13 Apr 2013
Binyavanga Wainaina: Rewriting Africa
One of Africa’s most renowned young authors discusses the need to challenge the dominant narrative about the continent.
|It is time to change our image of Africa. Critics say that for too long now, aid organisations, foreign diplomats, politicians and journalists have been stuck looking at this vast continent as a convenient photo-opportunity to illustrate victimhood and desperation.And few men are more forceful in advocating a change in how we perceive Africa than Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina.“If you look at the website in Kenya of any western embassy, they talk about partnership for development and then you see a lot of school children suffering and then being helped by the ambassador. But they don’t list the companies that are operating here. So it is the question of: What is the full picture?” Wainaina says. He feels that by leaving lots of stories under-reported, misreported or reported again and again, the West perpetuates stereotypes about this multi-faceted continent.
Wainaina found worldwide acclaim through How to write about Africa, his scathing satirical essay that is a mock tip-sheet for Western journalists writing about the African continent.
It includes lines such as: “Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless.”
“The world of humanitarianism and aid in Africa is designed to keep people passive, dependent and [to] allow power,” he tells Al Jazeera.
Wainaina concedes that the “starving orphan” is often a reality on much of the continent, but he adds:
“The question is not so much the question [of whether we should be] talking about it. It’s that, since the 90’s in particular, but throughout the relationship between Africa and the West, that is the dominant narrative. If you go back to the 19th or 18th century it was the child, the willful child that needs to be contained or controlled, or who can be enslaved. Now it’s the child who needs your breast.”
“A significant amount of coverage, probably the vast majority of coverage on Africa by the West, reinforces the pre-existing idea … The existing narrative must be a dependent and collapsed place. And then, oh maybe there is a good news story if you are lucky,” he says.
“I am interested in a powerful Africa, and I really mean an Africa with Power in the globe – power with capital P… where we have our say and where our say means something.”
Talk to Al Jazeera sat down with Binyavanga Wainaina, one of the continent’s most influential young authors, to explore why the world is still not understanding Africa, and how to break the lens of media distortion.
Half a century after the great rush to independence by dozens of African countries, a new generation of post-post-colonial writers are taking up the story. Among them are the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, who tells Richard Lea why the new generation don’t want to write about Aids and Oxfam, and how the English novel no longer has the resonance it once had among young African writers.
We’re joined in the studio by Lizzy Attree, administrator of the Caine prize for African writing and a former winner of the prize, the Zimbabwean writer Brian Chikwava. We return to Europe to talk to the Basque novelist Bernardo Atxaga about why he chose an African setting for his latest novel.
The Granta Book of the African Short Story edited by Helon Habila(Granta)
Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga (Harvill)
One Day I Will Write about this Place by Binyavanga Wainaina (Granta)
Harare North by Brian Chikwava (Cape)
Exorcizing Afropolitanism: Binyavanga Wainaina explains why “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan” at ASAUK 2012
And yet, for Wainaina, Afropolitanism has become the marker of crude cultural commodification—a phenomenon increasingly “product driven,” design focused, and “potentially funded by the West.” Through an Afropolitan lens, “travel is easy” and “people are fluid.” Certainly, magazines, designers, and business execs have seized the term for their own purposes.
On the homepage of Afropolitanmagazine, based out of South Africa, we find an essay on the legacy of the ANC alongside an article titled, “Fashion Conscious Carpeting…so much more than just good looks!” as well as an ad for “Samsonite B-Lite Fresh” suitcases. There is also an Afropolitan Shop, which features kente-accented laptop bags amongst a host of other products from African designers. Touting the principle of “Trade Not Aid,” the Afropolitan Shop defines Afropolitanism as “a sensibility, a culture and a worldview.” We see how easily style and “worldview” become conflated, how not only products, but people and identities are commoditized. Indeed, it’s hard not to miss this in Tuakli-Wosornu’s description of stylish Africans “coming soon or collected already” in a Euro-American metropolitan center “near you.”
Style, in and of itself, is not really the issue. Rather, it’s the attempt to begin with style, and then infuse it with substantive political consciousness that is problematic. For example, Tuakli-Wosornu maintains that “Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa than at Medicine Bar on Thursdays,” but continues, “To be fair, a number of African professionals are returning; and there is consciousness among the ones who remain, an acute awareness among this brood of too-cool-for-schools that there’s work to be done.” Similarly, in a relatively recent article on Cnn.com titled “Young, urban and culturally savvy, meet the Afropolitans,” Afropolitan magazine’s editor, Brendah Nyakudya asserts that “to be a true Afropolitan takes more than a multi-cultural background and the right record collection—it means having a commitment to making the continent a better place.” Although Mbembe’s position is perhaps more nuanced, it is strikingly similar. Distinguishing Afropolitanism from pan-Africanism and négritude, Mbembe describes Afropolitanism as “an aesthetic and a particular poetic of the world. It is a way of being in the world, refusing on principle any form of victim identity—which does not mean that it is not aware of the injustice and violence inflicted on the continent and its people by the law of the world” (29). While Mbembe warns that pan-Africanism, by contrast, has become “institutionalized and ossified” and can slip easily and dangerously into nativism, we can perhaps also see that its longer history of Africa-centered engagement creates a more stable foundation—which, unlike Afropolitanism, is less likely to be used for aesthetic purposes alone. Afropolitanism, it seems, is a portmanteau in more ways than one: it is a general brand of cosmopolitanism cloaked in African style, as well as a literal “coat hanger” for changing fashions. Hence Wainaina’s intervention, his exorcism of this ghost that several years ago could have perhaps been seen as a lively spirit.
