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This Is The Place To Be: An Interview with Lara Pawson

Lara Pawson, interviewed by Rebekah Weikel.

Lara Pawson operated as the BBC correspondent in Angola in 1998, reporting on the region’s civil war until 2000. She later authored In The Name of The People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre, investigating a 1977 massacre and its associations with the MPLA, Angola’s leading political party. Pulling from faction propaganda, news clippings and understandably timid eyewitnesses and victims, the book deducts conclusive answers, leaving instead a brilliant testimony to the massacre’s significant effects on society and mind in post-colonial Africa. Pawson has now authored This Is The Place To Be, similarly unorthodox in that it confounds a genre – in this case, the memoir. In the book, Pawson rejects a sterile, linear narrative for a fragmentary style that more closely resembles the mercurial shifts of consciousness itself. From her experiences growing up in London to periods covering violence, Pawson leaps with poetic ease from life’s more mundane episodes to the harrowing, exposing the power of each detail and its residual effects on the psyche.

I spoke with Pawson by email to learn more.

3:AM: Before we decided to do this interview, you had mentioned to me that this book is difficult to discuss. I’d like know why, and if you met a similar difficulty during the writing process.

LP: A year ago, I wasn’t even sure I wanted this work of writing to be published. It started life as a 20,000-word performance piece, a monologue that was experienced as a sound installation called “Non Correspondence.” The installation was first put on at the Battersea Arts Centre in 2014. You’d walk into a room, which had three armchairs in it, and a coffee table. On the coffee table was a radio. A woman’s voice was being broadcast. She was speaking the text. I didn’t tell any friends or family about it because I was strangely embarrassed. It’s a very personal piece of work. I didn’t want people I know to hear it.

Nevertheless, I was persuaded to try to publish it as a book. And once I’d jumped that hurdle, it grew to 35,000 words. It became even more personal. I wrote about my genitals. I wrote about the time I struggled to pull a Mooncup out, and while people may think that someone who writes about such intimacy can’t possibly be nervous, they’d be wrong. I still feel unsettled by this aspect of the work. That’s part of what makes it a difficult book to discuss.

In truth, I’m also a little afraid that in talking about my book, I risk damaging the work itself. My mouth might tread all over the text. I don’t want that to happen. I want the text to speak for itself. I feel very protective of the text.

The process of writing was much easier, however. Isn’t that strange?

3:AM: What was the original prompt for the project?

LP: The original prompts were sent to me by theatre director, Richard Gregory, who is part of Quarantine. The prompts included: an extract from Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait; this video and text based on George Perec’s Je Me Souviens; Joe Brainard’s I Remember; and Ron Silliman’s ongoing long poem, ‘The Alphabet’ which grew to twenty-six volumes and begins with ‘Albany’ written in 1979-80 and begins:

If the function of writing is to ‘express the world.’ My father withheld child support, forcing my mother to live with her parents, my brother and I to be raised together in a small room. Grandfather called them niggers. I can’t afford an automobile.

3:AM: Given the nature of the prompt’s texts, did you pursue any writing constraints?

LP: I was writing under constraint, yes, in so far as I didn’t allow myself to go back and edit the text. I forced myself to keep going, to keep writing down each association that came into my head. I did self censor a tiny bit – around stuff to do with my family which I felt was too private and too likely to cause upset – but apart from that I made myself stick tight to the honesty of the process. Even when I expanded it by 15,000 words or so, I did that by going through the text all over again from scratch. Each time I had another thought I wrote it down. I didn’t want to shape it deliberately or plan it. I tried to stick to the constraint of my spontaneous associative thoughts. It was hard because I had so many: I could have written 100,000 words or more. But I wanted to keep it a short, sharp shot in the arm.

3:AM: How has your past work in radio broadcast journalism influenced how you write for print?

LP: I’d say that writing for radio is all about rhythm. For several years, I was writing day in day out for BBC World Service radio. I would always read my scripts aloud, repeatedly. You have to keep the language very tight. I’d be listening to the rhythm of each report, which often were less than a minute each – the length of a poem, if you like. I think the rhythm of my reports mattered as much to me as the content. It influences listeners even if they aren’t aware of it. With both of my books,  I read every sentence out loud many times until I was happy. In fact, I’m a bit cross with myself because there’s a line in This Is the Place to Be which isn’t quite right. I only realised this recently when I was doing a public reading. I almost tripped on the sentence because the rhythm is wrong. I will change it for the second edition.

