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Thursday, 05 March 2009 02:00

Exploring the In-Between: Elleke Boehmer, Writer, Critic and Long-Distance Friend

By  Karina Magdalena Szczurek
I first encountered Elleke Boehmer's work on an island. While sunbathing next to a hotel pool in Sardinia in 2004, I read her novel Bloodlines (2000). Attracted by its unusual cover, I had bought the book a few months earlier in Franschhoek. I was doing research for my PhD thesis at the time, always on the lookout for new South African titles. In an uncanny way, my experience of buying (in South Africa) and reading (in Sardinia) this particular novel sheds light on its author: Elleke Boehmer is a woman of many worlds. Not surprisingly, coming from a migratory, multicultural background myself, I was instinctively drawn to the author and her work.

Elleke Boehmer was born in Durban to Dutch parents. Especially her mother insisted on her speaking Netherlands at home, but in the course of her life Boehmer became what she referred to in one of her essays as "equally if differently comfortable in both languages", her mother tongue and English. She settled in the UK many years ago and is currently professor of World Writing in English in the English Faculty at the University of Oxford. She is one of the leading literary scholars in the world. Her research interests span continents and centuries. At the moment she is working on a large AHRC-funded project entitled "Making Britain", which explores the South Asian contributions to British social, cultural and political life in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. She is also developing a project which will investigate the ties between (post)colonial and migrant writing in English and Netherlands in the nineteenth century as well as the adaptation of postcolonial theory in the Low Countries.

Boehmer is the author of a seminal work in the field of (post)colonial studies: Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (1995), now available in its second expanded edition (2005). Soon after my Sardinian holiday, I had to read this particular book for one of the seminars I attended at the University of Salzburg, where the English Department offers a variety of courses on South African literature and culture as part of the South Africa Focus established there in 1999. These two early reading experiences of Boehmer's work – Bloodlines in Sardinia and Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors in Salzburg – were special for me in their own way: Bloodlines because of its fascinating story about two women who forge a friendship against all odds (one is the girlfriend of a man killed in a bomb attack, the other is the bomber's mother), and Colonial and Postcolonial Literature because of its rare quality in academic writing – absolute clarity of thought and, most importantly, the precise, transparent expression thereof. Her theoretical essays and other full-length studies, such as Empire, the National, and the Postcolonial, 1890-1920: Resistance in Interaction (2002) or Stories of Women: Gender and Narrative in the Postcolonial Nation (2005), attest to the same principle.

When I first met Elleke Boehmer in late 2004 in Salzburg at a conference on South African literature, she immediately reminded me of Otto Mueller's "Maschka mit Maske" (Maschka with Mask), the wonderful portrait Mueller painted of his wife in 1919. Intriguing, commanding, eloquent, charming, and above all willing to share her passion and understanding, Boehmer was an unforgettable presence at the conference. After years and years of being swamped by the mystifying, revered jargon of literary theory, the Spivaks and Bhabhas of the Holy Temple of Academia, it was refreshing to meet an academic who had not only acquired an enormous body of knowledge and insight, but knew how to communicate it with inspiring eloquence.

It was during that short meeting in Salzburg that Boehmer told me about a conference at Royal Holloway, University of London, on J.M. Coetzee and post-apartheid literature. As it was, I was working on a topic at the time which fitted the brief of the conference and my abstract was accepted by the organisers. In April 2005, I travelled to Egham to attend the event. Boehmer was one of the plenary speakers and gave an ingenious paper on Coetzee's "queer bodies". Along with her colleagues, Katy Iddiols and Robert Eaglestone, she subsequently edited a collection of essays from the conference, and my rather tongue-in-cheek piece, in which I pretended to be Coetzee's cousin, was included in the book which was recently published under the title J.M. Coetzee in Context and Theory (Continuum Books, 2009). Boehmer is also the editor of the famous edition of Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship by Robert Baden-Powell (1990) and Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature 1870-1918 (1998), as well as General Editor of Oxford Studies in Postcolonial Literatures.

Late in 2005, I migrated south and Cape Town became my home. Almost a year later, I met Elleke again in South Africa while she was in the country on one of her regular visits. At the time, I was beginning to have serious doubts about the progress, or more precisely lack of it, on my PhD thesis, and the few conversations I had with Elleke saved me from despair, for which I will be eternally grateful. Since then, I completed and defended the thesis, and even though I turned away from academia, creative and critical writing has become my full-time occupation. In the last three years, I have been also fortunate to see Elleke a few times in Cape Town and Oxford and we have become what one might call long-distance friends. I have also become better acquainted with her work.

