Interview: Elleke Boehmer and Meg Samuelson in conversation

Writing Migrant Lives in the South: A Conversation

This conversation between Elleke Boehmer and Meg Samuelson began in a book-talk seminar hosted by the Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town on 15 September 2015 and continued across subsequent months of travel and exchange between three countries, Britain, South Africa and Australia. The conversation tacks between two award-winning books by Boehmer, the cultural history Indian Arrivals, 1870-1915: Networks of British Empire (Oxford UP, 2015) and the novel The Shouting in the Dark (Jacana; Sandstone, 2015). Together Boehmer and Samuelson draw out the unexpected resonances discovered in a study of Indian arrivals in London from the opening of the Suez Canal to the first world war, and a novel set in South Africa after the second world war, and consider how writing and shipboard yarns weave these worlds together.

Meg Samuelson (MS): We’ve been in extended conversation over many years and it’s delightful to be welcoming you back to Cape Town to introduce these two quite different but also intriguingly interconnected works. Could you give us some introduction to them?

Elleke Boehmer (EB): Thank you. It’s great to be back here in Cape Town again talking about these two books set in Southern seascapes. The Shouting in the Dark, my fifth novel, is the intense story of a feud, almost to the death, perhaps in fact to the death, between a father and a daughter. The father is a damaged man because of his experiences in the second world war, and the protagonist, Ella, grows up in spite of that conflict-ridden relationship with her father, rather than being helped by it. It’s a story of migration, and a story of the Indian Ocean. There are scenes that take place on, as it were, the ‘lip’ of the Indian Ocean that is Durban, in (then) Bombay, in (then) Ceylon, in Singapore and, right towards the end, off-shore Australia, north of Darwin, in 1942-3. All of those locations are threaded through the novel by way of the father’s story.

So, it’s a story of the Indian Ocean, a story of migration; and although they are very different books, this theme connects the novel to Indian Arrivals, 1870-1915, which is a cultural-literary history of early Indian migration to Britain, largely London, traced through the writings that these travellers, students, gurus and poets left behind. The book is interested not so much in the cultural history of their travel, as in reading the traces and residues of their journeys in their written work. Interestingly, and also indicatively, none of these travellers in this early period of Indian migration wrote a novel, but they were prolific poets, letter-writers, diarists, speech makers, and it’s through those writings that I have traced their migrant pathways.

MS: There are really interesting areas of overlap that we’re going to be teasing out during the conversation. But I want to start with a point of disjuncture, and the question of how you combine what we might call ‘scholarly’ and ‘creative’ writing, and explore these quite similar themes, but through these very different registers?

EB: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question self-reflectively, and of course the truth is that these different modes of writing come from the same place. It’s all about developing an awareness: a critical awareness when it comes to the scholarship, and a critical-creative or psychological awareness when it comes to the fictional writing. It’s all about threading this awareness through a particular experience. One analogy might be of the cursor on a screen, particularly on those old PCs you had with the big, green rectangular screens, how that cursor pushed its way along the line you might be writing. That’s how I imagine the awareness that threads its way through these different kinds of writing.

That said, when I write fiction (and this has become much more important over time) it is essential that I forget everything that I know through scholarship, not through reading, but through study; whereas, of course, that has to remain at the forefront of your consciousness when you’re writing a literary-cultural history. However, these writings do not come from two completely different chambers of the brain. One way to understand this is, I think, the great flowering of non-fictional writing, or ‘creative non-fiction’, in recent years. This demonstrates that these kinds of writing are not neatly divided.

MS: Both works are concerned with how life-experience gets cast and recast into narrative or poetry. The Shouting in the Dark is in a way also a Künstlerroman, about a character who’s emerging as the writer-figure who’s going to recast life experience into a different kind of structural pattern that’s going to make it mean something new. And in Indian Arrivals, it’s about actual journeys being mediated through and reflected in poetry and shorter narratives.

EB: Yes, writing in both cases, for these Indian travellers and for the protagonist of Shouting, is a way of developing self-knowledge, or an understanding of a certain experience. Conversely, however, all of these characters understand themselves through the writing they already know — the experience is always already written. Ella, the protagonist of The Shouting in the Dark, is not a prolific reader, but she does write all the time, and that writing is inevitably informed by what she has read, primarily Victorian novels involving assertive female protagonists, and Anne Frank’s diary.

