INTERVIEW: Graham Mort on voyeurism, the Blues and ‘Like Fado’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Graham Mort on the research process behind his collection Like Fado (Salt, 2021).

One of the first things that jumps out about Like Fado is its broad international scope. The collection is marked throughout with an attention to cultural, topographical and linguistic detail that lends each of its disparate settings a feeling of authenticity. I wondered if you could talk about how your personal experiences of these various landscapes fed into your work on Like Fado. What’s your approach to transposing what you’ve seen in this places onto the page?

Working internationally and transculturally has been a big part of my life. I’ve travelled a lot in the past twenty years and almost always for work – projects across nine African countries as well as China, Kurdistan and Vietnam. Some recreational visits to Europe came on top of that, though I dislike that feeling of being a tourist. Travel, like all experience, involves three stages – anticipation, the evanescent present moment, then retrospection.  All of those seem key to the way the experience of being elsewhere shapes consciousness. I always travel with a laptop. Sometimes I take notes on the new location, but on longer visits, such as my time in Cape Town in recent years, I find myself writing about home.

I always travel with a camera and I’m interested in the relationship between experience and image-making. But some of the most disturbing aspects of experience, some pretty harrowing scenes in African countries for instance, simply don’t make it through the lens. That’s a level of voyeurism and objectification that I can’t permit myself. I think the camera teaches a visual awareness that is about looking, framing, including or excluding certain aspects of a scene (rather like short fiction). I don’t necessarily revisit those images on my computer hard-drive when I’m writing, but the act of taking the photograph definitely burns the visually perceived world into consciousness in a more intense way. The camera can be a kind of tyranny, always demanding to participate. It can also be a way of distancing or absenting oneself from an actual experience. So my relationship with the camera is complicated and sometimes ethically fraught.

I’ve always been interested in geography, in locations, so landscapes and cities fascinate me with their layers of time, their accumulations of custom, commerce, ritual and narrative. I often think of locations as narrative spaces – spaces that have been continually named, re-named and narrated. In that context, physical locations – architecture, topography, the flow of water – dissolve into time. I’ve also worked on  a number of multi-lingual projects and that has involved allowing the expertise of others to shape a process, deliberately placing myself on the edge of other languages. There is always a sense of othering and unachievable longing brought about by travel, the extent to which one becomes suddenly conspicuous, the extent to which one has to surrender to other cultures, languages, histories and identities, the ways in which the history of imperial power foregrounds the tensions in contemporary identity. Being shown along a street in Harare by an older Zimbabwean citizen who told me quietly that this was a street he could never have walked down when Ian Smith held power was both shocking and deeply humiliating to my sense of self. I don’t think that’s about trying to assume a false sense of responsibility, but of suddenly being shaken out of one’s own skin. That can be very productive for a writer.

I’m glad you brought up that relationship between the individual and the landscape as I’d also like to touch on the verisimilitude achieved via the complex characters of Like Fado. Of course there are concerns around voyeurism and appropriation, as you’ve alluded to, but I’m curious to know to what extent you leant on your experience of real people and events in building your narrative designs. What were the challenges of confronting your memories of these people and the difficult legacies of their lives? To what extent is that a necessary part of the process of narrative design, if at all?

If there is an arc from the ‘poetic’ short story with it’s quiet sense of epiphany, and the tightly plotted story with a sprung plot, I’m definitely on the poetic side and being as much a poet as a short fiction writer has definitely shaped my sense of character and consciousness in relation to the events shown in a story. That’s related to the movement of time, too. Often very little happens in the forward moving present moment of my stories, but a lot happens through the modulations of consciousness in my characters and narrators – that flux of apprehension and memory, the re-working of past events.

I guess one simple question drives all writers, ‘What’s it like to be someone else?’. Even a lifelong partner is ultimately ‘other’ in the sense that they cannot ever be said to be fully available to us, we can only ‘read’ each other, and those readings change all the time, from intimacy to incomprehension, even to incomprehension through intimacy. There is a sense in which we are ultimately separate from each other, even when the coordinates that have sometimes marked difference – ethnicity, gender, sexuality, culture, belief systems – apparently align.

So the complexity of characters is a given for me. Just as there is no such thing as a simple language, I don’t believe there is any such thing as a simple human being. Our lived experience is incredibly complex as we navigate the minutiae our daily experience (which is always generated by the mind as well as by events) and therefore our inner life is complex with the deployment, recall and interaction of that experience. I think this is also a political dimension for me. For centuries whole swathes of humanity have sometimes been assumed – by ruling elites, by those formally educated, by literature itself – to have somehow lacked a fully sensitised and fully awoken presence. I repudiate that both as a way of approaching people in life and of approaching them through writing.

