Writing White Africa
(As with all these posts on writing, this is an exploratory reflection and not a polished piece. I've only included a few links for websites which might not come up on Google searches).
I was born and grew up in Zambia, and I developed an early appetite for African fiction. I did my secondary schooling at the Dominican Convent Girls’ School in Lusaka. When I was about 13 I was allowed to start borrowing books from the locked glass-fronted cabinet in the library. The headmistress, Sister Cordula, kept the key on her belt and she would assess our maturity before allowing us access to those books. (She had a similar procedure for deciding whether we should use the junior or senior toilets). The first book I took out of that cabinet was by Stuart Cloete. I don’t remember the title, but I do remember a harrowing rape and murder scene which makes me wonder if Sister Cordula had read it.
Wilbur Smith was a perennial favourite in those early teenage years, but I was an avid and increasingly discerning reader. I read everything I could find by Nadine Gordimer. Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country was probably my most vivid awakening to the injustices of apartheid. Later, I came to admire J.M. Coetzee – his novel Disgrace remains high on my list of literary masterpieces – and more recently Damon Galgut, who won the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel The Promise. (Coetzee and Gordimer are also former Booker prize winners). Kay Powell's Then a Wind Blew was gripping in revealing a side of Zimbabwe's guerrilla war that I had never understood before. But these are all white authors.
One of my first forays into black African literature was Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, and there followed a growing awareness of worlds hidden from me during my African education: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood, and in recent years the writings of Buchi Emecheta, Maaza Mengiste, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Pettina Gappah. These are ongoing explorations of the richly complex and diverse worlds emerging from the neglected voices of a continent that is as diverse as Europe, despite the muffling impact of centuries of imperialism, slavery and colonisation. The imagined worlds of African fiction are as revealing of the human condition as any of the great masterpieces of the western canon. Damon Galgut said in his Booker acceptance speech, “This has been a great year for African writing. I’d like to accept this on behalf of all the stories told and untold, the writers heard and unheard from the remarkable continent that I come from.”
Yet there is a shadow side to this unfolding of literary visions, and that is the insidious impact of globalisation on world literature. Market forces now rule every creative act that seeks a public platform. To some extent that has always been true —Dostoyevsky and Dickens both wrote to pay off their debts, for example. However, the whimsical appetites of the literary fashionistas of US and UK commercial publishers and agents have a vast influence today, and competition is intense. The proliferation of books set in different cultures and contexts masks the creeping homogenisation of commercial fiction, crafted to pander to the dictates of a marketplace controlled by corporate powers.
The ragged, jagged, unsettling prose of good authors thus becomes subtly domesticated to boost sales without causing offence. One of the main culprits is the creative writing industry, which takes the untamed abilities and aspirations of those who want to write for publication, and carefully grooms the best of them to become marketable commodities. US writers say they must have an MFA (a Masters in Creative Writing) to even be considered for publication. When I read fiction now, I find myself recognizing authors who are products of creative writing courses. It’s a bit like the difference between buying a plastic bag of selected and washed potatoes from the supermarket, or scrabbling around in the dirt of a greengrocer's stall to pick out the best ones.
That’s why it’s good to see the growing impact of African independent publishers. Many African writers are published by small presses such as Weaver Press in Harare, who are publishing my novel Between Two Rivers for the Zimbabwean and Zambian markets. The “Iconic African Writers Series” has just been relaunched after a nineteen year hiatus, and the African Books Collective is a non-profit collective of African publishers distributing to a worldwide market.
Complex. Multi-layered. Beautiful. Tragic. Shot through with extremes of betrayal and violence, altruism and courage, Africa is a young continent with many of its multitudinal histories yet to be told. It was the cradle of humankind, and it may be the cradle from which we must evolve again, when we have destroyed the environment that sustains us.
This brings me to questions I’ve struggled with in writing Between Two Rivers, which I began working on shortly after leaving Zimbabwe in 1988. I’ve lost count of the number of rewrites, but finally last year I decided it was as good as I could make it —which is of course far short of the perfection I want! I’ve given up on trying to find an agent or a commercial publisher, because I’ve decided I’m at an age and stage in life when I’d rather be read than rich. So after self-publishing The Good Priest in 2019 through independent publishers Matador, this is my second venture into independent publishing, also with Matador. I’m a seasoned academic writer with a number of mainstream publications, but self-publishing my novels feels like walking naked into the world.
I heard a talk by Sarah Waters when she said something along the lines of, “I have to write the books I’ve been given to write,” and that’s how I feel. In my last blog I quoted Hélène Cixous saying that perhaps the books we read choose us, but for me that’s as true of the novels I write as the books I read. Stories alight upon me, sometimes through a process of seeding themselves in my imagination and gradually growing, and sometimes almost fully formed through a chance encounter, a fleeting image or an event.
Between Two Rivers had a long gestation. It’s set in then Rhodesia between the dying days of white colonialism in the 1950s, and the height of the guerrilla war in the 1970s. I don’t know how or why I was given it to write, but over the many years I’ve been working on it the conviction has grown that this book has chosen me.
I drew on the experiences of my own Zambian childhood and on eight years of living in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, to portray a white society steeped in racism and the kind of domestic abuse which is often the hidden side of violent societies. Some of my characters speak in ways that will be offensive to liberal readers, while I take the terrifying risk that they will be alluring to those surfing the rising tide of white supremacism. At the same time, I’ve tried to portray the complexity of black and white lives in sub-Saharan Africa during the long and sometimes anguished transitions from colonialism to independence.
Zambia never suffered from the extreme racial divisions and bitter conflicts of Zimbabwe and South Africa, but it was impossible to grow up in that part of the world without knowing – and sometimes using – the rhetoric of casual racism. Even though my childhood was to some extent protected from the worst examples of hatred and abuse, I saw and heard enough to feel it still in the marrow of my bones. Many of those experiences and ways of speaking are woven into the fictional characters in Between Two Rivers.
To write as a white African is to write from the side of relative privilege and entitlement. Yet there are stories to be told from all sides, and I find myself increasingly preoccupied by questions of authorship and authorisation in the intricate entanglements of history, narrative, identity, continuity and rupture. I feel along the margins of my own life to allow these untold stories to emerge, while wondering if there is any identity I can lay claim to. Maybe not. Maybe the stardust that is sprinkled on the cradle of the postcolonial child is that of multiplicity and imagination. To write is to become another. It is to inhabit the inner worlds of those we begin to know better than ourselves, and at the end to allow them to reveal to us something of ourselves we did not know.
To be continued.