Apart from being a brilliant scholar, Elleke is also an acclaimed novelist. A while ago she wrote to me how important it was for her to create "a good symbiosis" between her different modes of writing, creative and scholarly, and to focus on narrative and strong images in both, which makes them mutually intelligible. She thinks of herself "not as an academic who happens to write novels, but as a novelist who is also sometimes an academic writer."

Elleke is the author of four novels: Screens against the Sky (1990), An Immaculate Figure (1993), Bloodlines (2000), and most recently, Nile Baby (2008). Her short stories have been internationally published and a collection is in the pipeline. It was my great honour to invite her to contribute to an anthology of short stories I have compiled which is going to be published later this year (Touch: Stories of Contact, Zebra Press). Her story, "The Father Antenna", speaks about the frustration many emigrants experience because of the lack of possibilities of participating in their own cultural rituals in a foreign country. Elleke has interpreted the set theme for the anthology – "touch" – as "staying in touch" with one's homeland.

In her latest novel, Nile Baby, Elleke also explores the in-between of cultures by focusing her story on "the deeply embedded presence of Africa in England today", as Zoë Wicomb summarised in her endorsement of the book. Nile Baby is the story of two teenage friends, Alice and Arnie, who steal a ninety-year-old foetus specimen from their school's lab and decide to return the 'preserved baby' to its rightful place of belonging. The two teenagers embark on a physical and mental journey of discovery about the strange lab creature and themselves. Elleke spoke about Nile Baby at the Oxford Literary Festival this year alongside Ben Okri who presented on his Tales of Freedom. Okri said about Nile Baby that the novel "is informed by an African vision, of the dead and the living existing in each other's spaces".

Nile Baby was launched at the Cape Town Book Fair last year. Its appearance coincided with the publication of another of Elleke's books, an engrossing work of non-fiction on Mandela: Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction. It might be "very short", but by investigating the legend/icon phenomenon he came to represent Elleke's take on the Great Man sparks with fresh insight.

During one of our conversations at the time of the Book Fair last year, Elleke mentioned that she had worked on these two books – Nile Baby and Nelson Mandela – simultaneously and that they had influenced each other in many ways. After reading both, I was intrigued by her statement and decided to probe it in the following e-interview.

The Mandela story will never cease to fascinate, but with so many publications on various aspects of his life and politics out there, wasn't it daunting to embark on this project?

Yes, it was daunting, and then again, I felt excited enough not to feel daunted. The idea of doing a cultural history of Mandela, an analysis of his 'meanings', what he stands for to the world as well as what he has achieved, attracted me from the very beginning that this project of A Very Short Introduction first presented itself to me. And one of the reasons why I was so strongly attracted was because I saw that though numerous publications about Mandela existed, not a single one had yet attempted to understand him as a symbol of our time, an icon of South Africa at the beginning of the twenty-first century. That situation is rapidly changing, of course, but the fact is that when I began writing a book like this did not yet exist. The moment when the idea of the project really lit up for me was when I was given the opportunity to ask my elder son's primary class in England (then all aged about 9 or 10) what the name Mandela signified to them. The group came up with an astonishing variety of at once symbolic yet also media inspired answers ('justice', 'struggle against racism', but also 'cool dude', 'black man with white hair'). It was one of those 'lights go on' moments.  Everyone around the world thinks they know this man; I thought to myself: he is the South African the globe loves to love. But what does that mean? And how has this come about?  Why does the world require a Mandela?  Is this phenomenon something he himself has helped to foster? What influences have gone into his making? And what does this mean for his country? These are the kinds of questions that were in my mind as I sat down to write the book.

Did you know from the beginning what new aspects of Mandela's story (Mandela as gardener or performer, for example) you are going to address in the book, or did they reveal themselves only in the course of your research for the book?

Any process of writing tends to shift and change the questions you began with in the first place, when you first sat down to write. This is perhaps especially the case when writing about a living person: new problems come to light; settled insights shift in the light of fresh information. The globalised Mandela image, I rapidly began to realise for example, cannot be properly understood without grounding him firmly in his South African context. That said, the idea of Mandela's status as colossal icon, or political colossus, was for me from the beginning connected with a sharp awareness of what a supreme performer he is. From the off I saw that he could not achieved what he has achieved, and he could not have encountered the range of successes that he has encountered, without playing different roles to different people, though without ever, or rarely, betraying his core principles. The aspect of Mandela as gardener came to me a bit later than Mandela as performer, and emerged out of quite a long process of pondering how it was Mandela learned the patience and canniness and insight into the motives of others required for the process of negotiation. Sitting one day thinking about J.M. Coetzee's Michael K, a photo of Mandela gardening before me, the lights suddenly changed: suddenly I saw that gardening, which Mandela loves to do, and has carried out with intense commitment across his life, must have trained him in patience and watchfulness. A few other insights came to me in this way of sudden dawning, also.

