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Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton: a writers review by Pete Kalu

    On February 20, 1910 in Philadelphia, a black man (Edward), drove a railroad trolley into a department store, killing a number of people, injuring others. Why did he do it?  This is the plot premise of Remembered, a superbly evocative and moving novel by Yvonne Battle-Felton. The novel looks at America during the time of plantation slavery and at sixty years of slavery’s long-tailed aftermath there. Remembered is written primarily in the voice of Edward’s mother, Spring, and oscillates between events in 1910 and the formative years of Spring’s life, including Spring’s enslavement, her life as an enslaved person and after emancipation  in the early 1860’s. The narrative stitches the connections between these different times to deliver a haunting  tapestry of the horror, jangle and stink of the era. Narrator, Spring is shadowed by her dead sister, Tempe. Early in the novel, Edward is lying in a coma on his hospital death-bed. Spring and the ghostly Tempe argue over what happens next. If Edward dies, they agree, he needs to die right: to come to the afterlife with full knowledge. Tempe points out he does not know the full story of his mother. Spring says she will tell him, but ‘Either I’ll tell it my way or it won’t get told.’  Spring proceeds to do just that. We learn the story of Spring’s origins and wider family. The telling is Spring’s, and of Spring’s family,  but the novel also opens out as an act of remembrance for all those individuals who endured through slavery. Their stories are not captured in official documents. White writers and administrators did not see fit to record their lives. Pen and paper stories were not written down by enslaved Africans for obvious reasons. Addressing this historical erasure and recovering the stories of people like Spring is a path embarked upon most determinedly by Toni Morrison (eg. Beloved). Of course, there is much unearthed by these stories that white society might –  then and now – want to look away from. The cruelty that the Philadelphian Walker plantation Patriarch meted out in Remembered parallels the degradation forced upon enslaved  Africans working on Jamaican plantations such as those of James Robert Wedderburn ( https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146643591) and the notorious Thomas Thistlewood  (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146651067).  In venturing into these waters, Battle-Felton joins Morrison in a commitment to ‘speak the unspeakable’, to borrow a Morrison phrase. As a writer, I was interested in some philosophical questions that Remembered had to work through. What was it like in those times – not on the poetic or epic scale – but on the level of the day-to-day, the level at which the novel as a form excels? Can these horrors be described and at the same time juxtaposed and made to seem an organic part of the wider world of that time? How do you balance horror and the everyday? Who were we then, as human beings?  How did we see the world? The writer, Henry James, in a letter, wrote that the task of recreating the consciousness of those who lived in long-ago times was ‘almost impossible’. Is it?  The other large question I was interested in concerns how the novel as a form is employed by black writers. A novel establishes a world and in doing so constitutes a world view. Is that world view necessarily Western?  Remembered sits in conversation with Beloved by Toni Morrison,  The Famished Road by Ben Okri and Their Eyes Were watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. In all three there is a sense of Africanist cosmology running through, signalled most strongly in Remembered by the ease with which the dead sister, Tempe arrives in scenes where her sister, Spring is present.   Moving to a radical black arts type critique, another question raised by such novels, though much less spoken about, is the Malcolm X-esque question: how did white people manage to do this to us? Were we complicit? Weak? Fools? In that mode, Remembered stirs, within a black reader at least, an incandescent rage, and for moments, as the degradation, rape, humiliation is described, there is a reader-character unity with the black characters in Remembered  as  explanations are bewilderingly advanced, including, in a moment of splitting, the idea advanced by the patriarch slave master Walker himself, that white people got ‘nothing but the devil’ in them. There are harrowing scenes in Remembered. But also moments of sublime transcendence. One of the most delightful is Battle-Felton’s answer to the question, what was that moment of freedom like for enslaved Africans in Philadelphia when slavery was finally abolished?  Of course, the news of abolition does not filter to everyone all at once, but in bits and pieces. And there features in Remembered an almost dazed phase of drifting and wandering of the newly free, an assuming of new names, a beginning of new directions. Battle-Felton renders this numinously and imaginatively: I’ve not encountered in literature this moment expressed so evocatively before. I’m always interested in a novel’s stylistics: the particular technical choices made by the author to bring a story to life.  Here are some tentative notes on Battle-Felton’s choices for Remembered: It is written partly in the first person ‘I’. This sets some limits on prose style with these sections (for more on this, see, for example the first five short sections of James’ Wood’s  How Novels Work on ‘free indirect speech’) so the...

