Various Nigerian Narratives, Part 1: Print Culture

February 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand.

Sprinkled throughout this book are these fascinating little glimpses into Nigerian pop culture of the ’70s and ’80s.  Because of my work, I’m especially interested in the print culture in evidence here: the interesting uses and kinds of books that Elvis comes across in Lagos.  And I initially meant to write just about these, but so many fascinating little memes about movies, memories, and music kept popping up that I had to expand my vision of narrative to include these, and will address them in future posts.  But to begin with print culture:

References to Elvis’s reading pop up again and again throughout the book: it is in part a Bildungsroman, and a very interesting one, though I think it’s also more than that.  Elvis reads Rilke, the Koran, Gibran’s The Prophet, and many other books.  There are two book-focused episodes in particular that stand out.

The first is in chapter five, where we get a glimpse of Elvis’s library use.  We find that he has been using the United States Information Service Library on Victoria Island, which carries “the show-biz magazine Entertainment” among many other things.  Here’s what he has to say about the local library:

Apart from the endless old tomes on chemistry, physics, electronics and philosophy, the local library had an anthropology section that only had books with the word “Bantu” in their titles… Something about the word “Bantu” bothered him and made him think it was pejorative.  Maybe it had something to do with not ever hearing that word used outside of that section in the library.  The only other books there were treatises on Russian and Chinese culture and politics.  These came either printed in bold glossy colors or in badly bound volumes with the fading print slanted on the page as if set by a drunken printer or as though, tired of the lies, the words were trying to run off the page.

This is fascinating in a number of ways: Elvis’s preference for the US-sponsored library, his distrust of his own local library’s labeling and categorization of African people as “anthropological,” the shelves of “endless old tomes” and propaganda that are supposed to edify but have no interest for him.  The USIS library is a propaganda tool, too, but an attractive, useful, well-stocked one, with the products (however curated and propagandized) of a free press.  In a culture with an American pop-culture obsession, access to an American library for a kid like Elvis is a real treasure.  I think Abani is interrogating that America obsession throughout the novel, but more so with mass-media products like movies and magazines than with books.  I think he presents the USIS library as a good thing, however Elvis chooses to use it.  (The USIS was actually disbanded in 1999, another Cold-War casualty.)

The second is in chapter eleven, when Elvis visits the huge Tejuosho Market to buy some clothes.  It’s a very evocative scene, with Elvis threading his way through the open-air stalls viewing the fruits and vegetables for sale, hearing the cries of kids selling Cokes, the crowded bustle of people about their business.  And then he stops at a used bookseller’s cart: Abani’s descriptions of the Western-canonical paperbacks (Dickens) and West-African novels (Achebe, but also “thrillers like Kalu Okpi’s The Road“) give you the true feel for the cart and for the market.  It has the ring of truth, this mix of used books, at least to someone who’s never set foot in Africa.  Elvis buys two books, slyly symbolic of the crossroads he’s facing: “a torn copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and a near-pristine copy of James Baldwin’s Another Country.”  There it is, in a nutshell: will Elvis turn to the life of crime, corruption, and self-interest, of masculine posturing and violence, or will he follow his artistic dream, his desire to help and support his people and his country, and (perhaps) his homosexual inclinations?  But the books are not just symbols or signifiers of Elvis’s identity crisis; they’re possible pathways out of that crisis.  In other words, it’s not just important that we the readers get the significance; it’s also important that he get it — that he read the books.  That he’s buying them in the first place, when he’s dropped out of school and has very little access to books in general, adds important complexity to his personality.

Then Elvis hears another bookseller calling out from an adjacent stall, and we’re introduced to another fascinating aspect of Nigeria’s print culture: the Onitsha Market pamphlets.  As the bookseller sells them, they are “de books written by our people for de people.”  Here’s Abani’s description:

These pamphlets, written between 1910 and 1970, were produced on small presses in the eastern market town of Onitsha, hence their name.  They were the Nigerian equivalent of dime drugstore pulp fiction crossed with pulp pop self-help books.  They were morality tales with their subject matter and tone translated straight out of the oral culture…. The covers mirrored American pulp fiction with luscious, full-breasted Sophia Loren look-alike white women.  Elvis had read a lot of them, though he wouldn’t admit it publicly.

Elvis scans one that the bookseller suggests for an “educated man,” called Beware of Harlots and Many Friends. He turns it down, though, opting for the more narrative-driven Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away. These are, apparently, real Onitsha pamphlets: Abani gives their full citations in his acknowledgments.  And if you’re really curious, you can see a bibliography of over 100 and 21 digitized examples from the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas here.  Elvis hides his pamphlet between the Dostoyevsky and the Baldwin, and this too signifies, I think, in some way: the indigenous culture Elvis is embarrassed of, but that Abani celebrates — giving us an excerpt from Mabel between this chapter and the next.