Where does literature fit into this debate? Afropolitanism extends ideas of fluid, easy travel to texts as “singular products.” Based on the same capitalist fantasy that economic markets are equal, it is assumed that the literary marketplace, too, is unfettered by issues of uneven development or protectionism. Wainaina points to a particular kind of Afropolitan African novel that is frequently produced—one that touches upon social and economic issues, but ultimately is written for an audience of “fellow Afropolitans.” Overall, a spirit of Afropolitanism has led to texts that are product, rather than processfocused, a trend that can perhaps be changed as more and more literature goes digital. Wainaina points to the revolutionary effect that the Internet is having on African literary production, particularly via the creation of what he calls “digital pulp.” Although similar to the original print pulp in that it is often written in genre—such as sci-fi or romance—digital pulp, according to Wainaina, is even more prone to the bending and/or melding of generic conventions. This is due in part to the speed with which it is produced and published as well as to its collaborative dimension. The online medium often allows for audiences to comment on a work in real time—a much-accelerated version of the way readers were able to participate in serialized fiction in popular magazines in the mid-20thcentury. Finally, Wainaina argues that we must do away with conventions that see pulp fiction as “trashy” or “escapist,” and focus instead on its ability to reach and excite readers on the continent. We don’t pay enough attention, Wainaina suggests, to literature that truly “transports” us.
Some critics have attributed the new rise of genre fiction to the continuing global recession. In times of uncertainty, such as the Great Depression, these critics argue, audiences seek out genre fiction’s vigilante spirit as a way to regain control over uncontrollable forces. Can such analyses be extended beyond the US? Or, in other words, does genre fiction serve the same function everywhere? Beyond its formal and material qualities, or even its more existential ability to “transport” the reader, there seems to be a certain nostalgia for the form, particularly in Africa. Genre fiction burgeoned on the continent in the 1950s and 60s, the period leading up to and immediately following decolonization for much of Africa. This fiction, at least in southern Africa, was often pan-African, or at least regional, in its themes and concerns.
As J.K.S. Makokha notes in his introduction to Negotiating Afropolitanism, 21st-century Africa is once again characterized by a renewed sense of pan-Africanism that is visible in economic, philosophical, and cultural frameworks: “like in the 50s and 60s, the continent and its regions, rather than singular nations, are the theatres of problem-identification, reaction and aspirations” (14). Genre fiction was used in the past to address pan-African issues, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it is being called upon again to serve a similar function.
But do these new and repurposed literary forms and networks really have a pan-African reach? Online literatures have emerged from Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, but other countries with less digital infrastructure seem to be approaching the era of Internet literature more warily. For example, the theme of the most recent Zimbabwean International Book Fair Indaba was “The Book in the Digital Era,” but while it was acknowledged that traditional means of book distribution are changing and many bookshops closing, the overall emphasis was on the print book as a product that is still necessary to sustain professional writers and reach the majority of Zimbabwean readers. The Indaba’s keynote speaker Ngwabi Bhebe noted that although individual writers are beginning to publish online in the form of e-books and blogs, only about 1 million Zimbabweans have access to the Internet. Of those who are connected, most use it primarily for email and Facebook, which is perhaps why Facebook was frequently mentioned as a useful marketing tool for new print books.
For those of us who are privileged to have greater access to the digital world, this new spectral fiction still presents many challenges. Identifying and finding new literary networks is not as simple as a trip to the local bookstore or the university archives. Online archives of fiction are ostensibly accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, but simple google searches won’t get you very far (as I’ve recently found from personal experience). Instead, it requires following invisible threads and connections—one site leads to the next—only full immersion will get you anywhere in this new, ghostly world of fiction.
Stephanie Bosch Santana is a graduate student in African and African American Studies at Harvard. Her work focuses on southern African literary networks and the migration/transformation of genres in the region. From 2005 – 2008, she worked in South Africa and Malawi where she assisted with literacy campaigns, short story competitions, and story-writing workshops. You can read more about the ongoing Malawian Girls’ Short Story Competition at www.malawigirlshortstory.blogspot.com.
Stephanie’s ASAUK12 paper, ‘Performing minor transnationalism: African Parade’s imitations and innovations of Drum magazine’, argued that although Drum appeared to cross borders seamlessly, requiring little ‘translation’ as it spread across Anglophone Africa, the appearance of African Parade in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (present-day Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi) in 1953 and its continued success throughout the 1950s and 1960s suggests that Drum’s English-only, unrooted cosmopolitanism was not uncontested: African Parade simultaneously sought to vernacularize and reterritorialize the magazine by regularly including material in four regional languages (Shona, Ndebele, Bemba, and Nyanja) and locating its cosmopolitan centre in Harare rather than Johannesburg. Specifically, the paper considered African Parade’s reterritorialization of three genres: the sketch, the serial story, and the short story, suggesting that by writing into and sometimes against Drum, African Paradeperforms a transnationalism that exposes the unevenness between supposedly lateral networks while also reimagining minority affiliations in a way that allows for cultural pluralism within diaspora.
Other papers in Stephanie’s panel included Tunde Awosanmi’s ‘Global Cultural and Performance Flows: The African “Ethnosell” and Mask Glocalisation’, and Yasuki Kawajima’s ‘The development of secondary education in Ashanti, Ghana: chiefly elites and Prempeh College in the 1940s’.Binyavanga Wainaina, writer and founding editor of the Kenyan literary magazine, Kwani?, delivered a plenary lecture, ‘I am a Pan Africanist, not an Afropolitan’, at ASAUK12. Organised and chaired by our own Kate Haines, Wainaina’s talk explored the complex relationship between writing, society and economics as well as pointing to future directions for African writing.
For more AiW content from Stephanie Bosch Santana see Genre and the New Geographies of World Literature: A look at Jungle Jim’s “South African Sci-Fi” issue.