Lydia Davis, photographed in 2013. Photo: Getty
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Looking more closely at the world through the sharp eyes of Lydia Davis

Often, Lydia Davis’s writing requires us to pay very close attention to things most of us choose to pass over.

Can’t and Won’t
Lydia Davis
Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £16.99

If you have never read the stories of Lydia Davis – and you might not have, because she didn’t find a regular publisher in Britain until four years ago, despite her work’s renown not only in her native United States but around the world – you might find yourself wondering, when you do sit down with Can’t and Won’t, what exactly we mean when we use the word “story”. Here, for instance, is “Learning Medieval History”, in its entirety: “Are the Saracens the Ottomans? No, the Saracens are the Moors. The Ottomans are the Turks.” The story appears on the page broken into lines: it looks more like a poem than a story. What then is the distinction between the two?

Or consider “I’m Pretty Comfortable, but I Could Be a Little More Comfortable”, which consists of a little more than six pages of observations, such as: “There’s a long line at the shipping counter” or “He calls me when I’m working” or “I don’t think I like my bedspread any more”, each observation separated by a double line space. There are letters in this volume, such as one to a manufacturer of frozen peas, insisting that the product is in fact more appealing than the picture of the product on the package; or another to an unnamed foundation which attempts to reconstruct, in piercing observational detail, the writer’s experience of receiving a grant from this foundation.

Calling Davis’s work “stories” is, as Christopher Ricks noted when she was awarded the Man Booker International Prize last year, an indication only of the limitations of our language, not of hers. Though he stepped back from the pretension of the term (ah, the English fear of getting above themselves!), he offered that it might be useful to think of a work by her as a devoir: “one’s chosen task, one’s duty, the utmost one can do”. He also reminded readers, rightly, of Coleridge’s depiction of the imagination as “judgement ever awake”.

Reading Can’t and Won’t, Davis’s seventh collection, is a striking reminder of some of the work that judgement entails in the task of writing. Often in Davis’s writing this requires paying very close attention to things most of us choose to pass over. This is evident in “The Cows”, one of the longer pieces in the book, which is a series of descriptions of the cows that live in the fields adjoining Davis’s home in upstate New York. (It was originally published as a chapbook, with photographs of the cows in question.)

Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of entirely new play.

It is a somewhat Beckettian play, in which, over the following pages, the cows move, or stand still, or appear to experience human emotion. (They move “deliberately”, they “worry”, they may or may not be “disappointed” in the people who observe them.) Reading “The Cows” is a meditative act; time passes, seasons change – and we, as much as the writer, begin to measure the passage of time through this simple act of looking. Looking closely, carefully, in a way that most of us never bother to look.

Some of the most curious stories in this collection are labelled, in italics, “dreams”; the acknowledgements show that some of them were composed from the writer’s own dreams or from “dreamlike waking experiences”; others were composed from dreams offered by family and friends. Davis carefully credits each story to each dreamer. But what does this mean for the reader?

For all its concreteness, her work often has what might be called a dreamlike quality; how does the way we process each “dream” differ because we think of it as a dream? Well, that’s up to you. But how you interpret everything you read – stories by Lydia Davis, stories in the newspaper, novels by Stephen King – is up to you, too. To remind us of this is one useful, fascinating purpose these dreams serve.

The title story is telling. Here it is, whole:

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write  out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

An arch commentary, perhaps, on the narrow distinctions (“novel”, “story”, “poem”) into which critics push literature; an invitation to observe and to think about the use of language. “Would not” isn’t contracted here. And, come to think of it, why is “cannot” one word and “will not” two?

Can’t and Won’t, like all of Davis’s remarkable work, is an open invitation to look as closely as we can at both literature and the world.

Erica Wagner is the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia