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Existence is a guerilla campaign: an interview with James Kelman
James Kelman interviewed by Rastko Novaković.
Malignant bureaucracies, class hatred, the revanchist rump of British Empire – they were all on the wane we were told, but presently they are alive and virulent. These are the cold winds that blow through half a century of James Kelman’s writing, huddled around a warm poetic of everyday resistance.
A fine stylist and experimenter, with a honed ear for voice and uncanny way of writing stream-of-consciousness, an elegant essayist, an artist with an infectious passion for existentialism, country music, anti-colonial writing and social justice. Over the years, Kelman has also been active in the community, fighting the commercialisation of public spaces, supporting victims of asbestos poisoning (in his youth, he worked making asbestos-boards), the striking miners, exiled and brutalised Kurds, those resisting racist attacks – by no means an exhaustive list. He speaks alongside and with others, because he sees that being a writer also means taking responsibility, acting in solidarity. He shares this feeling of social conscience with Noam Chomsky with whom he published a book this year: Between Thought and Expression Lies a Lifetime – Why Ideas Matter, which charts their exchanges over 30 years. With an avalanche of books, new and old, some revised and reconstituted, to be issued in coming months and years, Kelman is still breaking new ground and remains relevant to our present moment.
A couple of recent books passed by without fanfare or much notice – some of the finest fiction I’ve read. Mo Said She Was Quirky (2012) – a novel about a day in a young woman’s life. She tries to just get by and fit in, but ends up unravelling when she faces some ghosts from the past. Delicate and tough as nails, like all of Kelman’s work, this is monumental without any fuss. The short story collection That Was a Shiver (2017) is a wild set of escapades, greatly varied in length, style, interest. From one page to the next, it shifts between abjection, bizarre humour, unbearable social situations, precise philosophical investigations, intimate portraits and meditations on what writing and language is. These stories are free and fresh and they confront you with strange and believable realities which are hard to forget.
Kelman’s latest novel God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena is a synthesis of genres in which an ageing writer, Jack Proctor, departs for a writer’s residency at “The House of Art and Aesthetics”, which he promptly rebrands as “House of Snottirs”. Night-time he writes his stuff, probing the meaning of it all and during the days he gigs in the culture industry, facing students and administrators who mostly have no idea what he’s talking about, what he does or why. He is expected to teach Creative Writing in workshops to the young and the mature, novices and pompous MA students, to do readings, opine on the influences of “T S Hitler”, shine and grin as the “Banker Prize” winner that he is. It is a nightmarish farce on a grand scale, but also a deadly serious exposition of what writing is. As Eimear McBride says: “This is a book about how art gets made, its murky, obsessive, unedifying demands and the endless, sometimes hilarious, humiliations literary life inflicts on even its most successful names.” This is a great and irreverent novel.
Rastko Novakovic: The novel describes the kind of exploitation artists face daily – I think this will strike a chord with young writers, but also with workers everywhere. You have written about art administrators and the culture industry for 30-odd years; what is different nowadays?
James Kelman: Nowadays I concentrate on making my work available, sorting through everything, revising, refining and finishing. This has led me to one in the top rank of indies – PM Press – based in Oakland, California. I needed one willing, able or interested in taking on the corpus, and at my stage there has to be a corpus. Most of my work had gone out of print. Here in Scotland a couple were willing to consider a new novel, a new collection of stories, even an autobiography, but none offered the chance to get all my stuff in order – fiction and non- fiction – new, old, and revised. I found this not only invigorating but relaxing. I’ve been free to get on with it, wherever it leads.
RN: “The Kelman Library” is what they call it and it is exciting that all your different forms of writing are brought together: political essays and interviews, traces of your long engagement with different struggles, your political and philosophical exchange with Noam Chomsky, long and short fiction etc. You’ve resisted the compartmentalisation of your work into art and politics, so this is something to celebrate. Can you talk a bit about commitment in art and politics?
JK: No art is apolitical. Artists are people. Everybody has a position. Sometimes they commit, sometimes they don’t.
RN: Proctor is totally isolated in his work as a teaching guest writer; there is no camaraderie and he is overseen by people “whose primary experience has nothing to do with the process and who know nothing of the process” of writing. You really dwell on the absurdity and violence of it all and you contrast it with the freedom of his nocturnal writing. There he is more free to confront the constraints we all face without having to think on his feet. Can you comment on this?
