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Architecture of the Page

A blank page is put before you. Design it, someone tells you. You’ve been mistaken for an architect.

You protest. I am a writer. I write things on blank surfaces–a piece of paper, a computer screen . I don’t do designing.

Sure you write on blank surfaces, but a surface, blank or not, is a type of space. As a writer you do things with and to space. How are you different from an architect?  Do you know about a French writer called Maurice Blanchot?

You nod timidly. You’ve heard the name whispered in dubious circles. Try as you may, you were never been able to wrap him around your head.

In  The Work of Fire,  Blanchot talks about “the architecture of the page.” What do you think Blanchot is trying to say? Can you do something similar? Can you design this blank page in front of you? We are not asking you to be an architect of buildings but of pages.

You’ve been successfully trapped. There is no way out now. Either you explain what Blanchot means by “the architecture of the page,” which we all know you can’t. Or do it.  Design a page like an architect would a building.  But this you likewise cannot do. Then again you are a writer. You know a thing or two about the dishonest world of literary practitioners. When you find yourself in a pickle, you simply string words together in a meaningless but rhythmic order. Like madmen do. So you give it a try:

“A blank page is not like other surfaces. And the content of a page–language–is very strange. You might think that a page contains the language or the words written on it. But it is the other way round. The page is contained in the words it carries. It is a case of the content containing the container. Am I going too fast? A basic question will help. If a page is a kind of space, who inhabits this space? Who has patrimony, ownership over this space? Is it the words, the writer who puts down the words, or the reader who reads them? let’s say it’s all of the above.  In that case, a page is crowded and always poor in space. Kind of like leaving in a small room with people you do not know and cannot stand. A lot of prodding, shoving, falling, pushing and slipping goes on in this tight space. And all the  anxiety, suspicion, and fear. A page is a claustrophobic thing.

Letters and punctuations are vying for space. The struggle is to stay within the margins. The desire is to be noticed by the reading eye.  Even when the page is blank, there are fights among unborn words, dreaming of being called to life by the tap of the writer’s keyboard. Even the writer’s mind is never a room of his or her own. It’s always littered with objects. And then when writing eventually happens, everything is squished within a closed margin.  No where to wander or just get lost. Then the reader comes around. But he is not alone. He is flanked on both sides by an entourage of beliefs, assumptions, prejudices, blinkers, desires, etc.  So you have all three–book, writer, and reader–groping their way through language but finding there’s no wiggle room.”

Photo Credit: Southern Accent

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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