We’re attempting to unravel the tangled web of literary influence by talking with the great writers of today about the writers of yesterday who inspired them. This month, we spoke with two writers known for their bold exploration of personal experience. Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist, Opinions) discusses the daring, sensuous writing of Marguerite Duras. Kaveh Akbar (Martyr!, Portrait of the Alcoholic) delves into the delightful disorientation of Amos Tutuola.
Roxane Gay on Marguerite Duras
This was my first time reading The Lover, and I really appreciated how it has that wonderfully fierce language of the inter-war French writers. What drew you to Duras?
I love all her work, but I was and remain particularly enamored by The Lover, which is an exquisite book. I think it takes a lot of risks. It's uncomfortable, it's erotic, it's beautiful, and on a sentence level, it's magnificent. She was an interesting woman in her lifetime. There was this document—I think it was 1970 or 1971—called the Manifesto of the 343 that a bunch of women, and French women in particular, signed that was written by Simone de Beauvoir, publicly declaring that they had had an illegal abortion. So she was—at the time, for her time—very radical and unapologetic. And I think that's just wonderful.
She was very willing to press taboo buttons.
Yeah, absolutely. The Lover was a book that she wrote late in life—I think she was 70 years old when it published—and I thought that was interesting. She really waited to write the novel, which is based on her own experiences growing up in Indochina. When a young person writes a book, you can say, ah, youth, but she knew what she was doing. She waited and she wrote it how she wanted to write it. And that's what every writer should do. You shouldn't worry about how it's going to be received. You should just tell the story you want to tell as truthfully and beautifully as possible.
What lessons can writers learn from her?
Risk taking. Remembering the beauty of words. The beauty of sentences. That it's okay to be sensuous and sensual. To write thinking about texture and tactility. To be unapologetic. It doesn't mean you have to always be right, but she was unapologetic about her beliefs. I don't even agree with everything that she believed or said or did, but I don't need to. This idea that affinity means that we are 100% aligned with the people that we read and watch is silly and unnecessary. That's not what it's about.
In this series, we’ve already discussed Doris Lessing and Laurie Colwin, and something interesting Duras shared with them was that their women protagonists always seemed to possess some vague clandestine knowledge that the men didn’t.
Also there's this power that she has, this understanding that on the surface—as a woman—you might be seen as the person who doesn't have power, but she was intimately aware of the power that she had. And I really admire that. I think we are who we are and everything—how we write, how we understand the world, how we articulate—is influenced by a lot of things, cultural identity being one of those things, life experiences being another. So it’s because of who she was uniquely. I think partly it was because of her childhood and growing up in a challenging—for her, at the time—environment, a different environment where she had power, but she was also at a disadvantage in some ways, especially economically. She was watching a country completely change, and she was watching that part of the world sort of create space for some people and push others out. And that absolutely shows up in her work—what it means to be in the middle of that. I think all of those things contribute to who she is. And how she writes. When we're talking about brilliant writers from the 20th century, she should absolutely be in that conversation.
Kaveh Akbar on Amos Tutuola
What I love about The Palm-Wine Drinkard is how its language simultaneously has the sophistication of Joyce and the stammering of an actual drunk.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard is such a messy novel. It's all over the place. The syntax is utterly uncanny and strange. The structure is deeply disorienting. It's just so radically itself. I think about mid–20th century Nigerian writers writing about the experience of colonization. Of course the titan is Achebe, and Achebe writes these brilliant, searching, rigorous novels, where the Western gaze on the African continent is ironized in the novel form, and so the novel form is itself is a kind of irony, because Achebe is adopting the colonial medium and showing utter mastery of it. And he was a contemporary of Tutuola—they were writing around the same time—and so when Tutuola released Palm-Wine Drinkard, a lot of his contemporaries were like, “We don't sound like this. We can speak English well.” It was like it was almost embarrassing to have it be the sort of hit that it was, because it sounds so broken and the syntax is so utterly uncanny.
I think a lot about the stages of colonial thinking and colonial art, and you have Achebe on one side, who is showing that he can outwrite anyone in this colonial tongue, right? I mean, you could put a paragraph of Achebe’s next to Nabokov or Morrison or any of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century. He’s in that tier of prose stylists. But then, on the other hand, you have Tutuola, who’s utterly ambivalent about the colonial gaze. He's just telling Yoruba folk tales and weaving them through what he calls a novel, and it is a novel because he calls it that, but it is so much more tied to Yoruba oral storytelling and just utterly unbeholden to the colonial gaze at all. And I find that so remarkable and stark and brilliant. I mean, Achebe deserves all of his flowers, I love Achebe and there's no reason to create some sort of oppositional binary. But I just I love Tutuola too, for being the exact opposite.
What should writers take from him?
He doesn't sound like anyone else. He sounds like himself. He sounds like his own utterly unprecedented experience of life on the planet Earth. We are all living utterly unprecedented lives that have never happened in the history of humanity. No one in the history of the world was born in Tehran on January 15th, 1989, and then came to America in 1991, and moved to Pennsylvania, and then New Jersey, and then Milwaukee. You know what I mean? That’s me. No one else has read the exact same books in the order that I've read them, and no one has seen the exact same movies in the order that I've seen them. I am a composite of all of my genealogies and geographies and histories, and so, when I shine the light of language through the prism of my unprecedented experience, an entirely new thing forms on the page. Right? That's the ambition of every writer—to articulate an unprecedented consciousness. And you'd be hardpressed to find anyone who does that better than Tutuola.
Even though Palm-Wine is perfectly legible, the disruptive language adds a layer of obscurity.
Even the title—Palm-Wine Drinkard!
Can language become too obscure?
It depends on your project. Like you said, it's still entirely legible. I'm sure that there are parts of Yoruba storytelling and Yoruba traditions that are not legible to me as an Iranian guy living in America, or whatever. I've been to Lagos and I've been to Nigeria, but I’m certainly no expert in Yoruba storytelling or Igbo storytelling. So I'm sure that there are parts of the book that are illegible to me. But there is enough there that I can feel the thrill of a language that's deeper than what it's representing. The representational capacity of language is vast, but it is finite. And the way that Tutuola strains the language against itself in the title and in the text alludes to something beyond the capacity of representation. It alludes to a greater story that is too momentous, or it alludes to the insufficiency of the English language to represent, which is so bold and beautiful and wise.
These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.
Read More Writers Talking Writers