where are we?

11 July 2020

I often think about what Dickens would be writing about if he had been writing now. I’ve long thought that he’d be writing for television: incisive, insightful portrayals of contemporary life. Maybe a writer like Michaela Coel, whose I May Destroy You is one of the best, most beautifully made, pieces of eviscerating art that I’ve ever had the joy of witnessing. 

Television, film, music, books are all forms of writing (obviously!) and I’m drawn to what you might call real life narratives. I’m not interested in fantasy or where writers place themselves in a time and space that they’ve never been. There’s a place for this kind of work, of course, it’s just not for me. I’m also not interested in the creative/non-creative binary. Imagination is what gets us through childhood and a way of learning about the world. Imagination is something that gets lost if it is not actively used, usually at the point of High School education. In a 2018 interview, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o says ‘art has to do with imagination. Imagination makes possible everything we do as human beings. We can picture all the possibilities and try to realize it in practice. What nourishes the imagination? It is actually the arts, the  songs, the culture. The problem with repressive regimes is that they like to starve the imagination. They don’t want you to think or imagine the possibilities of a different future.’

Creating narratives – whether in television, song lyrics, novels etc – is a way of understanding the world and providing different perspectives. I read because I want to know more, because I want to know that there are different ways of thinking about the world. Returning to Dickens, his novels are fun, beautiful, engaging, thoughtful and critical (and yes, sentimental at times). From Bleak House:

‘With houses looking on, on every side, save where a reeking little tunnel of a court gives access to the iron gate – with every villainy of life in action close on death, and every poisonous element of death in action close on life – here, they lower our dear brother down a foot or two: here, sow him in corruption, to be raised in corruption: an avenging ghost at many a sick bedside: a shameful testimony to future ages, how civilisation and barbarism walked this boastful island together.’

When trying to work out what it was that I wanted to say about this passage, I slightly floundered. The energy and vitality of the writing and how it evokes a picture of social injustice is what I’m drawn to. Or more insightfully: ‘The indignation…is transformed into the deep fury of the tragic poet: it is the human condition which enrages Dickens in Bleak House, not any ephemeral injustice’ (The Dickens Myth, G Thurley). Or, equally, you might say people create conditions and conditions create people: both actions happen, simultaneously or dialectically. How do we look at this, interpret it and why? Which might bring us back to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s point about the function of imagination.  

Before I completely wrap myself up in riddles, let’s return to contemporary writing with Mobb Deep:

‘I’m pullin’ out, strippin’ n****s just like a porno flick/ I’m sick, the Mobb rolls thick/ Cross paths with my clique and get vic/ I’m on some bullshit, that’s how I was raised, G/ Each level is a stage, have you slidin’ down blazin’/ Pools of alcohol, walk before you crawl/ I’m in this to win this, you gonna take a fall/ The Infamous, Queensbridge, we on the scene kid’ (The Start of Your Ending (41st Side), The Infamous).

Now 25 years old, Mobb Deep’s vision of Queensbridge is resplendent with internal rhymes, flowing through the music with visceral energy. Like all great writers, they bring their lived experience to the fore, narrating their story on their terms and in their language.  But if the narrative is deliberately ‘real’, the prose is imaginative, poetic, and transports me to a place I don’t know. 

On a final point (for today) about imagination and its embodiment in the world, not the ephemerality of art for art’s sake, I’ll leave you with the words of Alan Lane (EEA webinar 9 July 2020), Creative Director of Slung Low:

‘The  best of our sector has responded radically to a drastically changing world. Those who have continued with what they were doing before, even though every part of the world has changed, should take a moment to question whether they are responding creatively to anything’. 

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