Summons to the Village Square No. 001

 

 

 

 

 

A conversation between Obinna Udenwe & Jayne Bauling on her story, Ancient Words

 

Every time I visit my village of Ogada Edda – a rice-rich settlement – in the State of Ebonyi, Nigeria, I would be woken most morning by the thundering sound of the village gong, only that it is not a gong but an old vehicle rim hanging on a tree branch at the centre of the village. Most times, I would walk or drive past the village square to find men gathered, sitting on exposed tree branches, stools or benches, discussing God-knows-what. Sometimes, someone whose attention is needed to give one explanation or the other is summoned – to ignore the summons is to invite on oneself the wrath of the entire village.

At The Village Square Journal it is our desire to model a conversation around this idea. To summon the authors of fiction we have published to discuss and dissect the idea behind their work and their writing process.

The first story published in The Village Square Journal is an epic dystopian fiction set in a world that has passed through some horror and is now unified under one New Authority, speak one language called Earthish and is ruled under strict observance and surveillance. In this first Summons, we shall be interacting with the award winning South African author, Jayne Bauling who has been summoned from her home in White River in Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

Book by Jayne

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obinna Udenwe

Ancient Words is dystopian fiction at its finest. We learn that the world has passed through “desolate years” – and that “of the planets devastated continents, this one (Africa) alone and the oceans that wash it can sustain life” – it reminds me of another dystopia by Lesley Nneka Arimah, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky–in that story, the world has also passed through some terror and only African continent is safe for living and other countries in Europe and America has to settle in African countries – so I am wondering, what did you have in mind while writing this? Why is it only Africa that is safe and inhabitable in Ancient Words? Why not Europe or Asia? Has it anything to do with our geographical location?

Jayne Bauling

Because the disaster that has befallen the planet was manmade, I felt free to choose Africa as the only remaining viable continent, rather than looking for scientific probabilities. I also wanted to explore the theme of our deep need for cultural identity, and I think this is a conversation we have more intensively here than in many, although not all, other parts of the world. There’s some amazing African dystopian fiction around now, but when I was growing up, any dystopian stories I happened to read barely mentioned Africa, or wrote it off, so maybe we’re still redressing the balance.

 Obinna Udenwe

Ancient Words is written in the present tense narrative style, and I must say that it really helped bring out the beauty of the story because the reader lives the story and follow the child and her father about as they visit the sea to fish and eavesdropes, as the man whispers ‘State secretes’ and ‘abominable’ words to the child. Tell me more about your writing style – which point of view do you employ more in telling your stories and why? Do you believe that narrative style can make a good story read poor and vice – versa?

Jayne Bauling

Except with regard to length, I think the short story allows writers more freedom than most other forms of writing. We can experiment. I like present tense and use it a lot, even in some of my longer fiction, as it gives a sense of immediacy. The third-person narrative style seemed to suit this particular story; although we’re aware of the child’s thoughts and feelings, we’re also observing her and her father. When working on the story, I sometimes imagined myself as an invisible presence standing or walking just behind the pair.

Obinna Udenwe

In Ancient Words, there are things outlawed and classified as Great Abominations with grave consequences like Pride, Trade, Lies, Story, Imagination, Pretence etc. It is queer to learn that to even have a currency is a crime, to sell food or to try profiting from it is a huge crime. We live in a world where leaders are increasingly becoming despotic, then there is the rise of technology which is pulling the entire world into a smaller unit, easier to control by a central body – do you fear that time will come when there might be a central leadership with laws governing everyone, including what people can and cannot do in their homes?

Jayne Bauling

It is something I think about, especially as there are in fact some countries with hugely restrictive laws that violate even the most basic human rights. A major and disastrous change to our planet, leading to some central control, is not an impossibility, whether as a result of irresponsible world leaders with hair-trigger tempers, or simply climate change. At times, my writer’s imagination has led me to contemplate a number of possible scenarios, which I trust will remain merely imagined.

Obinna Udenwe

In your story, Food Prices led to the war that nearly destroyed the world. Today the world population is growing faster than ever before. Do you envisage that a time will come when the number of people living in the world would be more than the food available? Did this occur to you while writing? I recall Dan Brown’s Inferno and how fear for population increase is the central plot in the story driving every other action – is this fear too what you have to, sometimes, deal with?

Jayne Bauling

Population increase has been something that has been in my mind just recently, as the jumping off point for another dystopian story, yet to be written. It’s frustrating to hear that in fact there is presently enough food for everyone in the world, but due to unequal distribution, there is a wasteful surplus in some places, and real, physical starvation in others. My country South Africa is one of the most economically unequal on the planet, and food security is a huge issue. There’s an ad that runs on radio here suggesting that the next world war will be fought over clean drinking water, and with Day Zero looming in Cape Town, this is not so far-fetched. Certainly many stories and movies have this as a theme, so for something different, I thought about market collusion over food prices, and speculated as to what this could lead to if not checked.

