Wanted dead or alive: Happy African Writers!

Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo who won this year's Caine Prize, one of the awards under focus Photo | CAINE PRIZE | AFRICA REVIEW 

African literary critics want happy African writing. They want African writers to produce literature that does not deal with poverty, AIDS, war and violence because in doing so, they are playing to Western stereotypes. 

And even more cynically, African writers who raise questions of poverty are doing so in order to appease the narcissistic literary appetite of Western readers - and win Western literary prizes. This is if we are to take the Nigerian literary critic, Ikhide Ikheloa, at his word. 

Ikheloa is not like most literary critics who are content to work behind the fortresses of obtuse language and academic journals. He is out there in the public domain creating debate and taking to task both the reader and the writer in his column, Emails from America in 'Next' newspaper.  As such there is much to respect in his criticism and much to disagree with – as it should be.

Writing about the shortlisted 2011 Caine Prize stories, Ikheloa laments that “there is not a single mention of the Internet and cell phones, not once.”  This reminds me of Africans who confront Western stereotypes of Africa by responding, “Hey, but we have maids, expensive cars, mansions and skyscrapers.”  Neither they nor their interlocutors pause to ask – why so much poverty amidst so much wealth? 

But that is the weaker principle in his argument. What I am interested in is his assertion that “many writers are skewing their written perspectives to fit what they imagine will sell to the West and the judges of the Caine Prize.”

And the evidence he offers? The 2011 Caine Prize Five write about “roaming band of urchins” “a child soldier, “an interracial marriage gone awry” and “drunken simpletons.” Essentially, their crime is in writing stories weighed down by a “monotony of misery.”

African reality

Now, imagine if a South African writer had written a novel about the joy of growing a rose at the height of apartheid, or a Kenyan writer written a love story that takes place in a mansion at the height of the Daniel arap Moi dictatorship. They both would have been accused of denying the African reality. They both would have been accused of catering to a Western audience hungry for the Hakuna Matata Happy go-lucky-African

Neither of these two positions where literature is judged to the proximity of “lived life” can provide a solid base for literary criticism. This sort of criticism actually promotes the kind of singular literary criticism it was opposing in the writing. This is because it encourages a critical approach that does not have aesthetics at the centre. The focus becomes the message and its relationship to a vague reality to be defined by the critic wielding the pen.

I do not believe that literature has a duty to match reality word for fact. That is the role of historians, political scientists, and anthropologists – who we also know can from time to time create their own forms of scholarly fiction. 

What fiction does best is to reveal contradictions to a mind opened up by the beauty of a story. I think the question should be whether the story, be it about growing a rose or growing a revolution, has added an essential something. Has that story opened up ever so slightly the contradictions of our existence?

Part of the problem is that the reader of African literature has been trained to receive African fiction as fulfilling a political and cultural function. But this has been at the expense of criticism that looks at form and questions of aesthetics – that looks at the African writer as an artist concerned with the manipulation of language to tell a story well.   

Cultural ambassador

When Ikheloa argues that the Caine Prize Five “are good writers showcasing good prose and great dialogue yet to the extent that literature documents the lived life, they are stuck in the fog of stereotypes”, I feel the work of criticism has not been done.  So they write well but they are bad ambassadors of African diversity?

When he writes that NoViolet Bulawayo (who eventually won the Caine Prize) “sure can write but unfortunately, her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers,” what I think would be useful for me to know is how she can produce a well written story that fails because of its content. 

Because this is really the issue: Can we admire Bulawayo’s aesthetics (and what are they beyond good prose and dialogue?) even as we deplore the plot?  Can we appreciate form without content? And what would content without form look like? Can we really love a story for what it says and hate how it says it?  Let us have a literary criticism that centres the artist at work and not the cultural ambassador.

In the end, I empathise with Bulawayo because I know how my imagination is inextricably linked to a contradictory, tragic and beautiful landscape. And how my imagination needs and is attracted to and in love with these contradictions. 

If I was to write a short story about something as simple as walking to Ngenia Secondary School, my imagination would be interested in a number of things. The thick Limuru mist that in the morning seemed to conjure grazing cows; and how as I left the path from our home to join the main road I would meet other students and like a stream gathering force we would pick up more and more students until we became a river of blue and grey school uniforms. 

I would try and capture how as we stormed through Kamirithu village we would see the villagers climbing into trucks to go work in the tea plantations and my memories of Kamirithu Cultural Centre before it was razed to the ground by the Moi government. 

Colourless rainbow

My imagination would be interested in how our school used to be a concentration camp back in the colonial days, and how we would hide in the still deep trenches that the villagers were forced to dig and smoke cigarettes. I would end the story with us sneaking out early through those same trenches to roam the village eating chapati slices bought from kiosks.

I guess this is what it boils down to: Give me a life without contradictions, and I will write you a colourless rainbow.

-Mukoma wa Ngugi is the author of 'Nairobi Heat' and 'Hurling Words at Consciousness'..

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