To Start in a ‘Nowhere Place’
Overnight, we’ve had news from Wales of the win by Guy Gunaratne of the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize for writers 39 or younger. Gunaratne’s debut novel, which also was longlisted for the Booker, is In Our Mad and Furious City. In the States, it’s published by Macmillan/FSG.
And in his comments on winning the award, which carries a purse of US$38,347, Gunaratne made an intersting point about place–his own place, in a sense, and where it lies in his work. His reference to Neasden is about the northwest London suburb in which he grew up. He said:
“After winning this prize, my mind really just goes to all the other writers, or aspiring writers, who are writing from a place similar to where I began. A place like Neasden, somewhere I always thought was a nowhere place. But to make art out of the world, the language, the voices I grew up around I always felt was important. That’s all I tried to do with this book.”
The book’s politically charged story is set in northwest London and has to do with young members of minorities in London’s vast, swirling mix of so much glorious diversity–a reality sorely strained by the Brexitian bigotry that grips the UK–and the European Union with it–with unresolved hostility.
And I was struck in Gunaratne’s remarks with his concept of his home turf, his calling it “a nowhere place.” That’s familiar to many of us. My own childhood haunts in the Methodist backwaters of my father’s ministerial career seemed (and still do) like very nowhere places.
What’s impressive to me now, in looking at his book, is that he found a way deep enough into the “nowhere-ness” of his background to realize that it seemed to be right where his work needed to land: it reflects today’s struggles in which whole populations in some of the most advanced places on Earth–London, for God’s sake–feel that they’re growing up “nowhere.”
It takes a lot of perspective to get to that. You have to climb way up into the tree of your own personality to get a high enough view. It’s not easy to see your own milieu for how it might resonate with others. Granted, there can be many complex emotional and psychological reasons to write, or not, about your background, your origination, “your people,” and so on.
I once bought a large, arresting photo for my mantelpiece by a gifted artist named Timothy Sellers once. Its title is “You Will Be Found in the Place Where You Were Born” and it’s a fleeting self-portrait, the artist sighted, vulnerable for an instant, in a dense tropical greenhouse environment, an organic entity spotted on the way to some kind of unavoidable, entropic appointment.
Maybe the right question isn’t whether we can ever go home again, Mr. Wolfe, but whether we can ever really get away.
Joyce in Jerusalem
As a provocation today, I’ll tell you about something that would seem to be another author’s long, successful flight from home for tremendous accolades–and how tightly she held onto “the place where she was born” when she got there.
Joyce Carol Oates was given the Jerusalem Prize for literature at the opening of the Jerusalem International Book Forum on Sunday evening (May 12), feted with lavish appraisals of her work and music of Mozart, his 15th quartet. And it was striking to see Oates at the podium, standing in the temple-like interior of the auditorium there in Israel, giving an acceptance speech about discovering reading as a child in Lockport, New York.
Her main influence–in fact, the only family member who knew books or culture and who could have gotten her to a library–was her paternal grandmother, Blanche. Oates credits Blanche’s generosity and care in introducing her to reading–and giving her an Olivetti typewriter at age 14. As Oates had some early successes in school with her writing, her grandmother’s comment, she told us in Jerusalem, was one many of us heard from such steadfast mentors in our earlier years: “I knew you could do it.”
After Blanche died, Oates learned that her grandmother had concealed a Jewish background. The trauma of what had brought the family to the States, of course, was enough to make many hide it. But in a peculiar turn of events, Oates had grown up without any real contact with the Jewish element, however subtle, in her own backround.