Kalu Bluebird music video: some background

        A nation is a set of stories. And the National Trust is a custodian of stories, set up by Act of Parliament tasked inter alia with keeping in good health those country houses which are of national significance – considered to contain within them   important stories about the nation.* The country houses owned by the National Trust are therefore clearly part of the narrative fabric of the nation.  What stories do these country houses tell?   The cultural theorist Paul Gilroy notes in his seminal text After Empire, how ‘Englishness’ is constructed. He points out that historical amnesia and postcolonial melancholia are persistent elements in conventional  ‘Englishness’ narratives (Gilroy After Empire 2004, 95-100, 116-120).   The National Trust, with its 1907  foundational purpose of ‘permanent preservation’ has such conventional narratives available to it and it uses them. So a September 2019 tweet (screenshot below) suggests as an activity: “Discover how top-secret map makers and allotments grown in the dig for victory played an important role in our wartime history.” This tweet shows admirable dexterity. It manages to combine several ‘Englishness’ tropes: ‘map making’ with its allusion to Empire;  the Home office sponsored slogan,  ‘Dig For Victory’ – a reference to England’s much narrated ‘victory’ in World War Two; and most imaginatively, the tweet also manages to squeeze in a reference to that quintessentially English phenomenon (and I have one!) of the allotment.      Yet there are other narratives available. And some artists, myself among them, want to unsettle this rather cosy version of Englishness. We are focused on putting forward narratives that acknowledge and move closer to the centre of meditations on Englishness, the depredations, cruelty, stereotyping  and symbolic violence which underpinned the British Empire and colonialism. Violence which still affects us today in all its symbolic, linguistic and conceptual shockwaves. More specifically, we seek, through our art, and by a re-examination of historical lands, buildings, artefacts and archives, to foster the rise of suppressed and hitherto unheard voices – including voices of the ‘Other’.  The Leicester University based Colonial Countryside project has gathered some such artists together – primarily writers. Twitter and Facebook abound with other organisations, artists and historians  seeking to  transform understandings of how Empire and its successor, colonialism, has affected national identity.    Poem – origins The poem which forms the lyrics of ‘Bluebird’ was inspired by the lock, stock and barrel of Penrhyn Castle, a National Trust property in North Wales. Penrhyn Castle itself is a marvellous trompe l’oeil – a stately home  built between 1820 and 1833 (just before the Victorian era)  but presenting itself as something more ancient: a Norman castle.  Thus, the issue of presentation, representation, reality and authenticity is mixed into every brick of the property.  It is a magnificent structure, not only in its architecture. It is decorated and furnished so as to proclaim its owner’s sophistication, civility, good taste, aristocratic roots, wealth, knowledge and power. Nobody who visits can be left uncertain that the primary story there is of the Pennant family’s importance in the world.  The poem is a counter-narrative. It refers allusively to the slave trade origins of the Pennants’ wealth, using imagery to indicate objects in the Penrhyn Castle display –  such as stuffed birds and paintings – where slave trade and colonial connections can be found.  I won’t spoil the poem by pointing out all these references.  But a visit to Penrhyn Castle with the song on your headphone’s playlist would be enough to reveal most if not all!  Song – development The basic musicality of the poem supplied the beginnings of the song.  From this, the song itself was developed, composed and arranged by my 15 yo daughter, Naomi Kalu.  We argued about whether the last, consolidating, note of the song should or should not be played (she won the argument – in the video it is not).    Video – development Jonny Ferryman shot all the video footage in two hours at Penrhyn Castle.  He then edited the video, adding some acoustic effects (the bird song, the sea waves).  Charlotte Maxwell assisted in the direction and with costume. The sound editing was done at HQ Recording Studio.          *The consolidating statute (National Trust Acts (1907-1971) puts it in glorious legalese : “The National Trust shall be established for the purposes of promoting the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest and as regards lands for the preservation (so far as practicable) of their natural aspect features and animal and plant life.”   ...

