Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ben Okri: Capturing the Living Reality of Life, Spirit, and Community

Saturday 28 January at 10:30 at the Adolfo Mejía Theater in Cartagena, Ben Okri spoke to Rosy Boycott about his work.

1991 winner of the Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road, Nigerian writer Ben Okri had been scheduled to speak at an event that the British Council had organized for English language educators. The event ended up being cancelled because not enough teachers registered (Information publicizing the event was not even sent to her school, said Sally). Okri's presentation to the general public at the Adolfo Mejía theater, the largest venue used by the Hay Festival in Cartagena, sounded as if it had been prepared for an audience of young people.

Okri began by looking at the question of why societies need writers. "Authors, as artists, let us step back and look at the whole picture… They show us things about ourselves that we didn't know existed." Writers, he says "keep us connected to the long story of humanity." "Authors are not about finding answers, but rather for holding a mirror up to society." A writer's work can enter the "common consciousness," contributing to the forging of identity. He notes that a country that forbids writers from working or publishing is a country that is at war with itself

Okri discussed different forms of writing. Poetry, he says, is pure, natural response to life; it is a way of "apprehending life" in words. The short story is a more indirect and formulated format. An essay is a form of reflection or meditation. Reflecting on his own creative process, Okri says that when he starts writing he does not know where the story is going to lead him, "You discover where you are going by getting there." Writing drafts represents the process of discovering what you are trying to say, he adds.

Okri talked about his life. Born in Minna, Nigeria, he moved to London with his family at age 1.5 because his father had won a scholarship to study law. At age seven, his family decided to return to Nigeria. His father had already gone ahead to pave the way for the family. Ben did not want to go to that strange African country; he wanted to stay with his mates. His mother said that she understood his feelings, but that she would appreciate it if he would accompany her to the ship. Young Ben agreed to his mother's request. He boarded the ship and was enjoying the tour of the facilities "when suddenly his mother realized that they had cast off and set sail." It took him years to forgive his mother, he said. Their return to the country in 1967 was inauspiciously timed, coinciding with the start of the Nigerian-Biafran War.

The civil war divided ethnic clans and the family spent many years hiding their mother, who was an Igbo, a member of the rival minority in the area in which they lived. The war was brutal. Okri recalls seeing rivers of bodies, and witnessing acts of courage and cowardice. His mother was a major influence in Ben's life, fostering a love for story-telling: instead of telling him things directly, she would tell him a story.

While his mother represented the oral tradition, Okri's father introduced him to the world of books with the large collection he had brought back from England. Every day he instructed his son to dust the books, but warned him not to read them. The forbidden enticement was irresistible. In his early teens Okri began to devour the classics of English and world literature: Aesop's Fables, The Arabian Nights, Dickens, Shakespeare, Austin, Homer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and so on.

Okri's early attempts at journalism did not meet with much success, so he tried his mother's approach of using stories to tell what he wanted to say. He quickly encountered the African dilemma of how to tell a story using a language that is foreign to the lives of the people. He struggled with the challenge of trying to capture the living reality of life, spirit, and community. He needed to find language, imagery and symbolism that would allow him to tell his stories without having to over-explain. In The Famished Road, Okri seized upon the iconographic image of the spirit-child who is born, sees the injustices of the world, doesn't like them, and dies. Over and over. The spirit child is the vehicle for Okri's story, allowing him to move between the world of the spirits and the living, and to create an African magical realism.

Okri ended with a reading of his 30-point prose poem "Healing the Africa in Us," which begins with the reflection: "Heart shaped Africa is the feeling center of the world. Continents are metaphors…" and goes on to explore how "We have to heal the Africa in us if we are going to be whole again." The piece is a bit long to reproduce here, but it may be viewed at http://lifeinmyyrs.blogspot.com/2011/09/another-post-on-ben-okri.html
I'm not convinced that it helped my find my inner Africa.

