War and remembrance: This Is the Place to Be by Lara Pawson

The key thread running through Lara Pawson’s fragmented, fresh, and frightening memoir, This Is the Place to Be, is an honest account of her years working as a journalist for the BBC in Africa between 1996 and 2007. However, it is much more than that. The epigraph is an extended quote from James Baldwin about androgyny and identity, about the way we are not male or female, black or white, but rather one within the other. Her opening admission (and this book is essentially a series of admissions that unfold, fold, and circle back on themselves) takes off from this observation, reading:

When I was about seven the owner of a watch and clock shop mistook me for a boy. Twenty-four years later, a Nigerian man, following my radio reports from Angola, mistook me for a Nigerian. Omolara was what he called me.

Identity and identification. The personal and the political. These are the forces that push this honest, sometimes conflicted, often unsettling account forward.

The book had its genesis as a piece composed for a sound installation called ‘After A War.’ Pawson’s contribution, Non-Correspondence, was presented as a 22,000-word looping monologue inspired by her experiences as a witness to war in Angola and the Ivory Coast—experiences that she found could not be isolated from other aspects of her life. A series of conversations and encounters over the following year or two led to the expansion of the original work into a book, an intensely personal collection of reflections, insecurities, emotions, and memories. The format is non-linear and, in keeping with the development of the project, it retains the feeling of an extended conversation to which we, as readers, are invited.

Second guessing her confessions and questioning the reliability of her memory heightens the immediacy and conversational feel. There is a sense of self-consciousness that lingers behind the intimate revelations, and a willingness to acknowledge a mixture of emotions as she recounts her experiences at home and abroad, in youth and in the present day. Life is messy. She is not afraid to admit this.

The corruption, devastation, and futility of war form the central focus of this book, but what Pawson manages to bring to light through her accounts and anecdotes is the complexity of sentiments that arise when one is close to the action in the dangerous, yet privileged, position of a correspondent. There is a curious exhilaration, and an attachment to the people. However, she is still an observer, there with a job to do, and home is, ultimately, elsewhere. She will admit that she was, for a time, infatuated with the idea of settling in Luanda taking on the life of a revolutionary , recalling fondly the first time she was called camarada. But, in the end, she must leave. She was disillusioned with mainstream media and the sense that she was contributing to the exploitation of the pain of others. And worried about becoming inured to it:

Another reason I left Angola was because I was afraid that I was becoming too thick-skinned. I didn’t want stop being shocked by what I saw and by what was happening. I was also feeling increasingly unhinged.

Letting go is not easy. Returning to life in London is not smooth. In many respects, This Is the Place to Be is a love song to Angola. She confides that there are times when she wishes she was still in Luanda: “Moments when I still get desperate pangs for the place.” Her affection for the country is palpable, its lasting impact at times unexpected. She tells us:

When I came back to the UK, I started reading books by Samuel Beckett. I had read bits of his work before, in my early twenties because I ought to, but it was only after experiencing real conflict that I got any kind of handle on the man. The way I see it, Angola taught me Beckett.

Against and woven into her experience in war zones are memories of childhood and youth, reflections on race and class, and anecdotes about her marriage and her social idiosyncrasies. The insecurity of identity—being mistaken for a boy, for a transwoman, for Jamie Lee Curtis—is another recurring theme. (Here her observations were of particular interest to me, given the themes that drive my own memoirish experiments.) Although it may sound that all this would make for a disjointed read, the result is quite the opposite. There is an ebb and flow between ideas that link this series of admissions. By allowing the fragments to flow in a manner that retains a natural and organic quality, the tangential transitions in time and place occur in much the same way they do when we are engaged in conversation with one another.

The fragmentary memoir seems to be an increasingly popular means of telling stories from life. However, it only works when it is not forced or contrived. Pawson leaves room for humility, for guilt, for insecurity. This keeps her book real. As the end nears, the intensity builds. We trust her. We are invested. And she leaves us where her heart lies. In Angola.

This Is the Place to Be is published by CB Editions.