JK: Those who control art and artists know nothing of the process: it is irrelevant to what they do. Jake Proctor wants to get on with his work. The story begins with him at his desk, interrupted in mid sentence. That is how it is. His partner is not to blame. No one is to blame. For many artists life is a series of interruptions. It has a detrimental effect, not just psychological, it is an assault on the digestive system. In my happy days as a smoker, it meant settling back, prising open the tobacco tin and rolling a smoke. I learned to relax. The struggle to regain the train of thought becomes enmeshed in the story itself. Sometimes interruptions allow positive twists. We move sideways, in the process dumping the boring stuff.
RN: Often in your books the characters get tripped up in an almost supernatural, nightmarish way – oppression is often precisely analysed, but it is also cosmic. Jack’s resistance to his “proctorship” in the culture industry is a scrappy, messy guerilla campaign. Which artists did you learn to fight from?
JK: I think your first sentence leads to areas that arise in the work of Franz Kafka. In The Trial Joseph K’s struggle is not so much against authority but his inability to deal with reality, with what’s under his nose. The “unseen hand” is not supernatural, it’s the expression and manifestation of a repressive authority. For the vast majority of humanity, existence takes the form of a guerilla campaign. There is no one artist, no one individual. I was open to all influence as a young person. I was fortunate to be beyond ordinary schooling from the age of 12. I attended school but didn’t get involved. Learning from thereon took the form of guerilla warfare. The wheels of authority grind us down in the never-ending struggle of the ruling class to eradicate, and eliminate, the will to learn. This cannot be eliminated but it is eradicated. People forget they can question, but the recognition that it is possible is rediscoverable.
RN: I also had a feeling of being in a nightmare of being tripped up at every point, not wilfully, but as a result of the world’s complete indifference. There is always this existential moment and Proctor has to face it, on every page. Can you talk more about this?
JK: I had to get to grips with the “I-voice” as a young writer. Nobody is more central than the “I- voice.” In the English literary tradition the general function of the “I-voice” is to tell a story about unfortunate other people. That was the way I found it. The “I-voice” occupied a position of authority, a sort of social worker. I wanted unfortunate other people to tell the story themself. The difficulty here is that “I-voice” characters must live to tell the tale, otherwise who writes the story. It’s okay for believers in the supernatural. Their characters “may pass on” to the next world, or dimension, or stage, or level, maybe a cloud – a place where they can “look down. They then communicate the story by some extraordinary transcendental communication with a publishing editor who writes the Preface: Dear Reader, This is a story by a poor unfortunate soul, self-penned by himself, found in an iron box chanced upon by a Novice Monk at the last stroke of Midnight, buried beyond the sacred walls of All Souls Cemetery . . .
This issue is structural to my earliest stories. I wanted the drama to be 100% Don’t take it for granted that the “I-voice” character survives. What if somebody sticks a knife in his guts? Dear reader, I am dead, some dirty bastard fucking killed me! My first collection was put together when I was 25. I’ve been battling ever since, finding ways such that the story doesn’t end with a strangled cry piercing the penultimate page but reaching as close to it as possible – thinking here of that wonderful story Voices, by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer.
RN: It’s clear from Jack’s adventures that as a writer you can never graduate, but also that you can never retire. What are the implications of this?
JK: State-sanctified writers “graduate”. They are helped earn a living in the Creative Writing industry, doing bits and pieces in the popular media, script-writing, copywriting. A few write books about writing books. Every writer seeks to earn a living at what they do best, which is write. Those who fail to fit or adjust to establishment requirements rarely graduate and rarely retire. They work to survive, like most of humanity. There are no “implications” that I can see. But there are inferences. One seems obvious. There is no intrinsic economic value in writing. Books considered “good” don’t sell themselves.
RN: The USA and UK state is working overtime to control what can be said (and therefore what can be thought) about the war in Ukraine. In Scotland there is a similar process with the drive to another independence referendum. What are your thoughts on this?
JK: The State never stops. Propaganda, disinformation, misinformation, counter-information; revised versions of everything. The term, Fake News, seems to describe this but doesn’t. It reduces the impact by suggesting it is either the work of nasty individuals, or a form of conspiracy by a network of nasty individuals.
I see no similarity to the independence question in Scotland. This concerns the effects of imperialism, an intransigent class system and a lack of will to change. Since the UK exit from the European community the lower order public are getting used to zero rights. What are civil rights, citizen rights, human rights? Basic values derived from solidarity, empathy and a vision of shared humanity can no longer be taken for granted. In a number of areas it is against the law to organize. The US model forces lower order people to survive in thrall to the existing order, and take solace from a world to come.