Is it too bad that the event for young people was cancelled because Ben Okri's presentation was both exotic and universal in his recounting of his personal history and the way he explained how authors harness their lives and feelings to share experiences through their writing. It was, however, disconcerting to listen to a presentation that had obviously been prepared for a different audience. In fact, as I did some research to double check a few factual details about his life, I encountered articles and interviews in which Okri makes the same points, pretty much verbatim. He has apparently been on the Hay Festival circuit since 2010. No wonder his presentation sounded rehearsed rather than fresh and spontaneous. Nonetheless, Ben Okri is a warm and engaging speaker, and it was enjoyable to hear him talk about his life and work.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Cartagena Hay Festival 2012 – The Occupy Movements (Los Indignados)

Friday 27 January at 12:30 at the Santo Domingo Convent in Cartagena, Morris Berman, Daniel Alarcón, and Francisco Goldman held a panel discussion moderated by Jon Gower on the Occupy Movements.

Morris Berman is an American cultural historian and a social critic. He has written a number of books on the state of Western civilization. His latest book is Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (2011). He currently lives in Mexico.

Peruvian-born writer and journalist Daniel Alarcón has lived in the United States since the age of three. He is currently based in Oakland, CA and is a visiting scholar at University of California Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies.

American novelist and journalist Francisco Goldman is the son of a Guatemalan Catholic mother and a Jewish American father. He is currently the Allan K. Smith Professor of English at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He splits his time between Mexico City and New York City.

Welsh writer Jon Gower, known for his lyrical prose, was assigned the task of facilitating a discussion on the occupy movements by these three rather disparate novelists and academics. Gower launched the discussion by suggesting that the American Dream could be redubbed the American Hustle, and inviting the panelists to comment.

Morris Berman says that he is not at all surprised by the emergence of the occupy movements. He says that his books predicted these protests. So great is his aplomb that one might think that he was the architect behind these movements. Although Berman views the tendency toward grassroots protest with satisfaction, he expresses concern over the vagueness of the movements' goals. "The movements have energy," he says, "but they lack analysis." That analysis, he considers, is necessary in the process of bringing about real change. He sees the role of the occupy movements as a form of permanent education: holding a mirror up to society, but he feels that, as things stand, they are unlikely to bring about change.

In Oakland, California where Daniel Alarcón lives, the protests turned into riots. He says that Oakland is a culturally diverse and economically depressed city, and suggests that these circumstances made it more susceptible to violence. "The movement didn't begin as a riot," he clarifies, "but it turned violent." Alarcón is optimistic about grassroots movements as an engine for change. "All change will come from culture; there is no hope for change via politics," he says.

Francisco Goldman says that the recent years have been eye-opening in terms of public awareness of the US's economic disparity. The occupy slogan "We are the 99%," referring to the concentration of wealth in the top 1% of the population, struck a chord with many people. He considers the movements to be the unmasking of the myth of America as the land of opportunity, justice and social mobility.

Berman adds to this thought, saying that socialism never got a chance in the United States because people have unshakable faith in the notion of social mobility. He says that the economic underclasses tend to consider poverty as "a temporary embarrassment" from which they are soon to emerge. Berman considers that this belief in the possibility of social advancement is largely delusional and states that the statistics indicate that most people will stay in the social class into which they are born. Berman refers to the belief that it is possible to improve one's lot in life as "the great snow job," and says that the belief in social mobility has become so deeply ingrained in the population that it is not even questioned.

Alarcón comments that rising tuition costs for universities indicates that schools are not a government priority and is indicative of a general lack of social funding.

Goldman does not believe that it will ever be possible for the United States to once again have a prosperous working class. He considers that the education situation is an apt metaphor for all of the US's problems: "The problem with the United States is an ignorant, uniformed people," he says.

Jon Gower asks the panelists if they feel that this situation is limited to the United States or whether there is general discontent worldwide.

Berman says that he believes that world protests are connected. He refers to world systems analysis, a neo-Marxist methodology for social analysis, and claims that "the arc of capitalism is 600 years long and now we are witnessing the breakdown of capitalism." Whether the system can be corrected or will have to "disintegrate," Berman says that he expects that a major crash is coming. In terms of what will come next, Berman says that "as the system breaks up it will become more decentralized and sustainable, with less imperial control." He cites the US secessionist movements as an example that this process is already under way. Berman sees this as a positive thing, and as evidence that capitalism doesn't work anymore.

The panel fell short on the goal of discussing the concerns, aims and prospects of the occupy movements. Admittedly it is a huge topic, with many different facets, but the discussion failed to provide much of a comprehensive overview. Alarcón and Goldman had some pertinent observations. Berman made some interesting points but he was more interested in flogging his own theories and making sweeping predictions, despite his insistence that everything he said would be based on facts and statistics, and his condescending dismissal of the members of the audience who challenged his affirmations and auguries during the question period at the end of the session.