Likewise, when I began researching Indian Arrivals, I was really struck by how literate many of these Indian travellers were, how they were particularly knowledgeable about writers such as Dickens. It seemed they had mapped London through what they had already read about the city long before they arrived. Their writing was a way of developing a fuller understanding of their experience, but they also already understood that experience in part through the lens of the writing that they knew.

MS: What about the genesis of your two books?

EB: Indian Arrivals grew out of a collaborative project called ‘South Asians making Britain’, the timeline of which, 1870-1950, was far longer than this book and reached up to the period of Indian Independence, Partition, and the creation of Pakistan. It was a big project involving several different researchers and took as its focus Bloomsbury, which of course is now very much associated with the name of Virginia Woolf and her circle, but was actually one of the places where Indian students tended to live, because it was close to University College, London and King’s College, London. I refer to this in the book as ‘Indian Bloomsbury’.

MS: And how about The Shouting in the Dark? At our seminar discussion, we observed the rather striking similarities between you and Ella, or at least, between aspects of your experience.

EB: As was said in so many words by a great writer, J.M. Coetzee, who some time back had an office in buildings nearby, ‘[a]ll autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography’. As Coetzee’s own archives in Texas are now revealing, all of what we write comes from what we know in some shape or form. So of course, there are links between my own experience and the experience of Ella in The Shouting in the Dark. At the same time, she is not me. She has a lot more courage, actually. I had to give her more courage to push her through everything that she goes through, because I couldn’t explain it otherwise. Hers is a story of survival. David Shields, whose Reality Hunger I came across at an important time in the writing process, tells us that anything that the memory has worked on is fiction, that anything that has been crafted through retrospection is a narrative, and thus one can’t claim it as autobiography.

MS: What about the writing process itself, as you shift between the two registers, and as you craft fiction out of experience?

EB: I know that there are writers who plan everything down to the minutest detail of their plot before they begin writing. For me, it’s a more intuitive process of groping through imaginary subterranean caves and occasionally finding places to hold onto. And it’s only on about the third or the fourth rewriting that a kind of plot or a pattern of events starts to emerge, that gives me the thread that allows other things to fall into place. So it’s the process of rewriting that switches the lights on, or that reveals the narrative thread: The Shouting in the Dark I rewrote seventeen times, and of the seventeen times, about five versions were written completely from scratch. However, I’m not like Richard Flanagan, who said he put all of his rejected drafts on the barbeque! I didn’t do that, I kept them all, because some of them have good sections that I always thought I might at some point go back to, rework, recycle, as Thomas Hardy used to do with his off-cuts. Nevertheless, five times I shut what I had written in a cupboard and I began again.

MS: And the archived experiences you used in writing Indian Arrivals?

EB: In this case I was restricted to English language writings, partly because to be able to speak, write and read English was a prerequisite condition for travellers from the Indian subcontinent at this time. Some of the poets, one or two, MM Dutt, in particular, chose to turn to writing in Bengali after their journey, but all of those I looked at were writing primarily in the English language. I began by looking mainly at published work, and then I went to look at the Rabindranath Tagore archive which was incredibly interesting and detailed, a true global archive. Tagore was actually one of those who didn’t write first in English, though he self-translated.

I also went to look at drafts of Sarojini Naidu’s poems that are housed in libraries in New Delhi and in Kolkata. One aspect that was fascinating about both archives was the light the manuscripts cast on writers-in-transit, how writers work in transit. For example, a lot of Naidu’s drafts are written on letter-head paper from the steam-ships in which she travelled, or the hotels she stayed in en route. Tagore’s manuscripts likewise bear the traces of travel in various ways. He writes in the corner of pages, he makes notes to himself and so on.  In other words, these writers made sense of their travel in part through writing. They also used different languages. So someone like Naidu, who was an English-language poet, was nevertheless conversant in other languages, and was strongly influenced by the Persian ghazal tradition, for example. So, though most of the writings I looked at are in English, all of them are affected or shaped by other cultural and linguistic traditions.

