Saturday, 30 July 2016

Why I Don't Write About Africa

Sitting beneath the shade of an acacia tree, I reach for my laptop and open the lid, beginning my tale in Africa...


Or not.

I have been asked a few times to write about Africa (always 'Africa,' rather than 'Rwanda,' which is where I live), but the conversation usually goes more along the lines of: 'Oh, you should write about Africa.'

Writers get 'you should'-ed a lot.

In the minds of many, what we've done for a living, or where we've travelled, often becomes the topic we should write about. I suppose it's easier for people to relate to tangible places, rather than the 101 imaginary places we've been in our minds and would rather write about.

During the most recent should-ing in which I was told to write about Africa, I decided to compose a post explaining why I don't, putting that question to bed once and for all. 

I came up with three main reasons:

1. Escapism: Far out in front of my reasons for not writing about Africa, or Rwanda, is escapism. Fiction is my escape from reality. I suspect, though I've never taken the conversation far enough to be sure, that when people tell me I should write about Africa, they mean in a diaristic or journalistic sense. At a push, creative non-fiction. I don't think they're referring to the type of post-apocalyptic science fiction Nnedi Okorafor writes.

So, I've already told my first lie. I do write about Africa, but I write about it in my travel blog.

For me, fiction is all about escaping my day-to-day. I don't want to escape the world I'm living in, only to sit down and write the world I'm living in. Not when Persian palaces, ancient Irish magic and the Australian outback are on offer. 

Just because you live somewhere, doesn't automatically mean you want to write about it. Nobody ever told me I should write about Northamptonshire when I was living there.

2. Mortality (or Heart): This is a simple one to grasp. Touched upon in Emma Newman's recent conversation with James Oswald. Writing takes a lot of time. A first draft can take anywhere from five months to a year, then up to another year to hit the shelves.

Writers, being human beings, have a finite amount of time to write as many books as they can before they die. Under no circumstances what so ever is a writer going to give up one of the hundred potential plots which keep them awake at night in order to write what somebody else thinks they should write.

There just isn't time.

Writers are very seldom stuck for ideas, but it's choosing the idea you know you can take to 100,000 words that's tricky. Your heart really needs to be in it. If your heart is besotted with a novel about Africa - go and write it.

3. Authenticity: I did once write a bottom drawer novel about Africa. Bottom drawer novels are manuscripts that will never see the light of a publisher's lounge. I have two of them to date, the other being experimental urban fantasy. These are novels either written purely for our own pleasure, because we want to explore something, or as therapy. Usually a mixture of the two. My African novel was less about Africa and more about the state of international development. I had a lot of things I wanted to say about that at the time, and fictionalising it allowed me to do so at an objective distance.

There wasn't much separation between myself and the narrator, and much of the action was drawn from my own experiences, and the experiences of close friends, so no escapism.

The type of novel we write for ourselves is often very different to the type of novel we write for other people - you. They're generally much more self-indulgent, sometimes hard to follow or relate to, and lacking in popular appeal. That's why they end up in the bottom drawer.

Sometimes we pull them out, blow off the dust and have a flick through, but mostly we just needed to get those stories out of our system before continuing to write the really good stuff.

To write something really good about Africa, something people would like to read, like Poisonwood Bible, Tail of the Blue Bird, Who Fears Death, Half of a Yellow Sun or The Other Hand, it needs to be bloody convincing. It needs rounded characters, cultural diversity, historical accuracy and a certain honesty.

If you strike the wrong key, it can be career-crushing, as Louise Linton found out.

I don't feel that invested in fictionalising Africa at the moment. I feel invested in fictionalising other places. I can write about nineteenth century Iranian harems and twentieth century Australian sanatoriums fairly convincingly, but (due to Point #1) I would much rather do my living in Africa and my imagining elsewhere.

Some stories are not mine to tell. Other people could do it better.

Which is why, conversely, I'm extremely enthusiastic about helping to promote fiction writing in Rwanda. I'll post separately about this soon.

