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Richard Flanagan Q&A: “My mother hoped I might make a good plumber”

The author on growing up in Tasmania, his favourite cricketer, and politics as a shadow play.

Richard Flanagan was born in Tasmania in 1961, the fifth of six children. In 2014 he said that he was contemplating seeking work in north Australia’s mines before he won the Man Booker Prize for his sixth novel, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Running in the light pouring into the aisle of a bush church to which my mother and grandmother had taken me. The Catholic churches in country Tasmania were not much more than large wooden sheds, the gathering places of the descendants of the Irish convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land during the famine. I don’t know why we were there. To pray, I guess. I used the memory for the start of The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Who was your childhood hero?

The cricketer Jeff Thomson. When the greatest quick of all time was asked the secret of his action, he replied: “I just shuffle in and go wang.” Which also seems as good an explanation of writing as any other that I have since heard.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Not a book, but an essay by Camus, called “Return to Tipasa”. Daring, moving, and finally hopeful, written as the euphoria of liberation was giving way to the polarities of the Cold War, it speaks directly to now.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Other than the rise of noise, I do like now. It’s an extraordinary world and, more than we dare acknowledge, a beautiful one.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Politics is a shadow play and I sometimes fear that in admiring shadows we deny ourselves. Which is perhaps why so many who looked to Obama then voted for Trump.

What’s your theme tune?

“Zorba’s Dance” from Zorba the Greek. It always ends badly. Zorba says, in the novel at least, if he could write it or sing it he would, but he can only dance it. Who doesn’t want to dance the world?

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I was young, I won a scholarship out of Tasmania that got me to Oxford. I went to tell my parents. My mother was peeling vegetables and took it in the manner of a radio update on the football score, and suggested I tell my father who was out the back turning the compost. I told him my news. He never turned around. He said, reciting Kipling: “If you should meet with Triumph or Disaster treat these two impostors just the same.” And that was that. I laughed and left. But he was right.

When were you happiest?

I do recall as a young man nearly drowning, trapped in an air pocket in a rapid for several hours, and, after, knowing I was alive, I felt not happy – the word seems hopelessly inadequate in this regard – but a most overwhelming sense of wonder that I never quite lost.

What’s currently bugging you?

Too much about too little.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

My mother had high hopes for me and thought, with application, I might make a good plumber. I had the folly of thinking I might even aspire to being a carpenter, but secretly all I ever wanted to be was a writer.

I can’t believe I’ve made it to 56 with no one blowing the whistle on me – yet.

Are we all doomed?

Thankfully, yes. It’s called death, and without its prospect and example before us what reason would we have to live? And I mean live

Richard Flanagan’s new novel “First Person” is published by Chatto & Windus 

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist