In the first of a mini-series of interviews by Nigerian poet and novelist Timothy Ogene, Canadian travel and fiction writer Jean McNeil is the guest. McNeil is a Reader in Creative Writing and co-convenor of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, as well as the author of a great many significant texts and recipient of numerous literary awards.
Four pages into Jean McNeil’s Hunting Down Home (1996), the young narrator compares her grandfather to Hitler: ‘My grandfather looked like Hitler, there was no denying it.’ She, like her family, are Scottish settlers on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia, where they live in isolation, exposed to nature and the outcomes of dispossession. Morag’s heavy remark frames her family’s presence on that island, a critical gaze at her ancestors.
In her most recent novels, The Dhow House (2016) and Fire on the Mountain (2018), Jean further explores the themes of dispossession and alienation, using the white settler communities of East Africa to highlight the complications of identity and privilege in the aftermath of empire.
Central to McNeil’s work across genres is a preoccupation with space, physical and psychological; with characters who struggle to find meaning within the spaces they occupy, or fight to untangle themselves from narratives of dispossession. This interview takes its cue from these themes, with the aim of understanding McNeil’s singular attention to the complexities of alienation.
Timothy Ogene: I’ll begin by paraphrasing a line from an address you gave to a group of students sometimes ago, that writers must create the spatial conditions that enhance their writing process, that enable them to stay productive. For you, this has included an extended stay aboard a ship in both polar regions, confined to a small space, writing what you saw, heard, and experienced. How did you come about this space-process insight? And what comes first, the idea for a book or the space that eventually generates the idea?
Jean McNeil: For me personally, there are usually two distinct spaces I inhabit: the space of inspiration and the space of the writing. Theoretically these can be the same place, and inspiration can come anywhere, including in your study or office. But generally my model has been to go out into the world, sometimes to places where it’s difficult or impossible to write but which are often awe-inspiring, and then do the actual writing in a more contemplative, stable space.
Space and place (the two are not quite the same thing but that’s a long digression) do inspire me. If you go to the Antarctic to research a book, to take an extreme example, you can pretty much be guaranteed you will write something you would have been incapable of conceiving and rendering without having inhabited such a place. I think place is a defining factor in literature, but it has to interact with character, history, politics and state of mind, to make its mark.
I have been lucky enough to write in a sustained way in some very beautiful places: in the rainforests of Central America, Rio de Janeiro, an Antarctic research base, on research ships on multiple trips crossing the Atlantic and in polar waters, in tiny towns in Svalbard and Greenland where there are more sledge dogs and polar bears than people, in Cape Town, South Africa, where I lived for years, and lately the Indian ocean coast of east Africa. Cape Town and Rio are places which ignite my imagination, possibly because of the dualities in their characters: they are cities but are wild, beauty and danger co-exist, they are seemingly hedonistic but like all ocean cities are capable of being phenomenally melancholy.
Ships are hands-down the most fruitful places to write. It’s a confined environment but you’re in constant motion, and something about the fact that you are chewing your way through the ocean at bicycling speed (about 12 knots) encourages one to keep writing. Three meals a day are prepared for you and there’s always someone to talk to. I also enjoy the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose on board. I’ve written notes and drafts of entire books either in my cabin or in the science labs on ships. Rough seas don’t bother me; even when I’ve had to bolt my chair to my desk I can write. Whatever I am writing takes on the rhythm of the ship and the sea and becomes more galvanised, iterative, relentless than if I were on land.
TO: I’ve just re-read your first collection of stories, Nights in a Foreign Country, and again I’m struck by how intimate the stories are, how your characters seem incredibly aware of the physical and psychological landscapes in which they exist. There’s always that sense of entrapment and resistance to entrapment, delight and disillusion; characters leaving home only to find themselves longing for another place to go, never arriving. And then there’s Morag, the narrator of your first novel, who’s coming-of-age in a community isolated from everything and everywhere, teeming with life-altering events. ‘This island,’ she says, ‘is a dying place that will never die, like Carthage smouldering for centuries in the Romans’ wake. . .. But the island will survive because it is remote it could be Samarkand.’ Reading your work, one gets the impression that you’re mapping the relationship between our inner struggles and the places we find ourselves, how both are never in sync, always drifting apart. One is forced to wonder: why this singular obsession?
JM: This is an astute question and not easy to answer. The inner struggle, or the psychology of a character, is what fiction can explore and dramatize better than any other art form. As a reader I’ve always gravitated to the roman d’analyse, or ‘psychological novel’ – it sounds better in French – of which Proust is the exemplar, for its ability to plumb the depths of emotion and experience and how the two are mutually constituted. The places we find ourselves in can sometimes throw this inner struggle into high relief, or elevate it to critical status: think of Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Hemingway’s novels, even Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald – I can’t see that story playing itself out in any other locale than the French Riviera – where the place becomes a conspirator of the psyche to enact a necessary transformation.
That’s the literary explanation. Growing up in eastern Canada I always felt I was in the wrong place, geographically and socially, and I had to mount a tremendous expedition to find my rightful home. I was looking for a place where the mental, psychic landscape and the external environment both matched each other and also my sensibility. I found it. It’s called London – the worst place in the world to be a writer, because of the socio-economics of the city (you can only afford to live here if you’re a banker) but obviously fertile ground for writers for centuries. That said, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in London, but in a more elemental place which taught me from a young age how to be alone.
I find exile, alienation, dislocation uncomfortable to live through but creatively galvanising. I’m also drawn to fiction which has some form of cultural clash at its heart for example, much of James Baldwin’s work, A Sport and a Past-time by James Salter, Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, The Garden of Eden by Hemingway, to name some modernist heroes. These novels are populated by people who are exiles in their own lives, but who find their truer selves far away from the places where they started out. In a more contemporary literary landscape, many of the novels I admire are about characters negotiating their many identities, trying to remain whole without fracturing: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam’s work, to mention two examples. I’m drawn to this subject both because I think it’s fictionally dynamic and because issues of dislocation and multiple identities mirror my own experience.
TO: Speaking of ‘cultural clash,’ The Dhow House explores the lives of white settlers in East Africa, and the complications of history and contemporary politics. You new book is also set in Africa, and traces the lives of Africans of European descent. What draws you to this subject, and what fascinates you the most about that part of the world?
JM: The Dhow House is only covertly about race in my mind; you could also say it’s class. In the novel wealthy white people live in something of a gilded cage, yet they also live with the dilemma that the cage is their home. They may be descended from settlers but they have ceased to be so themselves. Their skin is white but they have morphed from being Europeans, or British, to something else. But what, or who?
White Africans, is the answer. This brings up a question of legitimacy as much as belonging. The two are so intertwined for white populations in Africa they become the same thing. For me personally my interest in this experience might be that it rings a bell with my own origins, and situation. I am probably (our family origins are obscure) a fifth-generation Canadian. My ancestors were settlers from Scotland. They carved out a home in the New World with their own hands, displacing the indigenous peoples who originally lived on the island where I am from (but who are still there, by the way). Perhaps the European-descended settler populations in Africa fascinate me because they throw a skewed mirror on my own questions about race and belonging, about fidelity to a land which is not ‘yours’ – although this is hardly a unique dilemma; so many people in the world are now deterritorialised, distant or living in a state of illegitimacy from the land.
Although I have spent a decade now in southern and east Africa I am not a white African. I did feel uncomfortable writing about an experience which was not ‘mine’ in these novels. But what I lack in authority I hopefully compensate for in powers of observation. Also. if you only stick to your own experience you plough a very narrow furrow as a writer. For both The Dhow House and Fire on the Mountain I made a decision to discuss race as little as possible overtly. I also don’t explicitly mention nation states. This allows me to lift the issues of race and nation off the ground, so they have a metaphorical heft. My personal suspicion is that while power still swings around a racial compass in certain African states, race is slowly morphing into class – it’s about money and political access now, more than the charge of origin and pigment. The two of course often align, but less and less as national bourgeoisies and elites grow.
On a level of character, I find alienation, longing and belonging powerful emotional drivers. As well as the paradox of finding ‘home’ in a place you are not from, have no roots in, a place that knows nothing of you, that is actually poised to negate your existence. These are the places where I feel most vitally at home and I wanted to investigate that conundrum through these characters.
TO: You’ve explored those questions – ‘of legitimacy as much as belonging’ – in novels, short stories, memoirs, and poetry, and I’m wondering which form you’re most at home with. What decides which form at any given time?
JM: I wish I could state that I am aware of the technical pros and cons of form have decided what length I’m writing to before I start something. But the truth is I gravitate toward a form after I’ve begun writing. At the moment I’m working on or have just written four short stories, one ‘personal essay’ as they call them in North America, and am have written just under half of what could be a new novel.
What’s appealing about short stories is their favouring of the innocuous – a moment, an observation, a contained situation. But I find my ideas are less and less appropriate to this form. Most of the stories I write are novels at heart; they could easily be expanded or elongated into a novel. (Which probably means they’re not very good short stories.) Stories mostly present themselves to me now in the wide-screen format of a novel, I don’t know why.
Poetry is very different from any prose form: its abstraction requires density and mystique. When you really don’t know what you are thinking or feeling, writing a poem will shed the most light on the mystery. A series of poems is often a way into a novel or a story. I’ve written and published a lot of poetry, including a collection, but don’t think of myself as a poet.
Every time I’ve started a novel, what I really wanted to be writing was a novella. I think it’s one of the purest and most satisfying forms of prose. I may have gotten close to it in Fire on the Mountain, my most recent book. But even that’s a novel, structurally. (Novellas have technical and structural peculiarities that are not only about length). Every time I’ve tried to write a novella it’s either folded itself back into a short story or collapsed outward into a novel. But I’ll keep trying.
TO: Seeing how prolific you are, I’m curious to know how much rewrites you do. Also, do you work with an end in mind, or build up until it feels like the end?
JM: It’s true I can write quickly – I’ve just written 30,000 words of a new novel in a couple of weeks while holding down the sort of university job that eats up one’s life.
But I’m not quite as prolific as I might appear. These three books I have published in the last year and a half have had long gestation periods. Ice Diaries (published 2016) was begun in 2008, and I rewrote it about 20 times over the years in between, in part because it took time to find the right formula of reportage, diary entry and memoir. I ‘finished’ Fire on the Mountain in 2013 but rewrote it sentence by sentence over ten days in August 2017 for publication this year, and again I probably wrote 12 drafts of that novel and my files show at least 8 drafts of The Dhow House.
In my experience literary novels are best written over a span of time, when you are able to have intervals when you can leave them – almost forget about them – then go back and reconsider and recast what you have done. Time is particularly important in structuring them. My novels tend not to have straightforward structures – ie numerical chapters which advance forward in chronological time.
As for endings, I often have a last sentence I am working towards. This was the case with The Dhow House. I knew I was heading toward a nocturnal panorama where the character or the narrator would be able to survey the coast at twilight. But I had no idea how I would get there, or whose perspective it would be from. For Ice Diaries, I knew I wanted to end it on a transcendent note that would stand outside the story. I had the sound of the ending in my ears but not what form it would take.
It’s better not to know your ending, on reflection. Fiction is emergent, that is the alchemy of it. You don’t know what will happen. It’s like life, unfolding in front of you like a network of riverine tributaries and you choose on instinct which one to follow.
Timothy Ogene is the author of The Day Ends Like Any Day (Holland House, 2017).