Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Behold! The Dark Continent!

Via Ta-Nehisi Coates, this piece from Granta gives the lowdown on how to REALLY write about Africa:
Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.
Pretty sage advice.

Snark aside, it does highlight something I'm currently wrestling with, as I continue to work on this: how do you write about Africa? Do you write about it at all or just tell the story you're telling? How do you approach the complicated legacy and tangled connections we have to that place? It's one of the things I want to unravel in my work, because I want to unravel it in my life. Figuring out where to start is key. And, to be honest, the piece in Granta helps. It helps to remember that it's a large, complex, complicated place and there is no one story of Africa, no one legacy to wrestle with. I can pick at my little part of it and see where it takes me.

Just as long as I leave out the monkey brains.


joshcon80 said...

Africans are magical. At least as magical as Native Americans.

99 said...

They are each full of the wisdom of the ages. Even if they're ten years old.

Though they're not as wise as Asian men. Or as inscrutable.

Tony Adams said...

Do you read any African writers? (or more precisely, writers from the part of Africa you want to write about?) Talk to immigrants from that part of Africa?

That would be the best guide I can think of.

99 said...

On the serious tip, that's next. I'm reading a book or two about the country I want to use as my jumping off point and then I plan to try to meet an immigrant or two. I haven't looked up native writers yet, but I'm hoping my research will point the way.

Tony Adams said...

What country are you thinking of?

cgeye said...

Well, shit, one solution's staring us in the face:

We don't write about Europe as if it's a nation, do we?

Not even Eastern Europe (outside Vlad the Impaler/HOSTEL/mail-order bride stereotypes) is painted with that broad a brush.

What if we break down experience at least by country, which means looking at the specific colonial relationship indigenous people (and ya see how that blands out the experiences of several groups arbitrarily pushed into one nation, by using the term 'indigenous'?) had with their European state, and how that still affects them? If we do that for Americans, we at least begin digging at our class neuroses, right?

"Africa" is a handy-dandy container those in power want us to use, because if we keep our view that general, we don't look at specific historical exploitations. Be specific; that helps.

George Hunka said...

If it's not completely out of the question, a visit to the country would be essential, I think. I spent a few weeks in Mombasa several years ago, visiting health clinics for the indigent, and all of the reading I did was (among the best of it was Shiva Naipaul's "North of South," about Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia) no substitute for the experience itself. Even with that, I would be loathe to generalize about the experience or the "meaning" of Africa or Kenyans based on that visit. The continent is just too large, the experience of its inhabitants far too different; any continent which contains both South Africa and Egypt, both Ethiopia and Kenya, both Algeria and Uganda beggars the imagination. As you note.

Travis Bedard said...

The best writing that spared me the magical African was actually a friend who was in Botswana for the Peace Corp http://botswanajess.blogspot.com/

Mark S. said...

In all this, I hope we don't stray too too far from something I think is key--we don't write about countries, continents or nations, we write about people. There's no use writing a play about Africa. But a character who is African, who participates in the life of a particular nation in Africa, in a particular place in that nation, who has particular desires, goals, and a sense of how to accomplish them, who is surrounded by particular people who also have particular needs and desires which may be in conflict with each other...that's the fundmantal stuff of the human adventure.

That's probably a very obvious thing to write, but...I know I often overlook the most obvious things and frequently need to remind myself of them! Probably related to my increasing dotage.