A Truly Mad Business
From: Claire Messud
To: Mohammed Naseehu Ali
Subject: a place to begin
It’s Claire Messud here, with a wave & a shout. It’s with great pleasure that I’ve been reading a little of your work—both stories and essays. Your fiction (or what I’ve read of it) is so firmly and vividly set in Ghana, in powerfully and wittily conjured communities; and yet, you’ve lived here now for such a long time. Do you also write fiction set in the US, and if so, does it feel in some way different to you?
I wonder if you’re familiar with Rushdie’s essay “Imaginary Homelands.” It’s precisely about writers and displacement, about the fact that every homeland (whether Ghana, or Michigan, or the other side of town), once left, becomes imaginary—and how writers are free to roam that imaginary homeland at whim. This is of course so different an experience than that of, say, Alice Munro, or any other writer whose life has been rooted and focused in one place.
I myself have a somewhat peripatetic and confusing background—a French father, a Canadian mother, childhood in Australia and Canada before coming to boarding school in the U.S. as a teenager (altho’ I was born here)—and I know that it was many years before I felt I could write any fiction that was primarily set in this country. (The Emperor’s Children, my last novel, was my first book that was really set here.) I can’t remember whether it was Flannery O’Connor or someone else who observed that everything a writer needs for a lifetime happens in childhood. For a long time I believed that to be true; and yet now, having been back in the U.S. since ’95 (I lived in the U.K. for most of ’87-’95), while I haven’t renounced my childhood (which was one precisely of displacement, unlike yours, which was very rooted), I’ve come to feel that my imagination is more at home here than I thought it could be.
So—all this is a long & roundabout way of trying to address the question of place in your work, your life, your imagination. A big question, I know; but perhaps a place to begin?
From: Mohammed Naseehu Ali
To: Claire Messud
Subject: landmines and gold mines
I combed Google and Yahoo for something of yours I could read immediately, before I get my hands on your novels. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a few gems: the Newsweek piece you wrote about traveling with the Obama campaign, the Smithsonian piece about your relationship to the city of Boston, your review of A.S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories, and the short essay you just wrote about “young writers who just happen to be women.” I was able to get a glimpse of your journey as a person and also as a writer.
Though I am not familiar with Salman Rushdie’s “Imaginary Homelands,” I can subscribe and even relate to its premise that, for writers, every homeland, once left, becomes imaginary. Where cultural or geographical displacement has the potential to hinder or even disrupt the new life others have chosen over the ones they’ve left behind, it becomes a powerful tool in the case of many writers, who unleash their imaginations to roam freely (like Salman Rushdie’s own angels in Satanic Verses) in towns, cities and countries where they once lived. Though I have been living in the United States for the past twenty-one years, most of the stories and (unpublished) novels I have written are set in my homeland of Ghana, in towns and cities I abandoned when I was still a teenager. Now, the roads and street corners of Kumasi, my home city, are like set locations of my own creation. Using faces I haven’t seen in two decades as props, I create imaginary, fictitious tales based on a reality I’ve left behind.
Why do you think writers (and most human beings for that matter) are unable to shake off past experiences? Milan Kundera once remarked in a talk: “It is very interesting to see just how rooted we are in the first half of our lives. We are fatally rooted in the first half of life, even if life’s second half is filled with intense and moving experiences.” He seems to suggest that the past, “the first half of life,” is not an imaginary place we are free to roam at whim, but a landscape with landmines as well as gold mines, both of which are buried deep in the soil from which we’re molded. And thus one has to tread gently when navigating these old landscapes.
In “Urbane Renewal,” the piece you wrote for The Smithsonian, you speak so poignantly about the Boston of your adolescence, which “had no markets, no bills to pay, no bike rides or backyards—and, most mysteriously, no homes.” After moving around with your parents and living in cities in two other continents during your childhood, it appears that Boston was the first place that gave you a sense of home. But Boston was also the witness to your formative years, a period in a teenager’s life marked by distress as well as the youthful exuberance that comes with developing one’s own sense of self, socially, culturally, politically. Perhaps this is the cause of your lukewarm disposition toward Boston? And mine toward Kumasi?
