Writer of the Month
Wayne Burrows is a poet and tutor for Writing School East Midlands. His most recent publications are Black Glass: New & Selected Poems (Shoestring, 2015) and Exotica Suite & Other Fictions (Shoestring, 2015). Exotica Suite has also been released as a full length album featuring musical performances of the written texts, made in collaboration with Paul Isherwood (The Soundcarriers). A version of this blog was delivered at The Writers’ Conference 2016 as part of a panel on the Authentic Voice.
The Bush Of Ghosts: Faking An Authentic Voice
There’s an old joke you’ve probably heard before, sometimes credited to Groucho Marx: “The most important thing in life is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.” It’s a good starting point for thinking about authenticity in writing, because authenticity is a question of style as much as it is anything else. Do our words rub with or against the grain of the preconceived ideas a reader might bring to them based on our biographies? Besides, writers convince readers that false things are true all the time. It’s in our job description. So what is authenticity for a writer? Is it something others use to define us, or is it a quality in the things we write? Can it be faked?
To test this, I’d like to give a short example, a field recording of the final stanzas from a ballad supposedly written in 1790s London:
The whole ballad is a fiction, of course. The 21 stanzas of ‘An Account of the Hawaiian Colony in England (1790)’ were written at a kitchen table in Nottingham last May, for publication in a book called Exotica Suite & Other Fictions. Less than a week after the ballad had been written, it was performed by the artists Arianne Churchman and Rebecca Lee in a Nottingham stairwell, to the traditional English folk tune of ‘Whirly Whorl’, then recorded by the musician Paul Isherwood to sound as authentic as we could collectively make it. The idea was that it should appear to be a genuine field recording, perhaps taped in a pub back room somewhere during the 1970s.
But then, the whole of Exotica Suite very deliberately set out to explore inauthenticity and artifice, taking its cues from a 1950s musical genre that saw mainly American jazz musicians fabricating soundscapes from Polynesia, Africa and elsewhere. Exotica Suite is a sequence of documents from a parallel British history where, rather than Cook landing in Hawaii in 1777, a small Hawaiian fleet found its way to the Thames instead: a lens through which other possibilities for British identity could be explored. In writing it, I wanted to ask: what would our folk traditions and literary history look like today had our culture absorbed Polynesian influences around 230 years ago?
In the context of current debates surrounding immigration and issues of cultural ownership and appropriation it seemed a good question, and Robert Holcombe’s The Bush of Ghosts (1976), a collage made as inner sleeve artwork for the CD version of Exotica Suite, gives us a scene from a Derbyshire Peak District village decorated with Polynesian motifs and figures for some unspecified ceremonial purpose. It’s far from realistic, but looks not entirely unfamiliar. The kind of folk culture involving masks, costumes and bright floral well dressings that inspired The Wicker Man can, after all, be found in the Britain that exists outside Exotica Suite‘s fictional Anglo-Polynesian history.
Some of you might also recognise the source of that title, The Bush of Ghosts, in My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, a novel published in 1954 by the Nigerian author Amos Tutuola. Again, it might seem a long way from Derbyshire to the Nigeria of Tutuola’s imagination, but this novel, and an earlier book by Tutuola, The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), both made an enormous impact on me in my early teens. Tutuola’s retellings of traditional oral Yoruba folk-tales, blended with his own surreal and satirical inventions, are referenced in several of the pieces written for Exotica Suite.
Another entirely self-fabricated but, to my mind, authentic influence acknowledged in Exotica Suite is Sun Ra, the American jazz musician who renounced his earthly origins in Birmingham, Alabama, and reinvented himself as an alien, whose real roots lay on the planet Saturn. He is addressed in the book through a rewritten version of an Ancient Egyptian incantation, Akhenaten’s Hymn To The Sun of 1350 BC, as though the Pharaoh is speaking directly to the musician across the millennia.
Perhaps a less visible presence is E.A. Markham, a writer from the Caribbean island of Montserrat who came to England in the 1950s. Unlike Tutuola and Sun Ra, Markham was someone I actually knew, when I worked with him in Sheffield during the mid-1990s. He became known for his adoption of fabricated identities and alternate versions of himself, publishing as a young Black British poet, Paul St Vincent, and a white Welsh feminist, Sally Goodman, among many others. You can read the work he made in these personas in his 1986 collection, Living In Disguise.
The point is that for all its calculated inauthenticity, then, Exotica Suite is also an acknowledgement of the part played in my own development as a writer by influences that fell far outside my own immediate background. I grew up in mostly white, working class small towns in South East Derbyshire and went to secondary school in Mid-Wales. Exotica Suite led me to think about how writers like Jayne Cortez, Christopher Okigbo and Aimé Césaire have always been at least as important and formative in my own writing as DH Lawrence, Ted Hughes and others with whom I shared more obvious cultural common-ground.
This idea that influences shouldn’t only come from our own backgrounds can take many forms. Over the last few years, I have been ‘translating’ the lyrics of pop songs released in Poland, Czechoslovakia and other former Eastern Bloc Communist states. Like the Polynesian material in Exotica Suite, these versions are synthetic, as I don’t speak the languages or know the cultures at first-hand. But I’d been collecting the songs for a decade before it became clear that my long wait for someone better qualified to make English versions of them was likely to be fruitless and set about doing it myself. A small group of them was collected in Eastern Bloc Songs: A Sampler earlier this year.
Yet another ambiguously inauthentic project has been the making of the life’s work of a visual artist, Robert Holcombe, who never existed. I think of him as a fictional character whose story circulates not in a novel, as might be expected, but in exhibitions, talks, essays and other kinds of publication: some of his papers are collected among the ‘Other Fictions’ of Exotica Suite. But the important point about all these fabrications and forgeries is that while they might be fictional, they can also only work if they become real on some level for the readers or viewers who encounter them: if we are persuaded to suspend our disbelief and willingly embrace the artifice proposed.
Fiction, of course, has always been a very particular form of lying, which paradoxically gets us to the truth. It is at its most effective when writers give us the space to try on new identities and consider new possibilities. It happens when writers take us to vividly imagined places, like the Yoruba spirit villages of Tutuloa’s The Palm Wine Drinkard, or hypothetical ones, like the unstable reality navigated by the narrator of Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. We must be true to our origins but open to influences from elsewhere. To insist on authenticity in a too-rigid or literal sense can change the advice to ‘write what we know’ into a not so subtly restrictive instruction to ‘know our place’.
As for the Hawaiian ballad with which I began, it was important to me that its artifice would be both self-evident and grounded in a real history. Locations were researched on maps of the period to supply some of the detail. The effect this fake ballad’s fictional Hawaiian colonists have on the British working men and women who adopt their customs and beliefs is set in the real context of Acts of Enclosure and early industrialisation. The story is that of an alliance between Polynesians and working Britons that sparks a revolt. It may have been thwarted and forgotten, and it is entirely fictional. But perhaps it still offers an authentic possibility for our consideration:
Wayne Burrows: https://wayneburrows.wordpress.com/
Exotica Suite: https://wayneburrows.bandcamp.com/releases