Trinidad Incantation and song

        Moko Jumbi Incantation   Things scribbled in margins. The spilled fruit-seed of gardeners, linguists, carvers, in their crossings, hauntings, meridian measurings; a constant shifting of the phantom cargo of memory, interweavings, trailings, pathways. I pause at the crossroads, as Eshu arrives:   Hear me now: ecoutez bon, digame lo que pasaba– stories from the perfumeries of Sevilla, of los negreros del rio Guadalquivir, los conquistadores buscando el oro,  los barcos dolorosas,the stenching  folly of the Oyibo – tell me everything.   From under this hash and hex, by the throwing off of murk, mud, pushing through jetsam, in this way, newness shakes its holy dusted head and leaps into the world: hybridizing, creolizing, conjuring from the sprawl and depth of the Carib, from African hinterlands, from the debt bond courts of India… Yes, newness comes swirling into the sweep of archipelago, sliding across the chopping stilts of moko jumbie: Eshu is alive:   Digame.  Stirring. Dicing. Confusing memory. Invoking the global apocalypse of rising waters,  set to cast under the port of London, the port of New York, the West’s ruins-to-come to be as ancient and fascinating in this future as the Roman relics of now.     Ecoutez bon.The modulations, mutations, hallucinogens. Watch the stilt dancers, measuring  the moments from the overwhelm with the arc of their stilts.  The swivel of their compasses. Destiny made manifest.   Nemesis nemesis nemesis  an unravelling, a doubled display of fear doubled consciousness tripled, flung into a trillion synapses carrying the old voltages, channeling heat to light new fires.  Horned, gored, grooved, the mutating voices disappearing into valleys to be transmogrified, becoming tin, pan, the quake-rattle kish-boom that leaps from island to island, hopping from continent to continent declaring renewal, newness, in a syncopated, shimmering burst of brilliance   Don’t ask me. Qu’est ce qu’il dit, lo que creen, lo que piensan, pues hay cosas que no podemos entender, no podemos (sobre)vivir   Never still. They rock constantly, They leap back in time, shaken by the tunneling, the pathways, conduits, viaducts, the signallings of the Orishas. High and far-seeing. Dancing  futures, stomping the dust-beat of future trials, future visions, hailing the rendez-vouz of future victories. They tower over us. We can only crane our necks, behold them, read the scattered bones of their divinations.                   Song For Eshu and Moko     Eshu, trickster of the first order You, who can leap across borders   Eshu, you linger at the cross roads Smoke, mirrors, confusion, your mute codes   Moko who can stare into the horizon sun See all the trials that have been and that may come   Eshu, God of a thousand faces Moko, stepped from a thousand places   Eshu, how many crossroads will we step and face? Moko, how many rant-raves-riddles will we needs must hunt and chase?  ...

