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‘They can’t duck the question of decolonisation and transformation anymore’

Professor Lesley Lokko giving a talk entitled “Tropic Antics” at a free public lecture in Port of Spain, Trinidad, hosted by the Trinidad and Tobago Institute of Architects. Photo courtesy Mark Raymond, used with permission.

This is the third and final installment in our interview series with Professor Lesley Lokko, novelist, and head of the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. You can read the first post here and the second post here.

By dint of her half Ghanaian, half Scottish ancestry, Professor Lesley Lokko has a unique way of looking at the world. She grew up in Ghana under the wing of her father, a doctor who was educated in the United Kingdom. At 17, she left for England to attend boarding school, and it was there that she suddenly went from being a “half-caste” [a Ghanaian term for “mixed race”] to being black — or rather, not white.

Lokko has brilliantly occupied this space between black and white her whole life — informing her writing, her architect's eye and now, her approach to teaching — and its recurring lessons continuously raise issues of culture and identity.

On the invitation of the Trinidad and Tobago Institute of Architects and Bocas Lit Fest, the country's premier annual literary event, Lokko recently made her first visit to the twin-island republic, where she gave a few public lectures on the importance of architecture in today's society, literature and more.

Global Voices (GV): You've chosen to live and pursue your career in education in South Africa — the nerve centre, in many ways, of black/white relations. What's negotiating that space like as a mixed-race professional, post-apartheid?

Lesley Lokko (LL): The thing that drives me crazy about some white South Africans — let me emphasise: some, not all — is the feeling I often get behind our conversations that, somehow, the responsibility for managing change must be mine, because I’m the one who wants that change. We — as in black people — were the ones to bring change about so we must be responsible for handling the fallout. I call it the ‘Oprah Syndrome’. The responsibility for managing their own emotions, their guilt? They don’t want it, so they want to pass it back. What’s that if not racist? I’m not here to soak up your pain. You’ve had 200 years of talking about your pain! I’m done with it.

Black Economic Empowerment — the South African government's programme to redress the inequities of apartheid by giving black citizens economic advantages that white citizens cannot access — has reduced the argument about progress and equality down to money. It’s not actually about only money. Money is the symbol of a whole host of issues: class, culture, mobility, aspiration, self-esteem, identity…it’s all in there. Money becomes the be-all and end-all, the means in itself instead of the means to a more progressive end.

GV: It's like a continued denial of that black identity. You’ve done a lot of work around race, culture, and identity. How does architecture, for instance, factor into our identity as multi-ethnic Caribbean people?

LL: Because of the historical relationship that Africans have always had with others — Europe, the United States, the Caribbean — we’re acutely aware of ‘other’ black cultures…African-Americans, West Indians, black Britons. We’re aware of these communities that are somehow connected to us, but also dispersed — so the psyche of Africans, no matter where in the world we are, is very fluid. It’s not about rootedness, being in one place only, having only one identity, speaking only one language…it’s much more open-ended than that. However — and here’s the rub — architecture is all about rootedness, location, a fixed place in the world. That’s the impulse of the architect — to dig a foundation, place something there, anchor it to the ground and to make sure it stays upright for as long as you possibly can. So, in effect, the very nature of the discipline is always in tension with the nature of the African diasporic psyche, which is all about movement, about dispersal, about multiplicity.

What are the implications of this for architects? I'll try to give you a really concrete — no pun intended — example: one of my closest friends is a Dominican architect. She’s married to a Swiss architect and they run a practice together in Basel [Switzerland]. When she studied at Cornell 25 years ago, there was no talk about race or identity or fluidity. Anyway, her practice won the job of refurbishing a local school and during the design process, she decided to try and bring into the classrooms a certain quality of light that reminded her of Santo Domingo [Dominican Republic] — soft, golden, hazy. The light in Basel is very different; it’s much colder…a blue, harsh kind of light. So my friend takes a little palette of Estee Lauder gold eye shadow to her meeting with the engineers who were making the shutters, and she said, ‘Make me a metal shutter that filters the light to produce this colour.’ And they did it! And it was a little victory for her because it meant that when the shutters came down on a cold winter’s afternoon, the students inside the classroom were bathed in this Caribbean light, which the vast majority of them have never experienced, right there in Basel. I find it a really interesting example, particularly for African and diasporic architects who are now struggling to match their emotive responses, impulses and histories with a discipline that historically hasn’t wanted them.

Still, we have a long way to go. I was just at the Venice Biennale and the question on everybody’s lips was, ‘Where was Africa?’ Not a single African country was represented — at least not in a national sense. The South African government has a 20-year lease on a building in the Arsenale, but because of financial ‘irregularities’ this year, there was no tender put forward for South African architects. So the building has been paid for but it’s just standing there, empty. Back in South Africa, there’s understandable fury at the government for allowing it to happen. It’s incredibly sad. Government has the mandate to provide opportunities for culture to flourish…and it doesn’t. And that goes for all African countries. Not a single African government was able to support a single African architect at the world’s most important architectural event — and it’s not because we’re too poor to afford it. But the situation is also part of a more complex question about the relationship between us — citizens — and government, and I don’t think there’s anywhere where that relationship is more difficult than across Africa.

