I wonder to what extent the poem below is autobiographical, but it doesn’t matter, because it will be familiar to many.

My agent says I have to use my street voice.
Though my talent is for rakes and fops I’ll drop
the necessary octaves, stifle a laugh
at the playwright’s misplaced get me blud and safe.
If I get it they’ll ask me how long it takes me
to grow cornrows without the small screen’s knowing
wink. Three years RADA, two years rep and I’m sick
of playing lean dark men who may have guns.
I have a book of poems in my rucksack,
blank pad, two pens, tattered A-Z, headphones
that know Prokofiev as well as Prince Paul

So the content of his poetry is less comforting than his appearance might make you believe.

Akala is the less acceptable face of black youth: with dreads, hip-hop artist, poet, political activist, founder of the Hip-Hop Shakespeare company, brother of Ms Dynamite, he has produced a book called Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. He talked eloquently about growing up poor and mixed race in Camden, about suddenly realising that his mother was white and the conflict that led to during his teens, how he very nearly became a bad boy and certainly had plenty of friends who did, but how he was treated very differently in Jamaica because of his lighter skin and British accent. He considers himself lucky because although he was economically poor, he was culturally rich. He’s been called ‘unpatriotic’, Britain hater, but as he said: ‘If you’ve got a problem in the family, you don’t do anyone a favour by avoiding talking about it. So perhaps what people are trying to tell me when I dare to criticize anything about Britain, is that I am not really part of the family.’

He explained why he thought that a lot of the present-day discourse about black on black crime is not based on actual statistics, but about stoking the flames of fear, about pitting class against race and thus not having to deal with either. ‘We can’t afford racism and classism as a society, because it leads to so much wasted potential.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last but not least, it was fascinating to see Anthony Anaxagorou again, this time in action with a predominantly young British audience (you might remember I brought him over to Geneva Writers Group for a memorable workshop on performance poetry). He ruffled a few feathers back then but had a mostly rapturous reception, and it was the same now. The young people loved him, while their parents were somewhat less sure about his ‘working class London accent’. He talked very openly about growing up without many books and aspirations, but how he taught himself the craft of poetry while being stuck in a series of dead-end jobs. I can personally vouch that he has reached an almost encyclopaedic level of knowledge of poetry and literature by now, and that he can speak to a wide range of audiences. He also spoke about how he very nearly got caught up in a life of petty crime, how he often gets asked ‘But where are you from?’ because Cypriots are racially somewhat ambiguous, too dark for some, too light for others. And he is very openly political, because, although he often talks about things he hasn’t experienced personally, he feels that as a poet he has to highlight the problems – although it’s policies, not poetry, that can offer solutions.

‘Poets are perceived as nouns but we’re actually verbs. Poeting is a way of engaging with the world. I can’t do anything else but try to organise the world’s turmoil through a sequence of words.’

I was very sad to miss his evening performance at the Hay Poetry Slam (together with Emmeline Armitage, Sabrina Mahfouz, Sophie McKean, Zena Edwards, Rufus Mufasa and Akala), but I was facing a very long drive home and, after getting lost on my way there, I was afraid that I would do the same on the way back, but this time in the rain and dark. I’m sure they put on an amazing show, however.

Last but not least, if you want to see a literary festival that has diversity at its very core, and hopefully diverse members of the audience as well as participants, then you should check out the Bradford Literature Festival.

 

 

 

 

Family Secrets, Racism and Unfulfillment

Everything+I+Never+Told+You+-+Celeste+NgCeleste Ng’s ‘Everything I Never Told You’ is a quiet, gentle novel, which relies more on style than plotting, on gentle nudges rather than fireworks. It’s the kind of novel that first-time writers are told: ‘It won’t get published nowadays.’ But it did. It would probably have had a modest success and sunk with barely a ripple in the great ocean of books published every year in the US alone. But then the Amazon editorial team chose it as their top read of the year – heading a surprising list of lesser-known titles which the cynical amongst you might interpret as an attempt to boost sales for books which have not done so well – or an attempt to prove that they are sensitive souls after all.

To be honest, Amazon lists have little impact on me. If anything, they probably put me off a book rather than endear it to me (because I like to be counter-flow rather than following the herd). However, I had already requested and downloaded this book from Netgalley and it had been sitting for a while on my tablet (which is not a Kindle, incidentally). I have Chinese friends who grew up in the UK and experienced some discrimination in their childhood back in the 1980s, so I wanted to see what it would have been like in small-town America.

As you can imagine, not pretty! For this mixed race Chinese-American family, living in 1970s New York or Boston would have been … not easy, exactly, but acceptable at least. Living in a small college town in Ohio, however, makes life much more difficult and the author describes tribulations both large and small in a factual reporting style which makes it all the more heartbreaking.

Once a woman stopped the two of them in the grocery store and asked, ‘Chinese?’ and when they said yes, not wanting to get into halves and wholes, she’d nodded sagely. ‘I knew it,’ she said. ‘By the eyes.’ She’d tugged the corner of each eye outward with a fingertip.

No amount of teaching about American cowboys (the father’s specialist subject) is going to make them blend in.

Celeste Ng, from her website. Credit: Kevin Day Photography
Celeste Ng, from her website. Credit: Kevin Day Photography

The book opens with the chilling sentences: ‘Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.’ And there we are, bang in the middle of something sinister wrapped up in the mundane packaging of daily life.

Lydia is undoubtedly the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular, well-integrated and accepted by everyone. Lydia tries so hard to live up to their expectations: her fears about failing physics, her disappointment with the science books her mother constantly gives her, her fake telephone conversations are all described with aching precision. Meanwhile, her older brother Nath feels protective towards her, but also stifled in his own ambitions by his parent’s lack of interest in his own future. [That was the one false note, incidentally, in the book: I cannot imagine a Chinese-American family being so disinterested in a son’s career.] Her younger sister Hannah is frequently forgotten by the family – a real after-thought in terms of family planning – and has therefore become more observant than most. She is the one who comes closest to untangling the poisonous web of misunderstandings, lies, wish fulfillment and belated efforts to repair matters.

This is not a mystery or crime story. It is very much a family tragedy, but it never descends into sheer melodrama. The story itself does not feel completely fresh and original, but it’s all in the telling. Beautiful, poignant, lyrically written, building up layer upon layer of insight into each of the characters (and making us feel so much empathy for each one of them), it is a tale to savour and remember.