RN: What I see in Scotland is this using of nationalism (and sometimes its purest toxic form of ethno-nationalism) to shut other conversations down and to shut out the socialist and trade union movements. And with the latest pronouncements, to hitch an independent Scotland to militarism and US hegemony.
JK: Scottish people are in the same boat as most ordinary people, they dream the American dream, which is a dream of freedom. They can no longer emigrate to the country but accept the propaganda which suggests a value-system that allows an escape from the suffocating world of privilege, hierarchy and class servitude – the British system.
Independence bestowed as a gift, an act of charity, from a right-wing State – are ye kidding? It’s not the case of hitching to militarism and US hegemony there’s never been anything else in my lifetime, and it ain’t going away. I’ve nothing to say about the labour and socialist movement as it stands, the leadership appease the bully. It’s a hard fight but it will have to come.
RN: For many years you’ve been interested in tracing the inner movements of will, emotion, action, commitment. In this novel you seem to be trying to get as close to that Einstein statement as you can: “My pencil knows more than I do.“ to write yourself in the act of writing. Is there a political aspect to this?
JK: Einstein’s period embraced the idea that human beings cannot be other than human beings. We can reach, but cannot move beyond. The “reaching beyond” is what matters. Einstein’s work, like that of other people, helped set the conditions for greater exploration and tied in with that is a call to the individual. This is the mark of that wonderful tradition. Individuals each have a position, each has a perception of what is, at any given instant. And many will develop a perspective. This is a premiss, I think, but it is always revolutionary. How come? It should not be revolutionary. But it is, because of the suffocating control exercised by authority.
There is no fundamental right to authority. That right is grabbed by other human beings, then sanctified, by other human being.
RN: This book feels very much like your credo, but so much of it is about doubt. The title itself is an invitation to blaspheme. You make fun of Jack by having him strike up the poses of a preacher. Often his sermons go badly! There is a call to overthrow everything, including the hero of the novel. Do you recognise that this is at odds with a lot of contemporary fiction which is about self-affirmation?
JK: Organized religions call for an extended form of something we already know. This can be a form of glorious comradeship where individuals are wholly free or we can bask in the warmth of a King of all Kings, one who has acquired the riches of the universe and allows his innermost trusted servants a share of the spoils. All you have to do is accept his right to authority and convert others to the cause.
The State seeks to control everything, including our inner life; our imaginings and reflections, our creativity. Every area of thought. This includes the worlds following our death, the ones we create for ourselves, usually in the form of a shared community. Even here the State seeks control, in case our imagined worlds lead us to wonder if some of that might be put in place before we die. The religious cops find methods to stop people making sense of their own suppression; perhaps there is a greater good, one that justifies inhumanity. Those of a mathematical bent seek a logic to account for the illogicality. New religions develop. Eventually the old authority will be expelled, if they don’t look out. People will confront the leadership, or even go directly to the King: no representation, I’m an individual; no mediation between me and the King.
Authority acts to stop doubt, even to stop people pausing in the act of acceptance. A pause suggests uncertainty. There is no right to be puzzled. Kids are punished daily for this. Mummy, what is hell? Sssh. But mummy . . . Ssh. But . . . Go to bed! Oh but Mummy . . . Any more out of you and I’ll wake up yer father! The truth of the religion is its application in reality. Blasphemy survives by order of the State.
I have a term for the act of rejecting the idea that John Smith is King of the Universe. This term is Exshite. Anyone who disputes that John Smith is King of the Universe is guilty of Exshite. The person who so exshites is known as an “exshiter”. If I ever take control of the legal system of this country I can have it enshrined in law that “exshiting” is illegal. Anyone found guilty of so “exshiting” shall be hanged, drawn, and quartered. That’s probably a bad example, it fails to reveal that the most crucial question is begged. The existence of the King of the Universe is unchallenged. How such a being identified by a sub-species such as humankind is only of academic interest.
The “self-affirmation” industry finds methods to show as balanced that which we know to be imbalanced. “Self-affirmation” is an apology for inhumanity, to show that a certain amount of that is necessary. Why does a sportstar earn $10 million a month for whacking a ball, and an auxiliary nurse who works six 10 hour shifts a week in the contagious wing of a hospice earn less than the cost of living? The question does not arise. The “Self-affirmers” demonstrate that each person can be a successful human being. Accept what you have and do it the best you can. The status-quo rules. Some of us are billionaire tyrants, some of us are down-at-heel beggars. It is all part of a glorious strategy that will be revealed in the world to come. Never lack in self esteem, and keep yer hand out my pocket. That is the American way. Be thankful for what you’ve got, because we can take it anytime we like, and we made the law to enforce it.
