Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How To Write About Africa

Sometimes, it takes a little satire to bring a point home.

When I write about some place I tend to do a lot of research on that place (or, at least, spend several minutes on Google Maps and Google Earth to get a feel for the geography. In this day in age, there's absolute no excuse for not getting the geography right. That's a sure sign of "they just didn't care". If your ass is too lazy to spend several minutes on Google Maps to get a feel for the geography, then I reserve to right to suggest you're insulting my intellect in assuming I won't.) I expect my readers will, if they doubt my geography, go and find this stuff out for themselves. So I take a few seconds to make sure I'm doing it right. There's no excuse for failing geography. I've been to Chicago once in my life. I can write about the place like I live there using the help of Google Earth and the Street View.

Granted, people who do live there will notice that certain things are ... off. This is because I don't live there. But I did try, and I put forth a visible effort, despite not living there. I made it seem like I respect the intellect of my readers and respect the identity of the people there enough that hopefully it off-sets any potential damage I do by writing about a place where I actually don't live.

A few minutes is really all it takes. When I write I have Google Maps open at all time.

This is especially bad when an author writes about a real location like it's a fictional location. "Research? What's that? I can't be assed to do that. Nobody is going to know anyway." Hello Twilight. Hello Left Behind. Geography? Lol wuts dat? It's especially painful because, like I pointed out, not even an hour's research on Goggle can give you something that resembles the real location closely. By taking this short cut, you end up insulting your audience by assuming they're stupid like you are (comedy gets a free pass here; Rule of Funny and all. A sudden appearance of a bear in a desert to maul the hero in a dramatic movie makes for a "Yes, that was my desk before my forehead beat a hole in it" experience. A sudden appearance of a bear to maul the hero in a comedic movie can be hilariously surreal, so long as it's combined with amusing injuries and such).

I guess my point is this - in this day and age, there's no reason not to spend at least an hour or so on the Internet researching your location. There's no reason to make "writing the story" and "researching the story" mutually exclusive. Because they're not.

This happens a lot when you start talking about areas of the world like Africa (which itself is really eff' huge. I mean, we're talking fifty-some countries and a dozen different biomes and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of tribes and linguistic groups). In fact, when you see Africa (any part of Africa; Africa to the average American is a single entity) presented in fiction, it's a never ending stream of stereotypes and cliches. As this article delightfully points out by savagely mocking the whole thing.

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.


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.
This is Horatian satire, but the ends are Juvenalian.

Think about this for a minute. Think about every movie that's been created lately that deals with Africa (as few as they are). What's it usually consist of? Well, for starters, the Indigenous Africans are scenery. Africa is portrayed as a backwards, barbaric country that requires the help of the White (they're always White) protagonist and his eventual girlfriend (again, always White; stories about Africa always seem to end up about two White people who meet and fall in love regardless what the story actually is. "It's just another African story about two White Westerners").

This isn't just creator provincialism. This is a toxic mess.

Never mind that South Africa is one of the more advanced countries in the world. Oh heaven forbid we take that into consideration. Or the fact that certain African entities have been around for a really long time - for instance, Ethiopia has been independent since at least the days before the Bible was written, under the name Axum. The Great Zimbabwe was one of the largest trade empires along the coast. The Ashanti had a large empire in Western Africa. And it goes without saying anything about the Egyptians and the Nubians, who created pyramids that last to this very day.

Of course, you'll never hear anything about these incredible empires (well, okay, maybe you'll hear about Egyptians. But for some reason, they're Whites with tans). You may, however, hear about ancient astronauts. Although it's to the point where even that's not an insult if you attach them to the Dogon, because at least you remembered Africans are one monolith of dark-skinned people with a single culture.

This is how bad hack writers in the West are treating Africa. Something that should be an insult isn't even that, because you're giving the illusion of doing the bare minimum required, without even doing that.

