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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Why affairs of the heart do not interest V.S. Naipaul

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, commonly known as Sir Vidia, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, is in Uganda to do research for a book on traditional African religion. On March 20, Makerere University’s Department of Literature hosted Sir Vidia and his wife Lady Naipaul, to a public dialogue. The dialogue was chaired by Dr Abbas Kiyimba, while Prof. Arthur Gakwandi and Dr Ernest Okello-Ogwang, and later a few members from the audience, posed the questions. Excerpts:

Sir Vidia, begin by telling us why in 1966 you chose to take up a writing fellowship at Makerere and what kind of experience you had when you got here.

The African American Foundation asked me to come. This was in 1965 and I was having trouble with the book I was trying to write. I had been having trouble with it for about a year and I thought this was a good opportunity to get away from that depression and have a look at Uganda where they asked me to come.
So I came and I was given a little bungalow on the grounds of the university here and I spent a lot of time dealing with the book, dealing with my writing.

I didn’t look out as much as I should have done. And it’s only a few days ago that I went to Jinja and saw the Nile. I had not done that before – 40 years ago. And I am quite astonished that I didn’t. I think it indicates what I said in the beginning: being very worried about what I was trying to do and the obsession with my work that has continued with me.

The British have knighted you for your contribution to British literature. Given that you have written on a wide range of subjects, do you still carry your Caribbean identity [having been born in Trinidad and Tobago] or have you acquired a new cosmopolitan identity that recognises no boundaries?

You must understand that these honours are not very personal. There is a government in office and it has to give a certain number of honours and the basket looks a little empty and so you turn it over a few times and then there is a little figure at the bottom and they say, yes, we give it to him this time. I think it was like that. Some people think it was actually given by the Queen. But the accolade which one gets at the Buckingham Palace is done by the Queen but the reward is done from Downing Street. So it’s political and it doesn’t indicate any seducing me from my other loyalties. It’s up to you to reject these honours when they come. In fact, in 1977 when I was travelling in Venezuela a letter came to me offering what is known as a CBE. There are three degrees of that order – the Order of the British Empire: there is an MBE, OBE and CBE and I said I didn’t want it and I thought that was the end of the matter because the story was that if you rejected these lesser honours they never offered you a knighthood. And I thought this was what was going to happen to me because I actually think a writer’s quality and honour is in his work.

Seeing your knowledge of Africa, does this mean it’s going to feature a little more in your wide spectrum of subjects?

I’ve written quite a lot about Africa since 1966. I went to the Congo, spent some time there and gradually came with an important book. I later went to Senegal. I wrote nothing about that because I just couldn’t find anything to say about it that was of interest to me. And then I went to Ivory Coast. So I’ve heard an experience of love of Africa because East Africa, Congo, Ivory Coast, Senegal – it’s quite a lot to get started with and I’ve written about these places, sometimes only in articles leaving out Senegal. And now when I come to see it myself, when I know that I am near the end of things, I thought I would write my last book about an aspect of Africa which as result of my earlier visit I became interested in – the Africa of its ancestral beliefs, its ancestral religion. It has always fascinated me; this thing about ancestral beliefs and ancestral religion because whenever one is close to them – you look at the sculpture of Africa, the masks – they seem to come from way back. They seem to have an immemorial ancestry, they seem to come from the earth and that makes them fascinating to me.

Having been writing all these years, do you think you have said everything you wanted to say, or do you still feel there is something you haven’t achieved or maybe there are some areas where you’ve been misunderstood by your audience and you wish to make corrections. How do you assess your own impact and the response the world has given you?

I am glad they have given criticism. What would have been awful would have been silence. The writer writes and the outer world has its say as well. I don’t mind criticism for the strange reason I seldom read it. Writing is about the world. I don’t write about affairs of the heart. I’ve always been – since I became an adult – interested in the larger movements in the world. And I find it very hard, I know this is unfair, to practice this kind of writing. I found it very hard to deal with social writing, a sort of comedy of manners. They don’t interest me. I don’t mean this in any unkind way, remember.

In this part of the world we are not familiar with people who make writing their career. People take jobs and maybe try to find a little time to do a book. Could you tell us about a writing career, doesn’t it expose one to loneliness or risk of economic strains?

I suppose it does and although I had no money when I began, people aren’t always aware of this, I had about five or six pounds when I left the university in 1954 and if I hadn’t had a cousin living in London, I went to stay with him, I really wonder what would have happened to me. And then there is a risk of going on, on, on. To be a writer, you don’t just write one book. You write that and then you write another and another and another. And where are these books coming from? It’s a problem for a writer. I always thought –how on earth am I going to do another book? So that is the great risk for me, the problem of creative drying up, of not knowing where the next book is coming from, where the next matter will come from.
The other thing about the economics of it, I think, if you are writing profoundly that in a way solves itself. If you are writing without political prejudice, the problem of commercial movement for your work solves itself. What do I mean by political prejudice? I mean people to feel that in their writing they should celebrate some kind of movement in their country. All that becomes very, very narrow to the outside audience. And I think it should be discouraged. The writer has to consider his material very, very carefully and the most difficult thing in a writing career is getting to know what you wish to write about. What is bad and should be discouraged is reading somebody else’s book and thinking: well, I could do one of those too. Many books are like that and that doesn’t get anywhere.

In psychoanalysis we believe that writers shed their tears on paper and write about their experiences partly, and society as a whole. Do you think you are represented in any of your works?

But one doesn’t only write about one’s experiences, one writes about one’s frustrations, one’s intuitions. One writes about one’s emotions, and emotions are not always based on emotions. There are emotions based on situations.

To some of us you are a hero. Do you consider yourself a hero?

If I did, I would be extraordinarily foolish.

I have read Miguel Street and I am bothered by the fact that you used peculiar ways to choose characters. There are characters who are too cold and then there is this exciting character that tells the public that they are going to be crucified. And then the narrator of the story seems to be one of the characters. Which technique do you use to come up with this?

It’s a very old book and it actually was written by me in about six weeks in 1965 but you know I was quite young. To get started an idea of memories of that street came to me from many years before -30, 39, 40 and at that stage in my life, because I had been so worried and life had been so rough with me, I made jokes very, very easily. So the humour was very natural. I could make a joke, two jokes, to a page without worry. I was young. Later the humour became darker, required a lot more sense, but essentially I’ve retained that sense of humour.

Your writing career has spanned five decades. What has been your greatest inspiration?

I think the inspiration really has been the wish to go on as a writer.

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