RN: A lot of your work is about the resistance to the King of the Universe. You always start from the fundamental position of La Boétie (who only spoke a folk truth) which is that the ruled prop up the authority of the rulers. Where around you do you see resistance which gives you hope? Or inspires you to write and engage politically?
JK: It depends how we access information. If we pay attention to what is happening outside of the establishment media we find people are resisting tyranny 24/7, all over the world.
There is no inspiration in my writing. Inspiration is a myth perpetrated by those who exploit the work of artists. Art begins from work, that’s where it proceeds and finishes. Those who don’t work at art don’t make art.
You have to pay attention to what goes on in imperialism. The mistake is to assume a level playing ground between ruled and rulers. The ruled are ruled by a variety of rulers. The imperialist’s first point of contact is the previous leadership. Clan chiefs, tribal chiefs, religious leaders etc. The imperialist makes the previous ruler an offer he can’t refuse. They will kill not only him, his wife and kids, but his entire community, and anything else they see potentially dangerous. The old chain of command continues. Only the leadership changes. The old chief is now subordinate. The imperialist force is now in place. Old rivalries are encouraged, invented and enforced. It takes people a while to work out the reality of authority, who exactly are the enemy. Class solidarity is learned. The rise of fascism is showing the depth of these cultural differences. The return to myth and legend is an attempt to distinguish one community from another, to say what is unique about us, and why we deserve to survive. It takes a while to work out that we have to look at what we mean by “deserve”.
RN: The drama in this book sometimes comes from the sliced sentence or a single set of quotation marks. It’s a great feeling to skip a heartbeat or just drop off a cliff as a reader. Has this been a problem with publishers?
JK: Since 1972, when a printer refused to print my first story on the grounds of blasphemy and my use of the language of the gutter.
RN: I feel that the battles you’ve won have been eroded; a lot of writers don’t understand the importance of doing away with quotation marks around reported speech and how much that focuses the writer and reader on writing a character’s voice. The Left internationally has bought the idea of censorship and stewardship and enforces it zealously, leaving the Right to define the terms.
JK: No authority trusts art, the left included, creativity like scepticism is dangerous. It certainly pissed me off as a young writer that art was seen as a mark of a bourgeois sensibility. Anyone who read for pleasure was frivolous, no matter the book, Arthur Conan Doyle or Isaac Babel, they were all the same. Much of the left still think in these terms. They either deny or disrespect Marx’s position on alienation. This is the alienation of the individual, not a class of being, but the uniqueness of each and every one of us. Karl Marx and Soren Kierkegaard were contemporaries. Marx reached to find a freedom for all, and it was a great project, poor old Kierkegaard recognized the utter uniqueness of each human being, including the lowest the low, but feared it. That’s an opinion. I’m reminded here too of Dostoevsky, and Chekov, where the upper classes have become aware that these lower order people have inner lives. Dostoevsky’s characters look in a mirror, eyes widening. Chekov’s characters shrug, but not in a healthy manner. I think I need to get back writing myself the way this is going.
RN: There is an absurd chapter called “How Long is a Short Story?” where someone questions the right of Jack’s very short stories to exist. There is a certain snobbery about “the novel” (and the feature film etc.), but the freedom of theme and form that you achieve in your last collection That Was A Shiver would be hard to find in most longer pieces. There is also a freedom for the reader. What effect, if any, does this have on your writing?
JK: It has no effect that I know about. I go where the writing takes me, and I’ve tried to maintain that position, even when forced to stop working in order to earn living, and I have to go to work for an employer, whether in a factory, as a driver, or as a tutor in Creative Writing. Stories short or long, we have to stop work on them eventually.
RN: People like Diane Williams have a great commitment to this short form (often branded as “flash fiction”) the approach which compresses a whole life-story or epic into a page without the burden for the reader of sitting with a main character for weeks. It also keeps a relationship of writing to music and painting. I was elated to see this in “God’s Teeth”, brought back into the form of the novel.