A lot of my locations are derived from direct personal experience. In my latest book I felt the urge to commemorate places that have already changed since I wrote about them, to fix them at least for the duration of the story. Characters are a different matter and are never really based on actual people I have met. They are fictional entities that sometime grow from those locations to develop a kind of autonomy. I tend to draft a story quickly and then live within it, thinking about it as I go about daily life, letting its characters and their actions grow. I don’t really subscribe to that idea that, ‘the characters just took over’, but I do think that the subconscious presence of characters in the writer’s mind can be very powerful. Writing is a series of small decisions and each one has the effect of developing the whole story. Unintended consequences may develop, perhaps, but then nothing is really unintentional in a story.

Yes, I think you can see evidence of that process of allowing the subconscious to help develop the story in your writing, again through that more poetic, epiphany-led handling of the themes. If I may, I’d like to sidestep stylistic considerations for the moment and delve a little further into the broader themes of Like Fado. I was surprised to find the world of work such a prominent motif, with most of the central characters being characterised in some way via their professional life, the days ‘taken by work’ (p.123). I hoped you could explain what it is about professional life that you feel can be so useful to writers, perhaps as a component of characterisation in particular. Why do you think it became such a recurrent consideration in Like Fado?

I’m from a working class family – my grandfather was a cotton spinner, my father a carpenter and my mother a nurse. Work was the way people in that community spent their time and were identified. So my friends’ parents were all mill or factory workers or self-employed tradesmen. Work was also the thing that we wanted to get away from. Education offered access to a different kind of work and, being a writer, a positive sense of freedom within the work ethic. I absconded from my first attempt at university education and had a lot of jobs afterwards, from mill labourer to gardener to psychiatric nursing orderly. I freelanced before becoming an academic and had many jobs during that period. I have obviously drawn on those experiences of work in my writing.

In his book, Working, Studs Terkel begins with the words, ‘This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body…It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread.’ It’s a wonderful book in which he interviews workers across America in every conceivable walk of life from prostitutes to blue and white collar workers. There is an obvious satisfaction in public service, but even when work is repetitive and oppressive there is often this sense of almost perverse pride in their testimony, a sense of endurance, of going on, of resistance, which in itself creates meaning.

So for me work is an arena from which we take much of our identity and in which we slug it out against time, the forces of entropy, the politics of institutions and corporations. My stories include mill workers, a farmer, soldiers, a waitress, an ethnographer, academics, a surveyor, musicians, a sex worker, engineers and many more. In my story ‘The Glover’, my protagonist is an academic, an expert in corpus linguistics. His other job is as a torturer for a brutal regime. His work is routine, repetitive and predictable in some ways, but also rewarding when it produces results. My character’s apparently sartorial nickname is a kind of ironic nom de guerre, a euphemism for a horrible procedure that works on the imagination of his victims. Meanwhile, he worries about his aged mother who is in a home, his kids who are being bullied at school, and his wife’s upcoming gynaecological procedure. In that story I use work to create a sense of scale, a sense of the quotidian that echoes Hannah Arendt’s phrase in relation to Adolf Eichmann’s unremarkable personality and bureaucratic work ethic: ‘the banality of evil’.

Work is part of character for me, a kind of intelligence, something that can both imprison and redeem. I don’t romanticise it. I’ve seen the harm it can do when it becomes inescapable, when it enforces the restrictions of social class or gender, as it did in my own family. It has been ignored in much canonical literature and it’s really only in the twentieth century that it began to take its place in imaginative writing. A lot of authors still ignore it, as if characters in fiction are only actors in the dynamic of the story itself. That’s a fantasy. For me the work that people do and engage with is fascinating and rich and very much part of their inner life. It shapes their days, their actions, their consciousness.

Another prominent theme is music, as the title suggests. Recently I spoke to author Martin Goodman, who likened the musicality of language to that ‘rhythm which leads to silence’ found in a musical phrase. This reminded me of the lines in ‘Whitethorn’ linking the construction of memory with ‘the space between the notes that the notes themselves were reaching for’ (p.230), a clear link to me between music and storytelling. I wondered where you find the intersections between music and language, either in composition or through the reader experience. To what extent can fiction be ‘like fado’?

My father and grandfather were both musicians. In the short row of terraced houses where I grew up there was also a talented pianist and a gifted violinist. All of them worked in the local cotton mill. Sometimes those cultural aspects of working class life get occluded by clichéd representations. I play in a blues band and I love the narrative compression of blues lyrics. Big Bill Broonzy sang, ‘Hey, hey, baby, whose muddy shoes are these? / You’ve got them standing where my shoes used to be.’ That’s a novel in two lines! I really like jazz, too, where the lyrics are often stripped away and replaced by the vocal qualities of instruments themselves. Bill Broonzy said, ‘A lot of people got the blues and don’t know it.’ Louis Armstrong said, ‘Without love you can’t play.’