MS: Are there figures who lurk on the margins of the text, who you are aware of, but who don’t find in the archive because they don’t project themselves through written culture or particularly through written English, such as the lascars and sepoys?

EB: Yes, I do recognise and I hope properly acknowledge that of course most travelling by people from the subcontinent at this time was done by Indian seamen, lascars, who circulated through the shipping routes of the world. Amitav Ghosh writes evocatively about the experience of lascars and has done a lot of fascinating archival work on the language, the sort of creole that they would have spoken. In respect of non-literary traces, I had one of those wonderful archival moments, when all of a sudden something falls into place, when I went to look at the census records of 1901 for the area around the London docklands and noticed how many anglicised Indian names occurred there.  ‘Lal’ for example, often spelt ‘l-a-l-l’, and ‘Ali’, which appears in all kinds of different spellings, ‘a-l-l-i-e’, ‘a-l-l-i’, ‘a-l-l-y’, anglicized spellings in other words, reflecting lascar presences in this area, living there, waiting for a ship to return home, or ayahs, nurses who had travelled back to England with Anglo-Indian families and would often end up destitute, trying to find a berth or a ship back home.

MS: We’ve called this conversation ‘Writing Migrant Lives in the South’ – can we discuss the term ‘migrant’? This has been a constant preoccupation in your work since your first academic book, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, which was subtitled ‘Migrant Metaphors’. How has that thread been woven through your work since then?

EB: In any book I suppose my starting position is that here is always elsewhere and that elsewhere is threaded through here. Here I’m reminded of the writer Nadeem Aslam who always assures his audiences that his homeland, any homeland, is part of the universal landscape of the imagination. Because of human migration, we are creatures on the move by and large, and this shapes how we see the world. We do tend to put down roots and settle, we are landed creatures, but we have moved in great numbers throughout history. So, by definition, our consciousness, our life-experience, our imagination, the integument of our bones, is shaped by where we are, but also by where we have been. Even for those who have not experienced migration across space, there is of course the migration across a life, the temporal migration, which always necessarily takes us away from where we began, we never quite end up in the same place we started from.

Many of the texts, writing and books that I look at in Indian Arrivals are travelogues in one way or another, migrant writings, diaries recording travel. Even Sarojini Naidu’s poems, which I spend some time in two different chapters talking about, were actually written on board ship. I think it’s interesting to think about decolonial or postcolonial theory and criticism as writing that’s also in transit in one way or another. It’s often written by intellectuals who are migrants. They’re very rarely working in the place, or even the country, where they grew up. Think of V.S. Naipaul who I’d say is first and foremost a travel writer; or Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie’s book of essays, about writing in transit and writings about transit. Meanwhile, Walter Mignolo is a decolonial theorist and migrant working in the US, but harking back to other spaces and other traces. And so on.

MS: Let’s tease out further this idea of being ‘landed beings’ who move.

You’ve pointed to the Indian Ocean as one of the central spaces mapped out by your recent works, and it’s the connective tissue between them: one book traces voyages across the Northern Indian Ocean through Suez, and the other is thinking about the end of the Dutch East Indies that’s being recalled from just inland Durban, looking out on the South Western regions of that ocean. I’m interested in the ways in which this particular body of water inflects human movement. Sugata Bose has argued in A Hundred Horizons that in the Indian Ocean we don’t see migration, we instead see a circulation of people. And you’ve written in Indian Arrivals about how Indian pathways of arrival in the heart of empire tend to be ‘recursive’, an interesting term you might expand on?

EB: My own sense of the Indian Ocean is indeed shaped by having read Sugata Bose, and also by having been born in Durban and spent some time growing up there. It is shaped by my strong visceral and geographical sense of that watery space, and of always looking out across the sea, rather than back towards the land. I’m aware of the way in which one’s sense of oneself can be shaped by proximity to that sea, of always being aware that there were ocean-liners, ships, tankers, waiting outside Durban harbour, products of a constant movement and shuttling back and forth. I found that sense of connection and movement especially helpful during the dark years of apartheid, an openness that offered some kind of relief or antidote to living in this then fortress nation. I’m not claiming that this was a primary trigger-moment for both books, but rather that it’s remained a presence in my life.

