Monday, October 30, 2006

Writing about Africa


The book jacket of Half of a Yellow Sun is full of praises for its author, the young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There’s a quote from The Washington Post Book World heralding her as “the 21st century daughter of Chinua Achebe”. There’s an endorsement from Achebe himself: “She [Chimamanda] is endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers…She is fearless or she would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria’s civil war. Adichie came almost fully made.” But what interested me most was the writer Joyce Carol Oates’s blurb that the “novel is a worthy successor to such twentieth-century classics as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.”

At the Twin Cities book festival two weeks ago, where Chimamanda had come to read from her book, I asked her what she thought of Joyce Carol Oates’s remark; I was interested in the comparison to A Bend in the River. She smiled knowingly; she had been asked that question before.

Chimamanda said she liked some of Naipaul’s work but not A Bend in the River. And her Nigerian publisher had said to her that there was no way that Joyce Carol Oates’ remark could be on the edition of the novel that is to be released in Nigeria later this year. It showed how much Naipaul’s views are not liked in Nigeria, and perhaps, to make a bigger but not unreasonable generalization, in Africa as well.

After her reading, I was lucky to be able to talk with Chimamanda for more than an hour. At some point, I asked her about the character of Zabeth in A Bend in the River. Zabeth appears in the first chapter of the novel; she belongs to an African fishing community; she travels sixty miles, on foot and in barges towed by steamers, to buy items for her village from Salim, the narrator and protagonist of the novel (see this post for more). It was this sketch of Zabeth as a merchant woman, confident and self-assured of her trades, and the short but vivid description of the long journeys she made, that had drawn me into the novel. Zabeth’s character is perhaps the only African character in the novel that Naipaul allows to consistently maintain dignity.

My question about Zabeth did not seem to make an impression on Chimamanda. She was clear and unequivocal about how she felt: “Heart of Darkness was a long time ago, but I know the Africa of A Bend in the River. And I simply cannot consider something that denies Africa its humanity; I simply cannot consider it.”


Later, I realized how familiar those words were: for only a week or so ago, I had read the same sentiments in some of Achebe’s essays. In his famous analysis of the racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe questions “whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization [of Africa and Africans], which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art.”

Here is an example –a jolting one – of how Africans are thought of by Marlow, the narrator of Heart of Darkness, whose views, Achebe feels, are not different from those of Conrad’s. Marlow states in the novel: “Well you know, that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their [Africans] not being inhuman.”

Achebe writes of Marlow’s comment: “A more deadly deployment of a mere sixteen words it would be hard to imagine. I think it merits close reading. Note first the narrator’s suspicion; just suspicion, nothing more. And note that even the faint glimmer of apparent charitableness around his speculation is not, as you might have thought, a good thing, but actually the worst of it! And note, finally, the coup de grace of double negation, like a pair of prison guards, restraining that problematic being on each side.” Achebe is exceptional at insightful analysis of this sort: very carefully, he unearths the notions that lie behind words, notions that, especially when they come from someone as famous as Conrad, can go a long way in advancing and sustaining misconceptions.

And to those who dismiss such criticisms of Heart of Darkness with the excuse that racism was not yet an issue when Conrad wrote the book, Achebe has this superb rejoinder:
“In the preface of his, famous book, The Souls of Black Folk, he [W.E.B. Du Bois] wrote: ‘The problem of the Twentieth century is the problem of the color line.’ The verb he used is interesting: is instead of will be. And he wrote his words not during the 1960s Civil Rights marches in America as the tone might suggest to some, but actually in 1903 – ‘at the dawning of the Twentieth Century’, as he himself put it, and only a one year later than Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This chronology is of utmost importance. Therefore the defence sometimes proffered: that Conrad should not be judged by the standards of later times; that racism had not become an issue in the world when he wrote his famous African novel, will have to clarify whose world it is talking about.”
Naipaul has often been compared, in a positive sense, to Conrad: the Swedish academy, announcing the 2001 Nobel Prize in literature called Naipaul “Conrad’s heir as the annalist of destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings.” But Naipaul is also talked of in the same breath as Conrad because the criticisms of Conrad apply to him as well; in his writings Naipaul reduces Africa to a generic “bush”. In one particular passage of A Bend in the River, the protagonist and narrator Salim – whose own views are inseparable from those of Naipaul’s – writes this:
“I asked for a cup of coffee…it was a tiny old man who served me. And I thought, not for the first time, that in the colonial days the hotel boys had been chosen for their small size and the ease with which they could be manhandled. That was no doubt why the region had provided so many slaves in the old days: slave people’s are wretched, half-men in everything except their capacity to breed the next generation.”
A Bend in the River is viewed by many as a modern Heart of Darkness. Both are admired in the West, but for Africans, and critics like Achebe, they are both classic examples of superbly written books that give little consideration to Africa.

