Category Archives: Books
City chairman lodges protest with author over his description of Philippines capital as ‘the gates of hell’ in latest novelKate Hodal
This animated Japanese masterpiece is a war story as wrenching as any live-action movie
If you thought Bambi or Up were as emotional as animation gets, you need to see this Japanese masterpiece. It’s a war story as wrenching as any live-action movie, and it has reduced many a viewer to tears – this one included. Based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel, it is focused on a teenager and his sister struggling to survive at the tail end of the second world war, and it records their plight with unsentimental intimacy. Not many cartoons would depict a boy seeing his mother’s burnt, maggot-infested corpse being stretchered away, for example, but that’s just the start of their traumas. Parentless and homeless, they are forced to wander the countryside, beset by hunger, American bombings and the self-serving indifference of adults. It’s not all suffering and desperation, though. There are magical moments of natural beauty and childish delight, too – which only make the tragedy even more harrowing.
Senior staff desert as owner Sigrid Rausing takes much greater control of literary magazine and publisher
A slew of high-profile departures from the prestigious literary magazine and publisher Granta has left staff reeling as owner and philanthropist Sigrid Rausing steps up to take full control of the company.
Over the past month Granta Magazine editor John Freeman and deputy editor Ellah Allfrey have both resigned. Its art director and associate editor are also leaving. Earlier this week Philip Gwyn Jones, Granta’s books publisher, said he was quitting, and further departures are possible.
The situation was described by one insider as a “total shit storm”, and by another as a “complete bloody disaster”. It is understood to boil down to a desire by Granta’s owner to save money, as the company continues to make a loss.
“I really don’t understand what is happening here,” said the Booker prize-winning novelist Peter Carey, a contributor to the magazine.
“I always assumed the owners were prepared to fund Granta out of love for literature. They got in good people and published good books, and underwrote a fabulous magazine – all regardless (obviously) of profit or loss – and then suddenly there’s this purge.
“It’s crazy because it undoes all the good work and they have to start all over again. If there’s another John Freeman out there, I doubt he’ll be applying. Maybe they don’t know whether they want to run it for its own sake or to make money. Very strange.”
The changes have perplexed the literary community, coming as the magazine had recently announced its Best of Young British Novelists list, and has plans for a range of new international editions.
Recent publicity has not all been positive, however. The novelists list received mixed reviews, Freeman was criticised for saying Leeds was “out of the literary world” and the party organised to celebrate the issue’s launch was so poorly organised Granta had to issue an apology.
Freeman said in an emailed statement that “Sigrid decided a while back she wanted to run the magazine and books on a very reduced staff”, and that he “didn’t want to be part of that change, or the smaller ship, because I’ve seen us make huge reductions in our losses by growing. Working as a team”.
“I decided it was a good time to get out. And I quit,” he said. “I’ll miss it, though, we had a lot of fun and a lot of momentum, so did the books.
“I got to work with great writers. Tremendous editors who would chew through steel for this magazine. It’s a great magazine. But in the end it is her property and as she’s showing she’s going to do with it what she wants.”
The new structure will see Rausing take over “full operational and executive control of the company”, with the roles of magazine editor (previously held by Freeman) and books executive publisher (previously held by Gwyn Jones) “to be merged into the new single editorial-only role of editor-in-chief, a position that will be filled later this summer”, said Granta, announcing Gwyn Jones’s departure. The editor-in-chief will both edit the magazine and commission books for the Granta and Portobello imprints.
Gwyn Jones, who declined to comment about the reasons for his departure, said in a statement that Rausing “is ready now to take over the running of the team, and I wish her all luck with this next phase in Granta’s illustrious history”.
Asked why so many staff have left, Rausing said: “People have left for different reasons, not all of them related.
“John Freeman wanted to re-locate to New York, and decided to leave, which led us to the decision to close the NYC office. His deputy, Ellah Allfrey, felt that with a new London-based editor, her own job would change, and she decided that she wanted to pursue other things.
“Michael Salu, our art director, wanted to go freelance, which meant closing our art department. And Philip Gwyn-Jones is leaving because his role as executive publisher became redundant when I decided to take those aspects on myself.”
“Closing the NYC office, and the art department, will certainly be a cost saving,” she continued. “Publishing is going through rocky times – we are lucky because I can afford the subsidy, which means that we can do things that maybe harder for other publishers. The magazine I don’t think will ever be profitable, but I am certainly hoping that the book side will make money.”
