Questions of belonging central to writing Africa

Writing Africa, 12 May 2012, Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek.


An “archive of images” has journeyed through centuries, containing and curtailing the image of Africa: the “dark continent”. It is a darkness of projection, a darkness cast by the umbrae of colonial writing, which imagined it as a black and brooding territory; a place of primordial lusts and vengeance playing themselves out endlessly on “prehistoric earth”. When Marlowe coasts along the Congo River in Heart of Darkness, he is transported to the edges of time, where civilisation finds its Other, “monstrous and free”, with a “whirl of black limbs”. Joseph Conrad writes: “What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly.”

Since the African Writers Conference of 1962, writers and thinkers have been reimagining Africa in the time and space of the modern world. The intellectual concerns are vast and vexed: language, responsibility, tradition and modernity, identity, voice – resisting the cultural legacies of colonialism which continue to render Africa as Europe’s foil, a carnival of horrors for foreign film-makers to anchor their action movies, or an agglomeration of failed states. Harry Garuba, Director of the Centre for African Studies at UCT, addresses a well-thronged seminar room of attendees, introducing them to his cast of interlocutors: Njabulo Ndebele (novelist/essayist), Sindiwe Magona (author of Beauty’s Gift) and young Nigerian writer Yewande Omotoso.

They begin by discussing the burden of being an African writer, although Ndebele rejoins that he is not comfortable with the word “burden”, saying “it reminds me of the symbolism of carrying the cross. I have not felt that I have been carrying the cross as such. Rather, I have been exploring.” He speaks about his own investments in novelistic writing, and how his socio-political horizons have determined his relationship to literature. “The system of institutionalised oppression in South Africa was experienced existentially, by many people, as a consignment of millions of people to anonymity.” He discusses the way in which, rather than engaging the political crisis in explicit terms, his novels have tended to focus on the experiential levels at which those tongueless peoples have negotiated their oppression. “The biggest challenge,” he says, “is that the horror of reality can outdo the imagining of it. How do you represent the unimaginable and hope to outdo it?” He marks himself as a creative writer first, and an essayist/theorist second, explaining how his much-referenced essay “Rediscovery of the Ordinary” maps out the connections between theory and practice.

Sindiwe Magona exclaims that she is an “amazed writer”, saying “I am amazed that I write. I am amazed at what I have become. I am, what I call in one my novels, an accident of Apartheid. Lives such as mine should not have happened.” She charts through another complex issue in narrating the African experience: the asymmetries of power between the oppressor and oppressed, the symbolic and cultural levels at which inferiority takes its poisonous root. Writing, she says, freed her from shame. “You have no idea how oppression wounds,” she remarks. “I was carrying a shame about my poverty and the squalor in which I lived, until somebody [representing the exploiting class], said, ‘we should be ashamed’ and I thought ‘Guess what? She’s right! It’s not my fault I’m poor!’ It gave me perspective. Sometimes we are ashamed by things that have nothing to do with the essence of who we are.”

Magona has used autobiography as a medium to narrate her experience in a preservative way. She does not address the present, saying “I didn’t think people would read my writing which is why I was so frank!” Instead, she addresses an imagined posterity, hoping to contain her experience as an artefact of a past social life – a document of oppression, but also a document of resilience. She remarks on the affirmative qualities of self-representation, the chance to wrench the mastery of your life and its images away from the imperial conquerors who contort it into racist grotesquery. “If we don’t live without self-awareness we are doomed,” she says, but on the flipside, “we must live in exuberance”. Neither a terminal celebration nor a denial of the colonial linger, but a recognition of affirmative power in culture being made equal.

Garuba asks Omotoso about the issue of ideological/political responsibility, and whether the younger generation of African writers shares the same politics of urgency which galvanised their forefathers. Addressing her fellow panellists, she says: “The new generation of writers are on your shoulders. We’re standing on the shoulders of the writers, the African writers, who have come before. You guys have trod away some rough stones and made some paths, so we don’t necessarily have to tackle the things you’ve tackled in the same manner.” Omotoso speaks with a certain optimism of youth, and catalogues her influences in writers like Teju Cole, Chris Abani and Chimamanda Adichie. “The question for me,” she says, “is the corruption of the system” and of “futures that aren’t being created”. She sees the new avenues of inquiry into Africa centring themselves on the issues of diaspora and displacement, questions of belonging.

From here the conversation leaves the aesthetic occupations of African writers and moves to the institutional level, briefly exploring notions of “blackness” and the label “African writer”. Regarding the latter, Magona says “I have no problem with being a writer – I write, I am African, I live in Africa. Where it starts to irritate me is when you go into a bookshop and your newly published book is somewhere over there” – she gestures across the room – “at the back of the bookshop. If I had the power to toyi-toyi [in South African bookstores], I would.” She says her issue is not with the “label”, but rather “what it calls up”. Ndebele extends her argument by saying that such practices as the marketing of African authors under umbrella terms are “indicative of the power relations in our society. Exclusive Books is simply expressing a culture of cultural dominance that the institution of a bookshop may not be aware of as a business. They’re simply doing it because this is what power means: the dominance of American publications, the dominance of the European. As a result, South Africa, from way back, remains a colonial enclave in the mind, trying to prove to Europe and the United States that we are up there with them. We showcase [these international books] so that when a European tourist comes into the bookshop, he says ‘Ah, this is home’. But this is not home for the rest of us.”

In sum, the conversation was engaging and varied – given that it returns to the themes that have presided over African literary theory for over five decades. It offered an insight into African texts from the perspective of its writers – an interesting complement might be to consider the ways in which non-African writers continue to fashion the continent and the experience of its people and diaspora, often knowing next to nothing about the content of that experience. With regard to narrating another, all writers agree that such imaginative acts are fine, provided the scripter is “respectful” in his/her representation.