I’ve mentioned my PhD in Creative Writing on more than one occasion. Here’s the proposal accepted by Bangor University (Wales, UK) back in 2010:
My aim is to produce a novel and critical analysis in which I extend my exploration of the Self, a central theme in my professional life as in the fiction I have published so far. I sense deeply that the borders of my own self have never been satisfactorily defined. I prioritise Woman where many only see Black. I am trilingual (English, French, German). My passport states I am British, but I have lived abroad for twenty years and feel at home in France, where the immediate reaction of most is to allocate me to some African country I have never been to. Germans assume I am American. When I say I am British, or worse, English, they respond with an amused, confused, smile. The result of such persistent unclarity is a sense of being in limbo; a fear of disappearing down the cracks in the middle of multiple, at times antagonistic states of being. It also entails dialogic and dialectic stances respectively; a moving in and out of various zones of experiences within and beyond the Self. In truth, however, there is no Self, only a nation of Selves, every experience feeding the incessant quest for definition and sense as we progress, regress and pivot through time.
In this thesis, I wish to take this notion further than I have done so far. My aim is to combine exploration of Self with the erosion of generic literary boundaries; to cast aside the final safety net to see what happens when all is set in motion. I seek to test a new border; our tolerance of no/fewer borders, no/fewer clear-cuts, only the ‘game’ of the open, the permeable, the game of ‘possibles’ as I dismantle the novel as we cherish it.
In The Red Room (2006), in which I first express my need to question the ‘givens’, the no doubt well-intended yet market-oriented advice not to mix styles made me sensitive to the extent to which we are, indeed, inclined to resist novelty, even in a branch which, as I understand it, should in fact promote novelty. The ‘novel’, it seems, should be in the message but not in the form. With Long Time Walk on Water (2007), I subvert the conventional novel by blending generic forms (fairytale, novel, nursery rhymes, poetry, letters), linguistic styles (cockney, standard English, Jamaican creole) and by smudging the boundaries of time and character, the latter changing names like garments, the former shifting like the plates of the earth. In Mut@tus (2009), fragmentation is explored online as I sound out the boundaries between the real and the virtual, using language to go beyond language as I ‘voice’ my frustration at the interpretive liberties granted to the visual arts yet denied writers. Writing, for me, is as much alchemy as it is an act of resistance. I have always been impressed by such writers as dare to question the givens, who manage to liberate, if not emancipate us: Jean Rhys, Carson McCullers, Virginia Woolf, Gayle Jones. A thesis in creative writing would allow me to enhance the act of writing by exposing the critical reflections which accompany, or feed, the creative and interpretive processes for both the writer and the reader. My initial research question is:
How many devils may we dance with in modern fiction? How may dialogism redefine literary genres and reading-writing processes?
Synopsis of Verses Nature
Mazelle is a Black British journalist and Francophile. Jean-Joseph, her counterpart, stinks of Male Pig. All the same, he will pay her well to write his life story, and journalism does not provide Mazelle with the professional or intellectual satisfaction she had wished for. As far as he is concerned, Jean-Joseph, a self-made man in his late fifties, a fascist and self-proclaimed connoisseur of the opposite sex, he was sure he could summon up the generosity to ignore the fact that she was a black feminist as long as she did what he was paying her to do; to be his Nègre (French word for ghost-writer). The ensuing intellectual battle is reflected in the heterogeneous synoptic and linguistic structure of the novel as it mutates between poetry, prose, journal, transcript, stream of consciousness, confession, liturgy and therapy, addressing, as it does so, themes such as art, philosophy, politics, gender, sexuality and spirituality. Mazelle is both a journalist and a novelist. Correlations between novelists and journalists in their capacity to bring people the ‘news’ is extended to religious/fascist texts in that the missionary/political motives of the latter two, their communal ‘poetics’, essentially erode the dialogically reflexive Self, promoting instead a consensual, ‘circumcised’ I. Aye. The biblical and journalistic dovetail once again in their depiction of womanhood, sexuality and in their instrumentalization of fear. As Mazelle is very much woman, and Jean-Joseph very much man, at some point which defies naming, sexual attraction inevitably emerges. The battle becomes an intellectual, erotic Kampf; one in which not only the boundaries of Self, but also the boundaries between Mazelle and Jean-Joseph, between pleasure and pain, are called into question.
The novel will be entitled Verses Nature as I would like to solicit us to relinquish the old ‘givens’ in exchange for a new harmony (nature); a new order (verses) based on the inherent conflicts (versus) of Being. News is not a ‘given’, however much we should – or want – to believe it is so. News is creative; in a sense, it is a story, an art form (surrealist at times…) and as in Long Time Walk on Water, where I dissolve the membrane between fact and fiction, here, the larger, or higher question is an epistemological-philosophical one: What is real? Do I need to know? What can I bear to know? I do not know how the novel will end. Once I abandon myself to writing, I am more victim than perpetrator. I only know that I want to keep pushing and questioning boundaries, and to thereby explore not only the Self but equally the limits of my own literary tolerance with regard to character and style as I dare to produce something new.
There is nothing at all that I formerly believed to be true of which it is impossible to doubt. (Descartes,1596-1650)
Peut-on parler de la langue dans une (seule) langue? (can one speak of language in a single language ?) (Derrida, 1996.)
The above citations underscore my critical approach to the art, the craft and science of writing, which I will explore in this section in relation to my proposed thesis and its main question: How many devils may we dance with in modern fiction? How may dialogism redefine literary genres and reading-writing processes?
