“Only in America am I African,” opened Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian-born novelist, tossing a furtive look across the mostly American crowd assembled at UNLV’s Beam Music Center. “Being African means being hyper-aware. That I come from a place that is grossly misunderstood by a lot of people…breeds a certain kind of defensiveness. This applies in my writing as well because I find myself thinking, should I write about this? Will they misunderstand?”
Adichie was one of five African writers assembled for the Black Mountain Institute panel “From Apartheid to Darfur: Africa’s Struggle Against Disdain,” an event moderated by Nobel Laureate and Black Mountain Senior Fellow Wole Soyinka on September 11, 2007. The panel was conceived by Soyinka and BMI’s senior staff to, in Soyinka’s words, “narrate in different forms, from different perspectives, [these writers’] relationship with this huge conglomerate called the African continent.”
“This word, disdain, was chosen deliberately,” Soyinka, the poet, playwright and former political dissident, insisted in his introduction. “The inevitable occupation of the writer is to bear witness truthfully to aspects of relationships which cannot be trivialized or simplified by simply saying, ‘Oh, there is disdain.’”
BMI’s concept for the panel was to bring together African writers to discuss the continent’s present political and economic situation explicitly as artists. Among them were Chris Abani, a Nigerian novelist and professor of literature; Chimamanda Adichie, a critically acclaimed novelist who was recently granted the MacArthur Fellowship; Alexandra Fuller, an East African memoirist; and Chenjerai Hove, a Zimbabwean writer in exile. Each, despite disparate racial and economic backgrounds, professed to have experienced disdain for their home continent, both internationally and internally.
“Disdain,” began Abani, “is so deeply lopped into the culture of silence that we have. We have so much self-loathing; there’s a lot of trauma. This is a trauma that goes back from slavery and colonization and through civil wars and other sorts of atrocities.” Abani, a prolific Nigerian poet and prose writer, is garnering international respect for his current project, the Black Goat Poetry Series, a small press focused on assisting African and other non-American poets in gaining access to the American market. “It becomes tricky as an African writer to explore this, given that in most cases due to translation issues, literacy issues, your audience tends to be not necessarily indigenous to your continent.”
Abani focuses intently on a compassionate, yet honest vision of his community. His battle to remain authentic in his depiction of Africa both is crucial and exhausting. “Radical changes are happening in Africa, all the time. And I think the problem is [that] it’s still too early in our social history…to actually begin to see what that could mean for our future. [F]or me the question is, where is my humanity in relation to the concepts of justice, to the concepts of silence? Where is my gender, my privilege in relationship to these? And where is the gaze? Is the gaze an internal gaze? Is it external gaze? How does one conceptualize a gaze? It’s an always evolving problem. There are so many writers writing in different languages in Africa and there’s not enough translation, so the topography of the imagination in terms of what it means to be an African writer is constantly evolving to accommodate this. ”
Zimbabwean Chenjerai Hove faces similar issues, not with the political situation in his home country but in his interpretation of it. “Our greatest responsibility as writers is to have the capacity and the skills, because our job as writers is to write and to write well,” he chuckled. “No writer has any business writing badly. We’re not there to lie. We have to describe the beauty and ugliness of our country.” Hove’s work is as prolific as it is lauded, but, he insisted, there are other approaches to healing beyond those based in literature. “This image that we have of people trying to send aid to Africa, it’s not correct. The images that we need to send [are of] missionaries to Europe. It’s true. I’m serious about this because we have to reconnect people to say listen, don’t worry about your checkbook, what about your hearts?”
Alexandra Fuller, the daughter of British settlers to the country formerly known as Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, is outspoken in her criticism of the empire under which she was raised. “I am the daughter of the ones who took it upon themselves to be disdainful. You are in the flock and what they’re saying to you is shut up, you’re the privileged one right now and as the privileged one, you owe us your silence.”
Fuller, a prize-winning biographer now based in Wyoming whose work has appeared on several best-seller lists, was raised not far from Hove, an author she calls “a godfather, a voice of incredible courage.” Her portrayal of Hove’s exile was harrowing and honest: “When the secret police came to Chenjerai Hove’s house on a Friday, they offered him one of Zimbabwe’s most beautiful farms…and Chenjerai looked at the farm he’d been [offered] and he said ‘God, I didn’t know I was such a good writer….’ The problem was the farm came as [a condition of] his silence and Chenjerai turned it down. The secret police came to him on Friday and [by the following] Wednesday, Chenjerai left Zimbabwe forever. He hasn’t gone back. That’s what internal violence looks like. That’s what turning your mouth on your own people looks like.”
Soyinka’s personal knowledge of exile and escape pushed him to be reflective. “They’re all united, the four writers here, by a communized experience. And that is an issue that I would like to often simplify as the issue ‘power against freedom,’ power as an instrument of disdain and danger…against freedom and creativity.” The youngest of the panelists, Adichie agreed. “We’re not going to save Africa. But you know, the wonderful thing about being a storyteller, which is how I like to see myself, is that you don’t have the answers, you just have questions and ideas.”
In an effort to further explore these questions and ideas, Witness invited submissions to Volume XXII for a special portfolio, “Dismissing Africa.” The title condenses the sentiment embodied in the panel into something more direct: a gathering of diverse works resulting from the title’s provocation. Setting aside those pieces that approached the subject in more obvious and predictable ways (the American volunteer confronting sub-Saharan African poverty alongside the shock of his or her own privilege was a reliable theme), we were excited to discover the wealth of innovative, honest, and contrasting literary work about the continent being produced by African and American writers, alike.
Book-ended by Robert Mugabe’s discredited re-election as Zimbabwe’s president and Thabo Mbeki’s resignation from South Africa’s presidency, the production of this issue also forced us to look deeply into our own presumption that “African literature” should function as a battle cry for social change, or at least illustrate a world gone wrong. Writing of and within Africa is beset with dismissals, implicit and explicit. As Chris Abani best described the process, “the deeper question for me as a writer is how to explore this wound, this deep sense of self-loathing [at odds with] incredible stories of joy and resilience and people just living their every day life without the notion of…the exotic that the external audience tries to bring to the question [of] deeply complex humanity.” We hope we have done justice to that complexity.