White Saviour Complex and Writings on Africa

White Saviour Complex and Writings on Africa

An Existential Crisis… at 4am Italian time.

I have nearly finished my second fictional novel, set in Rwanda and Kenya, with chapters in the UK, France and Italy. And now, I am not sure what the feck to do with it.

Everything I read lately suggests that no matter what I write, IF I AM NOT AFRICAN, I AM NOT PERMITTED (by the global liberal public at large) TO WRITE ABOUT AFRICANS.  I put this in Caps Lock to emphasize my frustration and, frankly, my white-knuckled fear of the backlash potentially heading in my direction.

First, I find myself faced with a myriad of potential obstacles over ‘marketability’, and now this; a literary mess of White Saviour-dom to muddy the waters for everyone.  Tsk!  The hashtag #LintonLies is a scathing twitter response from outraged Zambians to a feature in The Telegraph on July 1st, 2016; a new ‘GAP year’ memoir.  Ms Linton is accused of lying (she worked at a fishing lodge on Lake Tanganika in 1999, aged 18, a ‘skinny white muzungu with long angel hair‘).  Rather than memoir, some claim it is ‘warped fiction‘.  She describes hiding in ‘jungle‘ (the environment there is savannah), and fearsome, near-death encounters with Congolese soldiers (Zambia has never faced aggressive military incursions from Congo according to people who live and work there).  What really incenses Zambians though, is her ‘White Saviour Complex‘: her friendship with a little orphan girl ‘who found no greater joy than to sit on her knee and drink coca-cola‘ (sic).

While I understand the infuriation, my heart sank, knowing this can hurt all non-African writers interested in Africa.  Linked (perhaps unfairly, by a Huff Post blog post on the memoir), reading Granta Magazine’s tongue-in-cheek essay by Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina; ‘How to Write about Africa’, the resentment of some African writers at the White portrayal of Africans and Africa in literature seems stronger than ever.  Running through his list of ‘taboo’ subjects and cliches, I can almost see sarcasm dripping off my laptop, with good reason.  Happily, I appear to have adhered to all his ‘taboos’ 😉

Now, I would like to state that my book is NOT about a White person ‘saving‘ an African.  It is about a strong, educated 17-year old of strong faith, from a middle-class background.  She comes of age, against the odds, as a lone refugee in Kenya.  She does receive help from (and she helps and supports) friends who happen to be Mixed-Race and Black AND White, and she maintains a strong sense of her own agency throughout.  I contrast her life with that of another girl growing up on a rough Marseilles housing estate, demonstrating that daily life in Europe is certainly not (for some) all it is cracked up to be.  Later, my heroine marries an Italian, facing the challenge as an Italian citizen of colour with panache.  Unlike the aforementioned Memoir author, I tried hard to move beyond Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘single story’, but the reality of life for refugees in Kenya does emerge… I cannot pretend that in 1994-1997, the refugee camps in Kenyan deserts didn’t exist, or that they were lovely places to live, run by uncorrupted altruists.  I cannot pretend that refugees were housed in clean accommodation in Nairobi with running water, electricity and toilets.  Adichie too, writes of war, corruption, poverty and servants.

So… yes.  I reference a little of the book (set from 1994-2004), on a distant experience as a white expat in Kenya to imagine the fictional world of a young Rwandan woman, 20 years ago, though mostly, I use research and imaginary voice.  I do not know if that will work for my readers, African or not.  Obviously I need fiction reviewers who remember life 20 years ago in Kenya and Rwanda to rip my book to shreds when they find something in a voice that does not ring true, before it gets into print.  A painful, but essential part of the process.

 

Incidentally, do ‘African writers’ (a silly term for people from 50 countries with 2000 languages, as Taiye Selasi pointed out,) face the same problems/ criticisms when writing memoir or fiction about ‘Other’ continents?  Do they feel boxed in by their origins, as I do tonight?  I don’t want to make assumptions either way.

A writer, Damyanti Biswas, blogged on ‘voice‘, answering many of the queries raised recently by “The Linton Affair”.  In a response to a Black American author, she wrote: ‘Should the truth of your condition be limited to the fact that you’re Black, or also and equally, that you’re human, that you’re a living, sentient being?’  As a writer, I ask this question of myself all the time, rejecting the real-life categories I am assigned in life.

Lastly, I wonder sometimes whether Western publishers will still want to take a chance on a fictional novel half set in Africa that isn’t written by an African.  I guess I can only wait and see, or throw away 2 years of work and start afresh on politically safe turf this side of the Mediterranean.  The thing is, my wonderful, fictional heroine won’t let me do it.  I have given her a voice, and she won’t be quietened.

Thanks for reading.

My debut novel, ‘The Disobedient Wife’ won the Cinnamon Press Book Award in 2014, and was published in 2015.  A compelling tale of love and loss, it is set in Tajikistan.  For online reviews and info, click here

disobedient_cover draft 6

 

Language: Happiness, Cultural Dislocation and Belonging

Language: Happiness, Cultural Dislocation and Belonging

The other night I walked from the Vatican San Pietro down through the gathering dusk to a presentation in Arenula, at the Center for American Studies.  I had half an hour, so I decided to stop for a Spritz Aperol in Campo Di Fiori and enjoy the sun’s warming rays. Spring arrived to Rome this week, along with a famous Pulitzer Prize winning author and Italophile, Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri.

