Sunday, September 27, 2009

[Interview] Jennifer Armstrong

Zimbabwean author, Jennifer Armstrong has worked as a martial arts journalist.

Her memoir, Minus the Morning (Lulu, 2009) explores what it was like to grow up in a white, Christian, Rhodesian family.

She is also the author of three e-books: Dambudzo Marechera (Lulu, 2009), which explores the link between Zimbabwean writer, Dambudzo Marechera, and shamanism; father, son, holy ghost (Lulu, 2009), which has been described as "a story of Oedipal knowledge and realisation, in Africa"; and, Skydive on Zimbabwe (Lulu, 2009), a poem in freeform verse. All three e-books are available to download free from Lulu.

Currently, Jennifer Armstrong lives in Perth, Australia.

In this interview, she talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

The medium I had the most natural affinity for, at school, was art. When I begun to grow up, I had no idea what I wanted to be, so I gravitated towards the visual arts, only to find that I got much more of a thrill when explaining the concept of my art to others, as compared to actually making the art. That pointed me in the direction of philosophy and theory. It was my natural arena for questioning and developing ideas.

I began writing as an undergraduate in the humanities. Then I sprang into martial arts journalism.

I was still finding my feet as a writer and as a migrant from the Third World to the First World when my own, personal world came crashing down. I was bullied at work because of who I was, because of where I was from (Zimbabwe). That was when I first began to write as if I really meant it, as if something was at stake.

I wrote in order to figure out what was true and what wasn’t. To understand the world around me accurately was my greatest imperative. I wanted to know things accurately and not merely impressionistically, like before. So I began writing my memoir, but it was full of gaps that indicated that my knowledge of the world was still incomplete. I couldn’t make sufficient sense of my own narrative to write in a way that would have led to a swift completion of the memoir, because I had been brought up in a bubble of innocence -- innocent of politics and what that meant for me and the people around me (white and black), innocent of the ideologies and psychological torment that had been afflicting my father, I have very little conception of the world around me as a child growing up in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe).

It seems that my culture had conspired to raise me as a Victorian child-woman, who would marry my rightful master, probably in all innocence about the biological intricacies of sex and gender roles.

Upon migration to the more sophisticated -- but more cynical and often mean-spirited First World -- I was totally at a loss as to what to make of almost everything around me. Nothing rang a bell. Everything was cold and life was seemingly driven by forces I couldn’t reckon with.

After enduring the workplace bullying incident (which had been driven by xenophobia, but also by a misplaced notion of political correctness -- that it was perfectly moral to bring a “white African” down a peg or two), I had to try to restore my physical health. It meant a lot of waiting around, and trying to build up the strength of my digestive system again. I had difficulty eating solids without my belly swelling up with air. (Even today, my digestive system has not fully recovered from that trauma.)

I had to wait twelve years for the bits and pieces of knowledge and the ability to conceptualise my experiences came together. The last pieces of the puzzle arrived in my consciousness late last year, and I was able to drop them into place.

After that, I was keen to publish the manuscript immediately, to get it out there, and out of my system.

How would you describe your writing?

I would say it is very difficult to describe the writing I am doing. It overlaps somewhat with my PhD interests, which is to study the psychology of one Dambudzo Marechera in the light of contemporary knowledge about shamanistic consciousness.

So, I am very interested in how people think, and why, and what enlightened thinking looks like.

What interests me a lot is to think about how we make unconscious assumptions about people, and act upon them. Where do these assumptions come from that are unconscious? They can be very racist or sexist assumptions, but somehow we often do not know we have them. So, I am thinking very much about identity, and how our views of our own or others’ identities do not seem to relate to rational processes very much, if at all.

Who is your target audience?

Ultimately, I've had so much negativity from some right wing trolls on the Internet -- (those who try to correct my thinking because it is not in tune with a narrow and obnoxious ideology of social conformity) -- that I decided to direct my writing to a non-populist level, to intellectuals and fellow artists.

In other words, I don’t want to direct my ideas to an audience who will only half swallow my thinking, to vomit up that which they have understood incompletely. I’m directing my writing towards intellectuals and academics of all sorts -- those who have a background of sufficient rigour to give my writing the consideration it deserves.

