This is the place to be (book review)

As I wrote before, I like book reviews.
hey provide me with one of the most attractive aspects of my engagement with ‘communication for development’-reading interesting and innovative books that offer new perspectives on how development-related topics are presented.

When one of my colleagues invited Lara Pawson to give a lecture on her memoir This Is The Place To Be, I took the opportunity to read one of the most interesting and ‘strangest’ books of 2016.
Drawing on her experiences as a BBC correspondent in Angola and other countries in Africa, her book defies categorization; it is a memoir that contains streams of consciousness writing, reflective paragraphs on journalism and truth as well as poetic flashbacks between a ‘there’ in Angola and a ‘here’ in the middle-class ecosystem of East London:

When we lived in Hackney, I occasionally shopped at the big Tesco’s off Mare Street. One day, I was there searching for ice cream. I was depressed at the time, and the store was so big I couldn’t find the ice cream aisle. So I asked a member of staff and, as she replied, I could tell from her accent she was Angolan. So I said something to her in Portuguese. I don’t remember what happened next and I can’t remember what she said – all I remember is being swept with nostalgia and the deep urge to get back to Luanda. It was a painful ache that took days to shed.

The image of the soldier in M’banza Kongo, the one who put a bullet to his brain in the middle of the afternoon, returns again and again. When his wife arrived in the centre of the circle of people surrounding him, she screamed with so much pain it hurt to hear (p.19).
Many parts of her book follow a similar path and juxtapose mundane aspects of Lara’s life with the mundaneness of violence and war in Angola. The experiences are at the same time horrible and poetic, but there is always a limbo, whether Walthamstow, Luanda or Johannesburg is the ‘odd’ place to be.

Despite Lara’s very different approach to writing, it is interesting how common themes emerge that I have observed in other aid worker or foreign correspondent autobiographies: The realization of privilege-often experienced as mobility, the fact that you can leave a war zone and return ‘home’ to Greater London, expat lifestyle and the alienation from friends and family at ‘home’. How to deal with messiness, memory and truth in challenging environments (the war zone in Angola, not Tesco’s…). Lara also addresses issues of self-care and mental well-being – and using reflective writing as one part of her coping strategy.

Reporting on the conflicts in Angola and Ivory Coast made me aware of how difficult it is to distinguish between the imagination and what is really happening. (…) Something imagined is still something seen, isn’t it? (p.31-32).
The unbearable lightness of being
Once, I saw a woman cut in half by an articulated lorry which was carrying food aid for the UN World Food Programme. (…) But considering the binding problem, I wonder if what I say I saw was fact fill-in created by my brain. Which bit was real – the upper part of her body, or the lower part? (p.81)
One of the reason why I enjoyed Lara’s book is that it adds more and new nuances to the on-going debate on how to use non-traditional forms of writing in discussing, researching and teaching communication and development. Her book spans a nice ark from autobiographical reflections to ‘serious’ debates about the changing nature of mainstream journalism. The woman in two halves is as much a philosophical ice breaker as another ‘serious’ topic to discuss (re)presentations of events in our post-factual, post-truth world. This is the fragility that adds much needed nuances to the textbooks, edited conference proceedings and academic journal articles that still dominate our ways of writing and (mis)representing ourselves and the other.

I started reading Lara
’s book on a flight from Paris to Copenhagen, between a teaching seminar, visit to UNESCO, grading student assignments and writing another book review on humanitarian work in post-earthquake Haiti. Lara’s vignettes about leaving, arriving and the in-between seem very relatable.
So, Lara, in the end, it turns out you’re just like all the other foreign journalists. Going home, leaving us behind, having had your little adventure (p.65).

That night, another journalist said, Because of what you have dared do, I’ve realized I can do it too.

Not everyone was so generous. (…) The trouble with you, Lara, is you’re just another na├»ve white woman in Africa (p.78).
We always have more than one identity and one ‘truth’ that holds together our life ‘projects’.
Lara presents these all-too familiar tensions in her book and leaves us with the difficult task to then think for ourselves-which is always a good indicator for a book worth reading.

I am looking forward to welcoming Lara to our Communication for Development course-and I will post a link to the recorded lecture here as well! 

Pawson, Lara: This Is The Place To Be. ISBN 978-0-909585-21-8, 124pp, GBP8.99, London: CB editions, 2016.

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