Fish, as the foetus specimen in Nile Baby is called by Arnie, seems to be of African origin, but has a white, ghostly appearance. In this respect he does not differ from Alice who also has a hybrid identity. They both in different ways represent the meeting place of Africa and Europe. Could you comment?

The 'character' Fish or Nile Baby in the novel is of African origin, we as readers are led to think, but he is also of course dead, long-long dead; the small corpse of an embryo being carried around among the living. His washed-out pastiness is the colour of death. As such – dead among the living, African yet pale, homeless yet cherished, a-float yet earth-borne – Fish is a mixed creature like Alice. Yet in this sense he is also like Arnie, Alice's friend, who is a misfit, an eccentric child, too.   

So, though on one level Fish represents the long embedded presences of Africa within Europe, how Europe or at least England is inseamed with Africa, on other levels he signals the wayward, the out-of-the-ordinary, the anomaly, that which exceeds the accepted pattern of things. The ways in which the various characters deal with Fish all involve grappling with the difficulty or anomaly he represents, making him fit in. Yet these different ways of making him fit also involve, as you say, recognizing the 'impurity' of Europe, the inter-mixing of Africa and England. Look, there he is, there he was, subsisting in amongst us all along! The children Arnie and Alice discover him, and 'rescue' him, because his out-of-the-ordinariness speaks to them.

You once wrote the following about Nile Baby: "I did want to foster feelings of mystery in the reader, to create a sense of the uncanniness of the children, and their triangular relationship with Fish." Why was this important to you?

To develop a bit further what I was saying in the previous response, Fish is uncanny. He is that point of rupture in the normal, day-to-day scheme of things. He is dead yet sometimes apparently alive (or anthropomorphized by the children); he is a watery creature, yet land-borne. And as such he draws out the anomalies, the out-of-sorts qualities in the two friends Arnie and Alice also. They are attracted by the qualities of unusualness that they find in each other. But there was a further importance for me to building up Fish's uncanniness. This has something to do with the fact that the outlawed and excluded of history have also always been seen as uncanny, out on the edge, inhabiting a zone outside what is thought natural, the real world.  Fish – but maybe this is too obvious to say, I don't know – is one of the silenced. He died in pain.

Fish, among many other things/characters in Nile Baby, represents the African presence in Europe. In the book different people have diverse ideas of what should be done with him (returned to place of his uncertain origin, placed in a museum, cared for as a baby, buried, etc). They all project their ideas of who he is and what would be best for him onto him, but really have no way of knowing. In the end, he opts out of the situation in his own, unpredictable way. Is this what makes him like Mandela, who as an icon of our times is many things to many people, but remains true to himself by continuing to act on his own, often also unpredictable, but highly successful terms?

This is an interesting way to put it – both Mandela the historical figure and Nile Baby in the novel are unpredictable yet charismatic characters, who draw others into their orbit and persuade them to follow in their path. As I said recently during a talk, Mandela is in certain respects a Nile Baby.  

Yet, at the same time, it's important to balance this condition of the remarkable and unpredictable pertaining to Fish, but arguably also to Madiba, against another important link between the two. This link I can best capture in the following phrase – Africa, the measure of the human. To me, among Mandela's lasting achievements will be to have demonstrated through his example – his intensely human, reflective and insightful mode as a politician – that Africa is not somewhere-out-there, on the margins, that against which we define what the human is, as has long been the case in Europe. No, Africa is central to our understanding of what the human is. Fish repeatedly draws the other characters attention to his humanness, his unmistakeable humanness. He may be a rupture in the everyday, but he is also a common or garden rupture. He is after all 'only dead'. The children Alice and Arnie expect to see only what is ghastly when they look at him, a century-dead embryo, and then they in their different ways are struck by his human features, they have to contend with that, they can't block his humanness. Mandela arguably had the same effect on his sceptical interlocutors in the 1980s.  For Mandela it was also paramount to resolve divisions between people and parties through talk; the give and take, and further give and take, of conversation. Fish or Nile Baby generates a fair amount of conversation around him and over him, as the characters try to work out who and what he is, and how he might fit into their lives.

