Miranda France talks to Marina Warner. author of an novel that strikes at the heart ofcolonialism.
; This time last year. Caryl Phillips. a black British writer. published a novel called Cambridge. the 7 story of a young 19th century English woman who
visits her father‘s plantation in the West Indies. She is a casual racist. made aware of her prejudices by the life she encounters on the plantations — where whites are routinely cruel to their black slaves — and by her meeting with Cambridge. an educated. eloquent black man. punished for his
knowledge by white foremen of far inferior
A year on. Marina Warner. a white British writer. presents another side of the same story. though not quite a ﬂip side. Indigo is the epic tale ofan island. plundered and tamed by English settlers in the 17th century. revisited by descendents of its ‘founder' in the 211th century. It is a tale with resonances for everyone — an embarrassing reminder of how the British have presumed to ‘enlighten’ cultures with strong economies and traditions of their own. how they have smugly remembered their own colonial achievements. while forgetting the age-old achievements of the peoples they came to conquer. The difference here is that. while Caryl Phillips is the descendent ofoppressed people of St Kitts. Marina Warner has conquerers‘ blood ﬂowing in her veins.
She says it is a story she has long wanted to tell: ‘My last book was about my mother and this one is about my father. The Warners were a colonial family in the West Indies and it's a very common name there — there are even cricket grounds called
the Warner grounds. So I wanted to examine the
phenomenon of families who preserve this
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mythical “Englishness” while actually being totally involved with the history of the place that they have exploited and plundered.’
Indigo is also an exploration of British mythology in that it draws on The Tempest for inspiration. Twin Prosperos in the book are Christopher Everard. a man full ofgreed who
‘I wanted to examine the phenomenon of families who preserve this mythical “Englishness” while actually being totally involved with the history of the place that they have exploited and plundered’
arrives in Liamuiga in 161‘). renames the island Enfant-Beate and creates a fortress there. and his descendent Kit. who revisits the island in 1969 and. in a sense. redeems the sins ofhis forefather. eventually settling as an inhabitant under the new indigenous government.
For Warner. a long-time student of fairytales and mythology. the attraction of The Tempest is in
In a book which is about racism. and about coming
its magic. ‘lt has always thrown a spell of enchantment over me. But at the same time I‘ve j felt rather anguished at the cruelty of it. the l
violence with which Caliban is treated. the extraordinary harshness of Prospero. the way barriers come down. It's about power: Prospero is the patriarch.‘
to terms with the racist attrocities ofour past. Warner's Miranda is a beacon. It is she who sees the snobbery of her forebears. and eventually i
seems to heal some of the wounds with her
marriage to a young black actor. in contemporary London. On the subject of race. Warner is refreshingly honest. ‘This is something that‘s hard
, to admit. but which I think should be admitted.
§ and that‘s that I quite often have racist reﬂexes.
I and I think that the only way to get over them is to ‘ examine them. I heard a man talking at a race
relations meeting once. and he said that in Britain
basis. made me want to write something about it.
; burying something. we're repressing something.‘
whole sections dealing with Miranda‘s growing-up in London. alongside her (younger) aunt Xanthe.
there‘s a lot of lace-curtain racism. not overt — obviously I'm not a skinhead.
‘It came home very forcibly to me once when someone had come to check our fire alarm: I opened the door and there was a young black man. I actually jumped. That continuing unfamiliarity. which the young man has to cope with on a daily
and the background of it. I was worried about seeming like an interloper. but I thought ifcolonial descendents can’t examine this history. then we're
In fact. Indigo is much more than a novel about colonialism and race — though these are certainly the important themes in a book which is probably a good 1111) pages longer than it need be. There are
and about their joint trip to the Enl‘ant-Beate. Part of the story‘s charm is that it is handled by women. The action starts in 1600. where an old woman. Sycorax. is bringing up a young female. Ariel. Miranda and Xanthe take up the narrative in the 20th century. and at the end of the novel a young West Indian woman becomes the island's first indigenous Prime Minister. There is also a sense ofthings having come full circle: Sycorax and Ariel were makers of Indigo dye; nearly 500 j hundred years on. the island is preparing to export its own breed of indigo-tipped birds. Indigo ispublished by Charlo & Windus at [[4, 99.
_ Brute force
In striking contrast to the insipid, middle-class, over-intellectualised nature of much current English fiction, Scottish writing at the moment seems
shoplifting and soccer violence. The bluntness of his language gives an authentic voice to what Janice Galloway calls ‘the casual cruelty and absurdity, the daftness and awfulness of what passes for physical and verbal communication between folk’. His characters are boxed-in, frustrated, worn~down, sometimes to the verge of madness, struggling both to express
stripped of meaning, their horizons so j
straitened as to warp notions of value
entirely. In ‘A/deen SoccerThugs Kill
All Visiting Fans', for instance, a young
soccer casual is roused to cursing fury
by a coffee stain on his £22 T-shirt, and
latertells his older brother, a
rig-worker who spends “90 per cent of
thetimejustwaitingforsomethingto go wrong", that “football’s something
to be experimenting with ever more extreme forms of realism. It started with Kelman, of course, developed furtherwith Janice Galloway, and a number of younger writers are now pushing the style to new levels of gritty rawness. One such is Duncan McLean (some may remember him from the caustic comedy trio the Merry Mac Fun Show) whose debut collection of short stories, Bucket of Tongues, hasjust been published.
McLean, who writes in the spare time :
allowed by his day-job as a janitor in South Queenslerry, readily acknowledges a major debt to Kelman, but points to other influences as diverse as Charles Bukowskl and Lewis
Grassic Gibbon. ‘If you look at the Scots Ouair novels, Gibbon was actually doing something very similar to what Kelman’s doing now, to do with the voice of the narrative and the characters being as one, plus the extreme realism - the filth and squalor, sex and swearing and stuff.‘
In similar vein, McLean’s stories focus on the brutal sharp ends of life - dole queues and dead-end jobs,
and contain themselves. The sense and emotional force of the stories lies beneath and between the words, in the speech-like rhythm and immediacy of the writing. McLean points to six bulging folders of drafts and re-writes as evidence that these effects are not easily achieved. ‘You actually have to work really hard to give the impression of spontaneity and freshness; in a way it’s the hardest thing to do, to capture living language without killing it, but also without turning it into some really crap kind of jive-talking imitation.‘ Many of the stories end with no clear
resolution or ‘meaning’ as such, reflecting how the characters’
1 experience has been devalued and
you do, orjustwatch, but a casual, that‘s something you are." ‘McClean,
. denies, however, that he writes with
any didactic intent. ‘It would be a mistake to see my stuff as in any way sociological, although I‘m expecting that response from middle-class English reviewers, you know: “He shows us a side of life rarely touched
on in literature” — it‘s just because they
don’t know anything about football, or signing on, so they think my reason for writing was to show these things. but it’s just the natural setting for the stories I want to tell.‘ (Sue Wilson)
Bucket of Tongues is published by Secker & Warburg at £7.99. ;
The List 13 — 2b March 1992 65