Reading like a writer: An annotated reading list

My interests and style of writing revolve primarily around literature, reading and storytelling, and so these primarily informed my reading material this semester. My experience of the country-wide student protests that shook history this semester also led to me reading around the topic of storytelling in activism and social movements.

“For the Love of Peppers” by Yemisi Aribisala. Medium.com. Retrieved 28 October from https://medium.com/@YemisiOkra/for-the-love-of-peppers-52b675deaaeb#.l6u5ef2jw

This is just an example of great writing. It is difficult to translate senses through words, but Aribisala manages to communicate the tastes, tickles and aromas of various African spices and ingredients wonderfully.

“The voice of South Africa in Norway” by Aschehoug Publishers. In. Encounters with André Brink, edited by Karina Magdalena Szczurek. Human & Rousseau. 2010.

Storytelling forms history, and there are few who have mastered the art of telling history through stories better than André Brink. In amongst many personal essays about the iconic South African author, detailing his character and his work, this piece by Norwegian publishing house Aschehoug details the incredible effects Brink’s telling of South Africa’s history had as far away as Norway. The piece highlights two aspects of his writing as being key in doing this: his deep research, and his even deeper empathy. These are the two most essential features of good non-fiction writing.

 

Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron. Ten Speed Press. 2012.

This book, for the most part, offers tips on how to write pop novels that will get published, but the scientific background that it falls upon was very interesting to me. Cron explains many storytelling effects by the neurochemical reactions they create, most of which are based on pure human nature. For example, our brains are taking in thousands of bits of information every second, and sorting through that information, to give us only five to eight bits of information to deal with. Irrelevant or already-known information, such as the colour of your fingers or the absence of smell in the air, are swallowed up by the brain, and instead specific things, such as the meaning of these words you are reading or the presence of a murderous elephant with a chainsaw standing right in front of you, are the bits your brain alerts you to. This is why using specifics in stories creates a more vivid picture and a more powerful effect than abstract generalisations or generalised abstractions. The book has made me far more aware of how I tell things in my writing, and how what I read affects me at a very fundamental level.

“On Some Functions of Literature” by Umberto Eco. In. On Literature by Umberto Eco. Vintage. 2006.

I first came to know Umberto Eco through his novel The Name of the Rose, and have come to respect him as one of the smartest literary minds in the world. In this chapter of a book of incredible perspective, Eco establishes that literature “offers us a model, however fictitious, of truth” (7). Not only this, but literature has been able to comprehend and communicate life’s greatest traits better than any other medium in history, from political sciences to philosophy. The traits he refers to range from aspects like creativity and freedom to fate and death.

“How to tackle the EDL” by Mohamed El-Gomati. The Guardian. Retrieved 28 October from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/31/edl-english-defence-league-york-mosque

In this incredible story, Mohamed El-Gamisi, leader of a mosque in York in Britain, tells the story of how his mosque responded to a planned protest outside their front door by the English Defence League, a far-right group commonly associated with xenophobia, nationalism and intimidation tactics. The protestors were reacting to the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby by two Muslim fundamentalists. He writes:

It was up to us to provide an atmosphere that was representative of our culture. When I say “our culture”, I mean all of us, including the EDL and the members of the mosque. We all think of sitting down with a cup of tea as something quintessentially English, so we thought that offering a cup of good old-fashioned Yorkshire tea and hospitality would be a start. And I remembered a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “If the world’s problems were brought to the Prophet Muhammad, he would solve them over a cup of tea.” Tea was something unexpected and welcoming.

The mosque invited the protestors in for tea and biscuits, over which all parties came to understand each other by listening to one another’s stories. The EDL members came to realise that the members of the mosque were just as vehemently opposed to the violence of Muslim radicals, and the members of the mosque came to understand the EDL as not being a violent group for the most part, and condemning violence against anyone, Muslim or otherwise, by any of its members or associates. Reading further on this story led me to discover that the day ended with an impromptu game of good old English football. This story tells of the great value of telling and hearing stories in dealing with conflict in the world, and is truly remarkable.