3:AM: What was the sentence and how would you change it?

LP: It’s on p.24.

We smashed into the animal with such force, the vehicle rocked from side to side. Then the driver reversed and we all got out to lift the injured beast into the back of the vehicle. For the next couple of hours, it panted heavily in the boot. You could hear the blood bubbling in its throat.

It’s the final three words of that second sentence, “of the vehicle.” I’ll probably just lop them off.

3:AM: One of my many favorite parts in the book is when you reveal that it was only recently that you thought about gender outside the binary. This comes toward the end of the book after several accounts in which you’re berated by various characters for not fitting neatly into a ‘female’ mold. Given the associative writing process, were you surprised at all by what bubbled to the surface and how your past commingled with your present?

LP: I’m not sure. I am certainly surprised that it’s taken me so long to move through and hopefully beyond the binary. I felt very old when I realised this, but immediately freed as well, as if I was shedding a thick layer of skin. The crumbling of gender binaries is one of the very few aspects of life at the moment that I feel excited about, even optimistic. I’m not sure if this is to do with the book more than the people I have been lucky enough to meet and to call my friends. So much else leaves me afraid and pessimistic.

3:AM: As a journalist and ex-BBC correspondent, one might think your writing tendencies would lean more stark. This Is The Place To Be is very visceral. The ongoing discussion surrounding the “ethics of journalism” – how one must differentiate between fact and opinion, remain impartial, show no emotion – is constantly evolving, but ultimately, this project might be considered an antithetical departure, no?

LP: In a sense, yes, This Is the Place to Be is an antithetical departure. It’s a public mark of that. In my head, however, I feel I’m just going deeper into a space I’ve been exploring for quite some time. Even before I was consciously exploring it, I’d been existing there already for years, possibly going back to childhood. The more I consider your question, the more I wonder, in fact, if becoming a journalist in my 20s was the moment of antithetical departure. But I’m nervous to overthink this stuff. Right now, I’m trying to follow my hunches. I think that’s what this book is about really: running with my instinct plus a bit of luck.

You had asked me once whether This Is the Place to Be, is a “type of cathartic addendum to a period spent covering a civil war”. I think it’s more than that. I think it’s a cathartic addendum to some of my turmoil around class, race, sexuality and identity. Spending time in two countries with war has obviously influenced me hugely, but no more than growing up in south west London as a privileged child who was sent to private school. Everything is relevant. Everything matters. I’m not sure that one experience trumps another because they all feed into each other, bouncing off each other to form the constellation of one’s life. I think what I really love about the book is precisely that it goes everywhere. The freedom is fantastic. It’s the greatest leap away from journalism. And I want more.

The ethics of journalism is the harder part of your question. There are many highly principled journalists out there. I worked with some of the best, including Sola Odunfa, Ebrima Sillah, Elizabeth Ohene, Gray Phombeah, Justin Pearce, Robin White and Obi Anyadike. I’ve been inspired by many others in the profession, among them Linsdey Hilsum, Anthony Loyd, Gary Younge, Rasna Warah… I could go on. I wouldn’t want to compare myself with any of these individuals. Every journalist has their own set of motivations. I was motivated by injustice, and a desire to move out of the realm in which I’d grown up. Once I got to Angola, I think I realised quite quickly that I could neither keep my emotions or politics out of my reporting, nor did I necessarily seek to.

3:AM: Can you remember a specific moment or moments when you came to this conclusion?

LP: There was the time when I described the Angolan President, José Eduardo dos Santos, as “predictably paranoid” in a report. The producer in London said it was partisan and had to be taken out. I refused. They probably deleted it from the recording. Another time, I was reporting on a demonstration against the regime and I couldn’t stop myself joining in the chanting with the protesters. It was a wonderful moment, being part of this courageous group of activists. I remember the elation. But there were so many others. I shouted at Peter Hain, then Britain’s Minister for Africa, when he visited Angola and made it clear that he supported the government’s continued military action. I lost my temper with him. I didn’t regret it. It felt appropriate and important at the time.

