“Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages, and even beyond…”



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.

4 thoughts on ““Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages, and even beyond…”

  1. Matt G

    August 20, 2009 at 1:37pm

    You get some pretty good, interesting writing in the Caine prize for African literature winners list each year (http://tinyurl.com/mnagdv).

    I agree with you about Ake – the best book I’ve ever read by an African writer (but not fiction). What’s interesting about that is how much resonance there is between: Soyinka’s descriptions of how the lines between spirit world and “real” world blur so much in childhood; and Okri’s fictional account of the same subject.

    I thought Nervous Conditions was pretty boring.

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on the other hand, is great.

    And you’re forgetting geniuses Coetzee and Lessing… The Life & Times of Michael K, an extraordinary and meditative exploration of the strictures of apartheid. Not many cliches in there.

    The Catastrophist was pretty good. Even though, essentially, about the protaganist and not the context he found himself in.

    I suppose the twee books can at least be commended for trying to diversify literature about Africa away from the three major historical forms:
    – Wilbur Smith
    – drama used to convey political / colonial analysis (Adichie, Achebe)
    – books about apartheid

    by adding a fourth – thriller. Even if a bit twee.

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    August 21, 2009 at 6:47am

    Oooh, good call on Gordimer! I just read Jump and Other Stories and I thought it was brilliant.

    I missed Coetzee out because he is a shameful blind spot in my reading. I’ve never read him. Suggestions?

    Well, it’s true that the twee books are diversifying African literature, but do they have to be *so* twee? I suppose there isn’t a world of difference between Mma Ramotswe and Hercule Poirot, though. “Amusing foreigners” who confound our preconceptions. And I don’t really have the same rant at English twee humour, though I wouldn’t call it great writing either. Where is the PG Wodehouse for Africa?!

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    August 21, 2009 at 11:55am

    Reading all of this again, I suddenly realised, you didn’t call Gordimer at all! Lessing you said. Hmmm. Must have triggered some kind of connection in my head.

    I’ve never read Lessing either. This is terrible, isn’t it? I’ll go out and buy one in Dar the next time I’m there.

  4. Matt G

    August 22, 2009 at 12:58pm

    I did say Lessing, but probably only because Gordimer is my shameful blind spot. You want The Grass is Singing, but only if you’re in a good mood. You want The Golden Notebook. You want African Laughter. Bad title, great travel writing.

    Coetzee – I’ve only read three. They’re all brilliant. Disgrace; Waiting for the Barbarians; The Life & Times of Michael K. Again, you have to be in a good mood. And you’ll end up wondering: is Coetzee racist? Damon Galgut was basically copying Coetzee when he wrote The Good Doctor. The theme that runs through all of that Southern African White Writing: We Don’t Belong Here.

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