On bringing the magazine and the publishing side closer together, Rausing confirmed this is her intention, “without making the magazine into a trade-mag for Granta books, obviously … Granta will continue to publish the great books we already do – there won’t be any changes there.”
Granta magazine can trace its history back to 1889, when it was founded by Cambridge students. It can count amongst its contributors AA Milne, Ted Hughes and Stevie Smith.
In the 1970s it ran into money troubles, and was rescued and relaunched as a magazine of new writing, publishing names from Martin Amis to Zadie Smith. Granta Books was launched in 1989. The operation was bought by Rausing, one of the heirs to the multibillion-pound Tetra Pak empire, in 2005.
Pomp-filled ceremony betrays Things Fall Apart author’s dislike of grandeur, but fails to override national outpouring of love
The red carpet was rolled out, the dignitaries arrived in a whirlwind of helicopters and armed guards, and the obituaries came pouring in as Nigeria buried the revered writer Chinua Achebe on Thursday.
There were dancing troupes, a choir, red-bow-tied trumpeters, keyboard players and people darting around filming on their tablets. At one point, keen not to miss any opportunity, the grieving audience was counselled to buy a documentary on the celebrated author, whose terse prose did perhaps more than any other writer to project African realities into the minds of westerners.
It was exactly the sort of pomp the literary titan hated, and often ripped apart with the witty, acerbic tip of his pen.
Achebe died on 21 March, aged 82. If he avoided a state funeral, it wasn’t for lack of trying from the government. Despite rebuffing national honours twice over his distrust at an oil-fed elite who left the country a “bankrupt and lawless fiefdom”, the Goodluck Jonathan administration tried to hold a state funeral, before capitulating to the three hour-long service in the white-washed St Philips Anglican church in Achebe’s hometown of Ogidi.
The writer was no stranger to such irony. His first manuscript was nearly lost to history when publishers in London thought the handwritten pages from Africa were a joke. Fifty years later, Things Fall Apart, an anti-colonialist anthem with a title borrowed from a Yeates poem, is still the biggest-selling novel from Africa of all time. It tells the story of his Igbo tribe’s disastrous first experience of European colonialism.
Despite his success, Achebe turned down all offers to teach creative writing courses, saying: “I don’t know how it’s done”.
In 2004, he declined a national award. The second time the offer came, in 2011, he again refused, saying “the reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed, let alone solved”.
Clearly this time the author was in no position to resist the state honours being conferred on him. President Jonathan reminded funeral attendees of the author’s criticisms of politicians and corruption. After the singing, the long speeches and prayers, this was a moment about which many had been holding their breath.
“For those of you that read The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe told us that there is nothing wrong with Nigeria. The problem is the political leadership,” he said, waving a copy of the novel.
A toe-curling pause followed and Achebe’s family looked on with unreadable expressions.
Jonathan went on to read a passage that highlighted the political corruption and manipulation that had mired the African oil giant since independence. “That was in Chinua’s last book,” the former professor said. “All of us must work hard to change this country.”
The audience applauded cautiously.
Ghana’s president, John Mahama, seated beside Jonathan, waved as his own name was read out amongst a long list of political dignitaries.
“During a recent discussion about Achebe, a political contemporary asked me if I felt as though I had somehow become part of the system that we so bitterly decried in our youth,” Mahama said in a recent tribute.
“‘No,’ I replied without hesitation. ‘I entered politics because I wanted to be a part of changing that system,’” he wrote.
Whether people across Africa agree or whether, once again, Achebe may have slyly exposed a ruling elite is a question for history.
Still, only the most hardened cynic could fail to have been moved by some of the celebrations of Achebe’s life. For days, young people have marched in the sweltering heat with banners commemorating the author. As they sang lilting hymns at the funeral, some of the red-gowned choir members put their arms around each other.
Three women held photos of a smiling Achebe as they sang an operatic re-enactment of traditional theatre in St Philips. At one point, one knelt in front of the gleaming coffin topped with white roses.
Behind all the gloss, what was left for many was a simple celebration of a deeply admired man.
“I have never seen so many people, even white people, dancing to our [Igbo] music. I cannot tell the number of people, but they are more than 10 villages put together,” said 52-year-old farmer Ike Dimelu. “The world is in our village today because of Chinua Achebe.
“I may never see a lot of people like this in one place again. I’ve danced and I still want to dance,” he said over the noise of drumming and honking cars.