A musical ensemble, especially one that improvises, operates as a microcosm of democratic society. There is an underlying rhythmical and harmonic form that offers structure, but individuals can find their voice, accommodating and stimulating each other. I became fascinated by fado music (‘Portuguese blues’) because it was disreputable music originally, but there is a terrific – sometimes overblown – sense of exuberance, tragedy and loss. It’s hard to miss the emotional impact, even if one doesn’t understand the Portuguese language. Music is shaped by silence as much as by actual sounds and that’s shared with an audience in the way a written text is shared with the reader. What is left out resonates. It’s hard to find exact experiential equivalences for music ­since much of it has an abstract form. Fiction is ‘like fado’ in the sense that it has a surface form, a narrative flow, a sequence of events dispersed into time. But beneath that ‘conscious’ layer lies a deeper, inchoate, almost inexpressible sense of emotion (‘saudade’ in Portuguese) that we experience in a visceral rather than in a consciously reflective way.

I’ve always found music a rich metaphor for the layering and structure of a story. The idea of counterpoint in music – the way different instruments respond to each other and contribute to the overall texture and movement – is the way I want my stories to work. Poetry has its origins in music, too. It’s meant to move the air and I try to work the language of my stories in the same way, try to be attentive to rhythm and cadence, the sound of the story, which is meaningful before we become fully aware of transitional meaning.

To finish up I’d like to circle back to the idea of internationality that we began with. While the collection spans many disparate locations, they are often filtered through the eyes of outsiders – tourists, migrants, workers abroad. You’ve spoken already about the potential dangers of voyeurism in fiction, but I wondered to what extent you feel that fiction might be an inherently voyeuristic activity? Whilst we often highlight the importance of the imagination in fiction, to what extent do you think it relies on writers peering into a world that is not their own, that does not belong to them?

It’s almost a cliché to reinforce the idea of the writer as voyeur, flaneur, secret agent in society. I wonder where the sense of belonging that is antithetical to that sense of isolation really resides? Human beings seem to crave a sense of collective identity, whether it be membership of the Bullingdon Club, the football crowd leaving Anfield, the arm-waving ravers at the Glastonbury Festival. Individualism is also an important element in the dynamic of inclusion, being oneself even in a crowd. Desire for inclusion, the sense of human solidarity, suggests its antithesis – a sense of isolation and exclusion – which I think is intensified in contemporary society and haunts many people.

I’ve spent a lot of time alone for various reasons. Birdwatching as a teenager; working alone as a gardener; riding a motorcycle with that simultaneous sense of singularity, of being vulnerable and in motion; writing alone at my desk; travelling overseas and spending time on my own in cafés, bars and restaurants. Being alone, moving on, moving through locations and meeting people in often fleeting relationships. When I was in a bar in Cape Town a guy who was already pissed asked me, ‘What do you think of the country these days?’ He meant what did I think of Black majority rule and the way the country had deteriorated (in his estimation) as a result? His remark was the tip of an iceberg and was something to do with the formation of my story ‘Meijersdorp’ in Like Fado. I guess those are the narrative icebergs, the hidden desires, the transient moments of deeper significance, that writers need to bump into. He went home to a hangover. I went home to my laptop in a rented house in a neighbourhood where no one knew me.

So that sense of liminality referred to in your question has been a big part of my personal experience. I think it definitely leads to a certain kind of character in my work. In my story ‘Like Fado’ the narrator is invited into a young woman’s house to photograph her aged mother. It’s a chance encounter and brings a frisson of apprehension, not least the subtle sexual expectation of entering the woman’s house, being close to her warm body, her flamboyant peacock feather earrings. When he takes images of the old lady who is slipping away from life, he finds her beautiful but experiences an ‘almost pornographic’ sense of his own actions, of stepping over the threshold of propriety. So much so that he keeps the encounter from his wife, adding a further frisson of secrecy and guilt. Yet that moment is one of intense realisation and connection that is joined up to his experience of listening to fado music later. His epiphany is one of simultaneously experiencing a feeling of death’s inevitability, of fated or enduring love, and of the inherent difficulty of loving another person who remains unknowable.

I think that buried in that story is something about my sense of what it’s like to be a writer. To become immersed in other people’s lives, to be moved, but to free oneself from that immersion through completion of the story. And however much those stories draw upon my personal experience, the truth lies in fabulation rather than verisimilitude, in the fictive engineering of the narrative and its contrapuntal layers.

Graham Mort is emeritus professor of Creative Writing and Transcultural Literature at Lancaster University, UK. He lives in rural North Yorkshire and has worked internationally across sub-Saharan Africa and in China, Vietnam and Kurdistan. Visibility: New & Selected Poems, appeared from Seren in 2007, when he was also winner of the Bridport short story prize. His book of stories, Touch, won the Edge Hill prize in 2011. Black Shiver Moss (poems) appeared from Seren in 2017. Like Fado and Other Stories, a new collection of short fiction, was published by Salt in January 2021.

Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.



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