The most damaging thing about this, however, is the fact that Africans can never seem to solve their own problems in these stories by Westerners. They have to wait for the White western to show up before things get better. This is probably the reason why I liked Things Fall Apart so much; it's the total inverse of this.

Because it was written by a indigenous African, Chinua Achebe (He's Igbo, for those who are curious).

Achebe's criticism of Joe Conrad's enduring novel, Heart of Darkness, sums up the usual attitude towards Africa as a whole in modern Media:
Achebe expanded this criticism when he presented a Chancellor's Lecture at Amherst on 18 February 1975, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". Decrying Joseph Conrad as "a bloody racist", Achebe asserted that Conrad's famous novel dehumanises Africans, rendering Africa as "a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril."
"A metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril." That sums up almost every portrayal of Africa ever in Western media. It also explains why the movie is never really about Africa to begin with; there's no humanity there. It's all about the wandering European/American.

White European/American.

A lot of this comes from wrong-headed liberal White-guilt. There's a lot made on the Conservative front of it, and a lot of criticism. Right now, there's plenty of conservatives who would love to accuse me of having White guilt (of course, I didn't say I wanted perfect depictions of anything - I want realistic depictions and, most importantly, honest depictions. Don't make shit up and claim it's "raw and true"). There's this notion that the West has irrevocably ruined Africa, that it's our responsibility and that we're the only ones who can fix it, and that by making it better we can rely on tried and trued Romantic stereotypes like the noble savage and magical negro. King is especially bad for this. He's even admitted it as much.

I have no room for White guilt. It accomplishes nothing. All it does is allow you to feel righteous in knowing that you're aware you're part of majority culture with privilege without having to do anything about it. Take your guilt somewhere else. Feel sorry for yourself and everything mean old White people have ever done somewhere else. Especially if you'd rather do that than try to find some way to fix the problem.

In short, Liberals are every bit as bad as Conservatives are here. You're being every bit as racist as that Conservative asshole who automatically associates poverty with being Black and regurgitates Reagan's racist garbage about "(Black) Welfare Queens", just in a different way.

This sort of "passive" and internalized racism leads to depictions of Africa like detailed above. We White people made this mess. Now it's totally up to us to clean it up - but hello, the natives? They live there. They have a stake. They want a better world too. It's insulting to suggest that they're incapable of creating their own better world without your White help. Yes, you feel we ruined it (and I'd be lying if I said we weren't responsible). But appointing yourself lord and savior for fixing it is just as incredibly arrogant and offensive as going in and breaking it to begin with. It's paternalistic and conceited, and outright irritating.

You know, there is a future. Everyone deserves a future; a future that they made with their own hands. One that they forged, that they built. Not one built for them. One they can look up in awe at and say, "Yes. We did that."

Perhaps this is the ultimate message here, when writing about anywhere. Remember that they're all people. People with a future; who want a tomorrow that's better than today or yesterday. With goals, dreams, hopes, and fears. A little bit of empathy goes a long, long way when writing about anything.

It can help you understand people a little better, anyway.

Of course, in far too many cases, like accurately representing geography, this is far too much to ask of a great many authors and creators.

"Hey, I've got an awesome idea for a new movie... how about we set it in Africa, and we can deal with Africans? Our protagonist can be some kind of reporter from New York, and... and.. oh! I know! We can give him a girlfriend too, also from America, and she'll show up, and the conflict can be between the local warlords and our protagonist... It'll be edgy, and we'll show how 'real' Africa can be! Be sure to get that shot of those lions in there. Everyone knows Africa has lions."

1 comment:

  1. I greatly enjoyed Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, not least because it is very temporally specific. I'm not sure if she got the details right, and it is from the perspectives of a bunch of white Americans, but the world doesn't feel *mushy* to me.

    My favorite new satire, The Book of Mormon, tackles this trope semi-explicitly - in one of the songs, the 19-year-old white Mormons sing about how they are Africa. It is appalling, and right on the nose of 99% of narratives I've seen/read.