Like hundreds of others, he wore one of the blue prints emblazoned with a serene-looking Achebe, red cap atop his head. “The literary icon lives on,” was printed over it.
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Our literary trip to Vietnam reviews three books haunted by the spectres of war and authoritarian rule
This rare account of the American (aka Vietnam) war by a North Vietnamese army veteran, although fiction, revealed truths to many people inside and outside Vietnam. The main protagonist, Kien – a thinly disguised portrait of the author – is a tortured soul whose sanity is threatened by his brutal experiences during the war.
The story begins after the war, with Kien working in an army unit clearing battlefields of rotting corpses. The sites, among them the aptly named Forest of Screaming Souls, cause him hallucinations and nightmares as he’s tormented by memories of a decade of war.
He battles drunkenness and depression, struggling to come to terms with his shattered dreams and loss of youth and innocence. To exorcise his demons, Kien begins to write feverishly about his past and present – and tells of a generation of Vietnamese damaged by the war. The novel’s raw honesty and intensity carry the reader along as the author reveals not only the sorrow, but the horrors of war.
Bao Ninh fought in the war as part of a youth brigade. Of its 500 members, only 10 survived. His book, initially banned by the government, was a bestseller in Vietnam.
Three women struggle to survive in this savage account of Vietnam’s Maoist-style land reform of the 1950s and its aftermath. Hang, a young woman, tells of the hardship, chaos and disillusionment it sowed, dividing her family and shattering the lives of her mother and aunt.
Forced to leave her village, Hang grew up in Hanoi’s slums. Now, in the 1980s, she is an “exported worker” in the Soviet Union – like hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese – because of economic woes at home. In her sadness, she reflects: “No happiness can hold; every life, every dream, has its unravelling.”
Much of the story is told through flashbacks as Hang takes a long train ride to Moscow to meet her uncle; the same uncle who, as a senior Communist party official, zealously pursued land reform in her village and destroyed the family.
Caught between her mother’s unending self-sacrifice and her aunt’s deep bitterness, Hang learns she must break free from the past to be able to get on with her life.
Duong Thu Huong, a Communist party member who fought against the US in the war, has paid heavily for her disenchantment with the regime. She was expelled from the party, spent time in jail, and her books are banned.
BBC journalist Hayton’s readable and informative book is a laudable contribution to understanding contemporary Vietnam. After reporting from Vietnam, he’s able to peel back the layers to reveal the political, economic and social forces at work in the country during “a breathtaking period of social change”.
The Communist party’s doi moi (renovation) reforms in 1986 cautiously declared the country open for business. The introduction of capitalism with Vietnamese characteristics – chaotic, corrupt and under party control – has lifted millions out of poverty (video). But although the economy has grown rapidly, freedoms have not. The party keeps a tight rein on all aspects of life, and beneath the transformation “lurks a paranoid and deeply authoritarian political system”.
Hayton regrets that discussion of the “monstrous” war is suppressed under a policy of “official forgetting”, so as not to upset Hanoi’s new friends in Washington. As a result, Vietnamese war veterans are denied a public platform and many are “trapped in voiceless rage”.
He was expelled from Vietnam for reporting on dissidents, but that hasn’t dampened Hayton’s enthusiasm for the country.
With freedom of expression under threat in South Africa again, Anton Harber recalls an electric confrontation between two Booker prize winners, JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, about the censorship of a third – Salman Rushdie
It started on a Thursday midday, when the organiser of the Weekly Mail Book Week put the phone down, walked across the newsroom and interrupted me and my co-editor. “I think we might have a problem,” she said. It was October 1988 and the “problem” was Salman Rushdie, due to arrive a week later to headline the event. “He says his book has been banned in India, he is getting death threats,” she said. “I asked him what he wrote about and he said, ‘I ripped into the Qur’an’.”
Ours was a small, anti-apartheid newspaper, the Weekly Mail. Gail Berhmann was an artist who was organising our annual literary event, with Rushdie billed as this year’s star guest.
We had other problems too. A few months earlier, we had received a five-page letter from the government warning that we would be closed down under State of Emergency regulations if we continued to muster support for revolutionary organisations and foment feelings of hatred for the security forces. Shortly after that they closed another “alternative” newspaper, the New Nation, for 13 weeks, and we thumbed our noses at them by running articles New Nation had intended to publish under the front page headline “What New Nation Would Have Said”.
We were young and cheeky and enjoying a time of rebellion and defiance of what was still a formidable apartheid machinery. Two weeks later, a special Government Gazette was published giving us a formal warning to desist or face closure.