3:AM: This brings to mind a section in This Is The Place To Be that I’d like to excerpt:

One of my proudest moments was at a press conference in the Natural History Museum in Luanda. A senior US diplomat had been telling members of Angola’s civil society what they could and should be doing to stop the war. He said that peace could only be won by Angolans. I can’t remember his name now, but he had been a US secretary of state and his hair was white. It seemed to me outrageous hypocrisy, what he said. Why not start with an apology for what his country had done to foment the conflict? I was livid. I stood up and berated him and his government loud and clear. He replied with some sarcastic comment about the BBC’s choice of reporter, implying that they must have made a mistake when hiring me. But a line of priests had already got to their feet and were clapping my words. Truly, this was a high point in my life.

To impress my brother and his friends, I drank malt vinegar from a bottle. I think they all clapped and my brother beamed with pride. I might be imagining that last bit, but it was certainly another high point.

Your memory is an active character in this book, and more than once in the book you doubt the accuracy of your memory. In an email you sent me, you mentioned a point in Angola when you “began to question obsessively distinctions between fact and fiction, between the real and the imagination.” Can you talk a little more about this and how it pertains/pertained to your work as a journalist?

LP: It was when I was living in Abidjan that I understood that news reporting was becoming untenable for me. My imagination was always running ahead of me. Once I’d acknowledged this, there was no turning back. To some extent, I began to let my guard down with my first book, In the Name of the People. I was very frank about my doubts, about not-knowing, and about the inconsistencies and contradictions of memory. I love this element of that book.

But in order to illustrate my response a bit more fully, I’d also like to draw on a passage in This Is the Place to Be. On page 80, I write about something known as the binding problem:

… which is the problem of how we perceive our experience of life as being unified. We see things happening in a sequence and we hear sounds at exactly the moment they appear to have been made. But the process in the brain occurs in different stages, passing from your eyes and processing there, then to different bits of your brain, including the bit that deals with memory, the bit that deals with shape, the bit that deals with smell, et cetera.  With normal vision, and with perception of all kinds, there is a lot of unconscious guesswork that goes on. The brain knows what should be there and, to help us, it fills in for us, using unconscious processing and guesswork. So your eye is not the video camera you think it is. What we see is a simulation of reality. Which is why, if you have a damaged retina, and are unable to see properly, you will still see things – because your brain fills in what it thinks is probably there

I often reflect on the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, the 27-year-old Brazilian who was shot dead by police on the London underground on 22 July 2005. Officers were searching for would-be terrorists who had tried to carry out bombings the day before, just a fortnight after several other attacks in the city killed 52 people. Menezes, an entirely innocent electrician, was mistaken for a failed suicide bomber by police. But what has always intrigued me about this appalling case is the testimony of so-called eyewitnesses, who reported seeing a man running away from police, vaulting over a ticket barrier and wearing a bulky jacket that concealed some sort of suicide bomb. In fact, when the truth eventually came out, we learned that Menezes had actually been wearing a light denim shirt, had walked through the ticket barriers and only ran when he saw his train pulling into the station. How could bystanders have got the facts so wrong?

In a civil war, tragic and confusing events take place all the time. Often, as a reporter, you are dependent upon other people’s accounts of what they saw. Even when I was one of the eyewitnesses, I was often unsure. I remember an ambush in which some of us were convinced it was the work of government soldiers and others equally convinced it was the work of rebels. We each had our arguments, our “facts”, our version of events to support our particular thesis. But unless you have a camera to record absolutely everything, how do you prove who is right and who is wrong? Memory is unreliable. It is ephemeral.

Thirteen years ago, I was staying in a house in a rural part of southern France. I woke in the middle of the night to screaming coming from a field in the distance. I was convinced that a woman was being raped by someone out there. I was petrified. In fact, what I heard was probably the sound of mating foxes. Certainly, there were no reports of anyone having been assaulted that night.