She has a new bilingual book, In Other Words, about her journey learning Italian.  It is impressive, much loved by Italians, as she came here having learned the language in the USA as a hobby and now claims to only want to write in Italian.  I went along because her short stories in ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ remain some of the best that I have ever read on cultural dislocation.  I was curious.  Her name popped up before at literary events in Rome, because it is rare that an author with her prestige and background decides to write in Italian.

The talk took place in an old marble-floored room with an imposing fireplace, wooden ceilings, paneling and a raised podium.  Judging from the accents and looks of those around me, half the audience were Italian, half American.  Many wore expensive jewelry and heels, their hair lacquered in spray, necks doused in perfume.  A high class, well heeled crowd then, aside from the smoker behind me who cleared his throat frequently and in the most disgusting manner.  He had a flat, scratchy New Jersey accent.

The talk began: She was heartbroken that she had to leave Rome.  Her sense of surprise at how she belonged in Rome after a life of cultural dislocation: ‘I never felt at home in the USA because my parents were at war with the country’.  I know, from her writing, what she referred to.  The clash of cultures found in so many South Asian households in the West, a universal experience of migration.  She described herself as a language ‘orphan’.  My mouth fell open, an then I smiled.  This, from an author who won the Pulitzer?  She learned English at school but spoke only Bengali at home.  English was never spoken in her house, yet her own Bengali never surpassed childhood level.  (Lahiri cannot read, or write Bengali, a surprise to me).  ‘I am like a child when I speak Bengali.’  This reminded me of my parents.  Their Swedish remains locked in the idioms and language of the late 1960s.  She said, ‘When my son was born, I spoke to him in Bengali, but by the age of seven, I could no longer express myself properly.’  So English, therefore, must surely be her mother-tongue, giving her a sense of home?  No, she said. English is still the language of the outside, a language that excluded her own kin.  This left a cultural space in her life.

This reminded me of British disappointment (expressed in the media) with South Asian origin, first generation, British-born citizens.  If Lahiri, a feted author, winner of prestigious prizes and university fellowships felt this way, what about other children of immigrants?  How often we hear the refrain, ‘But how could he have joined them/ fought against British soldiers in Afghanistan/ blown up the bus?  He was one of ours, he was born in Britain, went to British schools.’  I thought about this sense of not belonging and how much language plays a role.  Her sense of belonging in Italy took no one by more surprise than Lahiri herself.  The quintessential feeling of happiness this gave her, surpassed all her expectations.  I felt happy for her.

Lahiri’s book was written in Italian, and translated into English by someone else.  Side, by side, the two languages on opposite pages. She recorded it as an audio book in both languages.  I loved the idea that spoken out loud, Lahiri had to acknowledge that she was still no expert in Italian, it did not come naturally to her the way English does.  Yet, the English version, translated by someone else, did STILL not feel like her writing.  Delicious irony.

Finally, the ‘elephant in the room’, so I saw it.  By her own admission, Lahiri is a person of high status, with access to the American Center Library etc.  She rented an apartment in the old center and important people wanted to know her. They sought her out.  She hung out with ex-Ambassadors and other elite types, peppering names in her ‘Italian Life’ anecdotes.  I thought of all the other ‘culturally dislocated’ people in Rome, the Afghan refugees I work with, the economic migrants from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, desperately trying to assimilate, failing every day.  I thought about others I know with good jobs at the UN, treated with disdain outside the workplace.  The Indian husband of a friend working in London who whispered, ‘It starts as soon as I leave Leonardo Da Vinci Airport.’  They might learn Italian fluently, but will still fail to fit in.  I thought about the daily rejection they face for jobs, for friendship.  Their struggle to find a voice.

I sat there as the talk ended, swathed in disappointment, and I realised, I had waited in vain for a moment that never came.  Not even one word alluded to it.  I hope Lahiri realises that racism may not touch her in her gilded tower, but it blights the daily existence for many people in this city.  Is she so far removed from their reality?  Her head, buried so deep in her Italian dictionary?  Far from ‘happy’ in Rome, they are, by turns, frightened, sad, dejected and humiliated.  Does she know that her experience is unusual for a foreigner of South Asian origin here?  Perhaps she is tired of talking about these issues in the USA and sought a new, less political voice here as well as a new language.  I couldn’t help feeling though, that in not acknowledging these issues during her book presentations, she wasted countless opportunities for discussion and change, failing those for whom she has so often claimed to speak.  It was a terrible letdown.

cultural detachment

 

Displaced Dispatch – Best Expat Fiction 2015

Displaced Dispatch – Best Expat Fiction 2015

Just saw this – 6 weeks on… drum roll….

My novel, ‘The Disobedient Wife’ (Cinnamon Press) made the list by THE DISPLACED DISPATCH for BEST EXPAT FICTION 2015!

The Displaced Dispatch is a weekly online magazine dedicated to the ‘expat creative’ or international, people who are global residents, moving frequently and working in a creative pursuit, whether it be fine art, literature, film, food, business or theatre.

Please go to their link here to see the whole list.