Finally, here is a scathing critique of contemporary writing on Africa in Granta 92: The View from Africa by the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. Wainaina’s sarcasm is razor-edged and there's a hint of it even in the article's title, "How to write about Africa". Here are some excerpts:
“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'…. 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…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… 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… 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… Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River , and related thoughts


In Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, the protagonist and narrator, Salim, moves from the east African coast to start a new business – and with it, he hopes, a new life – in the African interior. Salim’s ancestors are from Gujarat in India but his family has lived on the African coast for many generations; they are a family of traders, with links to the Indian Ocean coasts of Arabia, Persia and India. In Salim’s words: “The coast was not truly African. It was an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place, and we who lived there were really people of the Indian Ocean. True Africa was at our back.”

Salim decides to leave his family and move by himself to a town in Central Africa at the bend of a great river; the town, the river and the country, though very obviously Kisangani at the bend of the Zaire and in what was then the Zaire (the novel is set in the 60s and 70s), are never mentioned. Naipaul, presumably, uses this technique so he can make certain abstractions that might have otherwise not been possible.

The novel is essentially an account of the tensions of being an expatriate – rootless, and with nothing to return to – in a place that is coming painfully to terms with modernity. Naipaul’s spare and contemplative prose brings these tensions sharply into focus. His capacity for historical understanding and self-assessment is remarkable; and his insightful but sometimes sweeping generalizations of civilizations and peoples are there throughout the novel.

Here is Salim, writing of his family’s lack of understanding of themselves:
“My family was Muslim. But we were a special group. We were distinct from the Arabs and other Muslims of the coast; in our customs and attitudes we were closer to the Hindus of northwestern India, from which we had originally come. When we had come no one could tell me. We were not that kind of people.” And later: “ Neither my father nor my grandfather could put dates to their stories. Not because they had forgotten or were confused; the past was simply the past.”
Whatever knowledge that came to Salim of the past achievements of his coastal community came, ironically, from the ruling Europeans:
“All that I know of our history and the history of the Indian Ocean I have got from books written by Europeans. If I say our Arabs in their time were great adventurers and writers; that our sailors gave the Mediterranean the lateen sail that made the discovery of the Americas possible; that an Indian pilot led Vasco da Gama from East Africa to Calicut; that the very word cheque was first used by our Persian merchants – if I say these things it is because I have got them from European books. They formed no part of our knowledge or pride. Without Europeans, I feel, all our past would have been washed away, like the scuff marks of fishermen on the beach outside our town.”
Of Europeans – and this is a classic example of one of Naipaul’s illuminating abstractions – Salim says:
“Europeans could do one thing and say something quite different; they could act in this way because they had an idea of what they owed to their civilization It was their great advantage over us. The Europeans wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else; but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves. Being an intelligent and energetic people, and at the peak of their powers, they could express both sides of their civilization; and they got both the slaves and the statues.”


People from many different tribal backgrounds live in the Central African town that Salim has moved into; they have come from villages around to make a living in the town. Even in periods when things are going well and business is booming there is always a feeling that collapse will come soon, that the town will go back to being a ruin just has it had at the time of the country’s independence. Salim writes, in this passage, of how different it is for the Africans of the region than it is for the expatriates in town from various countries:
“I began to understand how simple and uncomplicated the world was for me. For people like myself and Mahesh” – Salim’s friend of Indian origin – “and the uneducated Greeks and Italians in our town, the world was really a simple place. We could understand it, and if too many obstacles weren’t put in our way we could master it. It didn’t matter that we were far away from our civilization, far away from the makers and doers. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t make the things we liked to use, and as individuals were even without the technical skills of the primitive people [Africans of the region]. In fact, the less educated we were the more at peace we were, the more easily we were carried along by our civilization or civilizations.

