Monday, June 11, 2012

"How to Write About Africa" - Binyavanga Wainaina

I have already started doing some of the recommended reading for my courses and there is a really good article called “How to Write About Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina. Wainaina is a Kenyan author who writes often about the Western stereotypes of Africa and how there is a complete disregard for how large and diverse the continent is – that it is a place that deserves a view of equality, not pity or romantic visions of sunsets and wildlife - as an untamed place that requires control. It's definitely thought-provoking. He writes the following:

"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’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

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.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.

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.

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

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. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa's situation. But do not be too specific.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or ‘conservation area’, and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa’s rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).

You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care."

Centipede Surgery and a Samaritan

Ugh, I’m the worst. I keep thinking about updating this but I get distracted easily. The weather is getting warmer here now, which only means two things – 1) I am under the constant companionship of a sweat rag and 2) there are ginormous insects out and about. Last night I went to take my garbage out and as I opened my door, a giant grasshopper fell on my arm. I just herded it outside and went on my way, but there’s nothing more disgusting than feeling a large insect fall on you. I take that back. I had a lizard fall on me from the ceiling when I lived with my homestay family in Mozambique. I was also doing yard work with the other teachers in my apartment building and it almost convinced me never to spend very much time outside. The worms were the size of baby snakes and there were mukade (poisonous centipedes) all over the place. Mukade are really difficult to kill - kind of like a woodtick in the U.S. But the centipedes can become very large and are known for crawling into shoes and biting unsuspecting victims. My English teacher co-worker and neighbor, who had been hard at work trying to decapitate the mukade with a shovel, told me that she once took a scissors and cut a mukade up into three pieces to kill it and it was still moving!

The other week, almost all the students went to Sasebo for the prefecture sports competition, leaving the members of the brass band club and the baseball team to stay at school to do some independent study, participate in club activities and the grand prize, clean the high school gym. It was kind of fun cleaning the gym though because it gives us a chance to chat in a non-classroom setting. I am always impressed/shocked by some of the phrases that come out of my students' mouths that I am 100% certain they learned from watching movies. It ranges from "what are you talking about?!" to "damn you to hell." I was with another English teacher when they said that last one and when they said that wasn`t a good thing to say, the student revised the phrase to "damn you to heaven!" I guess that works?

I am on a good samaritan spree. Every day, I have to try to find one good thing to do for someone else. There is nothing that bothers me more than when I go to the grocery store and there is a big line of people and customers refuse to help the clerk by bagging their own groceries. So I always do it for the ladies in the shop because it just seems fair. I think they are surprised that I know how to bag - like it`s advanced calculus or something. The logic is clear - heavy things on the bottom and light things on top. I guess working at Mega Pick 'N Save when I was 16 really paid off. I was walking home from the store the other day and I was walking past the park near my house and I saw one of my second grade students had scaled the chain link fence and was looking up at the pavillion roof. The kids had been shooting plastic arrows with bows and one of the arrows had gotten stuck on the roof, with no way to get it down. I stood there and assessed the situation with the 7-year olds and then told them "chotto matte, kudasai!" Please wait a second! And then I hurried up to my apartment, set my groceries inside and grabbed one of my laundry poles. The kids were all waiting at the end of my driveway with their bows and arrows and when they saw me coming, they jumped up and down and cheered. I am sure I looked ridiculous knocking that arrow down, especially since the pole still had laundry clips on it, but it made the kids happy.

My ticket has been purchased to come home! I will be back in the states July 28th and then I will head to grad school in Massachusetts in the middle of August. I am really excited to be starting the next chapter – not so much about the being a poor student again. I have already started doing some of the recommended reading for my courses though and I am chomping at the bit to get started and soak up all the information I can before the school year starts. The highlighters are out in full force! Ganbatte! (Japanese for "Do your best!")