Sue Wilson talks to Margaret Busby, editor of a new anthology celebrating the literary achievements of Africa’s daughters through the ages.
Even in these supposedly multicultural. post-feminist days, Black women writers are still beset by the ‘double jeopardy" ofbelonging simultaneously to two marginalised groups. All
too often. their work is either rendered invisible by the narrow-minded indifference of the academic/publishing establishment — ‘what Black women writers?’—or squeezed into literary , ghettoes by crude definitions ofwhat Black writing is like.
It is issues like these which Margaret Busby‘s magnificent new anthology, Daughters ofAfrica, 1 sets out to address. Subtitled ‘words and writings f by women of African descent from the ancient l Egyptian to the present, its lOOO-plus pages contain extracts from the work ofover 200 women from around the world, from the Queen of Sheba to Maya Angelou. Apart from anything else, the sheer size of the book is a powerful rebuttal to those who deny the existence of a Black tradition.
‘That was what I found so interesting,‘ says Busby, ‘that there was so much material I thought worthy ofcalling people’s attention to, which just doesn‘t usually get to see the light of day. It’s a question of trying to redress the balance, to show
that there are all these women, who’ve been doing all these different sorts of work, coming out of all traditions, and that their words deserve to be heard. The most frustrating thing was all the people I had to leave out: I could start another volume tomorrow, with a completely different selection ofwriters. and it would end up the same length.‘
The other obvious feature of the collection is the huge and fascinating diversity ofstyles and genres which these women have employed down the ages, from ‘orature’ — the poems, songs and stories preserved in the oral tradition of many cultures, through letters, diaries, autobiography, slave narratives, stories, speeches, essays, articles, poetry, drama, science-fiction, to the ground-breaking experimental writing of many contemporary authors.
‘The very act of portraying oneself is particularly important when the portrait others give of you has been distorted,’ says Busby. ‘But while obviously it’s vital to remember one’s history, however painful it may be, we’re more than that, too — we don‘t wake up every morning and think, ‘my poor
: grandparents were slaves’; we live within the same
range ofemotions that anybody else does. But despite that, whenever you get a'new book by a Black woman writer, particularly a Black American woman writer, there’s still this kneejerk
reaction — first you compare it to Alice Walker or Toni Morrison, then you look for the ‘insight into the Black experience‘ — whatever this mythical, monolithic ‘Black experience’ might be; nobody ever talks about the ‘white experience’. You may
i have common strands of history that inform your
life and your memories, but you’re speaking
; individually from wherever you are, looking for
, your personhood within the tradition from which
: you’ve emerged.’
_' Daughters of Africa is published by Jonathan Cape _ at£30.
j Several contributors to the anthology will be taking
5 part in the ‘Meet the Author’ series at the Traverse j Theatre — see side panel for details.
' MEET THE AUTHOR
A series of readings/discussions organised by the Edinburgh ' Book Festival. For more lnformatlon/ tickets, contactthe
j Book Festival Office (228 5444), Waterstone’s, George
. Street (225 3034) or the Traverse Theatre Box Office (228
1404). All events at the Traverse. Tickets 22.506125).
I Set 10, 6.45pm, Anthony Burgess One of Britain’s
3 leading contemporary authors, in conversation with
Scotland on Sunday’s literary editor Alan Taylor.
I Sun 11, 7.30pm, Daughters of Africa A celebration of Margaret Busby’s new anthology, with contributors including Beryl Gilroy, Lauretta Ngcobo and Marsha Prescod.
I Mon 12, 7.30pm, Rewriting History How easily, or otherwise, does fiction marry with historical fact? Find out from Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Dunnett and Booker-shortlisted Barry Unsworth.
I TUB 13, 7.30pm, Final Frontiers A chance to meet renowned explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
I Wed 14, 7.30pm, Significant Others Discussion of the relationship between fiction and . . . relationships, with Jenny Diski, Angela Lambert and Anne Fine.
I Thurs 15, 7.30pm, New Beginnings Three relative newcomers to writing— Elspeth Barker, Lucy Ellmann and Lesley Glaister— talk about how they got started and how they plan to continue.
I Fri 16, 7.30pm. An Evening With John Mortimer Chewthe fat with the popular novelist and TV writer, best known for his creation of Rumpole.
:— Night vision
One of the most memorable aspects of Citizen Cane is Bernstein's testament to unrequited love: not a single day passes when he doesn’t recall noticing a beautiful woman many years beiore. He knows only that she was wearing white. While such an image is unusual in US or British culture, it is the very stuff oi magic realism. In this sense, Lisa St Aubln de Teran's latest novel, Nocturne, covers familiar territory— Mezzanotte, a young man from a poor Umbrian village, falls in love with a girl hem the fair, Valentina, follows her around the country, is blinded and mutilated in the war and, back home, spends the next 40 years alone with the memories oi his love.
Rarely, though, has a novel with such ambition been so flrrnly grounded in historical fact. Employing a style redolent with coincidence, echo and myth, Nocturne relates the story oi its
Lisa St Aubin de Teran: ‘elementsof classical tragedy in the everyday.’
chosen region’s fortunes before and
since the war, bringing a peasant
culture convincingly to life. The central character, de Teran says, is in fact ‘based on a blind man I met by
chance and whose actual name was the-
ltallan for midnight.’ She explains the
nature oi Memnotte’s isolation by describing him as ‘time-warped in his injury; he didn’t move forward from that time'; by remaining apart, he believes, ‘by clinging on to that straw, Valentina might come back to him.’
Though this, and the culturally foreign setting, can be used to explain the novel’s elaborate convolutions oi plot and apparently cheap symbolism, we - familiar with the logic oi our everyday city lives and the realist fiction which reflects it- are inclined to view Mezzanotte’s world with wonder and even disbelief. The tragic story oi his doomed love, for instance, comes to us as if first-hand, as he relates it to a new military companion. This requires some extravagant plotting - the friend and the fair, which has been absent from the village since his injury arrive on the same day. Be Teran, however, insists that the absurdity of this would not strike the peasant imagination. “They have a different way of thinking, which comes through in their elaborate everyday speech, a wonderful poetic way of expressing
Equally, the distressing visions of the sea, which recur throughout, could easily be seen as overwrought. Not so, according to the author. ’Umbrlans are possessed by the sea, because their country is landlocked,’ de Teran explains. ’Forthem, the seals a magical and horrifying place — until quite recently, the peasants were frightened of fish, because they came from the water.‘ Snow, likewise, is part of popular Italian mytholoov, because so many soldiers were lost on the Russian front during World War II: ‘snow swallowed up a generation of people.’
By adopting the terms of the culture it addresses, Nocturne shows us, like no novel since Love in The Time Of Cholera, that magic realism is not a literary form but a way of life, at least for those who recognise the ‘elements of classical tragedy in the everyday.‘ (Douglas McCabe)
Nocturne is published by Hamish Hamilton at £14.99.
The List 9- 22 October 1992 69