“For Ferdinand” – an African young man that Salim knows in the town – “there was no such possibility. He could never be simple. The more he tried, the more confused he became. His mind wasn’t empty, as I had begun to think. It was a jumble, full of all kinds of junk.”
What Naipaul seems to be suggesting is that being part of a civilization or a heritage – however distant you may be from it or however peripherally you may be associated with it: just as the Indians, Greeks and Italians in town were – could somehow give you a certain dignity and a sense of your own importance. What he is also suggesting is that the backwardness of the Africans Salim is writing of is such that they have nothing to look back to. There’s a hint of condescension and snobbishness in this assessment; it is a feature of Naipaul’s writings; in other parts of the novel Naipaul’s prejudices are more directly stated (more on that in the next post). Presumably the backwardness or primitivism Naipaul is talking about refers to village ways, ancestor-worship and animist ways, ways that were mostly self-contained and had never been in any broad sense part of a larger empire or tradition. And the encounter of these backward Africans with modernity, with European achievements and colonization had left a wound; it had filled African minds like those of Ferdinand’s with “all kinds of junk”.


In some roundabout way, this idea of having a tradition or a heritage to fall back upon brought to my mind a documentary I had seen two years ago on PBS.

The documentary was on Chacoan society, which had flourished in the arid canyon-country of New Mexico from the eighth to tenth centuries and had then declined. The focus of the documentary was mostly on the achievements of Chacoans: their comprehensive knowledge of astronomy hinted at by the precise alignment of the roads, by the nuances in their architecture – multistoried buildings and plazas (the picture below shows an aerial view of one of these plazas) – and by the sophistication of the solstice marker on a rock of one of the buttes.

The program also featured short interviews with the team of archaeologists and researchers involved in the attempt to understand the religious and cultural sensibilities of the Chacoans. One of the team members was from a Puebloan tribe of the southwestern United States. He said that the Chacoan period with its achievements indicated something very important. “It shows,” he said, “that our people too were very intelligent.”

The Puebloans are descendents of the Chacoans, but they do not always react to their Chacoan past like this. There’s generally a lot more ambivalence: there’s a shroud of secrecy about the Chaco period, and a tendency to reject and disown it because oral histories suggest that it had ended violently. But the Puebloan man’s comment in the documentary that his people had had unique capabilities (strange that something like that had to be stated) was really a response to contemporary realities: so much today is defined by the West, and strong has been its labeling of other cultures, that claiming past accomplishments – the grandeur and ambition of which is absent today – becomes important.

I came across something similar recently in a program on the history of the Sahara; and what I heard was like an echo of what the Puebloan man had said.

A brief part of the documentary was on the kingdom of Timbuktu in Western Africa, in present day Mali. At its height during the first half of the second millennium, the kingdom had benefited immensely from the trans-Saharan trade in gold, slaves and other commodities. There had been a famous university and an extensive library. Today the town is an impoverished state. But from what was being shown in the program, it appeared that the library, or at least some of its books were still intact. There was a brief interview of a Malian man – probably a historian or scholar – dressed traditionally in a tunic and cap. He said: “This,” [the library with all its evidence of learning], “shows that we Africans have a past as well. Not all our stories were oral; we had a written tradition too.”

It was there again: the urge to talk back, redress prevalent attitudes; and the glories of the past and his knowledge of his own history had given the Malian scholar a strong sense of himself.

One of the most eloquent voices in this business of talking back, of arguing and pointing out the prejudices that lie behind Western perceptions of Africa, has been that of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. Achebe, in many of his essays, systematically lays bare these perceptions that come cloaked and hidden in various forms. He does it with reasoned arguments, with wit and sarcasm.

But more of that in the next post – this post has already gotten too long and I've digressed a bit :)