Just as you write, at the end of your piece, that you now contemplate how to avoid Boston, Kumasi has become a place I do everything to avoid, even when visiting Ghana. In the years I’ve lived abroad I’ve spent no more than forty days in the city where I can still count hundreds of people as direct relatives. For reasons that range from anxiety about my mortality to a feeling of shame when I walk by places or run into folks that have witnessed the embarrassing episodes of my childhood and formative years, I begin to feel jittery when I spend more than a couple of days in my native town. But my upbringing was also full of moments with my mother and our large extended family that I sometimes wish I could recreate for my young family in this ever-stressful and racially tense American society. Perhaps even more than the negative memories, these positive ones also drive me away from my city. Those wonderful childhood and teenage years will never be recreated, and it seems best to move on.
From: Claire Messud
To: Mohammed Naseehu Ali
Subject: a great sandbox of words
Many thanks for your wonderful letter, Mohammed. I found myself nodding in agreement, particularly as you write about your complex feelings about Kumasi, and your upbringing there: how you’re both glad to get away, and feel you must be away, in part because that time of your life is past, now. The past is another country, as they say. I think of that whenever I visit the apartment in the south of France where my grandparents lived, the one place I’ve been going back to all my life. I look out the windows (it’s on top of a cliff & has an amazing view of the Mediterranean), and aside from the fact that the trees are taller than when I was a child, the view is exactly the same, the bay below, the little fishing villages, the great wrinkling sea stretching out to the horizon. I can look down at the swimming pool and the island of trees where my sister and I and our friends played house, and hide and seek, and at the path towards the beach, and I can remember myself at five, or twelve, or twenty-five… and remember, too, all the events (both embarrassing and tender) and all the people who were there with me, many of whom have moved away or died (like my grandparents, of course). Whenever I have that experience, I think to myself that some people—who live in the houses where they grew up—have that experience every day, their lives a palimpsest, written over and over on the same piece of paper, as it were.
In that sense, tho’, a place where you have a past is a secret place: you look at it and see things the people around you do not see. You see the history. I often think that writing is precisely about secret lives: not that the secrets need to be dramatic; but so much of life is unspoken—our passions and sorrows aren’t on the surface. One of my favorite passages in literature is from Anna Karenina; Levin’s brother is courting the young Varenka, and they go mushroom picking. They both expect he will propose; but simply because of a turn in the conversation, the moment passes, and he doesn’t, and they both know that it’s over. Nothing—nothing!—has been said aloud about it between them! Indeed, you could say that a person’s real life is largely invisible, caught only in traces; and I see much of what I’m trying to do as a fiction writer as making a record of those traces, an attempt to know a fictional character, to show who they really are, and also, often, to show how little they are known.
I marvel at the age in which we live, when people broadcast their most intimate conversations, both personal and professional, aloud in train carriages on cellphones. (Just last week I listened to the chap in front of me talking about a job candidate he wanted a colleague to interview, and, I could tell, to hire: When he hung up I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and say, “Steve Wong sounds great, but you should have said more about his relevant experience, and you undermined your case when you suggested he might not be hungry enough…”)
Reading and writing are so much more private than viewing (films, say); and in that sense they are part of a reflective world that risks dying away in the internet age. But who will we all become if we don’t take that time to think and absorb complicated thoughts and experiences that can only be communicated slowly, through language? Won’t large portions of our psyches wither away? Won’t we become less complex and thoughtful beings? And what about the joy, as a writer and as a reader both, of reveling in language itself? This experience can be shared, of course—poetry readings!—but so much of my sense of it is private, from the infinite hours I spent as a child and as a childless adult, lying in bed or on a sofa, devouring books (It’s one of my great joys, to see my eight-year-old doing this), to the precious time, of course, spent writing, which is like being set free to play all by yourself in a great sandbox of words.