“What’s so special about storytelling for social change?” by Simon Hodges. OpenDemocracy.net. Retrieved 26 October 2015 from https://www.opendemocracy.net/ transformation/simon-hodges/what%E2%80%99s-so-special-about-storytelling-for-social-change

In order to make a difference in the world, we need to introduce new narratives. In order for these to be effective, they need to include those who will read them. It is in this inclusivity that storytelling gains its power in social movements. Hodges writes his argument in a clear, example-laden way that I appreciate very much.

Ikhede by Ikhede Ikheloa. http://xokigbo.com/

Ikheloa describes himself as someone who “reads and writes… loudly”, and this is immediately obvious when reading his blog. My favourite of his recent posts is a satirical guide to dating American women for Nigerian men, based on the central difference in national culture he identifies – that Americans talk endlessly and sensually while Nigerians are of few words. He ends with:

If she offers you sex, whatever you do, don’t duplicate the only one sex scene in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It lasted one minute and ended with the memorable line; “Even in those days Okonkwo was a man of few words.” If you behave like Okonkwo, you are not coming back to her bedroom, unless to clean it. Make love for at least two minutes. And talk a lot of nonsense. Please. Oya go for it, tiger.

Ikheloa generally writes thoughtful reviews of African art, or personal narratives that detail recent experiences and how they relate to his world at large. He is a wonderful African writer and has been a great inspiration to me. I highly recommend his blog to anyone attempting to use words to make sense of the world.

“Literature of a Revolutionary Period” by Lu Xun. In. The Selected Works of Lu Xun, Vol. II, translated and edited by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. Foreign Language Press. 2003.

Lu Xun wrote throughout the 1911 Chinese revolutions, and the events surrounding them, that saw the demise of a dynastic China that had a bloody history dating back thousands of years. In this speech he gave at the Huangpu Military Academy in 1927, Lu Xun explains his surprising view that writing cannot have any effect in the propagation of revolution. Of the relationship between violent oppressor and revolutionary writer, he says: “When a hawk catches a sparrow, the hawk is silent, the sparrow is the one to cry out” (335), implying that literature is effectively useless when opposed to a violently oppressive force. Rather than revolution rising from writing, he saw writing to arise from revolution. He says: “I myself would naturally rather hear the roar of guns, for it seems to me that the roar of guns is much sweeter to listen to than literature” (341). The effects of Biko, Fanon and Du Bois on the recent student activism in South Africa would seem to contradict this, but rather should be seen as a victory of our democracy and systems of education. The fact that these two things are so often criticised about South Africa showed me how terrible the state of oppression still is for many subjugated people around the world. Despite the power of stories that was described in many of my other reading materials, it would seem that violent oppression needs to be very seriously considered.

“To Be Or Not To Be, No Longer At Ease” by Njabulo S Ndebele. Keynote Address to the 40th African Literature Association Conference at the University of the Witwatersrand. 10th April 2014.

The commentary Ndebele gives on the position of literature in our society is truly unique and illuminating. He tells the story of his struggle to find his identity, due to the restrictions and implications of history, and how Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease helped him come to terms with this when he read and studied it at the age of 21. I gained a greater understanding of the importance of the stories that are told in society, in that they actively shape that society. It is important therefore, as someone intrinsically interested in the telling of stories, to remember that stories impart the greatest effect when they are at the heart of their readers, and not distant and removed.

 

It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics by Francesca Polletta. The University of Chicago Press. 2006.

While there is much to take from this book, I would include it as an example of poor writing. Polletta aims to explain the important place of telling stories in the politics and revolutions that shape our world. I came to read it during the week of student protests at Rhodes and across South Africa, and became very aware of how protests used stories to garner support, while management’s use of figures, notions and general waffle were very ineffective. I also became highly aware of how the media constructed stories that portrayed events in certain ways, highlighting a fundamental failure of journalism to do what it is always claiming: to tell the full story. Stories in such climates are far too complicated to be told by those who are not experiencing them fully, and so journalists often resorted to a polarised approach of categorising every person and event as either pro- or anti-protest. I took more of these insights from my experiences of the past week than from the book though, because of Polletta’s insistence on portraying notions and ideas rather than telling stories, despite her insistence on the superiority of the latter.

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