Another warning arrived in April and the government closed another paper, South. There was little doubt that we were next. The only question was for how long they would shut us down. We could survive a couple of months without any income, but after that we would have to find jobs. We threw everything we had into a campaign to get the government to limit the closure, if not to stop it.
We had every Fleet Street editor sign a letter to the South African government. We visited three embassies a day in Pretoria to urge them to protest. The formidable British Ambassador, Sir Robin Renwick, organised a European Community démarche. US Ambassador Edward Perkins issued an unusual statement of support. Stephen Spender of Index on Censorship organised an advert which appeared across the country with the names of 500 journalists and prominent figures protesting against the threat.
We were consumed with this campaign, tapping the power of local and international solidarity. At the same time, we were putting out our weekly newspaper with a small and nervous staff trying to cover the popular uprising that was spreading across the country at that time. And the Book Week was upon us.
The festival was themed “Censorship under the State of Emergency” and the programme headlined the Heinrich Heine quote, “Wherever they burn books, they will also in the end burn people.” It was apposite to our situation, and it would certainly become appropriate to Rushdie’s. Also, we had been through months of difficult negotiations to secure agreement from the broad anti-apartheid movement to allow for Rushdie’s visit, and did not want to relinquish the breakthrough this represented.
For two decades there had been a sport, arms, cultural and growing economic boycott of apartheid South Africa, and at the Weekly Mail we broadly backed it (within the limitations of a law which prevented active support). But there had been long debate about contradictions in the cultural boycott and the fact that, because conservatives easily flouted it, it sometimes affected anti-apartheid organisations more than others. The previous year, Oliver Tambo, the leader of the exiled ANC, which championed the sanctions, had cautiously and tentatively announced that they would try a selective boycott: they would allow progressive artists, writers and academics to be hosted by non-racial, anti-apartheid organisations, under the right circumstances.
Approval came just a few weeks before the event, and with the anti-apartheid writers’ union, Cosaw, we sent a joint invitation to Rushdie. We announced the event in our paper, with Booker Prize Winners Speak, which would bring Rushdie together with Gordimer and JM Coetzee, as a highlight. You could not hope for a better combination of literary stars and it sold out quickly. In Johannesburg, Rushdie would deliver a keynote on censorship, read from his latest work and take part in a panel discussion.
I was particularly thrilled. I had consumed and loved Rushdie’s two early masterpieces, Midnight’s Children and Shame. There could be no better candidate to speak about colonialism, literature, censorship and freedom. Besides, the Booker Prize was being announced a few days before our event, and the Whitbread while he was here, and his latest book was tipped for both.
Then came the Thursday call which alerted us to “a problem”.
I got hold of a copy of the book and gave it to a Muslim friend, Ghaleb Cachalia, asking him to read it and tell me how serious the problem was. He opened it up, read a few lines and gasped; read a few more and frowned. It seemed to be critical of the Qur’an on almost every page, he said. He took it home and called in the morning to say he had been up all night reading it, and it was brilliant and provocative. It was bound to cause trouble.
On the Friday, as the mosques emptied, we began to receive angry calls and threats of violence, at the office and at some of our homes. The Africa Muslim Agency called for the book to be banned, the invitation withdrawn and apologies offered. The Islamic Missionary Society said that “there was every likelihood that he [Rushdie] would be assaulted and that blood will flow. There are secret Muslim hit squads who have vowed to avenge the honour of the Holy Prophet Muhammed.” The Islamic Council said Rushdie had to face the “justifiable wrath and anger” of hundreds of millions of Muslims. “His presence in South Africa is most unwelcome and it will only aggravate the injury has inflicted on the Muslims. Those who associate with him in South Africa will be judged accordingly.”
We issued a statement: “We are most perturbed to learn that Mr Rushdie’s book has caused religious controversy. We had no intention of offending anybody’s religious sensibility. However, we have invited him to highlight the issue of censorship and the situation in this country – and that need remains stronger than ever.”
Then Rushdie phoned to say he had a cold and was pulling out. He had just returned from an abortive trip to Toronto where he faced massive protests. “I fell ill. I began to doubt the wisdom of going halfway across the world to have a fight I was already having at home,” he wrote later.
I called him and said in no uncertain terms that many people had stuck their necks out for him and he could not let us down. He agreed to come. A delegation of about a dozen Muslim leaders came to our offices to try and hammer out a solution, along with Gordimer and Cosaw representatives. Among them were prominent Muslims who were sympathetic to our plight, but fearful of what would happen if Rushdie came. They were eager to find a compromise, but were outnumbered by the militants.
The meeting went on for six hours. Gordimer later said that there was understanding that their faith had been offended; but so had ours: “Freedom of speech was as much an article of faith for us as Islam was for you,” she said. It was an unexpected challenge: could we hold up a secular article of faith against a mainstream religious one? Was our allegiance to free expression one of “faith”?
I was called out early on because a sheriff of the court had arrived with a letter from the minister: “The production and publishing, during the period from the date of publishing of this order up to and including 28 November 1988, of all further issues of the periodical Weekly Mail is hereby totally prohibited.” It was the blow we had feared, but it was also a victory. The ban was for only a month, and we knew we could survive that.
Meanwhile, the meeting with the Muslim leadership broke up without a resolution. The next day Cosaw withdrew their support for Rushdie’s visit “with regret”.
Gordimer phoned London to convey the view that, to avoid violence and division within the liberation movement, he should not come. We issued a statement: “This decision will bring shame and disrepute upon the progressive movement in this country, and we condemn it in the strongest terms. It is a victory for intolerance.” It was quite a moment to criticise our friends, but we were angry and upset.
There was a suggestion that Rushdie address the Cape Town book week via telephone, but the publishers and bookstores which backed the event opposed it, fearing the repercussions. Mongane Wally Serote, one of our best-known writers in exile and head of the ANC cultural desk, did so instead. Again, a small victory in the face of defeat: getting a banned exile’s voice was some compensation for Rushdie’s absence, a lesser but not insignificant show of anti-censorship defiance.
But there was a deep sense of discomfort, and it was the inscrutable and unpredictable JM Coetzee, in his quiet, soft voice, who provided the fireworks which ignited one of the most electric encounters in literary South Africa. “We have been overtaken by the politics of writing in an ugly, violent and unexpected form,” he told the Cape Town gathering. The “disinviting” of Rushdie left the Weekly Mail organisers “more than a little embarrassed” and “the South African intellectual community, among which I count myself, comes out of the affair looking pretty stupid”, he said. He asked how we had ever got ourselves into the position where the writers’ union had a veto over our event.
“I believe and will continue to believe until I am otherwise convinced that some kind of trade-off took place in the smoke-filled room, some kind of calling-in of debts, some kind of compromise or bargain or settlement in which the Rushdie visit was given up for the sake of the unity of the anti-apartheid alliance and for the sake of not making life too difficult for Muslims in the alliance,” he said.
With the freedom of a non-aligned writer unlikely to have ever joined a body like Cosaw, sitting alongside the firmly-aligned Gordimer, he lambasted everyone involved: the Weekly Mail, “which stands by the principal of free speech, but finds that it can live with the fact of free speech for selected persons only”; the booksellers who opposed the telephone link with Rushdie; Cosaw “which is dedicated to freedom of expression, as long as it does not threaten the unity of the struggle”; and by implication Gordimer.
Why, he asked, did he still involve himself in this “sorry spectacle”? It was to register his protests against the silencing of Rushdie, and to say certain things about fundamentalism.
What followed started quite plainly and mildly but gathered pace into what must be one of the most eloquent and devastating denunciations in literary record: “Islamic fundamentalism in its activist manifestation is bad news. Religious fundamentalism in general is bad news. We know about religious fundamentalism in South Africa. Calvinist fundamentalism has been an unmitigated force of benightedness in our history.
“Lebanon, Israel, Ireland, South Africa, wherever there is a bleeding sore on the body of the world, the same hard-eyed narrow-minded fanatics are busy, indifferent to life, in love with death. Behind them always come the mullahs, the rabbis, the predikante (ministers), giving their blessings.”
And then he turned on the writers’ union, represented that evening by Gordimer, who was looking shell-shocked. “These words are addressed particularly to Cosaw. Don’t get involved with such people, don’t get into alliances to them. There is nothing more inimical to writing than the spirit of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism abhors the play of signs, the endlessness of writing. Fundamentalism means nothing more or less than going back to an origin and staying there. It stands for one founding book and thereafter no more books.
“As the various books of the various fundamentalisms, each claiming to be the one true book, fantasise themselves to be signed in fire or engraved in stone, so they aspire to strike dead every rival book, petrifying the sinuous, protean, forward-gliding life of the letters on their pages, turning them into physical objects to be anathematised, things of horror not to be touched, not to be looked upon. This is what Rushdie wrote about in Satanic Verses and why the fundamentalists of Islam want him dead. Rushdie presents the prophet not as prophet but as writer.
