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Unearthed: An Interview with Yvette Greslé

Yvette Greslé interviewed by Fernando Sdrigotti.

 

 

Yvette Greslé is a writer, teacher and art historian based in London. She holds a PhD from UCL and is currently a Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg. Her book Unearthed was published by Copy Press in October 2019 as part of their Common Intellectual series. Yvette’s interests revolve around writing itself and the poetic and philosophical possibilities of the writer’s encounter with archives and the objects and materials held within them. Twitter: @movinghistories

 

 

3:AM: I read your book Unearthed as soon as it came out last year and I have already mentioned that I liked it very much. But after reading it for a second time when preparing for a conversation, I still don’t know if it’s a collection of personal essays or a memoir! Or if it is something else entirely, because I recognised some of those stories as things you were working on a while back almost as if they were fiction pieces, in the sense of your focus being on storytelling more than on reflecting on personal issues. Could you tell us how the book came to be? What did you want it to be?

Yvette Greslé: I quite like that the book doesn’t fit tidily within a particular genre. The act of writing itself was largely an intuitive and exploratory process. While writing, I didn’t have a prescriptive idea about what the book was to be. Prior to writing it, I published art criticism and scholarly writing. Earlier forms of Unearthed (or parts of it) were published on minor literature[s]. The book itself came about because Yve Lomax invited me to submit a proposal to Copy Press. I met her while I was working on my PhD in History of Art at UCL. The Slade had organised a series of writing workshops for PhD students and I remember being so excited by this opportunity. I had never attended or participated in writing workshops before. All my previous writing was developed in dialogue with editors of the publications I wrote for. I was also always very aware of editing my own writing too and honing sentences, writing draft after draft. Writing is something I have always thought about and taken an interest in. Anyway, the writing workshops at Slade were transformative. They were organised by Sharon Morris and they explored writing outside of the parameters of academic writing as I had known it. The workshops were led by Sharon and also Yve Lomax, Maria Fusco and Ruth Padel. A few years later, I met Yve again at an event at the RCA and she invited me to go to a Copy Press event. The press regularly hold a Reader’s Union, a ‘coming together’ of an intellectual community. I started going to these regularly and participated in one to launch Jaki Irvine’s book Days of Surrender. Yve invited me to submit a proposal for Copy Press’s Common Intellectual series (100-page paperbacks). At first, I submitted something more like art criticism and she said that wasn’t what she wanted. After this, I began experimenting with small texts that were more personal and these eventually became Unearthed.

3:AM: So once you had some of it you set out to intentionally challenge genres. I like that. I think this is something that is reflected in the way storytelling works in it. Both with regards to the blur between fiction and non-fiction and with regards to time and space.

YG: Yes. Unearthed doesn’t follow a linear narrative. I thought of it as operating in the way that memory does, oscillating backwards and forwards across time and space. I think a lot about the relationship between traumatic memory and temporality from the flashback to the ways in which multiple temporalities might overlay so that there is simultaneity to how it is they are experienced. In many ways, in writing the book I was influenced by my PhD, which explored moving image practices in the work of selected South African artists. One of the things that struck me the most about these artworks is the ways in which they exist in a dialogue with historical events, figures and places but in a way that is non-linear. I wanted the sensations, atmospheres and emotions of these works to move through my writing. The PhD explored moving image practices that engaged histories of apartheid and each time I watched them I could feel the violence and the emotion (even though it wasn’t necessarily always overtly expressed). I also suffered a great deal from depression and the after-effects of personal trauma related to the places I come from and I think that this did something to the way in which I respond to and process information. I was conscious of trying to convey these sensations, atmospheres and emotions in my writing. I also explored different voices, my own voice at different stages in my life and the voices of people around me. I also thought a lot about voices that have been suppressed in white spaces and how these might be unearthed through my own reading practices.

3:AM: What’s in a name? What did you unearth when writing this book and will the reader unearth the same or perhaps something else?

YG: I think that readers always bring their own subjectivities and life experiences to any text. I like the idea that they will see things in it that I had not thought about or anticipated. The unearthing pertains to the ways in which the worlds I inhabited (and indeed continue to inhabit) are indistinguishable from the violence embedded in histories of slavery, colonialism, empire, apartheid and their afterlives. I write in the first person — mobilise the ‘I’ — to argue that there is no ‘we’ within the parameters of these histories. I don’t exist in a neutral sphere somehow removed or detached from historical and contemporary iterations of violence. I don’t believe that anyone does and I’m interested in what it means to be white in worlds that so violently and so unequivocally assert whiteness as a superior order of being. I came into being and exist in a world that is racist in its very formation, at its foundations. There are things in the book that make me uncomfortable with myself, but I left them there.

3:AM: Awareness of one’s own role in the systems in which we exist is always hard. I know there’s a lot of “privilege discourse” doing the rounds now, but I feel this is mostly performative. As a post-colonial but white reader I can testify that your book made me uncomfortable — I really welcomed that. What about a black reader? How do you think they might feel reading it?

YG: I know that a black reader will read my words differently to a white reader. I wanted to show how language and ordinary, banal situations are so embedded in racist attitudes and ideologies. These histories have been so sustained and so relentless and, in fact, they are not History as in something that is past and finished with. History haunts language, it is there in every encounter. In this way, I see the book as a political and ethical project. I became extremely frustrated about how histories embedded in racism were engaged in white academic and art world spaces. I felt as though there are white artists, critics and academics who engage these histories as though they are somehow distanced or detached from them. I agree with you about the performative element of privilege discourse, which can be so disingenuous. It is unethical to evade the ways in which you have absorbed racist attitudes if you are researching and writing about/with historical, social, cultural, economic, linguistic conditions that exist, unequivocally, in relation to racist violence. I also wanted to show the violence that white women are capable of. I wanted to demonstrate complicity in racist and patriarchal structures and the condition of simultaneously experiencing violence and enacting it.