I’ll have more to say later about the use of Elvis’s mother’s journal and other excerpts from written works later on.  For now, I hope I’ve given a taste of the complex, intricate ways that Abani is using books and Nigeria’s print culture in the text.  It reminds me a little of Joyce, in Ulysses, with the various books and pamphlets and scraps of culture that Bloom and Stephen come across and mull over in their heads.  (Not a huge stretch.  This is a really, really good book.)

The MS Word Paperclip-Helper: Pure Evil?

August 24, 2008 § 2 Comments

Just finished: The Raw Shark Texts.

Reading next: Nosferatu in Love, by Jim Shepard.

Part three’s probably my favorite section of the book. It’s rad. We enter un-space through a hole in the back of a bookshelf in a closed bookstore (the entrance is behind the “H”s in the literature section, presumably including this book by Mr. Hall, a nice Nabokovian touch), and the journey ends at a giant labyrinth made of tunnels and rooms made entirely of paper and books inside which it “smelled like the pages of a second-hand Charles Dickens novel.” The tunnel forms the letters “ThERa.” (It’s the first letters of the book; there are also tunnels called Milos and Ios. All three are names of Greek islands, too, some Googling reveals.)

This whole complex is behind the walls of a “huge library,” presumably of a university (maybe Oxford or Cambridge?). Cool images, these: the wild, uncontrolled mass of words, fragments of printed matter and jotted notes and forgotten books, like the protective and protected subconscious of the published world.

But the most interesting and surprising section of part three is “The Story of Mycroft Ward.” Now, whatever Hall himself might say about this (and from what I’ve seen online, he’s coy about it, which seems to me a fairly absurd and, again, self-consciously Nabokovian thing to do — “What, me know anything about what my text is doing?”), this is obviously a continuation of the word-play initiated in the book’s title (Rorschach tests=Raw Shark Texts). Mycroft Ward is, in part, a knock on Microsoft (Mycroft Ward=Microsoft Word). It’s also a kick-ass story.

The story reminded me of Yates’s The Art of Memory. I love these gropings, both real and imagined, after the concept of computation, the possibilities of external and internal memory. Hall brilliantly ties his art of memory (“The Arrangement”) to the desires for immortality and “self-preservation,” its true root, and updates Yates by pushing his narrative into the computer age. It’s the scale of things that has made this age scary; the ease with which millions — billions? — of people have been led, and have acquiesced, to using the same “programs” for recording their thoughts, for searching for information, for saving their findings, for running their worlds.

All of which leads me to the question: is that paperclip with googly-eyes that is supposed to “help” you in Word an agent of Mycroft Ward? If you actually click on this thing (does anyone ever actually need this thing’s help, or do anything but disable it as quickly as possible?), do you wake up minutes later, confused and missing parts of your brain? Is the googly-eyed paperclip, in fact, pure evil?

Archives, Libraries, Epistemes, and Eccentric Organization

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just read a terrific issue of the Believer, no. 50 (behind, I’m always behind). Three essays, nicely in sequence, had a lot of interesting things to say to the librarian in me.

The first was a really excellent piece by Eileen Myles, about a notebook she lost on a trip to Canada. It’s a fascinating essay in a number of ways, but especially for its discussion of how a writer’s view of her own writing is changed by the deposit of her papers in a special collections library. As she writes:

The problem with writing on the plane is not your neighbor. It’s your own growing sense that these mango-toned reflections at dawn over Buffalo will be read by someone you never met. They will meet this…. A notebook is the definition of private writing — private living. It’s precareer and postcareer in that it’s the only writing only you know as long as there is a you. And that excites me anew. There being a space of knowing apart from any selling, sharing, even making. Just sketching out — OK, I have to use my favorite new theory word: episteme… The word felt like god. It means the possibility of discourse…. It’s all that my notebook gets told.

