writing africa


“Treat Africa as if it were one country,” quips the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina in “How to Write About Africa,” a barbed guide for Western authors who hope to address this misunderstood continent. “Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. . . . Keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.” First published in Granta in 2005, Wainaina’s satire lands its punch by gathering the tenacious clichés about Africa—the savage and noble-savage exotica still lodged in the Western imagination, the game-hunting landscapes that seem to autogenerate purple raptures, the liberal visitor’s hand-wringing about endemic graft and corruption. Wainaina trots out a parade of straw figures such as the Loyal Servant, the Ancient Wise Man, the venal Modern African, and the Starving African, “who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. . . . She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.” Wainaina’s essay is more than an acerbic takedown of lazy and half-informed Western perceptions. Embedded within it is a manifesto of sorts. If we turn inside out the sardonic rules and prohibitions, a vision of African literature emerges that departs from the dark-continent fantasies still entertained even by sophisticates in Europe and North America. “Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation. . . . Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances.” In one sense, this is a call to normalize African writing, to make its human scale comparable to that of literature set elsewhere.

more from James Gibbons at Bookforum here.