We’re a deeply feudal society — and I don’t mean that in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it’s just how it is. I often compare the set-up of the ruling elite to the court of Henry VIII. A few ministers gather around a powerful central figure on whose patronage their very lives depend. But the citizens outside the court exist in the 21st century, at a time when vast amounts of information are available to us in terms of seeing other places, having other aspirations, learning about other ways of doing things…everything from the welfare state to efficient public services…and we don’t see that reflected in our leaders’ plans or actions for us. Actually, it’s mostly the opposite. We look to government as a sort of benevolent father figure who will improve the quality of our lives but, nine times out of ten, that same father figure is looking to line his own pockets — and the pockets of those around him — not ours. We’ve inherited a political structure that comes from a very different source, both in time and place, and we’re struggling to adapt. Henry VIII didn’t become Henry VIII to make money; he already had money. You can question how he accumulated his wealth, but the fact remains that he had a lot longer than a political term of four years to do it, which creates its own kind of pressure and temptations. Still, for all that, you do get leaders who have the power to change things. And many of those have come out of Africa and the African diaspora…Mandela, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X.

[Professor Lokko speaks about radical transformations in architecture in the series Safe Space: Session # 01 from UJ GSA on Vimeo.]

GV: There's a very similar dynamic with regard to leadership the Caribbean.

LL: I’ve been running the Graduate School of Architecture for four years now, and every day, I’m reminded that leadership is like its own profession — it’s not some side thing you do in addition to your day job — that is the job. In the corporate world, there’s an incredible amount of thinking that goes into how to lead, how to manage, how to create better companies, better teams…in the public sector, however, there’s not so much. I suppose in the corporate world the bottom line — profit — is what drives success.

I look at many African leaders in government and I wonder if any of them have ever had anything like the level of support that’s required to lead. It is interesting that we never speak about those support mechanisms — the milieus that surround leaders. The psychology, the history, the mentoring…the add-ons that can make the difference between being a mediocre manager and a really great leader.

GV: You've talked about approaching teaching by “cracking students open” — finding out what drives them. What would be the potential impact of doing that?

LL:That’s a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, I hope the impact of opening up difficult topics like race and identity will make an enormous difference but on the other, I also long for a time when such questions aren’t seen as marginal, or only of interest to black students. That's partly why I’m here [in Trinidad and Tobago]. It’s really important for us (and I use that in a very broad sense) to have spaces and places — like really great schools of architecture — where those concerns are central. And they’re central in really deep, rigorous, creative, investigative, explorative ways. They’re not just what you ‘allow’ black students to do simply because they’re black. I think that’s the potential I see in the Graduate School of Architecture. South Africa, for many reasons, is the right place to put these issues on the table and see them succeed. It has the infrastructure, there’s money available for education, and for the first time, there’s a political imperative. Since the student protests in 2016, ‘decolonisation’ and ‘transformation’ are on everyone’s lips. The moral imperative and the political will to bring about change is there. They can’t duck the question anymore.

GV: To do that — effect change — which is what you are doing at the GSA, you have to have been inspired by others. Tell us about some of the architects and writers that have influenced you.

LL: For me, architecture begins and ends with Mies van der Rohe. It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s true. His work moves me in ways that I can’t adequately express. His buildings make ‘sense’ to me and that’s the product of seven years of a particular Modernist kind of training that is deeply ingrained. Literature is different. I never studied literature, so my tastes are probably more intuitive, less ‘trained.’ I’m influenced by subject matter as much as style, which I’m grateful for! Two writers in particular have had a huge influence on me. One is South African writer Nadine Gordimer — and not just because of her subject matter, which is what most people assume — but because she uses language the way an architect uses space; it’s structural, formal, very muscular. She’s a very difficult person to read because she doesn’t often follow conventions of punctuation and so on, but for me, she's the best. The other is an Australian writer called David Malouf. Both are loosely post-colonial writers, but their work a real example of how the same subject matter can be articulated so differently. As far as West Indian writers go, I read Walcott and Naipaul a lot when I was younger. Contemporary writers? Patrick Chamoiseau, Junot Diaz.

Professor Lesley Lokko talking about literature at the Bocas Lit Fest's headquarters in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photo by Mark Raymond, used with permission.

GV: What about African writers?

LL: I struggle with a lot of African writers. There’s huge talent and an almost infinite range of stories to tell, but for many, the fact that they are African still dominates the narrative. I’m impatient for us to be free of that bind or that veil of ‘otherness’ through which we often have to write…it will take time.

I’m starting my literature talk [with Bocas Lit Fest founder Marina Salandy-Brown] with two conversations I had with my publishers after book three and after book six. Everyone said to me, your second novel’s going to be the hard one because the first has done really well. But it was the third one that fell apart. My contract was one novel a year, and the third one took three years and at one point my publishers got really fed up and said, ‘Bring the girl to London.’ So we get there and they're asking me why I'm finding it so difficult to write the novel. Eventually one of my editors, a really nice woman, said to me, ‘Lesley, for the love of God, we cannot understand what it is that you don’t understand. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again.’ My agent, who I think felt rather sorry for me, leaned across and whispered, ‘Don’t forget, that’s exactly what the Classics were about.’ I don’t know that it made me feel any better but it did have the effect of making me less precious. But by my sixth novel, I'm back in the same boardroom for a really awkward meeting that has since become the title of a talk that I give: ‘No more than three, please.’

The cover of one of Lesley Lokko's novels. Image courtesy Lokko, used with permission.

GV: “No more than three” what?

LL: [Grins mischievously] My editor says to me, ‘Lesley, we’ve had a little chat amongst ourselves and the thing is, we love your books…I mean we just love your books’ — and I’m thinking, ‘What on earth is going to come now?’ Then she says, ‘But we really feel we’ve got to draw a line somewhere. So we’ve had a chat among ourselves and we’ve looked at everything, and what we’ve decided is that we’d really like you to stick to three. No more than three.’ I’m fairly confused at this point and I ask them, ‘No more than three what? Will you just spit it out?’ And she says, ‘No more than three black characters.’

What they were essentially saying was, ‘Look, we appreciate that in all of your novels you feel you have to have a black character, but could you just limit it? Because after all, your audience is here.’ It was one of those moments where the wind is taken out of you. Was it a marketing decision? A moral decision? An ethical one? And then — my way of being sarcastic — I said, ‘Does mixed race count?’ In the end, I don’t know that I stuck to it — some books have less, some have more — but for me, it was the beginning of the end of that fiction-writing phase because I realised that what I thought I was doing and what they thought I was doing were two completely different things. I thought that I was merging a number of different genres — chick lit, thrillers, literary fiction, historical novels, political memoirs — but, in essence, I was really only writing sex-and-shopping blockbusters that still conformed to very particular rules. So, where I thought I was bending the rules, in actual fact I was simply obeying them, give or take a black character or three. I stopped writing after eleven novels and my publishers and I parted company very amicably, but I still think they underestimated the reading public.

What's interesting for me is that I still sell really well in Italy — relative to the overall size of readership, that’s my biggest market. I sell more numbers of books in the U.K., but the U.K. has a much bigger reading audience. If you look at the Italian book covers, you’d think I’m a completely different kind of writer and the questions I get asked when I do talks in Italy I’d never get in the U.K. More importantly, the books I write don’t speak to ‘black’ issues in the way that the literary world understands them…My UK editors were lovely, but there was always a hesitation to foreground those issues or promote me as a black writer, largely because they thought I’d go into the black interest section in book stores and sell 300 copies — and I’m not even that black.

If you look at writers like Taiye Selasi or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who are black in a very different way, they’re promoted as black — or African — writers, partly because the world of literary fiction, which is very different from commercial fiction, thrives on those kinds of distinctions, and partly because their work speaks very directly — and beautifully — to questions of identity in a very contemporary way. But there’s something about people like me — not quite black enough, not quite white enough, not writing to type — I think that’s quite difficult for a publisher to deal with.

But Meghan Markle’s going to change all of that. I watched the Royal Wedding the day before I left South Africa to come on this lecture tour. It struck me that we were watching something really profound, even if we only come to see it in hindsight. I’d like to expand on that a little. If someone asks me where I’m from, I’ll always say ‘Ghana.’ I would never say ‘England’ or ‘Scotland’, even though I was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother. But asking a mixed-race person where they’re from is always a more complex question. It’s invariably followed by, ‘But where are you really from?’ or ‘Where are your parents from?’ If I were pushed, I might say, ‘Well, I’m partly British.’ Now, I studied in the U.K. in the '80s and '90s, which was a very special time. It was the beginning of Cool Brittania, especially for everyone connected to the arts. Suddenly — and I remember this very clearly — there was another identity available to those of us who weren’t English, Welsh, Scottish — at least in the white, original sense of identity. That identity was contemporary British-ness and it gave all those bits and pieces of the former empire a different, legitimate meaning, especially in London. For me, Meghan Markle’s marriage has gone the other way, right to the heart of Englishness, in a way that no one else has. I don’t know that it will change anything immediately, but, for the first time that I can recall, Englishness has been broken apart.

Perhaps breaking apart the status quo held by architecture, literature and other forms of cultural expression for so long will be the impetus for lasting change.

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