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Mind the Gap

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January 15, 2012

Zadie Smith on global school reporting without the wonk.

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Photograph via Wikipedia by David Shankbone

In 2006, I went to Liberia for the first time. As with any trip by a westerner to the “developing” world, my attention was drawn to the gap: between these roads and the ones I had walked down, these houses and those in which I had lived, these schools and the schools that had educated me. Into this gap, well-meaning people tend to pour in two large groups (though there is a good deal of overlap): the Church Workers and the Aid Workers. The pious are everywhere in Liberia, motivated by the Christian ethics of pity and charity. They build churches and schools, and try to improve people’s lives at the point of contact. Working alongside them the aid people take, generally, a more secular and macro approach to development: working on infrastructure, project managing, liaising with government. On that first Liberian visit, I was a guest of Oxfam, and being around them and their work illuminated another significant gap: the one between the language of development and the language of the rest of us. This is no special flaw in the world of development—every large organization has its technocratic lingo and unreadable reports. But it seemed to me a shame that between the highly technical, acronym-heavy documents written within the world of development and the often saccharine self-descriptions of the church workers, there were so few people writing development stories from a human perspective. Stories that were not especially concerned with a man’s eternal soul or his statistical representation, but with his life.

Journalists do this, but as everyone who has worked in development knows, the best time to get a journalist’s attention is when the bomb goes off or the tsunami hits or the famine brings the walking dead to the border. In the downtime, interest fades.

A writer hopes to make connections where the lazy eye sees only a chasm of difference.

The idea for Writers Bloc came from this perceived gap. My article on Liberia was read by people at the Open Society Institute, who were interested in the way it was written, not as a development report but as an account of an experience. They approached me with the idea of co-operating in a project that would create more such pieces of non-professional reportage. It was a simple concept. A small group of fiction and nonfiction writers (myself, Hari Kunzru, Kamila Shamsie, Rachel Holmes, and Nick Laird) got together with the hope of enlisting the skills of an international team of writers. People who have a knack for compelling narratives, who like to try to represent people’s lives in all their curious detail—in short, people with a patience for the third dimension. We wanted to read accounts that were not only pious, charitable or analytical but also readable, engaging, exciting. Our focus was universal education: it is one of the eight aspirations of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) project, launched in 2000, and we thought it a subject naturally of interest to writers, who owe their lives to the skills they developed in classrooms.

Funded and supported by the Soros Foundation, we set out to send novelists to the four corners of the world. We had no editorial policy, and gave our writers free rein, both in their subject matter and their approach. They returned with detailed, well-written, hopefully compelling windows into the progress (or otherwise) of the MDG’s vision. But there I sound like a policy wonk. What they came back with is far more precious.

Reading through them I have found myself struck by the rejuvenating force of this ‘nonprofessional’ language, and the clarity a well-constructed narrative can bring to even the most complicated national histories and labyrinthine government interventions. I don’t think I have ever understood, for example, the consequences of the Yugoslavian war and the 1995 Dayton Peace accord as intimately as I did while reading Aleksander Hemon’s dispatch from a nursery school in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A policy writer would likely not use a group of five-year-old children as a metaphor for the history of a nation, but under Hemon’s pen an intimate anecdote becomes a powerful conduit of information. His report concerns the ethnicization of Bosnia’s schoolrooms (where Muslim and Christian students are taught separately in a “two-schools-under-one-roof policy”). It’s interesting to note how many of the Writers Bloc essays reveal the ways in which classrooms all over the world are used as proxy ideological battlegrounds. Because novelists tend to be interested in the particular over the general, the question of what “universal education” actually involves is naturally ironized—it becomes a kind of problem in itself. What kind of education? What is being taught? To whom, by whom? And why? In these essays children are not statistics and it is not possible to walk serenely by a dusty classroom, hear the sing-song sentences being repeated by rote, and convince oneself that “targets are being achieved.”

I have found myself struck by the rejuvenating force of this ‘nonprofessional’ language

The other thing that seems, to me, useful about Writers Bloc, is its tone of subjectivity, of passion. It is natural that development organizations should attempt a “neutral” voice, express little outrage, and try not to offend the governments with whom they work. But it is also natural, upon entering the gap between first world and the third, to feel something, to be moved, and to have opinions, to express anger. The correspondents for Writers Bloc express their feelings not in the flat blandness of the TV camera nor the news-hungry enquiry of the press reporter but as human citizens rather than professional advocates in prose that hopes to cut through that most depressing first world malady: “Charity fatigue.”

It’s ideal that the highly regarded Guernica agreed to publish these essays. The magazine’s concentrated focus on international literature, serious journalism, and the craft of writing matches the intentions of Writers Bloc.

But it is also natural, upon entering the gap between first world and the third, to feel something, to be moved, and to have opinions, to express anger.

Writing is often called “news from elsewhere,” and speaking about one world to another has always been one of the many aims of the writer. A writer hopes to make connections where the lazy eye sees only a chasm of difference. Judging from these pieces, some of the differences that in recent years, public policy makers have taken as “self-evident” are not so obvious. What is ethnic difference, really? Should borders really be drawn between ethnic groups? Is foreign investment always more important than government regulation? What is a nation anyway? Can people really be “separate but equal?” These questions may seem naive but if they don’t get asked, or even posed, government policy marches on without them relying on that dangerous quality “common sense.” All of us who write—whether our documents are full of statistics, analysis, number crunching, anecdotes, or plain old story-telling—know that writing is as indirect as it can be powerful. It takes millions of words written by thousands of people in hundreds of disciplines to affect the gaps in the world even a little. In its own small way Writers Bloc hopes to join its words to all those others.

In the Writers Bloc series:

Aleksandar Hemon on Bosnia

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Nigeria

Rachel Holmes on Palestine

Kamila Shamsie on Pakistan

Zukiswa Wanner on South Africa

Tahmima Anam on Bangladesh

Nick Laird on Nepal

Nathalie Handal on Haiti

Hardeep Singh Kohli on India

Petina Gappah on Zimbabwe

G

Zadie Smith was born in northwest London in 1975 and still lives in the area. She is the author of White Teeth which won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Book Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, and the Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Award; The Autograph Man, which won the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize; and On Beauty, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the Orange Prize for Fiction and a Commonwealth Writers’ Best Book Award. She is also the author of the essay collection Changing My Mind.

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3 comments for Mind the Gap

  1. Comment by Jay on January 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    So excited to read these!

    Should the penultimate line read “affect” instead of “effect”? One would hope not to effect a new gap…

  2. Comment by Ana on January 21, 2012 at 10:57 am

    Zadie,

    This is the best essay to date to summarize my own feelings about international development. I circled the idea of joining that field for years. In some ways, I was always born to be concerned by it, given that my birthplace has been affected so deeply by political and economic turmoil. Still, after years of consideration and an entire undergraduate degree, I opted to be a writer.

    The mechanics of development are great, and there’s no question that they must exist. However, the most compelling way I could find to be involved was by telling the story.

    Thanks for writing this!

    Ana

  3. Comment by Goyo in Mexico on January 22, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    As one who has been in international aid for almost a decade I understand the need to get beyond the statistics and overly positive “saccarine” reports on what goes on. For a bit of humor I would like to point you to the Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like blog which, through its sarcasm, really nails us well. Enjoy! http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com/

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