OUTSIDELEFT: Hey Will Buckingham, thanks for chatting to us. Your book Stealing With the Eyes is published by Haus Publishing in the UK and is described by Tim Hannigan as ‘a remarkable meditation on the uneasy business of travelling to foreign lands in search of stories’. A reasonably long time elapsed between your initial anthropological visit to the Tanimbar Islands in Indonesia and the time you picked up the pen again, as it were. What made you want to revisit this time in your life?
WILL BUCKINGHAM: A pleasure! Thank you for inviting me. ‘A reasonably long time’ is something of an understatement. It has been almost a quarter of a century. I went to Tanimbar between 1994 and 1995. I was a trainee anthropologist fresh out from my degree in art, and was in Tanimbar to study the work of traditional sculptors. I was young, inexperienced and breathtakingly naive. Stealing With the Eyes is built around portraits of three artists I met in Tanimbar: Matias Fatruan, Abraham Amelwatin and Damianus Masele: it is about my encounters with these three men, but it is also about this naivety, about the unsettling strangeness of anthropology, about memory and responsibility, and about how my time in Tanimbar was to shape the next quarter decade of my life.
When I came back from Tanimbar, I was plagued by recurrent fevers, and increasingly uneasy with the queasy enterprise that is anthropology. Nevertheless, I enrolled on an MA and then a PhD. At the same time, I started to write a travel book about my time in Tanimbar. I think that was I was grappling with was the deep suspicion that my presence in Tanimbar had, in many ways, made people’s lives worse, that turning up and poking my nose into everybody’s business may have been a burden.
The fevers had started whilst I was in Tanimbar, and were attributed by some of my Tanimbarese friends to a troublesome octopus lodged in my stomach. Eventually my attempts at a travel book fizzled out, and soon after my PhD collapsed in a combination of fever and existential bewilderment. I spent the first summer after starting my PhD lying on the sofa, pouring with sweat, unable to do anything at all, only leaving the sofa to visit the increasingly baffled tropical medicine unit. Looking back, I suppose it was some kind of breakdown. Anyway, after several months, I decided to quit the PhD; and as soon as I made the decision, the fever passed. It was very strange. If I was Tanimbarese, I would have attributed it all to witchcraft, or to some kind of punishment for angering the ancestors. As I wasn’t Tanimbarese, I didn’t really know what to make of it.
It was years before I really managed to pick myself back up again. And Tanimbar continued to reverberate for me. I had a sense of unfinished business, of ongoing obligations. I dreamed about Tanimbar a lot: it clearly had some kind of ongoing hold on my mind and my imagination. So when, some four or five years back, I decided at last to write the book, I think it was because I wanted to lay Tanimbar to rest. In the end, when I sat down to write Stealing With the Eyes, it was a kind of exorcism...
OL: The book is described as travel, anthropology but felt like more than that to us. You’ve had all sorts of different genres of work published -- where would you say your natural affinity lies as a writer? Are you multi-talented or just a bit distractible?
WILL: I’ll confess I’m not sure quite what genre the book is. I like big, unwieldy projects that don’t fit neatly into pre-defined categories. There’s a lot of ethnography in there, some travel writing and some sizeable doses of philosophy (I eventually retrained – to the extent that I am trainable at all – by taking a PhD in philosophy). There are also far more stories about shit and shitting than might be considered reasonable or respectable: babies made from shit, the great culture hero Atuf turning to stone as he defecates on a miraculous island of mango trees, the havoc wreaked on my bowels by that stomach octopus...
But what gives the book a sense of unity, if anything, is the place itself: the Tanimbar islands. Places don’t conform to the norms of literary genres. To really write about them faithfully, sometimes you need to break with these norms, or else to pretend that they don’t exist. This said, the difficulty I have in pinning things down to any one genre is not something unique to this book. It afflicts me in all my work. I write children’s books, fiction/non-fiction hybrids, novels, philosophy books… And sometimes I’m a little jealous of those writers who just do one thing, who know who they are, who have strong personal brands. I don’t know what the thing that I do really is, I don’t have a brand, and I’ve never been entirely sure who I am.