Dance Away The Spiders – a short dance review by Pete Kalu

Dance Away The Spiders took place at Home, Manchester, UK. on 22nd January 2019. Ask theatre professionals what group might be the hardest group to work with from the point of view of simple logistics, and asylum seekers / refugees would be right up there. They often live precarious, indigent lives in which even turning up to a meeting can require expense and movements beyond their capacities. To attempt to organise a group of seven into a solid dance corps and to create a work of art to be staged live in a major theatre is to embrace therefore the utmost uncertainty.  Yet working with Sheba Arts, a refugee-led arts organisation, this group managed it. On the night, the performance was preceded by a short video providing glimpses into the women’s lives, the difficulties they have had, some reflections of their selves outside the rehearsal studio, off-stage: their daily lives, the private joys they find there and the challenges they face – the video makes an explanatory and humanising counterpoint to the live performance. The stage was set. The lights came up.  Dance Away The Spiders began as individual dances, each performer expressed her own tradition of dance – Latin American, South Asia, Eastern European and West African – while also delivering those moments of individuality that bring such dances alive. The individual dances segued into a group dance in the round. To a vibrant soundtrack, a narrative emerged of the hardships some of them have faced and escaped, and how, by coming together in solidarity in Manchester, they have managed to build hope, both individual and collective.   The power of Dance Away The Spiders comes not from the competence of the dancers (and they were wonderfully expressive) but from the sense of an important moment in their lives taking place.  The opportunity to express themselves, to produce and share something of aesthetic value with the audience and in that way bridge the gap between refugee on brightly lit  stage and authorised citizen in the comfort and dark of the theatre seats; for all  to slip labels and become in the moment of the performance and sharing, a community of people uniting in a shared will to a fairer, kinder future for all. They took to the stage to dance away spiders, to chase away fears. The dance shone with life and vibrancy; the costumes were upbeat, from bold red, flamenco dresses, to the kathak-influenced, to aspects of folk and Western contemporary. There was a delicacy and tenderness between the dancers. If one faltered, another would step closer, pull them through. In this, there was a template for us...

Baghdad Noir: short story collection – review by Pete Kalu

    Baghdad Noir (Akashic Books) contains fourteen new short stories penned by an impressive line-up of primarily Iraqi writers. Each story is set in a different part of Baghdad. The tales are a heterogenous bunch: in ‘I Killed Her Because I Loved Her’, a mother and her two daughters are working on different sides of the American forces v Insurgency divide, with tragic consequences. In ‘Doomsday Book’, a man is recruited to commit “divine, holy murder” until his distraught brother tracks down the recruiter. In ‘Baghdad on Borrowed Time’, a detective is hired by a killer with a bizarre proposition: the killer wants himself killed. In ‘The Apartment’, a sharp-eyed criminal investigator detects an old lady’s death was not by natural causes. In ‘Empty Bottles’, a young woman is murdered, her screams masked by the call to morning prayers, as an entire neighbourhood blocks its ears. In ‘Homecoming’ a father is attacked by an area thug, leaving his soldier son seething.  In ‘Baghdad House’, an accountant lands in a hotel with deadly goings-on. The overall effect of this gathering of stories is kaleidoscopic: shifting fragments that, coming together in the collection, create a sense of Baghdad’s uneasily beating heart. The stories are crisply edited. Most of the stories have been written in English. A few have been translated from Arabic, and where they have, the translations are smoothly done.  As a city, Baghdad presents a challenge for crime fiction.  Arguably, the genre is predicated on a functioning state apparatus imposing law (however cankered), and handing down some form of justice, (however partial or temporary), against a backdrop of a society in some form of order (however warped). Given all these anchors – law, justice, order – appear to have been pulled up by the maelstroms Iraq has experienced, the genre has to react. The Baghdad Noir response is to explore what justice might mean to citizens living in such a shattered landscape, how individuals either reconcile themselves to these disjunctions or else attempt to reconstitute justice and its associated concepts. The collection features a wide range of such troubled, burdened protagonists: nervous accountants, embittered relatives, laconic detectives, traumatised children and frightened students among them. There are touches of the phantasmagorical and the magical in the tales but, for the most part, the mode is realist, as if the absurdities of life in Baghdad need no extra gilding with fantasy….   (Full review is contained in Banipal Magazine, Edition 63 (The 100 Best Arabic Novels)...