I'm really interested in that.

There is a private bar at the British Embassy here in Kigali, called The Goat & Gorilla. Last time I was there, a Rwandan professor asked me what I did. When I replied that I write, he told me that was wonderful, and that more people needed to write so that they could tell the story of the genocide.

When you talk about writing here, a lot of people go straight for non-fiction and memoirs. There really aren't that many examples of Rwandan fiction available. Nakumatt and Ikirezi Bookshop offer a wide range of fiction written by non-Rwandans. Mostly westerners, but also Nigerians and some Ugandans. It can seem as though fiction is something people from other places do. I think it's also partly to do with the education drive and that mortality issue I mentioned. There are only so many hours in the day, and if a textbook will get you a job, you're more likely to read that than a work of fiction. You probably only have enough money to buy one or the other. Books ain't cheap.

Whilst the professor was explaining to me that creative writing is necessary to tell the story of the genocide, my mind turned a little dark. He was under the impressions that there was a big market out there for genocide survival stories. I didn't feel it kind to correct him, but that market was largely sewn up by white men: Season of Blood by Fergal Keane, Shake Hands with the Devil by Roméo Dallaire, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch. That's not to say there isn't room on the market for a Rwandan author to release a memoir in English, but probably only one, and probably in the style of Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone. The Western-dominated book market has a limited attention span for international literature. 

[UPDATE: See comment below re: publishing stats for genocide memoirs.]

Instead of saying any of that, I steered the conversation onto fiction. There's an entire generation in Rwanda now, anyone under the age of twenty-two, who didn't live the genocide. A young, fresh-faced generation who, like any young, fresh-faced generation, are fascinated by fashion, music, art, technology and the future.

In fiction, we dream our future.

Recording the past is important, but so is imagining what is to come. Even Einstein attributed his genius to abstract thinking and to fantasy. I'm very curious to see where people take science fiction and fantasy for the first time, in a country without it. And where romance and literary fiction journey in contemporary, fast-growing Kigali?

Not my story to tell, but definitely mine to read.

1 comment:


    After posting this, I received a comment on Facebook. I wanted to reproduce that, and my reply, here, as it led to some interesting research.

    Cathie: There are a few English language memoirs about the genocide out there - Left to Tell and Rwanda Means the Universe jump to mind. But you're so right. Time for a greater diversity of genres, topics, and voices. Encouraging those voices is definitely a worthy venture and I look forward to some of your recommendations in the future!!

    Me: Actually, Left to Tell appears to be the most popular of all by Goodreads standards: 29,388 ratings with 4,441 reviews. That would appear to be the one the market had room for :)

    Of the books I mentioned, it outperforms them all, with We Wish to Inform You coming in second with 16,755 ratings and 1,197 reviews.

    Surprisingly, Shake Hands with the Devil garners around 7,355 ratings and 488 reviews. But that may be because there are several editions. The total is likely to be higher.

    Rwanda Means the World, despite being published by a branch of Macmillan, only has 29 ratings and 5 reviews.

    Until 2010, Left to Tell was also the most recent, published in 2007. Then came A Long Way from Paradise by Leah Chishugi: 110 ratings 10 reviews. Published by Virago UK, who are well established in women's literature.

    It's a really difficult one. There's huge scope for creative writing as therapy, no doubt about it. But with the publishing side:

    Internationally, it's difficult because there's a limited market, which becomes more limited the more time passes (judging by the above stats). Even with a big publisher behind you.

    Internally: The publishing options in Rwanda are extremely limited (no access to digital publishing because of online payment methods, few publishing houses of high quality print), plus, you're dealing with extremely sensitive material. Immaculée Ilibagiza is now a US citizen and Leah Chishugi lives in London.

    It's a really interesting situation all round.

    In other news - I know Dayo Ntwari is an internationally published Rwandan-Nigerian science fiction writer, I think resident in Kigali.

    Hoping to find a few more through the Creative Kigali project.