JK: I’ve been working in the shorter form since the 1970s. As a young writer I was reading people such as Kafka and Borges obviously – also Solzhenitsyn whose short pieces I thought smashing – people should remember how great a writer he was. But I read every- where and from as many cultures, ancient story-telling from the earliest sources. I liked stories and that was that. I discover Japanese short prose from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That tied in with my own vision which was to create stories that worked in the same way as any other piece of art, a wee self-contained structure, that began and ended in-itself. – just like a song or a painting or a piece of sculpture.
RN: Jack never appeals to authority in his teaching and writing workshops and the novel repeatedly questions the foundations and the authority of the “I-voice”. Why is it still important for you to question how we know what we know?
JK: He is influenced by Socrates, seeking an authentic dialogue between teacher and student; to enlighten the student by bringing them through stages in a process, a wee bit like doing algebra. We go through a series of ifs on one side of the = sign, answer on the right, maybe drop a line and show were we have arrived. Then drop a line, so if we have arrived here and this is the case, then . . . and fill the gap. Drop down a line. We come to see what exists, rather than what we thought exists, or what we were told exists.
You can understand from this why Socrates had to be executed. It doesn’t matter to the ruling class if any god or gods exist but the authority of such certainly does exist, as applied by ruling authority: priests, mullahs, rabbis, community leaders, chiefs, kings and all manner of leadership. This returns us to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor and to Kafka’s landsurveyor, “K”, in The Castle, dealing with an all-to-real authority, which has no essence, no substance – the Wizard of Oz.
RN: Have you read recent fiction which resonated with you?
JK: Not so much in recent years. The existential drive in 19th century literature, through the earlier part of last century, seems to have dried up. We’ve returned to a stage where “reality” as presented by authority is allowed unchallenged. We live or die by a value- system that is abhorrent, typically upper class, white-Anglo-Saxon- heterosexual male. In prose fiction this is expressed by a 3rd party narrative where the “voice” is Standard English Literary form. And the dialogue can be any voice you like: working class Scottish, African-American, Nigerian, anything. But the voice of the 3rd party narrative is always the same voice, the god-voice of Anglo-American authority. The imperialist is always in control. All the inferiors, women, servants, natives, lackeys, can do whatever the fuck they like, as long as they keep to the margins. This is why writers who insist on highjacking the 3rd party narrative are dangerous.
RN: You got me reading Tutuola for which I am grateful. What is it about him and Ayi Kwei Armah that makes you keep returning to their writing? How do you read it now, what’s different?
JK: With Tutuola it is the Voice, how to manipulate the language of the imperialist, to return us to an inner place, where the free human being exists. Reaching down to there, and moving outwards and upwards, what comes to the surface is the richness, the sense of language as dynamic, the languages and culture of you and your own community, pre-colonizer, pre- imperialist. The story is written in English but what kind of English! Full of all these strange rhythms and syntax, weird beliefs and perceptions of reality, a phenomenological world. When I first read Ayi Kwei Armah I began to see how bold he was, how ambitious. I feel pretty useless here. I never felt without a community, in the wider sense, I could look to other European literary traditions. Imperialism and colonization are ruthless and brutal and will destroy whichever very indigenous form that stands in their way. Was he alone? It was just so difficult what he was taking on. Maybe the world was passing him by. I would like to have known him and sat about talking literature and politics, and how to move. I think of Knut Hamsun here, and his movement out of the greatness of his “I-voice” earlier work, into something else altogether. Do they have people to talk to? Other artists and people they can trust? An authentic community is so damn crucial.
RN: PM Press will be re-issuing your Translated Accounts in 2024. You are planning to revise the text. How and why will you do this two decades after it was written?
JK: I have already done this. I had the chance, and thought that the earlier sections might benefit from that.
RN: Have you been able to appreciate translations of any of your work? How important is it for you that these get published and read?
JK: Foreign communication is a lifeline. Community knows no borders. Writers learn to smile and say nothing, let the translator get on with it.
James Kelman is a Glaswegian writer and activist. His novel A Disaffection won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1989. In 1994 he won the Booker Prize for How Late It Was, How Late. He has been involved in the anti-poll tax movement, the miners’ strike, the movement for Kurdish self-determination, Clydeside Action against Asbestos and other campaigns. In 2022 PM Press is publishing three of his books: God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena, Between Thought and Expression Lies a Lifetime: Why Ideas Matter (with Noam Chomsky) and The State Is the Enemy: Essays on Liberation and Racial Justice.
Rastko Novaković is a writer and filmmaker. He has been active in the anti-war, housing and trade union movements in ex-Yugoslavia and the UK.