I remember the terrible tsunami on Boxing Day of 2004, hearing the news on the television, thinking about that pulse that struck all the Ocean’s shores, one way or another. It reminded me of my connection to the Indian Ocean, though under a more benign aspect. It’s been the ocean in which I learnt to swim. It was always warm, and has great waves, at least, in my somewhat nostalgic picture of it. But on 26 December, suddenly, the Indian Ocean had been turned into a force of terrible destruction. About three days after the worst of the tsunami had hit, a friend in Durban wrote to me about the huge waves still coming in, which gave a sense of the reverberation that had moved all the way across those vast tracts of sea. So we aren’t looking just at migration or even circulation, but at forces that strike all the shores around that great arc leading from Cape Agulhas round to Perth. The Shouting in the Dark traces the whole arc of the Indian Ocean throughout the course of the narrative: all the way around from Durban through Ceylon, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and to Australia right at the end.

MS: The historian Christopher Bayly in The Birth of the Modern World talks about ‘the great acceleration’ that was enabled by the advent of steam ships and how this put unprecedented numbers of people and ranges of things in circulation. This, he suggested, produced a completely different sense of what it means to be part of the world. You are writing about writers who are, as he put it, on the move and living with that sense of being in a world in the making. Could you comment further on this: how did this great acceleration change the way in which the worlds you write about were imagined?

EB: Interestingly, I think that much of this writing was actually a way of slowing this acceleration down slightly, reflecting back and retracing. It’s important that some of the writing I’m looking at in Indian Arrivals took place on board ship. To make a further link, the father’s stories in The Shouting in the Dark that he narrates on the verandah at night are also often stories set on board a ship, and he retells them to make sense of them. I think these technologies of acceleration also offered encapsulating moments for those who were being accelerated. The ships were the shuttles in the loom, a metaphor Rudyard Kipling uses evocatively in ‘The Coastwise Lights’. Indian Arrivals is all about different versions of that acceleration and what it was to be ‘modern’.

But one of the consequences of the acceleration was that most of the writers that I’m looking at felt themselves to be modern even before they began to travel, in part because the messages from the centre were already on their doorstep; because of the steam ships, but also because of the telegraph. Messages from London travelled to Bombay and to Calcutta almost instantaneously by the end of the nineteenth century. When they travelled to London, or when they were on board the steam ships, what they were experiencing had therefore already in some sense been described to them. I play with this quite a lot in Indian Arrivals, finding the familiar in the strange and encountering the strangeness of what should be the familiar, both of which are consequences of the acceleration of this rapidly modernizing world, as Bayly observed.

On connective technologies, liminal spaces and zigzaggery
MS: I wondered if we might talk a little more about these connective technologies –  ships, cables, the Suez Canal itself – given that they figure so centrally in these books. In your short story collection Sharmilla, and other portraits, I was particularly affected by the story ‘The Father-Antennae’, and I was delighted to find you returning to that father figure in The Shouting, where he is given a more expansive novelistic treatment. I’m struck by how in the latter he is associated with the maritime world – his earlier life at sea, his frequent visits to the harbour, taking Ella to see the passing ships – and in the former he makes himself an extended radio antenna, enabling the marooned mother figure to connect with home. These are both redemptive episodes, in that they to some degree redeem a problematic, if not oppressive, father figure.

And how do these figures and technologies connect to the Suez Canal itself, which enables the passing from one world to another that you discuss in that wonderful chapter in Indian Arrivals which introduces a concept that you call ‘Suez discourse’? The completion of the canal is such an important world-making moment…

EB: Yes, the Suez Canal is incredibly important, both in Indian Arrivals, and implicitly in The Shouting in the Dark. For the travellers it’s a kind of birth canal that takes them from the Arabian gulf into the Mediterranean. It’s about transition, accelerating travellers into the modern world only to find out that they were modern all along; it’s about the past and the future colliding. In understanding this I am indebted to Michael Ondaatje’s novel The Cat’s Table, which is a remarkable instance of ‘Suez writing’ or discourse. So many of the British writers who travelled to India also dwelt on this moment of the Suez Canal — Leonard Woolf, for example, when he went out to be a colonial officer in (then) Ceylon, talks about the experience as being born into the east, as it were.

