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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Writing Point of View – The Search for a Voice

Writing Point of View – The Search for a Voice

This week I spent hours rewriting sections of my draft novel – working title. This book is about a young, privileged teenager.  She is at Catholic boarding school, but lives with her Grandmother in the holidays.  The novel is set in a Central African country in the Great Lakes with a troubled inter-ethnic history.  It is on the verge of civil war, but the teenager tries to ignore this out of deep-seated fear, hiding in pop music and school work.  During her Easter holidays, the situation boils over and she finds herself the target of violence and persecution, fleeing to become a refugee in Kenya.

This week, I was worried that in the third person omniscient narration mode, readers will not feel they are sufficiprocessently inside the protagonists head to care enough about her to read on.  While writing ‘The Disobedient Wife‘, my debut novel, one of my editors told me to increase the voice of the British expatriate character as she was more ‘relatable’ to my ‘market’ than the Tajik. In this new book, my non-Western character will be going it alone… and will have to hold the reader until Chapter 8, when a French aid worker gets her voice.

She needs to be compelling and three dimensional, especially as she is a character from another cultural world than our own.  It is up to me to ensure that the readers will feel an emotional bond for this young woman that overrides any prejudices or assumptions about her based on nationality, race or age.

voice

With this in mind, I decided to embark on an experiment in Point of View (POV), transferring my novel, chapter by chapter into the 1st person immediate narrative.

There were results almost straight away. As I wrote in the ‘I’ format, I found myself relating to the character more as a teenager, a girl on the cusp of adulthood who is about to befall a huge, life changing calamity.  I answered my own questions (how could she have been kept in the dark so long, how did she handle the increasing danger in her situation) and I discovered new facets to her personality and upbringing, including a rather snobbish attitude towards her fellow villagers and her politically extreme Aunt, the ‘peasants’.

She emerged from each scene as a fully fledged human being, with defined flaws and faults, insight and emotions.  Those insights, moments of thought and reveals in dialogue have been reinserted in the third person omniscient narrative, with excellent results. In the end, I prefer the literary quality of this more traditional writing style, it suits me better as a story-teller. I find 1st person difficult to read and sometimes ‘slightly jarring’, as my Mother has put it.

Now, time to stop blogging and get nikewritingback to the task… 100 pages down, 200 more to go.

Have a great week, bloggers 🙂

Annika Milisic-Stanley

 

 

 

 

Books as Medicine/ The Freedom to Write

Sandra Cisneros puts it perfectly:

“You can’t please everyone. It’s the best I can do, it’s important to me and I put it together. I hope my readers like it. If it’s not their prescription they can put it back.”

via The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley.

As I sit down this weekend I am taking stock of the coming week in the UK, a week when I will be launching my debut novel in three venues, speaking on two radio stations and traveling to my hometown to promote my debut novel.

I am frightened of negative reactions to the book but I soothe my fears with Cisneros’ proposition that books are our medicine.  Not every book suits everyone, just as not all prescriptions will cure our ills.  I even find that depending on the mood I am in, I can feel like reading a certain book or not.  In times of stress I enjoy soft yoga classes but in happier times I would rather go for an exhilerating run with my dog.  And just as readers are free to read my book (or not!) I, as a writer, am free to write.

This week I will be thanking my fate, the luck that led to my being born and bred in Britain.  In the U.K, creativity is still nurtured.  Fantastic art organizations like The Dorset Writer’s Network and Artsreach are funded to support writers so that people like me have the chance to share their books with others.  Organisations like my publisher, Cinnamon Press are supported to publish innovative fiction.  Without this support to small independent press houses, most of the most interesting creative writing in the UK at the moment would never be seen by the general public.

I also love the U.K because it is a place where free expression is closely guarded and protected.  I feel privileged that unlike aspiring writers from Tajikistan, I can write my stories without fear of imprisonment or exile.  This will be uppermost in my mind as I attend events hosted by my Publisher and by local people with bookshops in my home county, Dorset.  The Disobedient Wife is the first Literary Fiction to come from Modern-day Tajikistan in decades, not because there are no local writers, but because they are not allowed to write or publish freely.  I remind myself daily to be grateful at what is no more than luck.   The luck to be born in a place where I can express myself without fear for my life or for the lives of my loved ones.

During the week I work part time with refugee men at a day centre in Rome, trying to find them jobs, no easy task in this city.  People often ask why migrants come to Italy without prospects of work, with hard-earned qualifications and degrees that will never count in Europe.  Sometimes, they left much better material lives in their home country.  I met a civil engineer from Pakistan last week and asked him why he had left a relatively good job as a land surveyor in Islamabad.  He frowned and raised his hands in a gesture of despair tinged with disdain.  He clearly felt that my question was inane.

“I cannot continue to live there, where I am from”, he said.  “I come from the Tribal areas under Taliban control and have no freedom.”

“But you worked in Islamabad, I said.  He shook his head.

“It does not matter, they reached me.”

He was angry, his fury at the politics of his homeland and frustration at the penury of his present circumstances oozing from every pore.

“I did not know I would be homeless and jobless here,” he said.  “But I still want to stay here, in a country where I do not fear for my life.”

I thought about the price he had paid for his freedom.  It is the same for Eritreans, Afghans and other refugees, many highly qualified accountants, office managers, logisticians and engineers now looking for jobs in Rome as kitchenhands, cleaners and carers; the most menial work; the work that locals do not want to do.  Undoubtedly, their life savings line the pockets of human traffickers, the schooling that their parents scrimped and saved for, wasted.  It is the price they pay for the freedom we Europeans take for granted.

Just after I finished this article I heard of the arrest of Hossam Bahgat, a well known journalist in Egypt, detained for his writing. I hope he is released soon.

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/11/egypt-arrest-of-prominent-activist-hossam-bahgat-another-blow-for-freedom-of-expression/

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