Thursday, September 30, 2010

How to read about Africa

Michael Stanley tweeted about Binyavanga Wainaina's acerbic Granta article "How to Write about Africa." Among Wainaina's pointers:

"Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’."
and

"Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat."
and

"Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved)..."
Those last two are especially relevant to Stanley. Domestic felicity is a notable and heartwarming feature of A Carrion Death and The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu (a.k.a. A Deadly Trade), their novels about the Botswana police detective David “Kubu” Bengu. Kubu loves his wife, loves his wine, and loves fine food. (Kubu means hippopotamus in the Setswana language)

What do you expect when you pick up a story about Africa? Are you often surprised once you start reading?

================
(Michael Stanley, the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, will be members of my "Stamp of Death" panel at Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco, Thursday, Oct. 14, at 3 p.m. Their fellow South African writer, Jassy Mackenzie, is on my "Flags of Terror" panel Friday, Oct. 15, at 10 a.m.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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19 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

I do expect elephants, giraffes and game preserves.

I do not expect urban settings.

My name is Linkmeister and I disapprove of these clichés.

September 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wainaina's list is analogous to those jokey old cliches about Europeans thinking all Americans are cowboys or Americans thinking all Canadians live in igloos.

Michael Stanley's most recent novel is set largely on a game preserve, though the view of that preserve is nuanced. And they did rate Caryl Férey's Zulu, hardly an idyllic tale of savannah life or any of Wainaina's other cliches, one of
the ten best African crime novels.

I wonder if readers outside Africa will automatically take whatever sort of writing about Africa is currently popular as a symbol of the whole. What might current expectations be in crime fiction? The gentle comedy of an Alexander McCall Smith? The violence of a Roger Smith? The violence and paranoia of a Férey?

September 30, 2010  
Blogger Maxine said...

I find it so strange that so many people refer to "Africa" as if it is a country. I am sure that general cultural norms differ between, say, Egypt, South Africa, Libya, Nigeria and Ghana. "Michael Stanley" set their books in Botswana, so if that is where they mean, then they could say so.

October 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You find it so strange. So does Binyavanga Wainaina, who wrote the article that is the occasion of this post. So presumably do Michael Stanley, since they linked to the article. Here's a relevant extract:

"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."

October 01, 2010  
Blogger Nan said...

I just bought A Carrion Death for my Kindle, and am eager to read it. I've wondered a bit about what is 'true' in the mysteries I read which are set in countries I am not familiar with.

October 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What a burden African writers must carry! In addition to the story, we expect them to teach us about their countries.

I don't know what Michael Stanley would say is true about Botswana and southern Africa in their mysteries. Part of the truth is that, in addition to the local particulars, Africans are like everybody else -- or what everybody would like to be. In the case of their Detective Kubu, that means someone who loves his wife, works hard at a satisfying job, and enjoys a good meal and a glass of wine.

October 01, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"we expect them to teach us about their countries."

I'd call that "the author's burden." Now how do I get that phrase embedded into the standard reviewers' lexicon?

October 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, burden comes easily and ironically to one's lips when writing about Africa. The same, though, is true about any unfamiliar or exotic place.

October 01, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

There is a lot to ponder in the Granta article, much of it true I think, and much of it to be heard.

I really do wonder at the preponderance of white authors who are writing novels about Africa.

Where are the voices of the majority of people in the countries written about, and in the continent as a whole (though it is well-noted the many countries and cultures, etc.)

Why aren't the writings of Black Africans being published?

I'm talking about mysteries here, not general fiction.

October 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I posted a comment some time back about a Zulu crime writer named Meshack Masondo. And Caryl Férey, who write the novel Zulu, which contains scenes of extreme violence, said that he might not want to write violent books if he were a black South African writer because he'd likely see too much violence in his daily life.

I don't know much about the continent as a whole, but I do know that the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra (now in France) chose to write in French rather than Arabic because his French teacher was much more encouraging of his writing than was his Arabic teacher. So a wide range of factors contribute to the availability or non-availability of African writers.

Here are some more posts you might find interesting.

October 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That last link does not work, apparently. But you can search on my blog for "Mahfouz" to find the posts.

October 04, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

By the way, with all of the discussions of crime fiction from or about Southern Africa, I do not see Malla Nunn's name mentioned too often.

I have not yet read "A Beautiful Way to Die," but picked up her second in the library, "Let the Dead Lie," and the writing is very good.

It got me in 30 pages and I wondered why I had to leave the book to do errands and tasks.

It takes place in 1953 South Africa when apartheid was being instituted.

It's not fast-paced as many thrillers set in South Africa are, but it's more mellow, but well worth reading.

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I haven't mentioned her because I haven't read her work. But other have mentioned her here. She is on my list of authors to read after Bouchercon, preparation for which is taking much of my reading time these days.

October 06, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Well, that is fine and again, we who can't go to Bouchercon, wait for reports of panels and general news.

You won't be disappointed by Malla Nunn's writing, but it is different from other crime fiction from South Africa in its pace and tone.

October 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm sure my embrace of South African crime writing will lead me to Malla Nunn before long.

As for reporting on panels and general news, my reporting last year was sketchier about the panel I moderated than about other panels. This, I quickly realized, is because it's harder to take notes on and observe an event ot which one is a part.

But others will fill in the gaps -- and there are bound to be gaps, since a Bouchercon often has four to six panels going on at once.

October 07, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

We who won't attend Bouchercon will be very glad to hear and read (and possibly see, if any videos are posted) whatever is reported back.

The organizers should consider putting out a booklet with summaries of the panels. Or, rather, in this computer age, I should say, they should post summaries or even videos at their website--if they can.

October 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, you can find the schedules at this link: http://www.bcon2010.com/program.php

But summarizing seventy-four panels would take an incredible amount of work. What the organizers could do, and perhaps I could suggest this, is to keep their Web site running after the convention and provide links to the various reports that appear in the blogosphere. Sarah Weinman did this on her Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind blog for Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore.

October 08, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, good idea.

I remember that Sarah Weinman did this on her blog.

I don't know if Jen Forbus will be there but she writes good summaries of panels and conventions, and I'm sure there will be many other well-done summaries.

I'm especially interested in the international authors and panels, but news on the domestic front,is good, too.

October 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jen Forbus will be there. I think she'll be chairing a couple of panels.

Those schedule link on the Bouchercon Web site will give complete panel lineups.

A separate link on the main Bouchercon Web site gives a complete list of attendees.

October 08, 2010  

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