An Interview with Lara Pawson

Lara Pawson’s This is the Place to Be is an autobiography told in stark fragments of memory. Detailing her experiences of a childhood in England and her time spent covering civil wars in Angola and the Ivory Coast, it presents “an intimate mosaic of lived experiences”. Pawson lives in East London. This is her second book.

What made you want to write the book?

I didn’t set out to write a book! I was invited to participate in the London International Festival of Theatre by Tim Etchells, around the theme of war. I’d never written for performance before but I was sent Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait, Je me souviens by Georges Perec, of the OuLiPo group, and a work by Joe Brainard, the American avant-garde poet. These works were about memory and biography. Having read the three texts, I opened a new document and started writing, thinking about my experiences of witnessing war. After about five days, I had about 20,000 words, which was performed as a sound installation at the Battersea Arts Centre. That was then expanded into the book.

As a reporter, you worked to bring foreign affairs to a public audience – often, there were very personal stories. In this book, you bring your own personal experience to a public audience, in some cases searingly personal experiences. How did that affect the way you wrote it? Did it feel confessional?

The pieces by Levé, Perrec and Raynard are themselves very personal. I found myself thinking about my life and I was very struck by two things. First, I was struck by how much my thoughts about what I had witnessed in the wars filtered into my own life here: I constantly saw things that would trigger memories of things seen in the heart of conflict. Secondly, I started to think about how memory worked. If there was a project for the book, it was not so much to reproduce memory but to put memory on the page. Memory doesn’t function as a tidy narrative: when you remember things, you remember little snippets. They are fragments, intermingled with other snippets from your life. This book is only 46,000 words; it could have been 460,000, because memories are endless.

The book discusses a number of themes, including gender and war and peace. What was the motivation behind this?

There were a lot of binary oppositions which I wanted to break down: of the ‘here’ and ‘there’ applied to the geographical separation of Africa and Europe; stability and instability; war and peace. Although I’d lived in war-torn places, I was aware that I’d also experienced a lot of violence in peaceful places, like the UK. In fact, while living in countries with war, I’d experienced a lot of peace. I was interested in the overlap between what we understand to be violence and peace. I also thought about gender, about male/female binaries, and the fact that I’ve spent a lot of my life being mistaken for a man. These thoughts had considerable overlap.

This brings us to the structure of the book. There is a complex, unbroken web of association and memory throughout the book, recalling work by Joseph Heller or, to go further back, Proust, particular names, places, sounds and smells provoke recollection. The structure provides the sense of a life, but a life in fragments. Is that how you see it?

That’s how I see it now. When I was writing it, I established a set of rules. One was that I would not edit a sentence once it was written; it could be moved, but not edited. Whenever another memory pertinent to the subject occurred to me, I’d write it down. I forced myself to follow the order of that associative process. The book is a very uncensored piece of work; there were times when I thought: “My God. I can’t believe that I’m leaving this on the page.” I was trying to write as freely and candidly as I possibly could: the circularity of the fragments literally follows how my mind was working.

I’d like to address the concept of objectivity, which you discuss in the book. When you’re working for the BBC, the “O word” hangs over you like the sword of Damocles. Can you explain how and why you came to the view that objectivity is not a useful aim?

I definitely did believe in objectivity as a goal, or at least the BBC idea that you should represent every side of the story: when covering the Angolan civil war for example, you would speak to the ruling MPLA party and to the Unita rebels. However, when I recall reading Max Weber as a student, he said that objectivity was impossible, because knowing all perspectives was impossible. What you have to do is gather as much of the evidence as humanly possible, to represent as full a picture as you possibly can. Objectivity is quite a limited concept and objective, therefore, because you can’t be omniscient. Living in a country affected by war, I realised that goal was unattainable. When you speak to people about their recollections of a conflict, even a particular event within a conflict, you will get very different views – none of which may be the full truth.

The other part of that question is how useful is it to be objective. Of course, we want to give as full an account as possible. However, having reported from the African continent, I felt that nobody cared: nobody that I met really had a clue about what was going on. These attempts at dry reporting – often clichéd and formulaic – weren’t going to get people interested in far-off places. To give objective reports doesn’t seem to garner people’s interest; it certainly doesn’t change people’s views so that we live in a better or more peaceful world. My response was to abandon journalism altogether. It has its place but I felt I was achieving nothing other than feeding into an established narrative of world politics: I wanted to explore other ways of representing the world around us.

Josh Kimblin writes for Varsity and is studying History at Christ’s College Cambridge.

The winner of the Gordon Burn Prize will be announced at Durham Book Festival on Thursday, 12 October 2017.