At the core of both books are fractured family ties: in Nelson Mandela Mandela's relationships to his parents, children and first two wives; and in Nile Baby Laura's and Katrina's miscarriages; Fish's undisclosed origins; Alice and Arnie's incomplete families in the nucleus-family-terms (death, divorce, adoption, etc). How does this reflect on the relationship between fractured and/or hybrid identities?

As regards fractured family ties, and the obscurity of Fish's origins, I'd like to say at once that I experimented for a long time with giving Fish a monologue, which might have irrupted at the very centre of the book. His would have been a voice of near-silence, coming from the other side of history, that would however have given some clearer impression of where he came from, and where he thought he was going. But then it came to me that even this would have involved a projection upon Fish of an image of him. In the end I had to leave the eponymous Nile Baby as himself a kind of rupture or breach, the mystery that lurks just to the side of any certainty we may have. This was a risk, because novels are ultimately meant to provide clues, if not answers, to the questions they raise and the mysteries they conjure. But Fish ultimately is all mystery, all anomaly.

As this may imply, in a novel that stages the uncanny, the presence of whole family units would have introduced disharmony. Besides which, I am in Nile Baby reflecting a very specific British social milieu, where the typical nuclear family is in the minority. Absent fathers, and working and semi-absent mothers, are the parental players in many children's lives. Mandela's family life till he was an elderly man was in fact representative of the middle-classes in so many different national contexts, though in his case admittedly there were very good reasons why, against his will, he was a more successful father to the nation rather than to his family.

You once said that ideally you would like these two books to be read/reviewed together. Can you comment on this?

Why these two books might be reviewed together: to me as not only author of the two, but also as their reader, there are some interesting connections between them – as I've tried to suggest here. Other readers may disagree, or point out that the connections may be close, yet are also knotted. Nile Baby does not seem to be about South Africa for example whereas Nelson Mandela is all about South Africa. But does this contrast stand up? Mandela's meanings pertain to Africa and the world as well as South Africa, and Nile Baby repeatedly asks important questions about belonging, and geographical movement, and how our bodies and births make our lives, that South Africans will find very pertinent. In Nile Babythis question is repeatedly asked by the characters in their different ways: does where you are born, and where you are native, determine who you are? South African born myself, this is a question that never ceases to confront me.  

Nile Baby published by Ayebia, ISBN 9780955507939
Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction
published by Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780192803016

Elleke Boehmer profile at Oxford: click here.

Elleke Boehmer at Book SA: http://ellekeboehmer.book.co.za
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1 comment

  • Comment Link andrew hilton Sunday, 03 April 2011 02:00 posted by andrew hilton

    "Our commitment to recognise the inviolable transcendental dignity of every human person is often compromised by a misunderstanding of such a person's cultural beliefs and social structures." (Ming Huei (Sandy) and Johanna de Groot.)

    Some weeks ago my family and I visited a small commercial centre in Fiji, located quite near the luxury resort, (certainly compared to nearby village life,) where we were staying. While there I bought and digested high school reading materials from a stationery shop, relating to other colonised indigenous groups, in particular the Maori people in New Zealand (Bruce Mason The Pohutukawa Tree) and certain tribes in Kenya that were ultimately missionised, and thereby largely losing cultural identity (Ngugi The River Between). In this town of Singatoka, the Islamic, Indian and indigenous Fijians, all had separate schools and places of worship; of course in aid of the preservation of culture and identity; so a sense of pluralism.

    I just read Ms Boehmer's introduction to her work, Colonialism and Post Colonialism, and realized that I'd just read and been exposed to 2 pieces of post colonial expression. But then I turned to the table of contents, even though I plan to read the whole work inspired by the writer's clarity of thinking and intention, and looked up Joyce Cary, a writer I've been digesting for 40 years, via his work, critical commentary and at least 3 biographies, only to find what I consider to be M/s Boehmer's cursory appreciation of Cary's work. After a discursive start the reality of applying her thought or should I say template has resulted in Cary being squeezed into a reductionist straitjacket as an example of a 'colonial' writer. Cary was sartorial. In his writing he became the medicine man, the petty magistrate caught between civilisations or the troubled insufficient administrator. There were no judgements. "Intelligence is the poise between reason and love" (an early aphorism of J. Krishnamurti) and Cary lived and wrote, and shared understandings, from such a posture.

    Whatever happened to friendship, a burgeoning sense that the road to an unfolding (and for many a transcendent) sense of wonder is both a shared one, together with being a uniquely personal journey to wholeness.

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