This isn’t the same as being distractible. When I write, I’m pretty single-minded in that I’m always wanting to go somewhere (otherwise, why write?). But I’m never quite sure where that somewhere is. My natural affinity, if I have such a thing, lies in this slightly restless desire to poke around, to cross between genres, and to find new forms for the things I am interested in exploring. Although I’m not particularly into books that are self-consciously ‘experimental’, I like to think that all books are, to some extent, experiments.
OL: We loved the conversation with the carver, I think it was Matias Fatruan, where he says -- look, you can afford to come here to study me, but I couldn’t afford to be sitting in your house in England -- thereby calling out the inequity of the relationship. Is there always that kind of power relationship in ‘the looking’? Did the people in the book, like Matias, ever get to see it-- I wonder what they will think?
WILL: Matias was remarkably astute. It was Matias who told me that I was in Tanimbar to ‘steal with the eyes’ (curi mata, in Indonesian). And I realised that this charge was pretty much impossible to counter, because it was true. Anthropologists these days are wrestle with these issues much more openly than they did a couple of decades ago, and this is all to the good; but writing about others is, and will always remain, a difficult and ethically fraught process – particularly when there are such big power imbalances.
The interesting thing these days, of course, is that those about whom you write as a travel writer or as an anthropologist are very likely to end up reading what you have written and holding you to account. Bearing this in mind is a good discipline. And whilst nobody in Tanimbar has seen the book yet – it is only just published – I am sure they will. At least one of the sculptors in the book, Damianus Masele, is still alive and working. What would he make of it?
Next year, I am possibly returning to Southeast Asia, so it is not impossible that I might end up in Tanimbar. The thought of going back is both terrifying and strangely attractive. If I do go back, I have no idea at all whether the book will be broadly welcomed, whether I will be shunned, or whether I will be murdered in my bed. Perhaps all of these things. Whatever the case, I do feel a certain responsibility to close the circle, and return the book to those who inspired it, and to see what they make of it.
OL: There’s a lot of mention of food and drink in the book... What dish would you make for us on our anthropological visit to Leicester?
WILL: I hadn’t realised that, but I suppose you are right: palm-wine, courgette cakes, ridiculous quantities of eggs, dog-meat… Food, I think, goes to the heart of our human relationships, and this is one reason that I’m hugely interested in it. For me, one of the chief pleasures in life is cooking for other people. When you say “what dish would you make for us?”, it is not clear how many I will be catering for. Are there three of four of you, or are there hundreds? But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you are all welcome. What would you like to eat? I’m willing to take orders. I’m good at pastry, so perhaps you’d like some kind of quiche, pie or tart? I’m also working on a novel way of cooking couscous, which I can recommend.
OL: You kinda lived the dream when your children’s book The Snorgh and The Sailor was named as ‘outstanding’ by children’s author royalty, Julia Donaldson...What was that like? And what was your favorite bedtime story as a child?
WILL: I think that this happened purely by accident: Julia was visiting my editor at Scholastic, and the page proofs were sitting open on my editor’s desk. Julia liked the book, and agreed to say something about it.
It was of course lovely to get this endorsement, and I’m sure it helped drive sales a little when it came out. Is that living the dream? I’m not sure. But in general, writing children’s books is a delightful pursuit, because your readers don’t just read, they often also go on to do creative things of their own, based on the book that they have read. The Snorgh in particular has provided all kinds of unexpected pleasures. A couple of years ago, I saw a video on Youtube of a reading of the Snorgh in a Finnish library. The Snorgh (Ronttu, he is called in Finnish) was played by a Finnish librarian who was not so much reading about him as shamanically channelling him, dressed in what seemed like a wig made of seaweed. Now that is what I call living the dream.
My favourite bedtime story as a child was a picture book the name of which escapes me. It was about bison: I got it out of the library over and over again. The artwork was beautiful: washes of mottled brown watercolour that magically conjured up not just the herds of bison, but also – it seemed to me – even their smell. There was something about the book that was both incredibly beautiful, and also curiously melancholic. I’d love to track down that book again.
