Every year, the International Forum on the Novel in Lyon, France, invites authors to speak on a “keyword” of their choice. The following videos and accompanying text are drawn from this year’s forum, presented by Villa Gillet and Le Monde in partnership with France Inter and Les Subsistances (Lyon). The full list of participating English-language writers and keywords can be found at the website La clé des langues.
I am often surprised by what people think of us—we Indians, American Indians, Redskins, Native Americans. I am surprised by the depth of feeling, the strong opinions. And I am just as surprised by the distance between that thinking and the real contours and textures of our lives. I am surprised by how they think we should look, where we should live, how we should act, and what people think we should be like.
Some people think only the best of us. They maintain the romanticism that informed Rouseau’s famous phrase, the “noble savage.” That romanticism gives us all sorts of admirable attributes—bravery, stoicism, honor, respect, etc., etc.—but it takes away our humanity. The noble savage is no longer a “real” Indian so long as we act badly. And since we’re human we often do.
Some people think only the worst of us. To them we are “timber niggers” and “redskins” and “prairie niggers.” We can’t be trusted. We shouldn’t be pitied. We are violent, disruptive, sneaky, dangerous, nothing less than the fallen, but somehow alive and among you and out in the world.
But what do I think? I like the word savage. It means more to me than Indian or American Indian. It suggests what I like most about us and, by extension, what I like most about writing.
For me writing is an interrogation—and sometimes an overthrowing—of the accepted order. I experience human reality as innately resistant to truth, always drifting towards consensus and agreed versions of things: writing is the correction to this drift, the reassertion of individual knowledge over the social agreement. As a child I spent a lot of time watching adults and listening to them talk; I grew up in a small village in the English countryside and my mother was often on the telephone, talking to her friends elsewhere. Since I was frequently ill and home during the day, I could listen to her narrations of events—events I had often witnessed—and I became aware of the intricate relationship between what had happened and what she said had happened. It seemed to me that adults were always seeking to agree on a version of life that was acceptable to all of them, so in a sense I came to regard social reality as the fiction, while the books I read seemed to represent the truth.
Rebellion is necessary to refresh the relationship between fiction and truth: it is the engine of change, is exciting and disturbing and uncomfortable, and it is something for which society feels an infinite ambivalence. The rebel is recognized at the same time as she is disowned, is needed without being wanted, is welcomed as a guest but never permitted to belong. The more excoriated she is for her message, the more necessary she believes her message to be. And likewise, I see writing as an uncomfortable comfort, a relief and a challenge—a shelter that never quite becomes a home.
I am always drawn to stories in human history in which someone is redeemed. Instances where a debt owed is cancelled, when some good soul comes forward and pays off the bond price that sets the indebted free. As I have not found many such stories of Redemption in the history of my own people, Redemption has become my key-word, and I am hoping that in time others will join me on the redemption train, which ideally leaves from Redemption Ground Market in the city of Kingston.
Once a cholera cemetery, it became a market by day and a nocturnal meeting place for faith-keepers of African spirituality and foundation builders of the Rastafarian religion such as Leonard Howell and Joseph Nathaniel Hibbert. There were women who were gathered there too, women whose names were not recorded but they were there and engaged in the active redemption of their people through the uncompromising rejection of mental slavery. Many of these men and women had been followers of Alexander Bedward, the charismatic preacher who galvanized many thousands of followers with his anti-colonial rhetoric and his promise to fly away home taking his followers with him. A redemptive move, up and away from the misery and desolation of life in post-slavery Jamaica. We will never know if he could have made good on this promise, because his career was cut short by the authorities and he ended his life in a mental institution. But these men and women, his followers, kept on, and there on Redemption Ground they fashioned a religion with a God who looked like them, and one day one of its followers, who was born out of the meeting of Europe and Africa, wrote a song inspired by the words of one of the world’s great freedom fighters, Marcus Garvey. The song is called Redemption Song, and it has become an anthem for people all over the world. Implied in the words is the plea for us all to help to sing, to write Redemption Songs; songs and stories, for the rest of my life, this is what I hope to be doing.
Editorial Note: July 17, 2014
The accompanying text for “Variable” has been removed by request of the author.