Nesrine Malik, who grew up in Sudan, Kenya and Egypt, surveys the African writing embraced by the current literary scene. She mounts a devastating critique of Western appetites for books made to “mzungu” specifications and asks how writers might evade the clutches of both “native” essentialism and Afropolitan posturing.
For a writer of ethnic origin (or writer of colour, or the more pejorative “native informant”), one of the hardest lines to tread is that between making good use of the material one’s heritage provides and exploiting it to feed the mainstream western taste for eyewitness accounts of exotica. African writing frequently falls victim to this orientalism. A literature that began with a fierce inward look at the African continent during its painful postcolonial teething in the ’50s and ’60s has shown signs more recently of being written with one eye outwards, hoping for more western readers and perhaps even a nomination for a “mzungu prize”.
Mzungu is the Swahili word for white man, and the Kenyan writer Parselelo Kantai coined the term for awards such as the Caine Prize, dedicated to African writing. “Ah, the tyranny of the mzungu prizes!” he exclaimed to the London Review of Books. The problem with writing for overseas readers, Kantai says, is that “you’re constantly having to introduce yourself and your world” like some “literary tour guide”. African writers have indeed been appointed (or have appointed themselves) as witnesses to the African experience, but are they reliable narrators? Broadly speaking, those who have “made it” – that is, pocketed a mzungu prize, placed on a list, had a serialisation on Radio 4 – have either offered predictable visions of African countries filled with misogyny, war and wise old patriarchs, or have seemed almost offensively apologetic, keen to prove that Africans can be “Afropolitans”, just like you, the white reader.
The latest instalment in this “Afropolitan” category is Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. A debut novel that landed Selasi a place on Granta’s “20 under 40”, it appears to have been published purely on the strength of its ambition and its author’s pedigree – half Nigerian, half Ghanaian, but schooled in the US and UK and tutored by Toni Morrison. It is a long, overwritten, self-indulgent work that probably goes down a treat as a conversation piece at middle-class dinner parties in London, Paris and New York, where the hosts absolutely know that Africans are cool: some of their best friends are African. Meanwhile, African readers in the diaspora are no doubt relieved that at least it’s not about famine and war.
The novel has a rather telling origin story. On a quest she has since described in the Guardian, Selasi returns to Africa (well, “returns” implies that she had actually lived there – she goes to Africa) armed with her Yale and Oxford degrees, and finds a paradise of sophistication:
In Ouaga I danced until 5am at Allapalooza, a western-themed club, watched movies at a feminist film festival, wandered a sculpture park in the desert. Adama, our charming host, was an Afropolitan of the highest order: a Muslim musician with a Viennese wife, studying German at the Goethe Institute, uninterested in living anywhere else apart from Burkina Faso. Togo was a seaside treat: like Malibu with motorini, miles and miles of white-sand beach and perfect rows of palm trees. Thursday at midnight, we stood on that beach with hundreds of super-cool Togolese hipsters, assembled for the weekly late-night car tricks show and drag race. Cotonou was magic, too: I learned to sail in a hidden lagoon, swilled Eku (Afro-Bavarian beer) at Saloon, a riverfront bar. But the hometown – Accra – was the real revelation, what with its International Salsa Congress, midnight swimming at La Villa Hotel, guitarist Serwaa Okudzeto.
Her book, Selasi says, was inspired by “shame”. She has a traumatic experience in Jamaica at “the whitest wedding in the world”, that of her fellow Yale alumni (Yale and Oxford come up with egregious frequency in Selasi’s story, as the word “verdant” does in her novel, lest we forget that Africa is lush and green). There she realises that she is ashamed of her father’s multiple marriages, and embarks on a trip to reclaim Africa.