OL: As well as being a multilingual author i know you like a good sing song with your piano...I thought I was pretty cool when I started my music collection with an Everly Brothers cassette at Southgate Mall back in the 80’s….what was the first album you ever bought? What format was it?
WILL: My first album? This question could destroy my good name; but as you have confessed to the Everly Brothers, I feel emboldened, and will stick rigorously to the truth. It was Shakin’ Stevens’s Give Me Your Heart Tonight, on vinyl. The cover had an image of Shaky, soulful and sophisticated in his dinner jacket. I am not particularly proud of this, but it is the truth.
As for the piano, I play most days, and I sing loudly only when I think that nobody else is around. I have a terrible singing voice.
OL: At what point in your life did you start to think of yourself as a writer?
WILL: Whilst I was in Tanimbar. I was speaking Indonesian pretty much all the time, and I really missed the relationship I had with English, that depth of connection that you can only have with a language you have grown up with. So I borrowed an old manual typewriter from the Dutch priest who lived nearby, and I set to work writing stories. By the time I returned from the Tanimbar islands, I knew that I wanted to write, and to go on writing, even if I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write.
OL: You can speak several languages I think -- What's the best phrase you've picked up in another language?
WILL: I speak reasonable Chinese and a smattering of French. My Indonesian is pretty rusty, and I have more recently made some valiant but not wholly successful attempts on the Burmese language.
As for my favourite phrase, I am continually frustrated that there is no English equivalent of the indispensable Chinese exhortation jia you (??), which literally means ‘top up the gas’, and which can be used for everything from cheering on marathon runners to solicitously giving encouragement to a friend in the depths of despair.
OL: You’ve stopped teaching Creative Writing for the moment I believe -- is that right and what effect has that had on your writing? Are you flourishing or are you bingeing on Netflix and lowbrow plane reads?
WILL: I’m still doing bits and pieces of teaching. I’m running workshops over the next few weeks in both here in the UK and in Bulgaria, and I have a number of students who I’m teaching through the Open College of the Arts. I’m also putting things in place to do quite a lot more in various parts of the world over the coming twelve months.
Teaching is something I love, and something that, for me at least, complements writing: at root both writing and teaching are exercises in human communication. Having said this, I left my permanent university post eighteen months ago. After the best part of a decade, I became fed up with universities and their incurable obsession with ‘excellence’ in all things. It is a species of collective madness. And the path of excellence, experience shows, is neither the most excellent nor the most interesting path.
Life is more interesting now than it was under those regimes of excellence. Any loss of income or respectability resulting from my leaving this post has been amply compensated for by the sheer interestingness of life these days.
OL: Finally, can you tell us about any plans for new projects?
WILL: There are too many of them, as ever. I’m working on a series of strange, sad and poetic picture books along with my friend and collaborator, the writer Hannah Stevens. I have no idea how these will go down with publishers, as they don’t feature underpants, dinosaurs or pirates. This will probably cause consternation in the sales and marketing departments (as an aside, the only time I ever met Julia Donaldson in person, she was raging against the obsession children’s publishers have with underpants...).
There are several other things in the works as well. My current big project is a proposal for a nonfiction book. I’ve been bouncing this back and forth with my agent for a few months (she is very exacting), and we’re almost there. I won’t say any more about the project at this stage, as I want to keep things under wraps until the proposal is finished. There’s a more academic book that I hope to write, a writing manual based on the sixth century Chinese text, ‘The Carving of Dragons and the Literary Mind’. There’s a speculative proposal out and doing the rounds for that one. And for years I’ve been planning write a field guide to tiny gods. I have no idea why I want to do this, or who would ever publish such a thing, but it is a project close to my heart.
I tend to have a ridiculous number of projects running in parallel, with each of them often taking years and years to come to fruition. This was the case with Stealing With the Eyes, and it has been the case with most of my other books too. I trust that somewhere in all of this frenetic activity this there is a bigger picture, that some kind of pattern or shape is emerging. But I’m too much in the thick of things – and life is just too damn interesting – to be able to step back and ask what this pattern is, or whether in the final analysis it is something monstrous or something beautiful.