Apart from being written in this really incredibly skillful stream-of-consciousness that alleviates whatever annoyance I usually have about autobiographical writer-writing-about-writing pieces, the essay touches on a lot of issues I’m really interested in but haven’t read much about: air travel and its weirdness and beauty; lost books, lost words, and the places they go, the spaces they occupy, the ways that they return to “nature” (Myles is fantastic on this); especially the relationship between working writer and archive. How does a writer maintain a sense of privacy, knowing all of her creative work is supposed to end up being read? How does that sense of one’s own importance — all you produce is valuable and worthy of preservation — affect one’s future work, one’s sense of privacy, one’s record keeping or lack thereof? Most uncomfortably for a librarian: is preservation necessarily a good thing? Has the mania for the literary archive gone too far? Are we, the archivists and special collections librarians of the world (and especially the U.S.), intruding too much into the ongoing creative lives of our creative thinkers? Do we need to back off? (There’s a conference touching on these issues later this year at the Ransom Center in Austin — the institution spurring much of the current mania.)

Then there’s an essay on Aby Warburg, the brilliant, occasionally insane art historian. He founded the Warburg Institute in London. He was the oldest son of an extremely wealthy banking family, and made a deal with his younger brother that the younger brother could take control of the family business so long as he agreed to buy Aby whatever books he wanted for the rest of his life. He set about doing just that, and organized his library on “the law of the good neighbor.” As Leland de la Durantaye explains, “the various sections and the books within them were arranged as a function of their ability to engage with the books on either side of them.” Here, then, is a personal library the likes of which Anne Garreta wrote about so well in “On Bookselves” (see my earlier entry “The Dream of Total Recall”). Warburg also worked on a massive project, called Mnemosyne, throughout his life: in it (as I understand), disparate images were juxtaposed to follow the path of themes, motifs, and ideas throughout the history of art. I want to read some of Warburg’s stuff now.

Then there’s Avi Davis’s “The Brain and the Tomb,” about the Archimedes Palimpsest, the manuscript of Archimedes’s work which was (partially) scratched out and written over by a Greek monk in the thirteenth century. Of course I love palimpsests: there’s no better physical metaphor for the dense, confusing, complicated paths that history takes, the ways that ideas are undervalued, written over, reevaluated, belatedly treasured. As Davis points out, very little has been written about the visible text of the palimpsest, the Greek prayers, which are now being ignored as squadrons of scholars pore over the Archimedes text beneath. We’re always looking one way, missing what’s under our noses as we sniff after some other “more important” idea or sensation; Warburg was on to this, and so is Myles, searching for authentic experience and immediate, personal contact with her own thoughts, ideas, life (harder than it sounds). Of course, this is why librarians preserve, this is why we fear the discarded: one day it will be wanted, you see, but it will be lost — and the episteme it may have made possible will be impossible for the lack of its existence.

The Dream of Total Recall

May 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Art of Memory and The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo (part of McSweeney’s Issue 22).

Reading next: Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Even an intellectual historian like Yates, writing in the 1960s, had computers on the brain. A couple of times she mentions these “electric brains” as examples of the contemporary relevance of her research. And I was reminded of this in her final chapters, as she discusses the ways in which memory systems diverged into esoteric arts, in which “memory” became a kind of synonym for “imagination” and “knowledge of divinity,” and new sciences, like Leibniz’s invention of calculus.

It seems kind of hackneyed, by now, to talk about how technology has become embued with religious meaning. Doesn’t make it any less true. And the ways in which the art of memory blended art and science certainly do seem similar. Memory remains what’s behind it all, right? And we expect our newest mnemonic systems to help us cultivate both the art of memory and the science of memory. To an extent Yates probably didn’t expect, we anticipate an organizing and retrieving system for all knowledge, all information. Our collective conceptions of our new art and science of memory certainly partake of some characteristics of a Hermetic art, expected to help us unleash our hidden potential for divinity (or at least ability to connect to divinity), while also functioning as a coolly Aristotelian system of objective data retrieval. Like everything, those statements have elements of truth, elements of fiction.

To approach this from another angle: Oulipo is all about connecting science and art (mathematics and literature, to be specific), and Anne F. Garreta’s essay “On Bookselves” provides some thoroughly eccentric, non-traditional, illogical “principles” for organizing her personal library. My favorite is Principle #8, separating “homebound books” and “nomadic books,” then further dividing “books bought on one side or the other” of a given river, “books that have crossed an ocean at least once,” “books you missed, cruelly, one night at 3 a.m. because they had remained on the other side of the ocean,” etc. The quirkiness of these principles, she explains, is precisely the point:

-Could we order the outside world, the world of objectivity (real books) following patterns residing in our minds, the patterns according to which phantom books reside in our minds?

-You’d be out of your mind.

-Could we escape our misery by simply swallowing a computer and turning our minds into subsets of the Library of Congress Catalog?

-You’d be out of a mind.

Exactly: to leave all the systematizing work of memory to technology is to deprive ourselves of our selves.

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