This is clearly related to some of the themes we’ve been talking about: liminal spaces, transition, these postcolonial or decolonial conditions of being. I was very struck earlier in 2015 when the news came that Egypt had built a new Suez Canal alongside the old one, which is now clogged up with Israeli planes and debris; unlike the old Suez Canal, ships can pass through this new one. With the old Suez Canal the ships had to use lay-bys, whereas now they can pass one another.

MS: And writing itself is in these books a primary technology of connection, as it is also liminal space? Let’s turn back to The Shouting in the Dark and the space of the verandah, where the father does his shouting every night, reliving that war in the Indian Ocean. But ‘verandah’ is also the word that Ella later traces on a serviette, and which prefigures her turn to narrative – she’s been writing poetry as young woman, but it’s this word that enables her to begin writing and to start finding a new path through her father’s stories. After she writes ‘verandah’, a list of words scrolls out of her, the last of which is ‘zigzag’, and which then becomes the title of the last chapter.

It seems to me that this is a pattern that you’re reaching towards in both works, one that is also imagined through movement across bodies of water. There are quite wonderful scenes in this book about some closed bodies of water: a dam and the zigzag movements across it, and the trip to swim in the municipal pool in Umtata just after the so-called ‘independence’ of the Transkei. All feed into and inform this idea of zigzag, of ‘[d]ifferent patterns: zigzags, circles, continuations; not warring opposites’ – of a ‘zigzag’ writing that allows for a more complicated and integrated story than that which is captured in the idea of the ‘rhetoric of empire’ with its ‘warring opposites’. Similarly, in Indian Arrivals, the leitmotif is of the finely-meshed network, rather than of antagonistic binaries.

EB: Yes, the pattern or concept of the zigzag brings to mind a kind of tacking, a proceeding by indirection, not going straight forward. And the other patterns mentioned repeat themselves, do not progress in a linear way. Here I think of remarks by the Marxist critic, Logie Barrow on the zigzag as a way of capturing, diagrammatically, what happens between two people in interaction that Leela Gandhi quotes in Affective Communities. Building on Barrow’s idea, if you imagine two people having a conversation and walking along together, the conversation zigzags between them. Indian Arrivals thinks very carefully about what is involved in an intercultural friendship, relationship or interaction. It’s not only a binary ‘give and take’: in the giving and the taking there’s also a modulation, a negotiation that takes place. And the idea of the zigzag captures something of that, a conversation that proceeds as two people are moving together through space.

When I was coming to the end of The Shouting in the Dark – I came to the end of the first draft of The Shouting in the Dark around the time that I was writing the introduction of Indian Arrivals – it struck me that the complicated father figure in The Shouting in the Dark is best described using imagery of ‘zigzaggery’. Yes, he’s right-wing, he’s domineering, he’s patriarchal, but he also has moments of insight; in fact, he enjoys a kind of political chicanery. There is, after all, something of a zigzag built into the idea of a chicane. It’s not all straight or straight down the line, and not all binary, right or wrong. So it occurred to me that the zigzag was something that would allow me to capture the complexity of the father’s character. And then, on further reflection, I realised that I myself as a writer had traced something of a zigzag pathway, proceeding by indirection in writing the character. It was extraordinarily difficult for me to write this character, very tough, but though I began with resentment, I ended up with a kind of grudging respect, even tenderness — it was a zigzag path. Once you start looking for these patterns, they crop up everywhere, and they allowed me to think my way through both narratives. Returning, in conclusion, to the very first question about creative and critical writing as coming from the same space, I feel that it’s these wayward or spongy metaphors that allow a writer to work productively on two different but inter-related tracks.

This conversation began as book-talk seminar hosted by the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on 15 September 2015 following the launch of Indian Arrivals and The Shouting in the Dark at the Open Book Fair in Cape Town. We are grateful to HUMA, and particularly Ilana van Wyk, for hosting us and for sharing their recording of the event, as well as to Christine Emmett for her sterling work in transcribing it.

Works cited

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