Ghana Must Go attempts to explore the experiences and tensions faced by the new Africans, those who have come back from the diaspora bringing western cosmopolitanism with them. It tells the story of an immigrant family, all brilliant and prosperous in the west, who return to Ghana after the death of their father, a man from a generation that bridged the gap between African tribal life and western academic and professional success. This is a book prompted by the cry: “Why do they think we’re so backward?”, and it appeals to a class solidarity between affluent, talented youth everywhere.
Unfortunately, there is an appetite for this sort of thing among western publishing houses, so much so that, as Nell Freudenberger politely put it in the New York Times, this book was rushed through for publication before it was ready. The children of the African diaspora have come of age and their stories are ripe for the telling, but Selasi’s novel is a colossal missed opportunity: by framing her narrative through western perceptions, she falls into the old trap of letting non-Africans dictate the terms. In its style, too, the book betrays an occident-pleasing neediness. Selasi has a habit of.
Very short or.
Elsewhere, there is a whiff of desperation about the book’s extravagant prose, which betrays a lack of confidence or maturity. Sathnam Sanghera, a British Asian author with two books under his belt, told me that in his experience, high-profile US and UK publishing houses prefer a high literary style, as their customers expect lofty language, turning up their noses at anything too accessible. Thus the simplest of parables is often gaudily embellished in a way that does not serve the story.
There are dangers at the other end of the spectrum too. Compare Selasi’s flowery prose with that of another mzungu favourite, Nuruddin Farah (Neustadt Prize for Literature), a writer Nadine Gordimer has pronounced one of the continent’s “real interpreters”. His books tackle war, death, child soldiers, female genital mutilation – he is immersed in his native Somalia and its problems, which he presents without undue polish. Yet the result is almost a pastiche of African writing. Perhaps Farah’s greatest weakness is his insistence on writing in English. His refusal to write in his native tongue and have the work translated suggests a fear of being stranded, irrelevant, without a direct link to English-speaking readers. As it is, he peppers his work with self-consciously African metaphors (“the day seemed as dull-eyed as a young elephant mourning the death of its family”), relentlessly signposting the novel’s exotic atmosphere at the expense of its storytelling.
It is hard to resist comparing his style to that of Achebe’s African Trilogy, which uses simple prose and unforced metaphors to immerse the reader in village life. Likewise Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who in the 1970s embarked on a project to demystify the theatre and make it accessible to ordinary people. It was a time when African countries and their intelligentsia were grappling with identity crises after independence, when authors wrote for themselves, to make sense of their new nations, as much as they did for a foreign audience. Of course, only a handful “crossed over”, and both Ngũgĩ and Achebe at different times expressed bitterness over the fact that a writer needed a non-African audience in order to achieve real success. Ngũgĩ, indeed, went further, returning to his native Kikuyu as a necessary step in “decolonising the mind”.
The slide towards market-courting acrobatics is, as much as anything, a problem of epoch. In Africa, independence has been achieved, the tales of colonialism have faded and been eclipsed by matters less urgent and harder to define: poverty, corruption, political instability, brain drain. These problems are not easy to encapsulate or pin down to a single cause. Modern African writers have a double burden: they must parse and deconstruct local complexities even as they feel obliged to offer a clear diagnosis of Africa’s problems. The result, often, is simplistic while claiming to be nuanced.
Of course, the hyper-awareness of the gallery is also a scourge of modern publishing in general. During the 1970s there was a certain innocence – a slower, less smooth machinery of selection, publication and publicity. It is hard to remain aloof from the demands of agents, publishers and readers now that technology has rendered the novel one more commodity to be pushed in a busy marketplace. Today, books are available for sale before they have been published. Before a single copy has hit the stands, their authors have toured, tweeted, talked about them; they have already been branded and packaged and promoted. The past couple of years have even witnessed the rise of the online video “trailer” for books.
For the African writer, though, market pressures are worsened by the realities of language and especially the comparative affluence of English-speaking readers. Authors who write in their native tongues for local readers frequently struggle to get published in their homeland. They must succeed abroad in order to gain exposure at home, and whereas once that was a means to an end, it now increasingly becomes an end in itself.
