Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Stylistic Imitations: Chatwin

As part of my Travel Writing course, I've been experimenting with different styles of writing and recording experiences, partly through imitations of the literature I've been reading. One of the first books I attempted to imitate was Bruce Chatwin's What am I Doing Here, a collection of Chatwin's various travel experiences. The interesting thing about this collection is that Chatwin expresses his experiences through the conversations and interactions he has with people: very heavy on dialogue and description but without a lot of his own thoughts or impressions, thus leaving the reader to come to his/her own conclusions based on Chatwin's observations and dialogue. Rather than choosing a specific passage to imitate, I took that dialogue-rich and personal commentary-free style Chatwin uses to record a number of my own experiences and interactions in South Africa. The first of these was Conversations, my first post in East London, in which I recorded a few of my initial interactions with South Africans. At the time, it had seemed extremely strange and almost unsettling to me that total strangers, who I didn't know and didn't expect to see again, were so immediately friendly and talkative. It was these conversations with strangers, and even the fact that strangers were having conversations with me, that really stuck with me from that first day. This was also my first experience with Africa Time: Diana had an appointment with Rachel at nine, which at nine (when we arrived) was moved to eleven, then we had time to hear the life story of a random man in Rachel's office before she was actually ready to see us. She wasn't being rude, she was just busy with other people too. That flexibility with time and schedules was something that took some getting used to.

I used this style again to about the same effect in the first half of my post on Friends and Sindiwe Magona, where I recorded a conversation with the owner of the cafe Friends. I ended up going back there a number of times. Also, interestingly enough, this conversation was also the result of a last-minute schedule change. Coincidence?

The final Chatwin-esque post I wrote was Library Boys, about some boys who came to talk to me one day in the library. This conversation had a lot of really interesting elements to it that I thought were worth drawing attention to: themes that I encountered daily, and that I think say a lot about South African culture. First was the obvious fact that I stood out wherever I went, as a white American, which motivated these boys to talk to me in the first place. Then the unending friendliness of everyone, and their eagerness to make conversation, no matter how inappropriate it may seem in a given setting or situation (like a library). The language barrier was there as well, something I had to wrestle with daily, and conversely the impressive multilingualism of many South Africans: this boy spoke 4 languages fluently (I met another young man from Zimbabwe who spoke 6: 5 African tongues and English, with plans to tackle Afrikaans next). Two more subtle elements to this conversation were the racial awareness that is always there in South Africa - this boy explained to me that he was coloured without my asking, as he considered it an important enough part of his identity that he included it in even this casual introduction - and the concern that people always expressed for my safety, especially when I was traveling in non-white areas of town (as he left he told me to be careful on the public taxis). To have all these elements thrown into this conversation without accompanying analysis and explanation I think is a far better representation of the way they exist in the cultural context of South Africa. Things like the racial awareness are constantly there, but not in such a way that it's shocking or calling attention to itself - it's just there and it feels natural.

The difficult thing with writing in Chatwin's style was the dialogue. I haven't used dialogue in my writing since my last creative writing course in 7th grade, and it's far more difficult than I expected. I had a very hard time making the conversations sound natural, and it was impossible to capture the unique accents and different ways of speaking that these people had. It would be much easier if I could say, "Read with a black South African accent, strong fluency in English" or "Read with a British white South African accent" before each line. I certainly have a new appreciation for writers of novels and other dialogue-rich literature.

No comments:

Post a Comment