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It takes mavericks to change the game

Paul Auster passed away recently, and I went back to his breakout book, The New York Trilogy, as a form of homage. The first novella begins with Daniel Quinn, a writer. Quinn uses a pseudonym, William Wilson, to write detective novels. The investigator in these novels is called Max Work. Quinn reflects that in this triad of selves that he has become, Wilson is the ventriloquist, Work is the protagonist—and Quinn himself is the dummy!

And wait, since the whole enterprise is put together by Auster, where is he? He in fact appears bizarrely in the story, playing himself. The second part of the trilogy has a man named Blue, commissioned by a man named White, to conduct surveillance on a man named Black. Both Quinn and Blue lose their minds in the bizarre investigations that ensue.

Early readers found this stuff incomprehensible, even annoying. Auster himself recounted that 17 publishers in his native New York turned this unusual work down. Eventually, a small imprint on the West Coast decided to give it a shot—and it began flying out of the bookstores.

Auster was subverting the rules of literature. The three tales were given the guise of detective noir, but they were not detective stories at all. What gripped me as a much younger person reading them was the the author’s ability to write a philosophical work about grief, identity, and delusion while using a popular and familiar literary frame, and having fun with metafiction.

In an interview with The Literary Hub in 2017, Auster said:

“Most writers are perfectly satisfied with traditional literary models and happy to produce works they feel are beautiful and true and good. I’ve always wanted to write what to me is beautiful, true, and good, but I’m also interested in inventing new ways to tell stories. I wanted to turn everything inside out. I suppose it’s a tremendously ambitious stance: not to be satisfied with conventions, to play with them sometimes, then to expose traditional norms and stretch them beyond their limits.”

This ambition to do things differently played out well for Auster, as he had a string of similarly unusual hit novels after this first one. Literary critics are divided about his legacy: some found him tremendously innovative and intriguing; others dismissed him as a trickster and a charlatan.

But I am not here to review a book. The issue to reflect on is the courage it takes to break the established rules of any area of human endeavour. Authors have done this for a long time. Miguel de Cervantes’ classic comic satire, Don Quixote, set the scene as far back as the fifteenth century. It is still enormously successful. Ford Maddox Ford introduced the unreliable narrator to the world to great effect in The Good Soldier. Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy brought the Indian subcontinent to exuberant life in their breakout novels. Gabriel García Márquez showed the world the magic realism genre of Latin America. And here in Africa, a posse of young and energetically different authors are giving voice and shape to their own societies, in their own ways.

Literature is all the better because of these writers, who change the game rather than be confined to the rules of their forebears.

And so it is in everything else. It’s the rebels who propel humanity forward. It takes mavericks who are undeterred by conventional wisdom, unmoved by the advice of their betters, unfazed by the status quo, to blaze the trails that the rest of us eventually follow. Galileo Galilei was the audacious astronomer who fought the church’s fallacious view of the universe. Marie Curie ignored the constraints of a patriarchal world to win two Nobel Prizes, the first woman to do so. Vincent Van Gogh was dismissed as a madman in his lifetime, but his bold and emotive brushwork is now celebrated and studied. Rosa Parks showed the courage that ignited the civil rights movement.

We are led into the future not by the timid play-safe crowd, but by the sceptical, the dissenters, the contrarians. Those who make their mark not by colouring within the lines shown to them, but by tearing up the old canvas.

Sometimes, it takes an entire generation to change the game. Right now across the world, our first digital-native cohort of humans, Generation Z, is busy shaking everything up. As these youngsters enter adulthood, they are sceptical of all the norms their predecessors adhered to. They dress differently, work differently, engage differently. They have little time for protocol and decorum.

In Kenya right now, they have upended political discourse. They have used their tech smarts, their overwhelming numbers, and their youthful exuberance to change the way the citizenry interacts with its political leaders. Where will this lead us? As I write this, it is very difficult to call an outcome, as their initially peaceful protests seem have to been hijacked by all manner of bad actors.

But one thing is for sure: the tone and tenor of the conversation will be different from now on. Where prior generations acquiesced timidly in the face of political shenanigans and unbridled corruption, this one demands change, vociferously. A maverick force has entered the field. May wisdom and comprehension, empathy and emotional intelligence, guide whatever happens next.

(Sunday Nation, 7 July 2024)

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