In their essay “Fiction from Africa in English”, Brian J. Worsfold and Maria Vidal Grau note that “most publications in English by African writers are not targeted at national readerships in Africa, but at global readerships.
The works of African writers in English are usually published by international publishing companies, a situation which, although regretted by some writers, is the only way for writers from Africa to survive on incomes from their literary works. Local or national readerships are not sufficiently large as to enable a writer or publishing house to exist financially, with certain noteworthy exceptions such as Zimbabwe Publishing House, East African Publishing House (Kenya), Tana Press (Nigeria) and Vivlia Publishers and Booksellers (South Africa).” It may well be that there are a thousand Midaq Alleys, or Things Fall Aparts in native languages, languishing unpublished or, worse, unwritten, because the authors have no avenues open to them.
It matters whom writers feel able or obliged to address, because, yes, there is a difference between what Africans want to read and what non-Africans want to read about them. There is a palpable distinction between books written for a native audience and those aimed at others. Too much “colour”, an amplified pathos, a sexing up of the banal – all this can alienate an indigenous reader. Indeed, as Freudenberger tellingly observes in the New York Times: “Selasi’s project” involves “particularising the African experience for a Western audience... showing the many different Africas that exist alongside the grim newspaper stereotypes”.
What I as a Sudanese want to read about Sudan differs from what interests non-Sudanese readers. Leila Aboulela (Caine Prize for African Writing), certainly a Sudanese writer one can take seriously, still falls short. I would prefer to read about everyday life without endless descriptions of ornate clothing, hair braiding or clay drinking vessels and without a fetishising of spirituality and Islam. But perhaps it is unfair to expect that from writers who must modify their work to suit a wider public.
The tyranny of the mzungu prize is also arguably a phenomenon of postcolonialism: as far as western readers are concerned, it seems, Africans are either to be gawped at with a handkerchief to the nose, in queasy awe at the nobility of pain and poverty, or to be rescued from the swamp and transformed into salsa-dancing, Ivy League facsimiles of the white man. To criticise this tendency is not to make some trite and romantic demand for “authenticity”: it would be patronising and fetishistic in itself to put such an onus on all African writing. It is the very claim of authenticity, of bearing witness to some deeper African truth, that chafes and should be challenged. That way lie the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has made a career of telling the West what it wants to hear, while dangerously misrepresenting Muslim Africa and the Muslim world in general. Writers such as Selasi appoint themselves spokespeople and focus their work around a claim of representation. She declares as much in the Guardian: “I was Afropolitan, dammit! I spoke for the Body AfroPolitic!”
This is not to say that all writers should be uncompromising artists in the mould of Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, writing stories no one wants to read, sabotaging their own work rather than see it sullied by being amended to suit the mainstream. Nor would it be fair to say that all modern African literature is stymied by too much cynicism and too little self-awareness – but surely there is space for a greater variety of voices.
Is it too late? Do commercial pressures now close off any possibilities for fiction outside a narrow conception of the zeitgeist? Perhaps so, in the sphere of conventional publishing. Yet the same developments that created this dynamic may also provide new opportunities for African writers to circumvent it. The mainstream media’s disdain for the blogosphere, free e-content and crowdsourcing has ironically pushed interesting material ever further away from institutional outlets.
One of the most striking works to come out of Sudan recently was a short screenplay financed on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. “Faisal Goes West”, a short film now successfully doing the rounds on the international festival scene, was a project paid for by Sudanese individuals, a collaboration between Sudanese actors, musicians and consultants. A piece of charming and brutal realism, it portrays the difficulties of white-collar Sudanese immigrants to the US who are forced to take menial jobs in order to survive. The hope is that somewhere below the mainstream there are narrators on their way to us, underfunded and yet free from the usual constraints on “native informants”, who can avoid the stifling pigeonhole of an African “genre”. §