Open Book Fest

People see you and they see a whole continent


Africa is Not a Country, 10 September 2013, Fugard Studio. NoViolet Bulawayo, Kgebetli Moele, Yewande Omotoso and Jamala Safari in conversation with Rachel Holmes.


“Africa is not a country”, quoth L. Douglas Wilder, “but it is a continent like no other. It has that which is elegantly vast, or awfully little.” Rachel Holmes quotes this oft-abbreviated remark by the first African-American governor of Virginia, auguring an hour-long discussion on “Africa”, the compulsions of the media to flatten an entire continent’s complex histories into one inglorious signifier, and the various resistances to this hegemonic interpellation, by the writers who live among its diverse territories. Her “dream-team” of panellists, as she calls them, includes Yewande Omotoso (Bom Boy), NoViolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names), Jamala Safari (The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods) and Kgebetli Moele (Room 207). This morning’s seminar bears a curious phenomenon: that at the same time that these writers resist being subsumed into the category of “African writer”, they – especially Safari and Moele – depend upon the phrase for certain rhetorical gestures, almost like a reflexive nativism which recalls the reassuring stability and unity of an African disposition.

Holmes’ method is to take specific scenes from each author’s work – scenes that focus on an embattled sense of identity and belonging – and attempt to elaborate the broader writerly dynamics around these issues. To Omotoso, “identity” is not a theme she sets out to explore with any deliberation, but its presence in African discourses cannot but inflect her novels. “The questions are much more interesting [than the answers],” she suggest, saying that her characters “grapple with an anomaly” and this working out is a form of “dealing with the confusion” of feeling exilic, alienated, displaced, not quite at home, or as Chinua Achebe masterfully phrased it, “no longer at ease”. (She herself holds three passports). One of her impulses in writing about these concerns is to “make a mockery of the tendency to want to plonk everything somewhere and give it a name”. This is common among this morning’s speakers, all of whom are resisting a certain rational ordering of the world according to the arranging power of the colonial gaze. “Africa”, a singular episteme, the consuming black-hole which obliterates cultural, social and political specificity, is one such historical coagulation of colonial thinking.

NoViolet Bulawayo, in discussing one of her characters (“Eliot”), says that he “comes from a culture that lumps Africa into one box”, citing global media representation as one source of this unhealthy convergence, but also celebrity culture, which in its gruesomely “charitable” moments aims to “save Africa”, as though “Africa” here performs as some ultimate condition of global suffering and humiliation, to which the most noble respond in its continental entirety. Africa is reduced in this reading, malnourished by its clichés, to serve as the redemptive underside of modernity for the very agents who glutted in colonial times, ravening on its resources.

Jamala Safari equates the idea of “dead eyes” – a line from Great Agony – with a sense of “lost innocence” – these dead eyes are a powerful metaphor, speaking of the corrupted ontologies everywhere displaced along the continent. “It becomes difficult for [his character] to see the beauty of life,” he says, as though alienation is engendered in the very sight of his protagonists. Safari, in engaging the question of language and mother-tongues, says that his heritage is very much with the oral traditions of African story-telling, and he speaks of “capturing that imagery” (in English) and calls for his fellow writers to “stay true to our inheritance”. Certain reflexive uses of “African” and “our”, themselves blurring the national and cultural boundaries of an expanded understanding of African diversity, is prevalent in his language, as though he seeks to account for his writing as having some quality of being “African”, extended in an ontological sense. When Holmes asks him “what language he dreams in”, alluding, if not by name, to the aggressive ideas about language as a culture-carrier in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind (1986), he replies by quoting a Jamaican poet who asked him, “what language do you cry in?” – this, for him, signals the truth test of the mother-tongue.

Moele also seems to invoke an inherent “African” disposition when he says: “In Africa, language is not something we just use to communicate. You have to decorate it; the language has to be rich.” He speaks of a language rich in idiom, metaphor and simile, but seems to not recognise that in this definition, he is committing precisely to some vision of “Africa” having a unity of experience and expression, which both himself and his colleagues are trying to find an ambiguous escape from. Bulawayo adds to the influences of orature on her writing, saying that “The act of writing is many things, but where language is concerned it is a matter of identity. Even in just deciding what English to use.” She emphasises that she “writes for the ear”, and Safari agrees, saying that writing, to him, possesses a musical property.

It is Bulawayo who acknowledges a certain unity of the African experience, if not marking this unity explicitly, saying that its writers must take a “brave ownership of who we are”. She says of her first travel to the United States, “I realised that I was black”, to a murmur of laughter among the audience. “It didn’t occur to me in Zimbabwe.” Omotoso describes the fixed African identity as both a “tightrope”, and a “massive, endless, roaming field; a free place to play”, suggesting the possibility of productive appropriations of the term.

“Ever since I was born, I was fighting for identity,” says Moele. His remarks recall Frantz Fanon, who wrote: “If I were asked for a definition of myself, I would say that I am one who waits; I investigate… I interpret everything in terms of what I discover. I become sensitive.” These lines invoke the question of interpellation, that a culturally-loaded white gaze calls upon Africans (“If I were asked”) to account for themselves, and that this process of becoming is a patient and complicated one, endlessly frustrated by the horizon of expectations which Africans must meet in their encounters with a modern discourse that is still hopelessly inflected by the dominating catechisms of the colonial mind. Omotoso speaks of being interpellated at (Cape Town) dinner parties, being forced to speak “on behalf of all of Africa”, and Safari agrees, saying that “People see you and they see a whole continent”.

The discussion was lively, but lacked a certain focus – succumbing to the repetitions of ambiguous identity and the difficulties in trying to transcend or answer this question (but as Omotoso says, this endless attention is part of the process of discovery, never fixing itself into a final, easy rhythm). Perhaps some more interesting territory is left unexplored: the question of nation and nationalism, the thematic unities of life under the sign of post-colonialism, and a more sustained discussion of the power dynamics – only mentioned – involved in naming things “African” or “American”.