And haven’t we all walked through a house in the dark and seen shapes and heard sounds that frighten us? This happens to me all the time. I have a friend called Michael who laughs at my imaginings and my conviction that something dreadful is always about to happen: when we lay on a beach beneath a cliff in Italy a few years ago, I spent most of the time worrying that a truck would overshoot the bend above and come crashing down on top of us. I don’t think this is about pessimism. I think it’s more to do with imagination and drama – hardly qualities you’d want in a reliable reporter. (By the way, two weeks after our Italian holiday ended, a bus did go over a cliff in that same part of the country, killing lots of people.)

Shortly after I began work on my first book, I saw Gillermo del Toro’s fabulous film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which is set in Spain in 1944 at the end of the civil war under General Franco’s dictatorship. A giant dragonfly leads a young girl into an underworld, where she must complete a series of tasks. I couldn’t get this film out of my head. And when I travelled to Luanda a few months later, there was a particularly high number of dragonflies all over the city. I began thinking about the underground networks beneath my feet, about the children living there with fairies to protect them, and about the monsters of Angola’s civil war, and the Portuguese colonial monsters of the past. It was a very important trip for me in terms of my writing and imagining. I became obsessed with the dragonflies and was delighted when a friend of mine spoke about them not as fairies but as tiny drones, spying on him in his flat in a tower block in the heart of the city. I wrote about this in that book and it’s one of my favourite moments. I’m very keen on dragonflies now.

3:AM: I’ve had a theory that those who are drawn to leave their origins to travel are those that hold closest to minutiae; perhaps as a means to construct organization in their lives or build relationships where relationships can be provisional or ephemeral. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

LP: People travel for so many different reasons. Some to save their own lives and those of their children, some to explore foreign lands, some because they like the heat or the cold or the desert or the sea, some because they have to travel in order to earn a living, some because they are running from themselves.

I think I travel and have travelled for vastly different reasons, depending on the time of my life and where I am or was going. When I went to live in Accra, Ghana, in my mid-20s, my main motivation was to live and work in a part of a world I’d studied at university. I had done a politics degree followed by an Msc at the School of Oriental and African Studies here in London. I’d focused mainly on Africa south of the Sahara. And my earliest travel experiences, first in South Africa and then in Ghana, were extraordinary. Both countries seemed so different to the places I’d read about in texts by academics. They were almost unrecognisable. For several years, I wished I’d lived in them before studying them. To some extent, I felt that academic study had given me an illusion of knowledge that, as it turned out, I didn’t really have at all. I realised how ignorant I was. But I think we always have to be cautious when we travel anywhere. First impressions are always superficial and usually unreliable. In fact, I think travel is unreliable, which is why, when I was working as a journalist, I preferred to live and work in a country, not to drop in and out. I think it’s only by living in a place, by staying there and bedding down, that you start to understand it. Travel implies you are moving through a place. I’m not convinced it’s a way to truly start to understand the world.

Even when I’ve travelled here, at home, in England, to Liverpool for example, I’ve noticed the ease with which I jump to conclusions. What is interesting is following those initial impulses through. In the last few years, I’ve started to travel much more inside Britain than I ever thought I would, and I’ve found it very illuminating. I think my experiences of travelling and also living outside Europe have taught me to pay attention to places more carefully. I’m very grateful for that. To survive life in London today, I try my hardest to observe it as if I were an outsider as well as an insider. This may sound a little contradictory but I also take solace from something I read by Hilary Mantel: “When you find yourself at the centre, no longer part of the radical, start digging the ground beneath your feet.” This is what I’m trying to do at the moment – and I think it can be very radical.

3:AM: So far, in two books, you’ve blurred two mostly conventional genres: investigative journalism and the memoir. What might we expect next from you?

LP: I’m working on a novel. Don’t expect anything too soon because I’m still digging.

Rebekah Weikel
is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She founded Penny-Ante Editions, publishing under the Success and Failure Series since 2012. The latest titles in the series include What Gets Kept, a spoken word LP by Lynne Tillman, and a twenty-fifty anniversary edition of Stewart Home’s Defiant Pose, newly introduced by McKenzie Wark.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016.