Interview with Wu Ming
Wu Ming are at the moment undertaking a tour of Britain, to introduce audiences here to their unique story-telling technique and radical take on history. They agreed to talk to the Morning Star.
They have been characterised as a ‘mysterious guerrilla group of novelists’, but the two members sitting opposite me look far from mysterious and not at all warrior-like. Wu Ming 1 and Wu Ming 4 (they reject the celebrity cult built around novelists, preferring anonymity) dismiss the ‘mysterious’ tag, but don’t allow themselves to be photographed and emphasise that they dislike the idea of them and their work being mediated by others. They feel this would take away their right to have direct contact with their readers – something vitally important to them. Simply put: they want no limit placed on their public image.
What are their aims, other than to subvert the commercialised literary world, I ask. They reply, laconically, that their aim is simply to tell stories which they love doing. Yes, but your stories are not mainstream, I counter. ‘We write stories about conflict,’ they respond, ‘we look at the key turning points in history and focus on those. We are interested in modernity and how we arrived at the place in which we now find ourselves. So we are not concerned with ancient history but in the history that defines us today’.
‘We are attempting to draw a map of where our generation came from. We try to retell history from new perspectives, from uncanny angles. Thus in our novel ‘54’ we begin with a group of nightclub dancers obsessed with Cary Grant, but the novel examines the relationship between US and European politics. Our forthcoming novel, to be published in Britain shortly, is ‘Altai’ which looks at Europe’s relationship with Islam, based during the historical period of the huge clash between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe from the 13th century onwards, but written from the point of view of the Turks.’
How far are your novels fictional and how far fact-based, I ask.
Wu Ming 1 uses a vivid metaphor. ‘If you think of history as a big piece of Gruyère cheese, where the solid cheese is the history that has been documented, and the holes are the gaps in the narrative, then we squeeze our fictional elements into those holes; we try and illuminate those dark spots.’
Writing is usually a solitary and individual undertaking, so how does the Wu Ming collective work?
‘We have no fixed method,’ Wu Ming 1 tells me, ‘but a subject or period of history is suggested and, once agreed, we discuss it and then undertake an enormous amount of research so that we gain a great deal of knowledge about the subject matter we wish to examine. We begin with what we call ‘lumps’ of narrative matter and once we have enough we develop an outline fro the story. Each of us then writes a chapter which is circulated, altered, added to and changed. The first draft is very free and each of us adopts his chosen style in complete freedom, but a more homogenous style emerges as the drafts develop and evolve.’
Wu Ming describe the process as incredibly exhilarating and emancipatory. Rather than each being stuck in their own ivory tower, ‘like a prisoner in solitary confinement, we experience the joy of writing together’, they say. ‘Being on the road together, we are like kids again, enjoying the childish naivety of making up stories, but it is also hard work. There is a lot of fun, and we learn from each other, grow together. Each novel teaches us something new’.
So what’s the downside of working collectively? ‘The fact that we only get a quarter of the royalties we would get as an individual writer,’ they reply sardonically.
What is also unusual in their methods of working is that they actively promote the use of the internet to interact with their readers. They are not interested in appearing on TV talk shows or having their work mediated by others; they say the physical shared experience of interacting with their readers is vital for them. They attend more than a hundred such events each year. On their website, through their blogs and twitter they communicate with their readers and encourage the latter to get involved in the creative process. So what does that involve? ‘We get hundreds of emails each day, readers send us ideas or their own short stories and comments, even cartoons or pieces of music which they feel could complement or accompany our stories. We have also involved readers as narrators with mixed results, but now readers are doing things by themselves, ‘they say.
Wu Ming have certainly made a deep impact on the cosy world of modern literature with their unusual hybrid brand of popular novel cum historical epic. They offer a radically new perspective on history and on the art of story-telling itself. Once can only hope that British readers are as fascinated by their books as their Italian compatriots already are.
Do they really feel that their approach to novel writing can really have an impact on the commercially-dominated literary world, characterised by celebrity culture? ‘We don’t know,’ they reply, ‘but ethically we have a duty to counter the current trivialisation of everything. We feel like tightrope walkers, constantly trying to find a balance between popular fiction and more demanding literature, and it is very difficult to maintain that equilibrium.
Who is/are Wu Ming?
Wu Ming (‘anonymous’ in English) is a collective of four left wing radical Italian authors, based in Bologna. They grew out of the Luther Blisset Project (named after a black British footballer), which was, as they explain it, a ‘cultural guerrilla’ exercise. The collective’s first novel Q, was a historical spy novel set in the period of the Reformation, and became a best-seller. It is about the Radical Reformation, asking why Müntzer has inspired radicals for almost 500 years. Their third novel Manituana focuses on the US war of independence seen through the eyes of the Iroquois nation which was almost eradicated by the colonial and imperial struggles.
Wu Ming explain that their work is an attempt to demystify authorship, to subvert the cult of the celebrity author and a consumerist attitude to literature. They are also trying to bridge the gap between popular fiction and serious literature. ‘Our books,’ they say, ‘are readable on two levels: as complex political allegories, and as pulp fiction or adventure novels.’
Wu Ming encourages a ‘communitarian’ use of the internet and their official website: http://www.wumingfoundation.com/english/englishmenu.htm provides more information about them and their novels and gives links to their other sites. It enables the worlds of their novels to be enriched and expanded, offering background information and invitations for fans to make their own contributions.
Books by Wu Ming published in English so far are: Q, 54 and Manituana, all published by Verso.