In my rush to read good writing about other cultures, I'm also aware that I'm likely to be slow in criticizing the subject, and perhaps even the writing itself. However, a "novel" such as Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin's Lajja uses a fictional account of one family to make factual statements about Islamic fundamentalism in her native country. Arguing that it's not a great piece of writing doesn't matter in the face of the subject. That it sold 60,000 copies in Bangladesh before it was swiftly banned does. Part of the problem with my Western lack of criticism is obvious: I'm a white guy originally from a suburb of a conservative Southern town. I didn't grow up wanting for anything. Nor have I studied other cultures enough to dare even claim some sort of "expertise." And while I do like to travel when I can afford it and have the time, a few weeks, a few months, a year, don't necessarily allow me to walk out with any real understanding of the places I visit, fall in love with and make a part of me.
Akpan's stories drew me in, not because I want to read about African tragedy and then feel pity for an entire continent but because his writing is excellent at bringing about and building tension. This is what had me turning pages. Maybe that's cheap. I might say the same about a Hitchcock masterpiece: I can't take my eyes from the film. But what Abbas points out as flawed about the two books he reviews isn't something most folks not from those places are going to know, which is no doubt part of his criticism. Perhaps Akpan has made the sub-Saharan part of the continent seem more like one big country. Perhaps that's his point. (I recently saw him speak and he certainly referred to "Africa" over and over.) He really doesn't draw the reader into the various regions of the continent wholeheartedly. However, I'm not sure he needs to. Religious/class differences can divide childhood friendships almost anywhere, in one way or another. Civil war, genocide, child slavery... hell, you don't need Africa for any of that. He might have set these stories in Moldovia, Cambodia, the USA, with a few tweaks here and there. He might have also made all of it up. His concerns are coming from the heart and as a Nigerian, which also makes him African (and he has lived in various parts of the continent), he wants what he sees to change. In Africa. That he can write about it in fictional form as well as he does is his way of making a statement.
Abbas's concern comes from the fact that these books, and others, are being embraced, perhaps blindly, by the West. Yet it's not Akpan's responsibility to spell out every complexity for Western audiences. If we really want to know, we should travel, not that we'll necessarily have a better understanding then either. That said, maybe no matter who writes about Africa and how, readers in the West will remain ignorant. There may be no real remedy for this. As for Africa being one big AIDs/war/poverty infested shithole, I've seen enough of it to know that's not true. However, what's considered impoverished to a Westerner is often a simple daily reality to so many folks elsewhere in the world. It's no more a Westerner's fault that she sees it this way than it is, say, a villager from Anlo-Ghana's to not see her existence as "poor" or "lacking" in some way. But then I despise First World empire and the obnoxious consumerism and marginalization of so much of the rest of the planet that goes with it more than most, so perhaps it's a bit easier for me to get past some issues of what constitutes "poor" when I do travel. Or maybe it's because, as an adult, I'm constantly underemployed and lacking in basic human rights such as health insurance.
Ultimately, while I agree with Abbas, I can say that at least Akpan's book is also meant to entertain, as a good collection of stories should. In this he succeeds.
Nov 21 2008 - 6:41pm