1914 – Goodbye to All That: Writers on the Conflict Between Life and Art, Lavinia Greenlaw, ed.

War and conflict are among the most fundamentally human motivations behind our desire to tell and share stories. Religions, mythologies and histories draw on these timeless themes. And, as human history continues to prove that we have not yet managed to learn from the past; conflicts, ongoing or marked with progressive anniversaries, will continue to to inspire artists and storytellers alike.

greenlaw_2985334aThe centenary of the advent of the “War to End All Wars” in 2014 saw a renewed focus on the contemporary writers and poets of WWI as well as a broader assessment from today’s artists of the lasting influence of that critical event on the conflicts that have followed. An interesting contribution to the discussion arrived in the form of 1914 – Goodbye to all That: Writers on the Conflict Between Life and Art, a selection of essays edited by Lavinia Greenlaw which was published in the UK last year by Pushkin Press. This collection will see its release in North America on September 1, 2015.

For Greenlaw, the First World War has a resonance that is not tied to a particular time and place but rather stands as touchstone to “reinvigorate questions we should never stop exploring.” With that in mind a variety of writers were invited to offer reflections broadly inspired by the question: “What does it mean to have your life and your identity as an artist shaped by conflict?” To that end, writers from a number of different countries were recruited.

The final compilation is, perhaps inevitably, uneven. However, the strongest entries are startling and have stayed with me long after the reading. The first essay to catch my imagination was, much to my surprise, Daniel Kehlmann’s “A Visit to the Magician”. Having read his F: A Novel with a measure of disappointment, I was drawn into his account of his own attempt to pursue the experience of being hypnotized after this same novel was released. Because a visit to the performance of a hypnotist sets the stage for the events that unfold in F he decided that he ought to have a go at the real thing himself. The exploration of hypnotism leads to an interesting reflection on the mechanisms that may help motivate individuals to rise, against their better angels, to support dictatorships and even march to war.

“(I)t’s nothing more than the most normal effort to be like everyone else, to experience what everyone else experiences, to behave the way authorities want you to behave. And then of course there’s the desire not to do anything wrong in full sight of so many other people.”

For Belgian author Ewrin Mortier and Slovanian poet and writer Aleš Šteger connections are drawn between the First World War and subsequent conflicts, WWII in the first case, the Balkan War in the latter. In “The Community of Sealed Lips: Silence and Writing”, Mortier concerns himself with the silences that remain unspoken, and the way language and lies are employed to negotiate the complicated way that both World Wars divided Belgian communities and families. His essay encompasses the story of his own grandmother and her beloved younger brother containing the painful truth that he would weave into the fabric to his debut novel Marcel. By contrast, Šteger’s tale, “Tea at the Museum” is unsettling and unusual. When Z, a woman he has not seen or heard from in years, calls and suggests that they meet to for tea he cannot imagine why she wants to see him. She is, it seems, keen to apologize for a wrong she swears she has done to him – in a previous life lived during the First World War. The encounter leads him to confront the memories of individuals and of countries, and reflect upon the way poetic imagination is employed to talk about horrors to painful to face directly:

“Only through literature can we realize how impossible it is to have any true insight into the past, any true experience of it, and what’s more we will become part of some equally incomprehensible past.”

Elsewhere, novelist NoViolet Bulawayo writes about the work of writers from her native Zimbabwe who, through their voices raised in protest in the threat of censorship and imprisonment, served to reconnect her to her community from afar, ultimately leading to a focus and theme in her own writing. Her exploration of her own identity in this context serves as a direct and deeply personal tribute to her fellow Zimbabwean artists. Another striking and powerful contribution comes from UK based Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo. Her account of the experiences and often unfortunate end of thousands of Chinese coolies imported like cargo to dig trenches and lay railway tracks along the front toward the end of WWI is at once astonishing and disturbing.

The collection is rounded out by contributions from Ali Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Elif Shafak, Colm Toibin and Jeanette Winterson. What is most interesting is the varied and diverse ways that all of these accomplished writers respond to the theme presented for their consideration. There is plenty of food for thought here.

* Review copy provided by Steerforth Press through NetGalley.