In his eloquent diatribe “How to Write About Africa,” published several years ago in Granta, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina offers the following advice: “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these.” He continues, “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country…. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.” Wainaina’s sarcastic suggestions point to a truth about writing on Africa: more often than not, it depicts the continent as nothing but a modern-day heart of darkness, where poverty, violence and disease overshadow the rest of human life and experience.
Of course, if writing about Africa seems preoccupied with poverty and violence, there is good reason for that: poverty and violence afflict the lives of millions of Africans. But Wainaina’s point–that writing about Africa deals with the continent as if poverty and violence were the only things to be found there–is a salient one. “Taboo subjects,” he reminds us, are not lurid acts but quotidian ones: “ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.”
Wainaina lambastes Western writing about Africa, but as the literature of Africa is increasingly penned by Africans, it is worth considering how his criticisms might apply to native depictions of the “dark continent.” In two such books–Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan, and The Translator, by Daoud Hari–there is no shortage of poverty and violence. Akpan’s collection of short stories revolves around the lives of children facing situations of extreme hardship in countries like Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia. Hari’s book, a memoir, chronicles his work as a guide and translator for Western journalists and aid workers in Darfur from 2003 until Hari was granted asylum by the United States in 2007. Both books are first efforts from native writers who are making their debut at a time when the market is hungry for “authentic” indigenous voices (Akpan is Nigerian, and Hari is a member of the Zaghawa ethnic group, one of the tribes under attack by the Sudanese government). But though it is a welcome change finally to read African writers on African life, these books also share many of the flaws of their Western predecessors, betraying elements of the safari reportage that Wainaina justly criticizes.
Darfur has become a Western cause célèbre, and the fundamental facts of the conflict there–that the Sudanese government and its Janjaweed militias have undertaken the cleansing of various ethnic groups, and that this process has so far led to the deaths of at least 200,000 people and the displacement of 2.5 million more–are widely known. Hari’s account is the most recent in a wave of books and movies, several of them produced or promoted by such celebrity-cum-activists as Brad Pitt and Mia Farrow, that document atrocities in Sudan from the perspective of their victims. In The Translator, Hari recalls the chaos and destruction unleashed by the first government-sponsored Janjaweed attack on his village, which left many injured and dead, including a beloved older brother. Hari describes working as a scout in the early days of the conflict, when he often shuttled the homeless and wounded across the border to refugee camps in Chad, and discusses the many perils he confronted during his travels; these include his capture and torture by government security police while on assignment with Paul Salopek for National Geographic and, while assisting a British filmmaker, a near-death experience at the hands of rebels who mistook him for a spy.
Despite the perils Hari faced as a guide, the contacts he developed with Western NGO workers and globe-trotting journalists–like columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and Salopek, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune–helped save his life on more than one occasion, most notably when Salopek refused to leave him imprisoned by the government and facing execution after the journalist’s release was negotiated by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. Such contacts were also instrumental in the publication of The Translator. The book was written “with” Dennis Michael Burke and Megan McKenna–the former a professional writer and the latter an American NGO worker Hari met in Chad–over the course of several days of tape-recorded interviews on the couch of Hari’s literary agent, Gail Ross.
Is it any surprise, then, that in his book, the identity of Darfurians remains static, that victimized Africans are persecuted by bloodthirsty Arabs? Hari maintains this rigid separation between what he calls the “non-Arab Africans” of Darfur and its “Arab nomads” by insinuating that the history of the region is one of nomadic Arab attacks against “indigenous Africans,” as when he describes one of his aunts as “a famous warrior who dressed like a man [to fight] camel thieves and Arab armies.” Hari’s acknowledgment of a more complex relationship is limited to concessions that many of Darfur’s Arab tribes were on friendly terms with their African counterparts and that as a young boy, “Arabs lived near us and were a part of my childhood as friends.” For the most part, however, Hari portrays a strict Arab-African split.
Such simplifications gloss over the ambiguities that are integral to Darfurian identity. As Harvard University scholar Alex de Waal suggests in his essay “Who are the Darfurians?” the boundaries between the region’s “Arabs” and “Africans” have always been fluid. It is well known that in Darfur, the term “Arab” does not refer to a discernible skin color or race–both Arabs and Africans in Darfur are black–but to an Arabic-speaking nomad or pastoralist; the so-called “African” groups consist of sedentary farming tribes. Historically, entire clans have been known to change their identity–“African” farmers became “Arabs” once they took up nomadism and adopted the Arabic language, while “Arabs” have adopted the identities of “African” ethnic groups that were politically powerful. There is a long tradition of intermarriage among tribes, and, living far from the center of power, they share a history of disenfranchisement by successive authoritarian regimes in the capital, Khartoum.
Ultimately, Hari’s depiction of a rigid Arab-African dichotomy reflects the ways violence in Darfur has hardened tribal identities; the book would have benefited from a deeper exploration of aspects of the conflict that do not fit this mold. Hari fails to mention, for instance, that many Arabs in the region, like the Rizeigat tribe of southern Darfur, have resisted pressure from the government to take up arms, or that African rebels fighting on behalf of oppressed Darfurians have themselves been implicated in numerous human rights abuses.
Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them tries to treat the lives of Africans with a complexity that is truer to their experiences than Hari’s simplistic narrative of good and evil. The stories compose a fictionalized survey of Africa’s humanitarian crises: they range from the tale of a family broken up by poverty in Nairobi, to a story about child slavery in Gabon, to one about religious violence in Ethiopia, to another about religious violence in Nigeria, to another that takes place during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. This is a veritable laundry list of atrocities, but in setting his stories in numerous countries peopled with a multiplicity of cultures, Akpan has tried to show the variety with which these universal themes can play out in specific and discrete circumstances. Akpan’s goal is laudable, but the results are often disappointing. He seems to be under the spell of a pan-Africanist literary sentiment that glosses over the particularities of each African culture and context. Akpan makes little more than token gestures to distinguish one place from the next, interspersing his characters’ speech with French words when dealing with Francophone Africa, for example, or deploying other conspicuous locators (“their heels kicked up puffs of Ethiopian dust”) to orient the reader geographically. References to the “Nairobi suburbs” and “Masai Mara Game Reserve” do little to compensate for the lack of specific, rooted detail without which the taste and texture of these places is lost.
What’s more, while Akpan tries to elucidate the ambiguities that lie at the heart of ethnic and religious identity in Africa, his manner is often banal and didactic. Commenting on Jubril, the protagonist of a story called “Luxurious Hearses,” the narrator describes his native Nigeria in prose that sounds as if it were lifted from the opening pages of a UN report or Lonely Planet travel guide: “Like his multireligious, multiethnic country, Jubril’s life story was more complicated than what one tribe or religion could claim.” Born to a Christian father and a Muslim mother, Jubril is raised a Muslim in his mother’s hometown and grows up to become a fundamentalist zealot. When, during a wave of murderous attacks on Christians, his friends accuse him of harboring secret Christian sympathies, he begins to question the fundamentalism he had embraced with such fervor. Again, Akpan falls into lecture mode in his depiction of the impact of these incidents on Jubril. “The events of the previous two days had knifed through his Muslim identity,” the narrator recites. “Before now he would have hunted down the [Christian] infidels himself, but the betrayal by Musa and Lukman had changed him and his outlook.” Rather than dramatize how Jubril’s outlook has changed, Akpan waxes general about his chosen themes: “He felt connected to his newfound universe of diverse and unknown pilgrims, the faceless Christians. The complexity of their survival pierced his soul with a stunning insight: every life counted in Allah’s plan.”
“My Parents’ Bedroom” also grapples with issues of identity. The story revolves around a 9-year-old Rwandan narrator who finds herself caught in the middle of the genocide pitting her father’s ethnic group, the Hutus, against her mother’s, the Tutsis. The genocide plays out within her family as she watches her father turn on the woman he had loved for so long. But communicating that the Rwandan genocide was more complex than we might imagine because Hutus and Tutsis sometimes married one another feels labored, as do Akpan’s often hackneyed sentences: “My mother is a very beautiful Tutsi woman,” the narrator tells us. “She has high cheekbones, a narrow nose, a sweet mouth, slim fingers, big eyes, and a lean frame.” Papa, on the other hand, “looks like most Hutus, very black. He has a round face, a wide nose, and brown eyes. His lips are as full as a banana.” Sketching physical contrasts through cliché is hardly a novel or nuanced way to explore the disparities between peoples at war.
Yet the story is not without its poignant moments. As they await the arrival of Hutu genocidaires, the mother advises her two children to reject the offending half of their bloodline. “Say you’re one of them,” she implores, showing us the ways violence and conflict can lead to the radical polarization of identities that are otherwise deeply intertwined.
Western readers have embraced Hari’s and Akpan’s books on the basis of their emotional power, social significance and literary merit, sometimes, perplexingly, conflating all three. For Say You’re One of Them, the question of literary merit is a valid one. A Jesuit priest by vocation, Akpan was accepted into the University of Michigan’s prestigious graduate program in creative writing despite administrators’ sense that his talent was “a little raw,” and he became a sensation after The New Yorker published “An Ex-mas Feast” in its 2005 debut fiction issue. Since then, he has a acquired a legion of fans: the distinguished blurbers of Say You’re One of Them include Louise Erdrich and Mary Karr, and as of this writing, the book ranks third in sales for the “African” division of Amazon’s World Literature category, below Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart but above Cry, the Beloved Country (an Oprah pick) and every book written by J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and Zakes Mda.
In Hari’s case, the issue is not whether his book is a work of literary merit but whether that question is relevant in the first place. A Washington Post review favored The Translator over Elie Wiesel’s Night (whose words, the reviewer felt, were “so searing as to be practically unbearable”), and the New York Post likened it to the diary of Anne Frank. This analogy isn’t quite apt; Frank wrote her book in solitude, without an agent or handlers, aspiring to literary greatness and, despite her youth, approaching something like it. In filtering its faraway horror story through Western “co-authors,” The Translator has more in common with Zlata’s Diary, by Zlata Filipovic, an 11-year-old Sarajevan whose book was published at the height of the public’s fascination with the Bosnian war. The memoir of the precocious prepubescent was also likened to Frank’s, only to be disputed by David Rieff in The New Republic, who identified it as the enterprise of many well-meaning adult journalists, editors and publicists. The specter of “ghostwriting,” which usually disqualifies a book from consideration as a literary work, seems to have been exorcised by a number of reviewers and their editors, who have high praise for Hari’s “lucid prose,” “quiet humor” and “pure, candid” voice. It is difficult to judge which are more incongruous: the reviews in which these accolades follow an “as told to” credit in the introductory material or the ones that fail to cite the “co-authors” at all. (To its credit, the New York Times is among the publications that opted not to review The Translator, either because of its multiple authors or the cameo appearance made by Kristof.)
In what appears to be a coincidence, the covers of Hari’s and Akpan’s books are strikingly similar. The photograph on the jacket of Say You’re One of Them frames a child running, feet bare, dress flying, down a red dirt road, back to the viewer. Hari’s cover depicts a tall man walking away from the camera into the scrubby African bush, head bent, his flowing jallabiya gown trailing behind him. In both photographs the subjects’ faces remain hidden, despite the glaring sunlight, as they retreat into the distance.