Friday, January 27, 2006

How To Write About Afrika!!

"The View From Africa," by Binyavanga Wainaina (abridged. See the link for the whole thing):

Some tips: sunsets and starvation are good

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.

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

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 lifeĆ¢€”but
empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in
their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

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.

2 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Jeremy said...

Spot on. 

Posted by JeremyT

Anonymous said...

Very Granta & very true! Cheers, 'VJ' 

Posted by VJ