Wu Ming: A band of militant storytellers

The Celluloid Liberation Front speak to the Italian literary collective Wu Ming, whose work draws readers in to exchange, sharing and confrontation.

A collective of militant storytellers opposing the toxic narratives that create fear, prejudices and inequality - Wu Ming is not your average literary phenomenon. At a time when the proof of our existence, relevance and worth is measured by how fast our virtual image(s) propagate through the media landscape, Wu Ming refuses to be photographed or filmed. No, forget the Pynchons or the Salingers, Wu Ming is anything but shy, quite the contrary. Its members in fact cultivate a very close relationship with their readers via numerous public readings and presentations, taking active part in political struggles and debates as well as through a "participating" use of their blog, Giap.

As to why they are not very keen on their own image being captured on film (or on file), Wu Ming 1 motivated their choice in a 2007 interview thus: "a picture witnesses my absence, it stands for distance and solitude. The picture blocks you, freezes you in time, denies your becoming something else, your unfolding." They prefer the dynamism of their voices that brings them closer their readers. Their public presence, both physical and virtual, avoids promotional proselytising and focuses instead on exchange, sharing and confrontation. Their blog Giap is not a place where the literary collective pontificate and the faithful readers gather in awe. The comments section often turns into a public square, a virtual street corner where the Wu Ming members (1,2,4 & 5, Wu Ming 3 having left the collective) engage in lengthy, sometimes heated, always critical debates with the blog visitors/readers (fascists not welcome, reads a warning on the homepage).

Their story begins in the 1990s when, under the pseudonym Luther Blissett, they engaged in cultural guerrilla warfare, semiotic sabotage and media pranks - all this, at a time when the World Wide Web was but a digital foetus. At the end of that decade, when according to the neoliberal ideologues history was supposed to be ended, Luther Blissett published Q, a historical novel that became a best seller and was translated into several languages. From then on, after having changed their name into Wu Ming ("anonymous" in Mandarin) this  band of novelists continued their literary militancy, publishing four novels collectively and many others individually or in collaboration with other authors.

We asked Wu Ming a few questions since their new novel, Altai, is published by Verso this week.

Through your blog, Giap (named after the retired Vietnam People’s Army General Võ Nguyên Giáp), you actively engage with readers by replying to their comments on your posts whose topics vary from politics to literature, cultural matters to personal musings. Can you explain the significance of your online presence and how it has impacted your work?

We started using computer networks (that's what they were usually called in those days) in the early 1990s. Back then, there were such international bulletin boards as ECN and Fidonet, whose Italian nodes were very active and populated by radicals and countercultural types. The World Wide Web came into existence - or at least entered our radar - a short while later, exactly at the time we got in touch with some  elusive UK characters, like Richard Essex aka the London Psychogeographic Association and Stewart Home, whom we contacted after reading the Neoist Alliance Manifesto on an Italian mail art 'zine. It turns out that that 'zine was edited by Alberto Rizzi, the guy who had the idea of pulling a prank on Chi L'Ha Visto, that famous missing persons' TV show... We invented an English artist, and invented his disappearance, and suddenly a state-funded TV crew was looking for him in Italy and the UK... However, that happened later.

In 1994 Stewart Home sent us plenty of material on multiple names: Monty Cantsin, Karen Eliot, Lt. Murnau... That's how we started the Luther Blissett Project. As early as 1995 we already had our own website(s) running. Our current website - wumingfoundation.com, of which Giap is the most important element - has been online since January 2000. As happened for many other groups of artists-cum-activists, the Net has shaped all our work and modus operandi. We used to talk about interactivity, social networking, online conversations and so on when most people still thought it was all a fad...

We're not on Facebook because we find it disgusting. We've been using Twitter - with some ups and downs - since 2009, with a blend of skepticism and experimental fervour. We stopped using it for a while because it was addictive, then we found a good way to use it: it's very simple, we're tweeting the comment feed from Giap, a tweet consists of the first sentence of the comment, which rouses curiosity and people click on the link. Giap lives in symbiosis with Twitter, but we keep being a little skeptical, you know, kind of inquisitive, self-critical... Social media can be dangerous, we started saying that years ago, now everybody says that but in a way that we don't like... We're neither net-enthusiasts nor net-pessimists.

All the novels you have collectively written so far are historical ones. History in your books seems to function on multiple levels. On the one hand it demystifies what you refer to as “toxic narratives” in order to critically explore the origins and causes of our current predicament. On the other hand there is a strong allegorical dimension. Why did you always choose to set your novels in past? And will you ever consider setting your novels in the present time?