“Cosaw ought to decide where it stands on the central question: on the right of Mr Rushdie to write against authority, and ought then to act according to its decision.”
He ended with a powerful questioning of the values of the liberation struggle, one which resonates powerfully today when – 25 years later, living in democracy and freedom – the ANC government threatens freedom of expression. “I am here with my tail between my legs like the rest of the participants, like the organisers too. That loose and fragile alliance of people, those who believe in freedom of expression and those who believe in freedom of expression for some people, we have suffered a crushing defeat.
“There are smiles in the mosques, there are chuckles in the corridors of Pretoria, where they issued Rushdie with an entry visa and then watched as we proceeded to self-destruct. We are so demoralised, afraid to pick up a phone and dial Mr Rushdie’s London number for fear someone will throw a bomb at us, that we have no sense of whether the Rushdie affair will in a year’s time will have vanished from peoples’ memories or in a year’s time will go down in history as the moment after which people simply got tired of pretending there was any place for the liberal shibboleths like freedom of expression in the anti-apartheid struggle.”
There was long and extended applause. Gordimer’s small frame and hard-bitten face was frozen solid.
She took the microphone and said she was “surprised, shocked and distressed” that, having come to speak out about the treatment of Rushdie, she now needed to defend Cosaw. “I think that it is very surprising to me that my friend and colleague John Coetzee, without really discussing it with me or anyone in Cosaw, has sprung this public attack upon us. But that is a democratic right and that is what we are here to defend.”
She said that his and the audiences views were based on incomplete facts, partly as a result of the Weekly Mail being banned and unable to relay the details of what happened. She described how Cosaw had stood firm in the meeting with the Muslim leadership and sought a compromise which did not prevent Rushdie’s from coming; how they had attempted to at least get assurances that he would not be harmed. But the threats were real and the violence imminent. “What would you have done?” she asked. “Do you think Cosaw has the right to bring a man here to risk his life and safety for our principles?
“We did not think so and neither did the majority of people in the Weekly Mail.” She was speaking for us, though we had distanced ourselves from the rude dis-invitation. In any case, our presence at the meeting had been disrupted by the simultaneous state attack on us.
She challenged Coetzee’s argument that the final question of whether to risk the violence should have been left with Rushdie, rather than to actively disinvite him. “What a copout? How was he to judge? He had not met these people, he had not seen the threats, the dangerous harassments, the notes under the door … We could not agree to thrust the decision upon him and go out of it with clean hands.”
Gordimer’s applause was more polite and respectful than enthusiastic. It was, after all, an elite, largely white, Cape Town literary audience. Here were two of the world’s most eminent and engaged writers, both passionately anti-apartheid, both with impeccable anti-censorship records, one who lived and practiced aloofly, who was uncomfortable in public activities and was decidedly not a joiner, the other who was active in protest circles and was now embroiled in liberation movement realpolitik, having to explain an organisational decision she did not seem wholly comfortable with.
Coetzee had kept his hands clean in a dirty situation, Gordimer had been prepared to grubby herself in the messy world of struggle politics. Both spoke and wrote from positions of relative privilege, protected by their white skins and international standing, but dealt with it – and used it – in different ways. The debate about the role of the writer, which we might have hoped Rushdie to lead, was brought to life: it could not be more visible, even tangible, in the tension between these two powerful and very different personalities. If we wanted rich and memorable debate about the complications of writing under apartheid, we certainly got it.
Gordimer then read a statement from Rushdie in which he explained and defended his book. We were surprised that he had nothing to say about our country in its State of Emergency, or our silenced newspaper which was using up some of its support and goodwill in his defence, but we could understand why he should be tied up with his own situation.
It was Behrmann who found the way to carve a victory out of this. Frustrated by not being able to pipe in Rushdie’s voice in Cape Town, she was not going to let anyone stop her when the Book Week moved to Joburg. She set it all up, researched the right technical solutions, deceived the state-owned telephone company into providing the necessary equipment for what they thought was a theatre production (it was happening in the Market Theatre), secured Rushdie’s agreement, and then told us and the publishers about it when it was too late to pull back.
We had told other media that the event was off and had no newspaper of our own, so we could only spread it by word of mouth over two days. We were astounded when about 500 people crowded into the room to stare at a near-empty stage while Afrikaans writer Ampie Coetzee, sitting in a large armchair, conversed with an absent Rushdie, who voice boomed through speakers and filled the room: “I’m very pleased to be with you, if only in this rather ghostly way.” The atmosphere was magical: in the gloom of a state of emergency, in the horrors of the last few weeks, it was another small triumph against those trying to silence Rushdie and ourselves. We had no newspaper, but we were doing what we always tried to do: find imaginative ways to get around censorship, and share those ideas most challenging to authority.
Again, Rushdie had nothing to say about his hosts, the newspaper that was now closed down but still taking risks to give him a voice in far-away Johannesburg. But then his own life was at risk, perhaps more than ours.
Twenty-five years later, Rushdie records this series of events briefly in his memoir, Joseph Anton. When I heard that I was the other Anton in the book, I read it nervously, having been made aware of how he had berated all those who had not stood by his side as firmly as he expected. He writes that he was “saddened to hear that he had precipitated a quarrel between South Africa’s two greatest writers”. But, after Gordimer had told him not to come, “a solution of sorts was found” for what he calls “the South African problem”.
It was the telephone link from London. In his odd third-person style, Rushdie writes: “His voice went to South Africa, his ideas were heard in a Johannesburg hall, but he stayed at home. It wasn’t satisfying, but it felt better than nothing.”
He still had nothing to say about his hosts, about the closure of our newspaper, about our censorship. This is a man who commands solidarity from anti-censorship activists around the world, condemns those who hesitate in giving it, but is slow to offer it himself.
Three decades later, South Africa confronts the issue of free speech again. We have enjoyed it, in fact reveled in it’s abundance since Nelson Mandela’s release in 1994, protected by a strong constitution and a constitutional court which has stood firm on the issue. But we have a government, dominated by the ANC, which finds the print media to be hostile and intrusive and which now threatens media freedom. They complain of intrusions into privacy and a lack of respect for dignity – a particularly sore point in a country still healing the sores of apartheid. More substantially, they decry what they see as a cynicism towards the “transformation project”, the bid to break the racial patterns inherited from the country’s troubled history. They feel under siege from a highly critical media, which in many cases has moved into an oppositional role in the absence of a strong parliamentary challenge to the ANC.
It is not uncommon for a former liberation movement now battling with the challenges of government to be sensitive to criticism and to feel under siege from a hostile world. Indeed, some of the newspapers are relentless watchdogs, offering a constant flow of investigations into corruption which haunt the ANC government. This is a triumph of open democracy, but for the government it feels like fodder for racists who wish to see them fail.
The ANC have proposed a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal to adjudicate on complaints against the press, and passed a Protection of State Information Bill, known as the “Secrecy Bill”, to clamp down on leaks and whistleblowing and threaten investigative journalists with hefty sentences for a wide range of “state security” offences. The first draft of the Bill was draconian, but, in the face of formidable public and media opposition, it was delayed for two years. Once again, we had to take to the streets and corridors of power to fight measures to restrict free media. Once again, we plot ways to get around potential censorship. The final version approved last week was considerably improved, but still threatened 25-year sentences for those who leaked information that might endanger “state security”, loosely defined.
At the forefront of the fight to prevent this clampdown, again, is Gordimer, as engaged and vocal and firm as ever. She wrote a lengthy condemnation in the NY Review of Books and led a posse of prominent writers in a call for these measures to be scrapped.
Coetzee now lives in Australia, having put in place a physical distance from these fights which matches the emotional one he always had. But it is his ringing words of 1988 that leave us wondering: when the writers’ union backed off from the Salman Rushdie invitation in 1988 under threat from religious extremists, was this the moment when freedom of expression was downgraded in liberation movement priorities? Or was it when we allowed for a selective boycott that gave the movement the capacity to decide which culture exchanges were acceptable, and which not? Has this come back to haunt us now?
Is there still a place for “the liberal shibboleths like freedom of expression” in the post-apartheid struggle?
Anton Harber is now Caxton professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. The Weekly Mail is now the Mail & Guardian. Salman Rushdie is still Salman Rushdie
*With thanks for material from You Have Been Warned, the First Ten Years of the M&G, by Irwin Manoim (Viking, 1996)
Empress Dowager Cixi, which promises to overturn conventional understanding of the Chinese ruler, is Jung’s first book in eight years
Wild Swans author Jung Chang‘s first book in eight years, the “extraordinary” story of the Empress Dowager Cixi, will be released this autumn, her publisher has announced.
