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

 

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The Cultural Identity of a Character

credit: www.blackwomenhaveitgoingon.wordpress.com
credit: http://www.blackwomenhaveitgoingon.wordpress.com Annette Harrison

I am working on my second novel now, with a working title: Refugee Queen.

This book is set in Eastern Africa and Europe (the UK and Italy) and centres on the journey of survival/ coming of age of a multi-ethnic refugee girl.  As with the first, it is an international novel, set in several countries.  It’s more ambitious than The Disobedient Wife as I change setting and characters frequently.  She escapes civil war, then sexual bondage to a pimp in Nairobi.  Later she has to survive life in the camp, a refugee ‘haven’ where her life is in danger.  She is another survivor who prevails; the kind of person I love to write about.

As with the first book, I had to think long and hard about the nationality of the person with which the protagonist has her main relationship.  In the Disobedient Wife, I chose to make the husband of my British Expatriate character Belgian.  Partly because I adore the french language, but also because I wanted him to have certain turns of phrase and personality traits suitable to the misogyny of an older husband with a trophy wife: A masculine, sexy Poirot, if you will.

In this second book, I was initially attracted to the idea that the main love interest for the girl should be a fellow exile:  Rootless and unable to return to his country, either through fear or because of a deep sense of mistrust in his homeland.  I imagined him as an Iranian Communist, a person with a deep sense of lacking, who misses the sights and smells of a childhood gone forever because the Iran of the 1960s and 70s has ceased to be.

I wrote the passages of their courtship but realised the idea of an Iranian man in a position of authority, however well traveled and educated, falling in love with a woman like her, was rare to the point of unrealistic (or vice versa).  I searched my memory to think of a single example of a Persian-African couple in my many years abroad.  I do not why it is so rare, whether it is cultural barriers or not.  I work with West African men and Afghan/ Pakistani/ Iranian men at a refugee centre in Rome.  They rarely mix as friends, even though they have much in common:  English/ Italian as a communicating language; religion (many of the West Africans are Muslim); and, their present situation and living conditions as migrants in Italy.  Even with so many things in common, disagreements and misunderstandings are a daily reality and we employ ‘peacemakers’ to negotiate the cultural divide.  I noticed this in the classroom too, as clear as a bass relief.  Yet Iran does, in fact, have an African origin community of Afro-Iranians, the descendants of Zanj slaves brought to Persia to do domestic labour from Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique.  I could not think of a single example of such a couple from all my years working in the region however, so it simply made no sense to me.  Write what you know, or at least, what you have experienced.

Instead, I have made him a Southern Italian, with an Iranian, Communist revolutionary ex-wife.  I think that many Italian men in authority would risk all for love, they are romantic, they like to bend the rules, as though they are only there for the bending.  So no, he is not himself an exile, nor does he suffer the great Lack that I described, but it is enough that he understands the dilemma of exile, rather as I do, married to a Bosnian for nearly twenty years.  An Italian-Rwandan marriage makes perfect sense in my mind.  Most Italian men adore beautiful dark women and treat them reverently, like living Goddesses, though of course, this can take the form of sexual harassment at times, especially as there are many trafficked Nigerian girls lining the streets of Rome’s outskirts.  I know many happy interracial couples here and I see examples before me every day.

Perhaps it is a cop out, to accept the negative aspects of a reality many would rather gloss over and then to change my characters to fit.  Making realistic decisions about ‘my people’ is important to me as a writer though.  They are mine to make as they are my creation, but still, I agonize over the detail.  I have no political motives with my writing, I just want a good story.  The way I figure it, someone else with greater knowledge than mine can explore the Iranian-African love affair.  I need it to make sense, to have continuity, and though the characters are all figments of an overactive imagination, my readers need to believe in them as much as I do.

For more on being a black girl in Rome, check out this fantastic short film by Pizzoli Media: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AznUhel2LqQ&feature=youtu.be