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Sarah Ladipo Manyika: “Breaking convention often takes courage and is seldom rewarded”

The Goldsmiths Prize shortlisted author discusses reading for pleasure, the sexuality of older women, and the importance of diversifying literary awards.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika is a novelist and literature professor raised in Nigeria. She has lived in Kenya, France and England, and now California, where she teaches at San Francisco State University. Her first novel, In Dependence, was published by Legend Press in 2008. Her second, Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun, is shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, with judge Bernardine Evaristo calling it “a unique meditation on loneliness, and the desire to live fully into old age.”

Why do you think we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Literary prizes are a boost to writers, publishers and the publishing industry. They are also a good way of getting the public to talk about literature and to notice books. The Goldsmiths Prize is particularly important because it rewards fiction and writers that might not otherwise be considered for prizes. It gives legitimacy and recognition to the unconventional.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

There is always a time and place to enjoy the conventional, but art is not art if it remains static. Think of how much richer art is today thanks to those who broke the mould… Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Fela Kuti, Pablo Picasso, Yinka Shonibare, Toni Morrison, Amos Tutuola, and Nawal El Saadawi to name but a few. Breaking convention often takes courage and is seldom rewarded. I think of Zora Neale Hurston whose brilliance with idiomatic speech in Their Eyes Were Watching God was dismissed as caricature. I often wonder how much more she might have written and how much more she would have flapped her literary wings had the extent of her talent been recognized while she was alive. Would she have avoided the fate of being buried in an unmarked grave?

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize?

A book that touched me in a profound way is John Berger’s To the Wedding. This short novel is choreography, impressionistic painting, song and feasting all in one. With shifting points of view, this book defies the reader to do anything but to read it in one sitting – and then re-read it, again and again. Berger is also one of those writers who is continuously inventive with form and content and even with genre, combining photography, sketches, and text in novel ways.

There is a moment in your novel when Morayo reorganises her books, putting Wide Sargasso Sea above Jane Eyre to “redress the old colonial imbalance”. Were you pleased to see Paul Beatty win the Booker Prize? Do you think such prizes have a responsibility to redress old imbalances favouring white writers? 

In the spirit of the Goldsmiths prize, a book like Wide Sargasso Sea breaks the mould by providing a window into the lives of people that previously had little voice in literature. I, like my main character, am always interested in books that expand and enrich the literary landscape of older, canonical texts. Books such as The Meursault Investigation giving voice to the unnamed Arab victim in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial version of the Iliad with its focus on those who died, both move once peripheral characters to the center. I was delighted to hear that Paul Beatty won the Booker Prize and I admire his resistance to the easy categorization of his work as just “satire”. I feel a kinship with writers that seek not to be pigeonholed, for, as a writer straddling multiple worlds in life and in fiction – European, African, and American – I also find myself resisting categorization. I love the fact that an American author, who might not have received much acclaim or fame in the US, is now receiving this in the UK. Literary prizes should, in my opinion, honour the vision of the particular prize and not be limited by what has been done before or what might be expected.

What was the genesis of Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun?

I’ve met many older women who have lived colourful lives, and yet when it comes to fiction I don’t find many stories that mirror this, especially so when it comes to the lives of black women. When I cannot find stories that I’d like to read, I try writing them for myself. One of the women that inspired the writing of this story was a single, elderly Jewish woman, whom I met when I first moved to San Francisco. She was not as flamboyant as Morayo, but she was just as fiercely independent. I was in the middle of writing this story when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and its related dementia. The last few years of her life were very difficult ones and so I wrote this story – a more upbeat story, one that I would perhaps have wished for her.

Morayo is 75 and brimming with sexuality. What made you want to explore the sexual inner life of an older woman?

It was because I had not read other books that explore an older woman’s sexuality that I decided to go there, albeit in a small way. Thanks to such authors as J.M. Coetzee, Ian McEwan and Philip Roth, I have many literary examples of older men’s desire, but far less when it comes to older women. Yet, when I speak to older women… well, the stories that many tell!

The idea of pleasure more generally is something that this novel returns to. Do you think reading should first and foremost be a pleasurable act?

I think that reading fulfills different desires for different people at different times. Sometimes, we read for pleasure, sometimes to be informed, sometimes as a distraction or escape. Perhaps what’s most important is that reading should be a compelling and rewarding experience, for that’s what keeps us reading. When I began John Berger’s To the Wedding it was not, at first, an altogether pleasurable experience in terms of the content or the form in which it was written. It took me a while to get used to his style of writing. I had a similar experience with Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, David’s Grossman’s, To the End of the Land, and Marilynne Robinson’s Home, yet all of these books would soon become favourite books – books that I continue to find rewarding as well as pleasurable. Many of the pleasures that I find in To the Wedding, for example, have to do with the beauty of Berger’s language – including an ability to conjure up multiple senses within one line. I love references to food, and there’s a poignant scene towards the end of To the Wedding in which two characters share “rolls of golden milk bread decorated with sugar crystals and vermillion berries” a scene that I will never forget.

Morayo writes a few paragraphs in the second person inspired by the physicality of Paul Auster’s Winter Journal that also reminded me of Claudia Rankine’s work. This book is very interested in what it means to live in a woman’s body, or a black body, or, indeed, a black woman’s body. How important was it for you to bring these topics up in your fiction?

Very few stories are written from the perspective of older women, let alone an older black woman, and so this was one of the things that drove me to write Morayo’s story. The second person is a powerful way of getting a reader to step into the shoes of the other and it works extremely well in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and in Paul Auster’s Winter Journal. The invisibility of black lives and the persistence of racism globally, which lie at the heart of much of Rankine’s work, are of great concern to me. I’ve written specifically about these issues in my nonfiction work, including an essay entitled “Coming of Age in the Time of the Hoodie.”

The novel slides between a wide variety of different voices. Was it a priority for you to portray a diversity of perspectives within this one work?

Yes, it was, and particularly at this point in history when there seems to be so much emphasis on what divides rather than unites us as a human race. My characters range from my protagonist, a 75-year old Nigerian woman who was once an ambassador’s wife and is now a retired professor; to Toussaint, an African American chef at a home for the elderly; to Sage, a homeless woman and Grateful Dead devotee. These are not the sorts of characters that might ordinarily be associated with a city such as San Francisco, and yet they represent the great diversity that exists in this city. I often find myself drawn to characters that are invisible due to circumstances such as socioeconomic status, gender and ethnicity. I’m particularly interested in how the so-called “outsiders” think of themselves in contrast to how others see them.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

There are almost too many to name – ranging form Nina Simone’s songs to Nora Chipaumire’s performance works, to collage paintings by Njedeka Akunyili Crosby, to a very long list of writers. But there was one piece of art that I looked at almost every day while writing this book. It’s a piece on painted wood and cardboard entitled “The other open window” by the Zimbabwean artist, Munyaradzi Mazarire. I like to think of books and art in general as serving as windows into worlds that we might not otherwise see, and this piece of art always inspires me in that way. Mazarire’s work helps me to imagine what lies behind what we might not immediately be able to see.

Finally: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to be so many things, and perhaps this is why I’m a writer. One common thread in my other imagined careers is a love of storytelling. For example, I’d love to sing, to have the power to move people with lyrics in the way that someone like Nina Simone or Bob Marley or Bob Dylan have done. I’d like to be a doctor – to be able to listen to people’s stories, figure out what’s wrong and how to cure them. I would also love to work in radio and host my own show. Inspired by Kirsty Young, I’d even love to host a programme like Desert Island Discs

“Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun” is published by Cassava Press.

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, announced on 9 November, will appear in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 26 November.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear