Boyd Tonkin: Fling open the literary frontiers

The week in books

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Congratulations to Christie Watson, a part-time paediatric nurse at Great Ormond Street hospital - and graduate of that literary Fame Academy, the creative-writing MA at UEA in Norwich. This week she won the Costa first-novel award for her debut, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. The book, which I recommend, drew warm praise for its tough-minded but tender-hearted portrayal of life in the Niger Delta from several African authors; and the blurb on her paperback jacket nods to her "dual heritage, multi-faith family" in London. She's not Nigerian herself; any more than Stephen Kelman, author of the Man Booker-shortlisted Pigeon English, shares a background with the Ghanaian migrant child who tells his tale.

In 2012, it feels distinctly embarrassing to drag up what should by now be an utterly defunct question. But, late last year, the prominence given to these two books led to a faint ripple of anxiety in some quarters about the ownership – and narration – of other people's stories. Yes, I know: every serious writer runs a mile from the idea that fiction exists merely to represent the experience of some community to which its author supposedly belongs. Surely we dumped that stifling and sanctimonious nonsense along with the identity politics of the 1980s? Besides, by the time that any writer comes to publish a novel, they will have passed through a number of different cultures, for any of which – or none – they may choose to speak. Other things being equal, novelists always have to go wherever their inspiration and imagination leads.

But other things, as we know, are not equal. So let's turn this debate on its head. Novelists from here should carry on striving to inhabit minds, and worlds, which they do not share and may not even need to visit. (Stef Penney fashioned a fabulous snowbound Canada in The Tenderness of Wolves, her Costa winner, but she hadn't ever gone there.) Every author has the absolute right to imagine and express the life of anyone, anywhere, at any time. Simple enough? Fine: but that edict ought to cut both ways. As yet, it does not.

Too many publishers still expect debut authors who either come from beyond the shores of Europe and Northern America, or descend from folk who did, to speak not for themselves but for a category. On both sides of the Atlantic, the literary circus still features that wince-inducing act of the hyphenated-American (or British) debutant who by some mystic process embodies the essence of a lesser-spotted "ethnic" group.

Perhaps unconsciously, many patronising assumptions endure. So insider authors have the authority to write as one-off individualists and mavericks; or else to capture our common social, or human, condition. Outsiders – at least in their early works – ought rather to report on local customs like trusty native informants.

I can grasp the dilemma, for literary newcomers as much as for those who steer their careers. A talented young author from Togo or Tuvalu may believe that the world at large hears too little from their home turf (or their parents'), and should know more. Sympathetic curiosity about far-flung places and remote people can have its virtues, too. Ultimately, though, such an impulse belongs more to anthropology than to literature. All good novelists, whatever their origins, deserve to be granted the same universal remit.

A writer I know who lives in Delhi once alarmed his European publishers because he planned to write not about India but Bulgaria - and did, most originally. Let's banish all such straitjackets. By definition, worthwhile fiction encourages us to think outside the boxes. And it's no business of publishers to keep their precious assets confined in one.

So we should look forward to many more novels by English (or maybe, "Anglo-English") authors set in Africa, Asia – or Antarctica, for that matter. Equally, let's hope that the next great country-house epic may spring from the keyboard of someone whose own roots lie closer to Sindh than Somerset. The same goes for popular genres. Thanks to the likes of Dorothy Koomson and Lesley Lokko, British romance looks more diverse than it once did. And why shouldn't the next best-selling creator of rustic murder mysteries in vicarage or village hail from Krakow or Khartoum? On the page, all borders must stay open.

Decoding Morse's literary clues

Endeavour Morse is a cultured sort of cop, we know, but writer Russell Lewis really pushed the literary boat out in the prequel screened on Monday. When the young detective constable (played by Shaun Evans) checked into his Oxford digs, he took a room once occupied by "Mr Bleaney" – the lonely nobody with "one hired box" in Philip Larkin's poem. Morse's fellow lodgers went by the names of Goldberg and McCann – the menacing duo in The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter (right). Beyond bookish nods, the plot turned on crossword clues from Matthew Arnold's "The Scholar-Gipsy". If Endeavour leads to a young-Morse series, will ITV hand out footnotes in advance?

Unlikely companions of honour

The poet Geoffrey Hill, knighted in the new year's honours list, has spent much of a majestic career lamenting in knottily fervent verse and prose the decay of English art and life. Irony of ironies: he shared the same honour, on the same day, with Peter Bazalgette, begetter of Big Brother, mogul of reality TV, and the epitome of every tendency that Hill has so mightily deplored. Should both Sir Geoffrey and Sir Peter turn up at the Palace for the same ceremony, I shall envy the flies on the wall – and the footmen at the door. Hill may sound, often enough, crabbed, cantankerous, rebarbative – but the fierce regrets of this Midlands copper's son stem from a noble dream of a vanished common culture. It's Bazalgette, I would argue, who counts as the true "elitist" of this pair: the smooth operator who makes millions out of freak-show formulae. Hill is also capable of sublime and straightforward beauty. Sample his Selected Poems (from Penguin) rather than tune in to yet another Bazalgette-brand cosh to the soul.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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