Obinna Udenwe

Zodwa’s mother was arrested by the New Authority for telling her daughter about the time they were ‘other’ – people were forbidden from telling their children that there was a time when the world had names for different nations, tribes, languages etc. Today, there is censorship everywhere. Just recently in Kenya the Presidency banned about three major media houses from covering the inauguration of the self proclaimed president Raila Odinga to the condemnation of the entire world, in the US, Trump has continued to scream Fake Media at the press during interactions and can do everything within his power to censor the media. In other countries it is same. In Nigeria a journalist was taken into Ebonyi government house and beaten for committing the sin of analyzing government’s activities. In Ancient Words, the New Authority had what they called Kindly Eye in every home – people were watched closely including in their bedrooms. Do you think that we are gradually moving into the kind of society you created in this story, especially with the rise in advanced technology?

Jane Bauling

Jayne Bauling

It’s a concern. With real censorship in many countries, and a clear wish to control the media by leaders elsewhere, such as Trump, the threat is real and I believe we have to resist it. Social media, having been behind mass popular movements, has the politicians frightened and looking for ways to control it – and us. The advanced technology you mentioned benefits us in so many ways, and I love it, but at the same time, it threatens our privacy on many levels.

Obinna Udenwe

Can we say that writers of dystopian fiction are prophets of doom? In a world increasingly populated by fake news, sad news, bad experiences, accidents and natural disasters etc., is it not fair to write fiction that elevates the spirit of the reader than the ones that leave the reader uncertain about the future, in a very fearful way? What is the place of a writer in the society? This argument has been on from the post-colonial era, especially in African literature – must the writer write to entertain or should she just tell the story not minding what the story does to the reader?

Jayne Bauling

There’s a growing tendency to police fiction that disturbs me, as in some cases the criticism is so vicious it intimidates writers into self-censoring. You see more and more trigger warnings attached to books, and writers are called out on social media for what this or that interest group deems a transgression. Every writer is different, some just want to tell the story that has grown out of their imagination, and hope that it entertains; others with a passionate interest in the issues that preoccupy society have more complex aims. Yes, we have responsibilities as writers, but I don’t think we should try to shelter our readers. Speaking strictly for myself, I believe there is something in us as humans that is geared towards finding better or at least more bearable ways of being. I try to reflect this. I don’t think any of my writing is entirely bleak or negative, and some of it is actively hopeful.

Obinna Udenwe

The story makes us wonder about the concept of ‘Denial’ – the New Authority sees it as a strategy to keep the Earthers unified. They make them forget their root by forcing them not to speak their language, bond with each other, travel etc, this also is a strategy that some nation’s secret service agencies employ to coerce or to torture people, including their citizens. By discouraging bonding, travel, imagination and creativity and trade, what does the New Authority aim to achieve?

Jayne Bauling

Denial is a good word. What has happened has been so horrific, that they are desperate to prevent a repetition, but they are self-deceiving, or misguided, in the way they try to do this. They seek to curb our very human nature, our need to know who we are, where and what we come from, our instinct to learn, and discover, and aspire. Ultimately, at some stage, maybe only generations later, people will start to question and resist such controls.

 

Book by Jayne

Obinna Udenwe

The relationship between the man and the child is a special one. Reading the story one fears for the man, especially when the child asks forbidden questions. Your ability to create this believable relationship is one of the triumphs of the story.

When the child asks the father ‘what is story’ the man stops and panics. He asks the child where she heard the word from. Lying is the first of the greatest Abomination and to tell a story ‘is to make something up’, imagination must also be suppressed. It’s also a crime to imagine. This intrigues me, which brings me back to my earlier question on censorship – you lived in South Africa during the apartheid regime, I would like to know how those times treated you as a young writer? Were you writing then? How much of censorship of stories existed and how did it shape the society you lived in?

Jayne Bauling

The memory of censorship and the way it kept us isolated from ideas and thinking in the rest of the world haunts South Africans. My grandparents kept a box of banned books under their bed. When I started writing, I didn’t have enough experience of life and the world to attempt anything deeper than light, escapist fiction. The international anti-apartheid groups responsible for the sports boycott had a phrase ‘No normal sport in an abnormal society’, and in a similar way, I didn’t feel I could write non-political stories set in South Africa that ignored the fact of apartheid, so I mostly set my fiction elsewhere as I travelled a lot then, and only wrote about the realities of the system in my poetry – which was probably rather bad poetry. Because of what happened under apartheid, I think South Africans are possibly extra vigilant when it comes to any threat to freedom of expression.

Thank you, Jayne for answering to the summons and we wish you all the best of luck with your writing.

It is our policy at The Village Square to interact with select authors whose fiction we have published. We hope you enjoyed this interaction. Always visit our Summons to the Village Square page for more of this.

Obinna Udenwe is the co-founder of The Village Square Journal and the magazine’s Founding Editor for Essays/Opinion/Reviews.