I remember years ago, when I was a student, going to a reading in Paris given by Edmund White and Kathy Acker. Someone in the audience asked why they (both Americans) liked being expatriates (White was living in Paris at the time; Acker in London), and White said, “Because I feel, surrounded by French, as though English is my own private language,” and Acker nodded and said, “I feel exactly the same way.” At the time, I scoffed silently, not at White, whose answer made total sense to me, but at Acker, whose life was, after all, in England, where people speak… English. But with time I realize that it’s not just about the words themselves, it’s about the way those words resonate, it’s about the life in your head—your Ghanaian life, if you will—that is secret (or held privately?) from everyone around you. It becomes All Yours. And that’s as true for an American in London as for an American in Paris. There’s a great liberation in having your own private language, and your own private country, inside your head. In some way, don’t we all have to find that, in order to write?
From: Mohammed Naseehu Ali
To: Claire Messud
Subject: secrets jotted by angels
You raised so many good points in your recent correspondence that I find myself contemplating where and how to begin. One thing I can comment on right away is your depiction of the view from the windows of your grandparents’ apartment in the south of France. The visual image you reproduced from the memories of your childhood and early adult years—when you and your sister roamed the Mediterranean landscape at whim—is akin to a beautiful oil painting that has captured a particular place at a particular time. Perhaps, you and I, as writers, enshrine our past experiences in secret chambers because of the creative interest we have in utilizing those episodes in our work? Or maybe our deep desire to preserve the past in its pristine state (even in the face of obvious change both in the past and in ourselves) is the result of our romantic nature?
I ask these questions because I hardly see this trait in friends I grew up with in Africa. My mates from Ghana (whether they are still in Kumasi or here in the United States) constantly speak about the “big changes” that have taken place in my native city. Yes, it is true that the Muslim section of my native city, like everywhere else in Ghana, has gone through immense physical changes by way of new buildings, roads, and so on. And yet, anytime I visit Kumasi I still see nothing but the mud brick buildings and dusty alleys in which I played hide and seek. I have long turned the old Muslim section of Kumasi into a private domain, an imaginary land I can go in and turn things upside down and inside out in search of historical and mythical treasures I can bring to life in my writing.
Over the years I have come to think that non-artist and non-writer folks are more accepting of change than we are. That’s a gross generalization, but in my corner of the world, in Ghana, the past is definitely not another country: It simply doesn’t exist. This may have to do with the Islamic teaching that an individual who clings to the past, a painful one especially, doesn’t believe in the will of Allah. Allah, who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, has a reason for “creating” the now and the future, and man must therefore move on, lest he invite Allah’s displeasure for not enjoying and praising the bountiful blessing of the present.
Speaking of Allah’s omniscience: that notion has, all my life, reminded me that my life is an open book not only to Allah, but also to the angels responsible for us during our lifespan on earth. Hadithare the Prophet Muhammad’s statements and actions coupled with the statements and actions of his companions, believed to have been collected beginning a century and a half after Muhammad’s death in 632. They are the basis of jurisprudence for Islamic law (or Sharia law). In the last phrase of the fourth of the forty most authoritative Hadith, the Prophet is quoted saying the following about what transpires in the first seconds of any human beings life: “This Angel is commanded to write four decrees: that he writes down his provision (rizq), his lifespan, his deeds, and whether he will be among the wretched or the blessed.”
What this Hadith has said to me since my madrassa days in Kumasi is that my life is an open secret not only to Allah but to the angels; and it has led me to question the fairness of it all—the writing down of the narrative of one’s life before one even begins living it. Life itself appears to be nothing but a rigged game, in which the final result has long been determined—and no matter what strategies or creative maneuverings you devise to play the game, you will end up losing. No human being, with the exception of the Prophets, is capable of living the perfect life drawn for us, the life that is all but a secret to the one supposed to live it.
As a writer I see my work as a clandestine attempt to rewrite the secrets written down by the angels at the time of my birth. And it seems to me that writers from every part of the world and from every religious persuasion spend their entire lives doing exactly the same thing: rewriting the predestined secrets jotted down by the angels. In our quest to assume control of our narratives through this rewrite, we too play Allah and assign destinies to the lives of our characters, destinies that are a secret to them.
