How to Write About Africa

My review of Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, Someday I Will Write About This Place, should be up this week. In the meantime, I thought you might be interested in reading his 2005 article from GRANTA entitled How to Write About Africa.  Below is a small excerpt.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

I’d print the whole thing, but GRANTA would probably come after me.  So, follow the link, then come back and tell me what you think.

6 thoughts on “How to Write About Africa

  1. HIlarious!
    But not really…because this is an age when plenty of authors think a bit of quick research on WIkipedia is enough for their book.
    Thanks for sharing this,
    Lisa

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    1. Lisa – I think you’re right. And while I agree with much of what Wainaina says, I also think we’ve seen a lot of positive change since 2005. I haven’t decided yet which side of the argument I land on. Many of his points are characteristics I recognize and recall in books I’ve read. But are they all bad books because of it? ‘Realization’ that things aren’t as you believed them to be is never an easy thing, I guess.

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      1. Hmm, your question about ‘bad’ books raises all sorts of questions…
        A book might be a rollocking good read and lots of fun, but if it’s racist or sexist or anti-Semitic or it stereotypes people – that might make it a bad book because it perpetuates harm.
        On the other hand a book might be completely ‘politically correct’ (not a term I like but it’s a handy shorthand here) but be so boring or pompous or inane that it might be a bad book because nobody wants to read it.
        As a general rule, I do think that in the 21st century when we live in a global village that authors have an ethical responsibility to be truthful about other cultures. It would be insulting, for example, to write a novel set in the contemporary US and portray its citizens as a bunch of fat bad-tempered gun-happy gangsters, just because that’s what we mostly see on TV here…
        I think books have the potential to help people understand more about this complex world we live in, and that authors ought not perpetuate stereotypes and ignorance. When I came to Australia as a ten-year-old I was asked by a teacher if we wore grass skirts in Africa and if we had elephants in the back garden. I was astonished that a ‘grown-up’ could be so ignorant. I was not just a well-travelled ten-year-old, I was also well read, and so, for example, even though I’d never been to Japan I knew that they did not use kimono for everyday wear. More importantly, I knew not to make assumptions about places I hadn’t been to or had visited only briefly.
        The more I travel the more I realise how unique people and places and cultures are…

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      2. I suppose I phrased that wrong. I wasn’t thinking in terms of books that are racist, anti-Semitic, etc. – I find no redeeming quality in that kind of writing. I was actually thinking of two specific books – Dinesen’s Out of Africa & Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. Both are books I enjoyed a great deal, but looking back now I see that the authors followed many of Wainana’s “how to’s” to the letter. So does (or should) my new knowledge change my views/opinions concerning those two books?

        And by the way, your story about being 10 years old is probably the best explanation I’ve seen on the importance of reading international lit and literature in translation! 🙂

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