Aminatta Forna on the problem with labels in literature

Aminatta Forna wrote a great piece for The Guardian this weekend on “the book world’s obsession with labels and identity.” Forna’s own career story is fascinating, but her comments on how frustrating it is to be considered an “African writer” vs. “a writer” are particularly interesting.

All this classifying, it seems to me, is the very antithesis of literature. The way of literature is to seek universality. Writers try to reach beyond those things that divide us: culture, class, gender, race. Given the chance, we would resist classification. I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer. We hyphenated writers complain about the privilege accorded to the white male writer, he who dominates the western canon and is the only one called simply “writer”.

Should writers simply write “what we know”? Forna’s argument–that much of the world’s best literature would be cut from the canon if writers had to reflect only their own gender, class, nationality and experience in their prose–is important during a time when writing students are taught to stay within the borders of their own experience. “If the evidence of my creative writing classes is anything to go by, new writers are even more unnerved by the thought of producing imaginative work only to have it shot down by prior claims of ownership over the material,” she writes.

Recently at Yale University I led a creative writing masterclass and read from three of my own works: in the voice of a young Sierra Leonian girl, then in the voice of an elderly Creole man, and then in the voice of a Croatian peasant. At question time a woman raised her hand and asked how I felt about writing characters “who have experiences different from your own”. I answered that all my characters had experiences different from my own and though it was generally assumed by western critics that I had a great deal in common with my west African characters, I had never in fact been an 80-year-old peasant woman, a university dean or a surgeon.

The real work of fiction is to create worlds; writers, as Forna claims, make pacts with their readers: the writer creates imagined spaces which the reader populates with their own experiences and understanding of the world. Both writer and reader need to do this work well.

[Thanks, V.J., for the link.]


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