Actually some of our novels are set in the present time, and some of our books are not novels, they're what we call "Unidentified Narrative Objects", by which we mean a sort of... non-fiction novel... gone awry. Anyway, the books that were translated into English are all historical novels. Now we're writing a novel on Terror, we mean the real thing, 1793 Terror, Robespierre and all that. Most likely, it will be our last "ordinary" (just kidding) historical novel. After Sleepwalking Army (that's the title), we're thinking of writing a communist science-fiction novel set in the 1970s. Of course the 1970s are history as well, but we're going to work on the sources in a different way. In plain words, we like history because it provides us with countless stories to (re)discover and tell, but there are many ways to use history.

You have claimed that your most recent novel that has just been translated into English is not a sequel of your first work, Q (published under your previous pseudonym Luther Blissett). That said, chronologically Altai begins where Q had ended and the two novels also share some characters. Why did you feel the need to go back to those times and places?

In 2008, due to personal reasons, Luca aka Wu Ming 3 left the group after about 13 years of writing together, and 18 years of collaboration on other projects. All of a sudden, the quintet became a quartet. It was disorientating, to say the least. There was a crisis. A crisis of... balance, because the collective had to found a new balance. It was a question of learning how to work, write and interact among us in a new way. Ten years before, in 1998, we had delivered Q to the Italian publisher. It was published in March 1999.

It dawned on us that 2009 would be Q's tenth anniversary; what better occasion to find a new balance? In order to digest Luca's departure, we went «back to the crime scene». Our detractors think that publishing Q was nothing short of a crime, so... What better way to irritate them even more than writing a follow-up? It isn't a sequel, it isn't Q 2... It's a very different book, because after 10 years we were very different. When we started to write Q the oldest member of the band was 31, the youngest was 21. Now the oldest is 49 and the youngest 39. That's what we did in 2008: we wrote a novel that at some difficulty reachable level was also a meditation on ourselves. Thanks to Altai, we managed to start over.

In both your two latest novels, Manituana and Altai, “the female side” has a stronger creative and emphatic role within the stories you narrate. Do you agree? If yes, why do you think it is?

We went further then that in other books and short stories, such as New Thing and Arzèstula, whose main characters are women. It is difficult for male writers to depict convincing female characters, that was the problem with Q, the way we described women was... lame. We're very self-critical about that. We've been trying hard for so long, because we think one is not a good writer if she can't depict convincing characters of all existing genders, and also because  there are already more than enough novels written by men for men about men and male bonding. One of our models is Stephen King, WM1 translated two of his latest books, Full Dark No Stars and 11/22/63. King is pretty good at creating believable female characters... for a man. 

Recently you have produced a significant amount of critical material, analyses and commentary regarding the Beppe Grillo’s phenomenon in Italy. Some of it made it onto the pages of the British press; can you explain why you felt it was important to dissect and debunk this particular phenomenon? How do you see it developing?

We're too tired to talk about that. It's so boring to see things go exactly as you predicted...  The Five Star Movement played an important role in keeping the situation stable, and now they're suffering a deep crisis, with a lot of internal conflict. Grillismo only rippled the surface of the system, which created an impression of turmoil and instability, but it was all phoney, it took place only in the arena of national news media. Movements like that serve to stabilise the system: by pigeonholing anger and unrest into simplistic discourse (ie they're against politicians but not against the bosses and the ruling class), they prevent social protest from erupting, they make struggles against austerity more difficult, and they impair the development of anticapitalist movements.

The result is that, people in Spain are taking to the streets again, they're preventing evictions, they're engaging in radical praxis like escrache, ie targeted harassment of politicians and bosses, whereas, what are Grillo's people doing in Italy? They sit in parliament, where they don't have any detectable influence on national politics, and they're losing local elections one after another. In the towns and cities where they managed to elect a mayor in 2011, they're administering austerity like everyone else, no difference. Very often, key representatives of the movement (but it isn't really a movement, it's more a politico-commercial franchise) take racist positions on migrants and citizenship. Some of them are nothing other than fascists. Many people are getting disillusioned about Grillo's potential for change.

Are you working on new projects? What are your future plans both as a collective and as single members?

We already told you about the novel on the French Revolution, and the sci-fi project we'd like to work on after that. We just got a new book out in Italy, it is entitled Point Lenana. It's one of those unidentified narrative objects, it is both a narrative biography of Felice Benuzzi - the author of No Picnic on Mount Kenya, a minor classic on prison camp escape and mountaineering in Africa - and a non-fiction novel on Italy in the 20th century: Fascism, Italian colonialism in East Africa, mountain climbing and many other things. Research and writing took exactly four years. Wu Ming 1 even climbed Mount Kenya himself, in order to follow Benuzzi's steps.

No photo: "A picture witnesses my absence, it stands for distance and solitude. The picture blocks you, freezes you in time, denies your becoming something else."
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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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