I couldn't help but remember Gary Shteyngart and David Aaronovitch bantering at last year's Hay Festival and wondering out loud, "Who comes up with these conference topics and decides who will be on the panels?" I wonder too. It occurs to me that anti-conspiracy theorist David Aaronovitch would have made a lively debate opponent for Berman.

"Say what?"

Friday 27 January at 17:30 at the Casa Mapfre in Cartagena, Morris Berman was scheduled to speak on the social and economic situation in the United States today.

Having had a taste of some of his controversial theories earlier in the day, I was looking forward to hearing Berman expand on his ideas and the possibility of some juicy debate.

Berman arrived late, strode to the platform, pulled a sheaf of papers from his valise and proceeded to rattle off at full speed, in Gringo Spanish, an essay summarizing his recent works. As he droned on, his less-than-impeccable accent got noticeably worse to the point of being unintelligible. Several people walked out of the venue. I held out, hoping that the question period would be more dynamic. After what seemed like an eternity, Berman finished his reading, announced that he would not take any questions from the public, got up and left.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Diplomacy Through Culture: Fomenting Cultural Understanding Through the Arts

On Friday 27 January at 10:30 at the Casa Mapfre in Cartagena, Graham Sheffield spoke to Peter Florence.

Graham Sheffield is the cultural director for the British Council. He is in charge of making sense of a disperse arts program that spans 110 countries. His core mission: To build trust and enlightenment between cultures.

Sheffield describes the relationship between the British Council and British Foreign Office as one of a "stretchy arm"; the former being in charge of cultivating cultural relations and the latter handling political and trade relations. He clarifies that the role of the British Council has evolved over the years so that it is no longer solely concerned with promoting British culture and offering English classes, but rather aims more toward mutual dialogue and understanding through culture.

Having been a producer for BBC 3, the director of the Southbank Centre, and then the director of the Barbican Centre, Sheffield found that it was possible to work implementing "curated ideals," which implies easing audiences into trying new things. He notes that innovation is necessary for survival in the arts, because audiences will not remain satisfied for long with tried and true offerings. Ironically, sometimes productions that appear to be the safest bets have turned out to be the biggest flops.

Peter Florence comments that all art is dissident, in the sense that it needs to mark a difference from what has come before, and that risk-taking therefore is a key part of the artistic process. Sheffield nods in agreement and adds that the British Council aims to foment innovation, excellence, diversity through different actions that include cultivating new talent and drawing in new audiences. They note that audiences in Britain and other countries are increasingly savvy and sophisticated as a direct result of access to the Internet, which has allowed exposure to different artistic proposals.

Both Sheffield and Florence agree that subsidies for the arts are a double-edged sword. To qualify for subsidies, artists need to take risks and come up with innovative proposals. Sheffield feels that subsidies should be granted when the risks taken are in benefit of the public. Taken to an extreme, however, when the arts that are wholly funded with public monies, he considers that this tends to lead to stagnation. If arts income comes solely from sales, then processes of "extreme Darwinism" take over, killing off projects that might have flourished with a bit of encouragement. The bottom line, Sheffield notes, is that all artistic productions lose money; ticket sales can never compensate for the cost of development and performance, which means that some sort of subsidy system is always needed. Both Sheffield and Florence have noticed that there has been an influx of private investment in the arts, resulting in a "partnering or mixed economy." In general they view this as a positive thing, while noting the some investors "need to be better partners." This also raises the issue of objectionable sponsors. British Petroleum-BP has been a long-time patron of the arts but questions have been raised about the environmental risks and damage of its oil exploration and production activities. Nonetheless Sheffield considers that this should not disqualify the company from sponsoring the arts.

The British Council operates all over the world, including in some war torn countries. In these countries the need to invest in cultural development is more important than ever, as part of the rebuilding process, says Sheffield. A long term inter-country commitment to develop artistic projects is part of that process.

He observes wryly that currently the public places more trust in cultural institutions and expressions than in private institutions like banks or the government. "Politics have become debased," he says.

As he speaks about the work he does and its importance, Sheffield's enthusiasm shows. Graham Sheffield is a man with a mission: to foment mutual cultural understanding through the arts.