At the same time, I think there is a lot that can be readily ingested in my recently published memoir. There are some more difficult sections in it, but for the most part, anyone who has an appreciation for good literature should be able to read -- (and hopefully enjoy!!) -- my humble (but not-so-conformist) memoir.

Which authors influenced you most?

Of course Dambudzo Marechera would have to come to the top of my list.

I’m interested in other experimental writers like James Joyce. I really love philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Georges Bataille.

There is a lot of quasi-Freudian influence in my memoir, but I do not love [Sigmund] Freud or his later adherents and interpreters as much because they are prone to produce theories that are only narrowly psychological, rather than more complex and taking into account other dimensions of life like social and cultural conditioning, history and politics.

There is a strong feeling of an affinity with ‘Nature’ as a powerful force of inspiration in my life. I am beholden to [William] Wordsworth and Percy Shelley.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

As one whose identity was uprooted (after my family’s emigration from Zimbabwe in 1984), I have been exceedingly intrigued with the idea of identity, how identity is created, and how it can be undermined or destroyed at an emotional level.

I think identity is really a political formulation, but what is not so well known is that it can come under attack at any moment in a way that really is akin to the underhand way that spies and other ‘dark forces’ go about their business.

There are all sorts of indirect forms of coercion that work on our emotions at an unconscious level. Why are some identities considered more desirable than others? Why is it more difficult, in general, for someone who is female or who has black skin to get ahead in the world than for a white male to do so? What are the unconscious psychological forces that get us to treat these kinds of people differently, without necessarily even realising that we are doing it?

Dambudzo could not have a black, Rhodesian identity that had any self-determining qualities to it, since “black Rhodesian” and “self-determining” were contradictory qualities during the era of Ian Smith -- thus his anguish. Similarly, there are those who attribute rationality as being a quality pertaining to males, and not by any means to females. So there are members of my own family that are unable to consider me rational, despite the fact that I am doing a PhD and conduct myself with a level of bearing that is appropriate to my greater degree of knowledge and educational levels. In fact, my father is unable to recall what degree I’m doing, despite the fact that I have now been at if for several years. He wills himself not to know, because it contradicts his idea of womanhood that a female could be doing anything important.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I’m concerned with understanding the real influences on human behaviour -- not what people claim to be influenced by, but what is really driving them to do what they do, and more importantly, what is also driving them not to do whatever it is they do not do.

I think there are broad as well as narrow political and historical currents that shape the characteristics of any people, in terms of their time and place in the global discourse. The degree to which we are not shaped by our conscious choices, but by the choices made for us by historical and social chance -- this largely goes unrecognised.

I think most people assume that we give ourselves our personal characteristics by the conscious, moral and political choices that we make. However, I couldn’t disagree with that notion more strenuously. I don’t think that’s the way it works at all!

My challenge as a writer is to try to convey that there are whole different mechanisms at work influencing our outlooks and behaviour, other than those that we would take to be rational. I take a look at the ‘pre-oedipal” or unconscious emotional dynamics that govern the way we relate politically to others in our social spheres. I use more than one authorial voice to get across this idea.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

My biggest challenge is that I am not speaking to an audience that is a ready-made demographic. My writing has yet to seek out and discover an audience for itself.

I eschew identity politics, and writing for a ready-made demographic, because I have been so damaged by it.

I cannot speak precisely for the “ex-Rhodies”, many of whom might have been quite normal conservatives in the past, but have since turned to the extreme right, in my view. I could try to speak for black Zimbabweans perhaps… but I am white! Yet, much of my way of thinking was influenced by black Zimbabwean culture, as I have belatedly discovered. Perhaps those irreverent cultural aspects to my character were what brought on the workplace abuse? They are certainly not typically ‘feminine’!

I spent the first sixteen years of my life in Zimbabwe, and the last four years we were assimilated, blacks and whites, at my high school, Oriel Girls.

My thinking is also somewhat off-kilter in relation to that of Australian, middle-class whites. I don’t relate to their materialist middle-class aspirations at all. I don’t relate to their submissiveness and laissez-faire attitude to social ethics. They are not involved enough in their own lives, and seem to allow others to direct their views of what it right or wrong too much.

