A friend sent Matt and me an e-mail dripping with frustration this morning:
“Can you guys do a blog on the rise of ultra-twee novels dropping casual references to far-flung places in the title written by white people about saintly black people surrounded by evil?”
He linked this, and he is not alone in his frustration with the portrayal of Africa in the media. I’m sure I’m not the only person who hated the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency for its twee and patronizing depiction of Mma Ramotswe, the jovial, good hearted and one-dimensional hero. Matt has done a great job of picking up and shaming examples of poverty porn and African Exotica recently; and he’s not alone: Wronging Rights had a great post a while back tagged as ‘Africa: Land of Rape and Lions’, which pretty much sums up the apparent perception of Africa in the press.
Then, yesterday, I came across this through a comment on Laura Freschi’s post on (b)advocacy: a satirical style-guide for writing about Africa from Granta. It’s very funny and worth reading, but it really set me thinking: I’d recently read a book that seemed to meet a lot of the criteria in the article, but couldn’t remember what it was. I certainly haven’t read a terrible book about Africa recently.
Then it hit me. The book I was thinking of was Sleepwalking Land, by Mia Couto. Not only is it actually a pretty good book, but Mia Couto is African, born in Mozambique. His more recent books are even better: The Last Flight of the Flamingo and A River Called Time both explore history, colonialism, aid and corruption into narratives that stand on their own.
Has anyone else read these? They’re not just African Exotica, though they certainly do make play of “corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with”. Just like Things Fall Apart is a great book about the impact of colonization on religious and social forms in Nigeria, not one defined by “naked warriors … diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour”.
As ever, the truth behind our outrage is a little more complex. It’s not the clichés per se that are offensive, but their use in a novel, article or film that offers us nothing beyond them. The Famished Road might make use of what have become clichés about African mythology, but it tells us something about modern Nigeria. The Shadow of the Sun gives us a great deal of romanticized tripe, but still has moments of real understanding that sometimes elevates it above that.
For my money, though, the two best books set in Africa I’ve read are Aké: The Years of Childhood and You Must Set Forth at Dawn, both by Wole Soyinka. My sister, on the other hand, swears by Nervous Conditions. Any other recommendations for books that rise above the clichés are gratefully received.