Salvage II exhibition of Christopher Ankeli’s work at Chuck Gallery, Mcr, UK. A review by Pete Kalu

Ankeli’s paintings vary in size from A4 landscapes to metre x metre plus squares. They are predominantly acrylic on canvas, often incorporating lightweight ‘found objects’. The prices range from 150 pounds  to just under two thousand pounds. The exhibition runs till 2 Dec 2018. Townships and streetscapes have become a standard of the African painting market. Where are Ankeli’s located? Architectural and street life tropes in his works suggest the setting is more likely Lagos than the north Nigeria of Ankeli’s birthplace. I have a variation on the street life painting view – a narrow painting of yellow buses in traffic, by the artist, Sokanu, on my wall. They are popular subjects. What appeals in them?  I visited the district of Mushin in Lagos years ago. The roadside there is full of noise from a thousand sources, the air blows up with scents and smoke, there is a chaos of movement especially in rush hours.  Painting mutes all audio and movement and allows the mind to home in and contemplate the visual.  In Ankeli’s paintings, the housing assumes a more symmetrical aspect, boosting both the geometric patterns and the colour harmonies that you miss when in the thick of the scene. Ankeli’s ‘scapes have vibrancy and an upbeat symmetry. The colours: brightly lit old blue, strong orange, deep rust and traffic light yellow, all work in harmony; ultimately the painting feels like a panoramic vista that someone nostalgic for urban Nigeria might want to acquire.  Another painting in the exhibition – and there are variations of this type on display –  is the Couple painting. It is clearly mixed media: gauzes, ribbons, rope or string, tubing, threads, other small found materials applied to enhance, compliment or integrate with the basic acrylic paint marks. Found objects have a sympathy for lost people, the poor and downtrodden. Ankeli’s paintings of this type are not anarchic or full of revolutionary zeal  – he does not depict  politicians’ heads lopped off, there is no Basquiat sloganizing, no roughly framed, invocation of chaos. My thoughts drifted to Nigeria’s constitutional situation and history.  The police, the army, the judiciary, the press, the role of president. You can tilt at a society with established institutions more easily than one whose institutions are fragile.  And yet. If you take to Nigerian twitter, you can hear the healthy, democratic clamour of criticism and judgement of govenments and corporations alike. Ankeli’s intervention is more metaphysical or symbolic than political; his work suggests an essential dignity in all human beings no matter their status or circumstances.  And you can read that line (and the art) how you wish. None of the powers that be in Nigeria would have their hackles raised by seeing Ankeli’s mixed media art work on their walls: its political content is sufficiently ambiguous or latent to elude official opprobrium. One aspect I loved to this work was the elusiveness of the human narrative. Step too close and you don’t see the figures within this painting. Step back three metres and they suddenly become apparent, two faces outlined using an African figurative/symbolic language: the narrow line for the nose, the small o for the mouth. Zoom to extreme  close-up and you see what might be interpreted as scarifications, blisterings, markings, repairs; the Japanese  kintsugi  tradition (of broken pottery repaired by gold) came to my mind as I looked this way. There is an Africanity to the head shapes that reminds me in its silvery/bronze metallic sheen of female Ibo masks, of the wood masks of Kwele of Gabon,  and the masks of the  Guro of Ivory Coast. It got me thinking, as I looked, as to why my mind jumped to masks.  The answer arrived that maybe painting is not an ancestral African art: to chance a sweeping statement, masks and sculpture are predominant historically in (West) African societies. From there I wondered how this Western form (painting) is adapted to African conditions, where it finds its home(s). Painting as far as I know is not used/adopted   as part of ceremony or ritual nor has it become an aspect of court art, and it appears not to be present to any great extent as part of everyday life.   My mind drifted back. I was in Nigeria visiting relatives last year and, as you do, glanced at their walls as I went around.  Lots of framed photographs of their children( the older ones where fortune had smiled on them, in mortar board and graduation gowns), older frames holding the elders of the family, sometimes in the black and white prints of gone times. Going around Manchester, UK, visiting friends, I have a similar experience.  Photos of family adorn mantlepieces. Perhaps a few prints in Ikea frames make it up – New York, a lush tree, some Rothko-inspired blocks of colour. Occasionally there is  a rarer print on a feature wall; in Black British houses, it might be something showing positive, strong, elegant black women with a rootsy yet modern African feel; or if the home is that of a loved-up couple, then a black romantic pairing  under the wing of a swan or some other such gentle, protective, image, symbolically holding love in the house while the occupants go out to their nine to five. You get the gist. In both locations, no original art work. Why? An original painting is expensive compared with a print. And...