It is all very perplexing!

I try to deal with this situation I find myself in by writing in a way that can reach different people at different levels -- although, unlike the one who ended up carrying a donkey on his back, because he wanted to please all his critics, I’ve decided to draw a line (at least in my mind) against trying to please all.

Do you write everyday?

I write every day. It really depends on how much I’ve been reading, and whether I’ve allowed enough time for ideas (that I’ve been exposed to) to percolate in the subconscious mind. Suddenly, the subconscious ideas will be ready, and I will begin to experience a mood of general agitation, which doesn’t stop until I’ve written everything that was in me down.

It must be like the biological process of giving birth -- something I never hope to replicate in a concrete sense.

Sometimes I write huge amounts, sometimes only little. But I write every day.

How many books have you written so far?

Just one book so far, I’m afraid! It’s Minus the Morning, published by Lulu (Amazon is selling an earlier version, due to my mistake). It was released in early 2009. It’s kind of an “out of Africa” memoir, concerning the first three decades of my life.

Of course, it has to do with the issue of identity, from an experiential and philosophical point of view.

How did you choose a publisher for the book?

I decided to go the self-publishing route, via Lulu, just since, as I explained before, I don’t have a ready-made demographic of readers -- which might be necessary to lure a commercial publisher into accepting me.

Also, there are things I want to say which are not for everybody’s ears. I am critical of institutionalised abusiveness, for instance. This is not something everybody wants to hear, and it has the potential to make some people -- those who are prone to untoward behaviour and ideological sniping -- very uncomfortable.

Furthermore, I’m not trying to seduce my reader with my lyrical prose, like the excellent Alexandra Fuller. I’m not writing in a traditional feminine way at all -- I’m trying to speak directly to two parts of the readers’ minds: their own innate sense of what it means to belong or not to belong on an emotional level, and their intellect!

Lulu is a very efficient and exciting publisher, from my point of view. I can get any number of my books ready at hand, just by ordering them and paying for them on the basis of need. Of course, marketing is a problem when you have to do it by yourself, but I’m simply happy to make the book available online. It’s great technology that is available to writers at last -- in the 21st Century.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work that you put into Minus the Morning?

The hardest part, for me, was writing about the hidden psychological dynamics that operate behind the dysfunctional relationship I have had (and probably still do) with my father. It was very hard because I didn’t know enough about his background, until much later, to be able to make sense of some of it.

There were a few family skeletons in the closet, which I have chosen not to reveal very much about, because my writing of this book has not been to cause people shame, but to elucidate my own responses to the situation of being brought up in a white, Rhodesian family, with a Christian ideology.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

I’ve enjoyed finishing it the most -- and seeing it in paperback. The whole thing took me more than a decade to write! It was a great relief to see it not as ether (something still in my mind) or as converted bits and bytes on a computer screen, but in a solid form -- in ink and paper!

Truly, it has been painful to finish in some ways, too. When I began writing it, I thought that if I made an exposé of some of the injustices in the world, that people would at least sit up and take notice. Nowadays, I thoroughly doubt that this is true or that it will happen.

Looking deeply into Dambudzo’s work, you can see that it is all about the injustice of having to accept an arbitrary social and political identity -- but people these days are still struggling to find that sort of meaning in his work. It is a difficult message to put across.

What sets Minus the Morning apart from other things you've written?

Merely that the other books do not exist as yet.

I do want to write a book that analyses the perversity of right wing consciousness, however.

I want to look into the psychology of bigotry and why bigots can be so efficacious at convincing others to get on their side and walk in lockstep with them. There is never a bully in this world except that he has those who take his side.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Not resorting to compromising with the truth, or giving in to my impatience to get the work done. I waited and checked everything, until after more than twelve years, I knew that what I had was really psychologically accurate.

In Minus the Morning, I tell the truth about what it is like to grow up as a white Rhodesian (and later Zimbabwean) in a family that later turned to the right.

Possibly related books:

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Related Interview:

[Interview] Esther David, author of 'Shalom India Housing Society', Conversations with Writers, August 25, 2009

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