I should be last person to speak about the need to preserve privacy. I am a big eavesdropper, and I have managed to write a couple of stories just by eavesdropping on strangers. I turn my headphones off or I stop reading when I hear folks yakking on a train about stuff that interests me. We are in an era when everything about us is out in the open and can be grabbed by anybody who has an interest in us—the information about our spending habits and social lives collected by businesses, the ones we text and email back and forth to each other, the “secrets” we openly share with strangers on trains and planes.
As someone whose first and last names are the two most flagged names at airports around the world, I have come to believe that the more these security agents know about me the easier it is for me to travel, especially into and from American airports. Once I told a Homeland Security agent at JFK that for all I cared he could staple a seal or stamp with all my information on it to my forehead, provided this would do away with the painful hassles I encounter going through immigration. I would gladly carry such a stamp: It would have an immediate calming effect on folks who learn my name. It would tell them this Mohammed Ali is not a terrorist—alongside other vital information that certifies my innocence.
And to folks who still cling to the idea that we have secrets or privates lives, I say they are living in the imaginary past.
From: Claire Messud
To: Mohammed Naseehu Ali
Subject: all that was lost
I love what you say about our clandestine attempts to revise what the angels have written about our lives before we started living. In another, longer conversation, I’d have to worry away at the idea of predestination; but when it’s put in such a beautiful way, I can only nod my head. I think there’s certainly an attempt, by myself as a writer at least, at some God-like intervention: writing a world over which I have control. (Would this not be blasphemous, though?)
Often I’ve thought back to my childhood and wondered what it was in it—or in me—that made me want, from almost before I could read, to be a writer. (I’d announced my intention by the age of five; my parents gave me a typewriter for my sixth birthday.) In part I think it was the amazing discovery, after having heard and been read so many beloved stories, that those stories had actually been written by people—what more wonderful occupation in life than to make up stories? But I’ve also thought that, in a childhood full of family moves across cities and continents (when, two years ago, we moved out of a house where we’d lived for five years, it was the longest time I’d ever lived anywhere in my life), a childhood of fairly constant disruption over which I had no control at all, I started writing stories in order, as you say, to preserve all that was lost each time we packed up and moved again. Now obviously the shape of your life is different; but the impulse perhaps is the same. Which would make our writing both a sacred preservation of what has otherwise vanished from this earth, and a near-blasphemous effort to create upon the earth stories that otherwise would never take place—perhaps even with the intention of changing what is.
Put that way it all sounds rather grandiose, I know. But I think that anyone who chooses to write has to have some mad, almost grandiose, ambition—otherwise, why not live, as your friends in Ghana do, and my friends here, in the world as it is? I’ve recently been rereading Chekhov’s story “The Black Monk,” and while it’s a strange story and may not be his finest, it’s one I always reread with fascination because it seems to be about the inherent madness of the creative project: You have to be deluded and perhaps megalomaniacal to embark upon it; but how delicious is the delusion that you can make, or change, a world; and how perilous to be deprived of that delusion.
I’m looking forward greatly to the day, soon, when we can continue these conversations over coffee—in the actual rather than the virtual world—but in the meantime, my warmest thanks to you for the great pleasure of our exchanges.
From: Mohammed Naseehu Ali
To: Claire Messud
Subject: a good madness
You brought our discussion to a perfect, appropriate conclusion by invoking the delusion that is part and parcel of every writer’s psyche. Our desire to shape and reshape, write and rewrite the narratives of the past, the present and the future is certainly propelled by an uncontrollable drive that could only be described as mad or delusional—the way you put it. At the same time I am of the firm belief that ours is a good madness, without which most of us will actually go mad—as in the lunatics who talk to invisible folks and sometimes run naked through the dusty alleyways of my native city of Kumasi.
Likewise this has been fun, and also very interesting. I pray that our literary paths cross soon—offline and in person. Now let’s go back to the truly mad business of raising our young children.