3:AM: You have lived a long time in the UK but you are originally from the Seychelles, and you have lived for a long time in South Africa too. Where do you think your book fits? Are you part of the literary scene of these three places? Of none?

YG: This year I will have lived in London for 13 years. I still have close ties to the Seychelles and to Johannesburg. All three places have had a profound effect on me. I tend to embed myself in a place in a really personal way. I connect with place through my immediate environment and how I navigate and experience it —  whether it’s through the proximity to the ocean in the Seychelles or the architecture and spatial arrangements of cities like London and Johannesburg. In fact, in its very early stages Unearthed was going to be a book about walking (after I moved to London, I dealt with the acute sense of displacement I felt through walking).

3:AM: Thirteen years is a long time! Do you feel part of the literary scene here?

YG: I can’t say with any confidence that I am part of a literary scene as such. Copy Press and the Reader’s Union are my community. My relationship with Yve Lomax who worked with me on Unearthed is so important to me. She is actually the first person to give me the space to express what it is I wanted to say. It’s a great feeling to have somebody believe in you and be willing to listen to what it is you’re trying to say. I see her as a writing mentor. I have always struggled to find a community. Perhaps it’s to do with coming from a small island (I am talking now about the Seychelles). That was my foundational experience of the world and there are not many people who share my memories. I think my upbringing was quite idiosyncratic and isolated.

3:AM: You mentioned that you started your career as a writer working closely to academia, but in recent years you took a step back from this sector. What motivated this?

YG: While I was working on my PhD in London, I actually wanted to teach, research and publish within a university context. After my PhD, I wrote Unearthed and that shifted things for me quite a lot. I want to explore writing in this way and possibly fiction. I also needed to have more security in terms of income and got a teaching certificate (actually, my full-time job is teaching English). I realised at some point that someone with a great deal of power in the university where I did my PhD was blocking me and putting all kinds of obstacles in my way. There is a danger when you come to the UK from the Global South that your research and ideas are there to be useful to someone with a lot more power than you. I was particularly vulnerable to this as I don’t have a community as such. In academia, at the time, I came to understand that the particular points that I wanted to make about history and memory (in relation to Apartheid) were not palatable to people with a great deal of institutional power. It was also to do with how I made these points, which is not in a neutral, detached kind of a way. I have learnt a lot about how power operates through my experiences at university particularly during my PhD. I am especially interested in power in its murkier, more insidious forms and in spaces that are unable (or don’t want to see) that they are, in fact, shaped in fundamental ways to historical and contemporary conditions of racial violence.

3:AM: I — coming from Latin America and having flirted a bit with that academia area for while — am familiar with what you are saying. Like, here we are, being all Latin American and political and not stopping for a second to question why most of the people teaching that subject are British or American, have a Phd from an Anglo-American institution, or why the academic production of this field can’t be accessed in the Global South due to prohibitive prices. Anyway… I don’t want to get started! Have you completely given up scholarly research now? Do you keep in touch with that aspect of your work in some way?

YG: I have a private world within which I engage in scholarly research but no community as such. I am a Research Associate with the University of Johannesburg. Currently, whenever I have time, I read books by black scholars that were not included in reading lists and bibliographies when I was at university and that were not invited into the white institutional spaces in which I was educated. After I began my PhD, I became acutely aware of institutional racism and actually the violence of citation practices. In many ways, I feel that I am only just beginning my intellectual life and reading the work of scholars and writers whose ideas I can really relate to intellectually, philosophically and ethically because of the extent to which my life has been structured by racist logics. I am extremely conscious of myself as a white woman who exists in a particular relationship to patriarchal, heterosexual, capitalist and racist logics and complicity is something I would like to really grapple with in my writing. I come from a background that is unequivocally privileged and while I have been through a lot as life has unfolded I never lose sight of where I come from and the ways in which it has marked me.

3:AM: Regarding this, something that Unearthed does very well is questioning what it means to be a woman in a strong patriarchal culture, but also what it means to be a white woman, in a place where this can also be a position of power, at least over some people. This is something you don’t see a lot in Anglo-American liberal feminist discourse, where a lot of race and class blind identity politics is produced. Do you think being from the Global South, and having lived in a country in which Apartheid was a thing until not too long ago, put you in a better position to understand your own role in race-based inequality? And more importantly, the ways in which that role can be challenged?

YG: So much of who I am today is because of what I witnessed in Apartheid South Africa and then in its aftermath. I went to boarding school in Johannesburg in the 1980s followed by university in the 1990s. In 1994, following the loss of my father in Seychelles, Johannesburg became my permanent home. I was there during the course of the official transition from apartheid and then I lived there until 2007. Everything that I argue in relation to racism is informed by where I come from and the things that I witnessed, that I experienced and that I was embedded in. It is where my preoccupation with complicity comes from and why I think so much about the ethical question of who speaks and for whom.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Fernando Sdrigotti is a London-based Argentine writer and cultural critic. He teaches Latin American literature, film, and language at Birkbeck, University of London. His latest fiction book is Jolts, a collection of short stories published by Influx Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 25th, 2020.