The Cartesian systematisation of doubt heralds a passage to modernity; the realisation of the idea of the autonomy of man. Applied to literature, it invites us to regard doubt as catalyst for reflection and call into question generic conservatism, which I shall term ‘phenotypical monogamy/purism’ (phenotype being a word I borrow from cultural psychology). Derrida’s notion of deconstruction, of plurality, folds into the Bakhtinian concept of dialogism, itself relating to the currently popular idea of ecology within the human sciences, in particular with regard to language, and thus, also literature and reading/interpretation. We may no longer argue that we speak, or ‘receive’ in a monolithic way – references should be liminal, tenuous; abstract. Impressionistic? Taken together, the above quotes solicit us, readers, and more importantly here, the writer, to pull away from and challenge the ‘givens’, in favour of entertaining new possibilities; possibilities to replace, re-place, displace, deconstruct and, ultimately, ‘democratise’ what Wertsch calls our ‘narrative templates’ (Wertsch, 2002); our genres, and the boundaries we draw between them. Boundaries harbour an imperative to make a decision, to position oneself, to act. As I state in Mut@tus: ‘there will always be a line, as there will always be a beyond the line. Question is: where do you stand in relation to the line?’ I want to straddle the lines, I advocate phenotypical promiscuity, an opening up and dishevelling of borders
In relation to the novel as a genre or phenotype, my aim is twofold. I want not only to make the creative process transparent, hybrid and, at times, surrealist, but also, and somehow, my aim is to redefine the relationship between reader and writer, making the novel phenomenological not simply at the level of plot, but of design; the reader should feel (s)he is orchestrating the novel with me. The intention is concrete although the strategy has yet to emerge.
With regard to form, I cannot but resist slotting my project into one of the neat little boxes on offer: post-modern, realist, etc, since the whole point is not to attribute it to a particular genre, but to free fall through the prism of possibilities. In so doing, I will draw from the world of music and art: impressionism (e.g. Monet), cubism (e.g. Klee), surrealism (e.g. Dali), but also literature (e.g. Rhys, Woolf, Prévert, Böll), psychology and philosophy. I want to move beyond the triumvirate of drama, poetry and prose advocated by Aristotle as I straddle the science and art of fiction. Here, it is less a matter of Word and more a question of (the multiplicity of) Form. It is, if you like, the word in relation to semiotic or synoptic contiguity. The triumvirate will need to welcome new playmates. I envisage a synergy between narrating, reporting, and dream, using transcripts and scholia, borrowing them from scientific writing, and adding to their number the synoptic layout of columns, as in the more popular genre of journalism, but also familiar to us from religious texts. I intend to play with these elements as Wittgenstein propounds; make of them a ‘game’. News will become as creative as poetry. Language will step beyond the limits of linguistics and recruit the semiotic prerogative previously reserved for the visual arts. I do not, however, wish to divorce structural phenotpyes entirely from their original contexts, which will co-reside in the reader’s mind in my n o v e l novel (extra spacing in the adjective n o v e l intended).
Writing the critical analysis, in particular from the vantage of literary theory, will be the most difficult part of the overall thesis for me. I am the painter who can neither name the form nor the colour; the musician who has yet to learn to read a score. The thesis will demand that the artist becomes a scientist, able to reflect critically, appraise and operationalise creative-interpretive processes. I will have to discover the science of fiction, at the same time as I write and contribute to the field myself. I will need to familiarise myself with the field’s terminologies and theories, which I am unable to refer to with a satisfying degree of certainty here, although my indicative bibliography points to where I will begin to look in order to set my work and my understanding within solid theoretical parameters. Such methodology, naturally, evolves in tandem with writing the novel itself. As such, it cannot be prescribed. This is where I gulp and go slightly weak at the knees. Boundaries do offer comfort, after all, and I have willingly thrown myself into an arena where there are none, for not only do I renounce those which have structured the art of writing fiction, but I have yet to find, or appropriate, those which frame the science of writing/interpreting fiction.
I risk drowning in my own bile – I will not call it hubris – but that is precisely what I want to find out. As a peer reviewer of articles on cognition and education, I have grown suspicious of the ‘fact’ that research never seems to go wrong, but invariably yields a neat, polished ‘product’ that confirms any original hypothesis. Pseudo-empiricism? The artist, at least, may openly advocate the creative element in his or her depiction of ‘facts’. We know things go wrong. I want to write something novel, spreading the colours on my palette (i.e. the themes addressed: zoniferousness, voice, self as project and projection, violence, fascism, misogyny, religion, etc) with selected brushes (i.e. phenotypes: transcript, scholia, poetry, prose, journalism, stream of consciousness, diary) to create an impression, though not to dupe. To balance the ‘science’ of fiction with the ‘art’ of fiction will be an extremely delicate act. Having matured as a writer during the last decade, I now feel ready for the challenge afforded by this thesis, which I intend to complete on a part-time basis (max 15h/wk), and which, I am convinced, will provide the ideal parameters for my personal and professional growth as I dance, as I dialogue with epistemological devils in an interdisciplinary manner in the true spirit of dialogism.
(Attached was also a detailed bibliography, I’ll spare you that. As you can imagine, a lot has happened since submitting the proposal. I’ll be sharing some of that. Struggling with my female characters; none of them have a voice as strong as Tatar’s. The more theoretical aspects of my thesis along with sample fieldnotes will appear in my Writer’s Kitchen. Literary excerpts will appear in the rubric Verses Nature. Do me a favour; tell me what you think. I’d love to publish some of your reflections in the appendix to the novel (a novel with an appendix? why not?). Hard work ahead. Fun and despair on the programme too. This is a safe space, right? Then you won’t mind if I not only whoop but occasionally cry.)