Chang has based her biography on “long and detailed” research in newly opened Chinese and western archives, said publisher Jonathan Cape, and has revealed “a totally different picture” of Cixi “to the one that has prevailed for a hundred years”. One of Emperor Xianfeng’s 3,000 concubines, Cixi rose through the ranks by producing an heir, Tongzhi, and when Xianfeng died in 1861 she ousted other contenders and installed herself as sole regent for her son, ruling China for 47 years.
Chang’s last book, Mao: The Unknown Story, was published in 2005. Her “groundbreaking” new biography will “comprehensively overturn … the conventional view of Cixi as a deeply conservative and cruel despot”, said Jonathan Cape, and show how she abolished foot-binding, developed foreign trade and diplomacy, and revolutionised China’s education system.
“Jung Chang looks in detail at her conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, but also takes us into Cixi’s splendid Summer Palace, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs. The world Jung Chang describes here, in fascinating detail, seems almost incredible, a unique mixture of the very old and the very new,” said the publisher. “This biography will revolutionise historical thinking about a crucial period in China’s – and the world’s – history.”
Chang is best known for the bestselling Wild Swans, which looks at the history of China through the lives of her grandmother, her mother and herself, and has sold 10m copies worldwide. Empress Dowager Cixi will be published on 3 October.
James Salter, the veteran American novelist and short story writer, reads a story by Lydia Davis, winner of the 2013 Man Booker International prizeLisa AllardiceTim Maby
Amazon selling fanfic may sound a great idea, but the whole point of these stories is they go where the powers that be won’t
It’s been a tumultuous week for internet fandom. First, Tumblr was bought by Yahoo (fandom lives on Tumblr, nestled down amongst the cat Gifs), then, the real game changer, kaboom!, Amazon’s Kindle Worlds.
But that was then. Star Wars is now owned by Disney and fan fiction (fanfic) or money is going legit. Kindle Worlds is “the first commercial publishing platform that will enable any writer to create fan fiction based on a range of original stories and characters and earn royalties for doing so”. Cue a bazillion tweets and blogposts. Getting paid for writing fanfic? After all these years that dream is finally real?
However, that royalty offered is a lot less than Amazon’s normal cut for other self-published authors who use their own characters. Franchise owners will be getting a chunky cut and authors also won’t own the copyright to their ideas. If the owners of the characters you play with produce something similar and earn squillions, you’ll apparently have no comeback, it seems.
Kindle Worlds licenses use from the copyright holders. So far the only licensed works come through Alloy Entertainment, which own The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl. Presumably there are more to come. The whole thing depends on offering one of the heavy hitters of fandom, such as Harry Potter, Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This licensing is, of course, what makes the whole thing legit, but derivative works produced under licence already exist. Look at the output of audio adventures titan Big Finish. And fan fiction isn’t really the same thing as this stuff.
As Amazon puts it, “Amazon Publishing will work with (the rights holders) to establish content guidelines that balance flexibility and openness for writers with what’s reasonable for the franchise”. And doing what’s reasonable for the franchise isn’t really what fan fiction is about. Fanfic is more, “whatever, franchise, I’m doing this”. In fan fiction there are no rules. And here, oh, are there ever going to be rules.
Fan fiction exists to create what the original work is failing to offer. An obvious example is slash fan fiction, which responds to the unequal numbers of male and female characters, and lack of gay people, in popular culture by creating stories where two male characters get it together. Often in very explicit ways.
Authors might be pro-fanfic, including the holy trinity of JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Joss Whedon, but getting that nod isn’t the same thing as being rubber-stamped by the powers that be. Licensed by the franchise means rules will keep fans stuck making more of the same stuff. Fan fiction can’t play nice with the franchise. Because the whole point is it goes where the franchise can’t or won’t go.
Fan fiction is a place of wing fic (an alternate universe where the characters have wings) and Mpreg (an alternate universe where men get pregnant – like something from Norman Tebbit’s worst nightmares). You can’t package up a place like that and sell it.
And telling and retelling stories, however we want to, is bigger even than a giant like Amazon. Fanfic existed before the internet and it will still be around when we live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. After all, it’s created enough of them.
The Polish writer Stanisław Lem is best known to English-speaking readers as the author of the 1961 science fiction novel Solaris, adapted into a meditative film by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and remade in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh. Throughout his writings, comprising dozens of science fiction novels and short stories, Lem offered deeply philosophical and bitingly