Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.
– Chinua Achebe
Those who control the narrative literally control the literary world. Chinua Achebe reminds us of the African proverb: Until the lions get their own historian, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Traditional African narrative as exists in books is controlled by the gatekeepers of Western publishing houses. But then, the world is changing. For once, thanks to the Internet and social media, writers and thinkers of colour have a chance at the steering wheel. Technology has democratized the reading and writing culture, and the world is in that space where the traditional literary world steeped in the analogue 20th century analogue way of doing things is reluctantly coming to terms with the power of the new order. Still, change is slow and the ways of the old persist even as folks look up from their smartphones, puzzled by the stubborn ways of the old dying order.
If you love literature, these are great times to be alive. The Internet is suddenly the world’s biggest literary festival, its content is mostly free, and it never goes to bed, this festival in the ether. If you really want fresh, three dimensional narratives shorn of clinical editing, the Internet is it. It is counterintuitive but the reading culture as we know it, centered on the good old book, is dead and re-born on the Internet. Old habits die hard, still. There are still these activities called book forums, workshops, festivals, and whatnot and people pay to go to them and there are lots of authors known and unknown with tons of books on display, a few of which will be bought only because the author, rock star, is right there doing autographs (who wouldn’t want an autograph from Junot Diaz?) but most of which will never be read because this is no longer how we read.
Keeping traditional literature alive (as in books) is a pastime for the mostly Western middle class. To sustain this once vibrant culture of literary engagement and entertainment, workshops, conferences, book readings, etc., are organized, fancy themes are made up and writers who work hard at being exotic and enigmatic or just plain hung over from drinking free red wine are invited to say important things and make groundbreaking pronouncements that cause a stir only among that circle. Every now and then something outrageous said at one of these literary watering holes hits the Internet and it goes viral for a few days. The other day, it was the catch phrase, “cultural appropriation“ uttered by the writer Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers Festival.
Cultural appropriation? Susan Scaldi defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” I gleaned this definition from the now infamous keynote speech delivered at the 2016 Brisbane Writer’s Festival by Shriver. Deconstructing why Scaldi suddenly found a need to describe the wearing of dashiki or the cooking and eating of ugali and jollof rice as so alien as to be given a proprietary cultural definition would take another essay. Let’s just say I find the term and the definition patronizing and offensive to people of color. Why is it not “cultural appropriation” when I wear a suit and go to a Western restaurant to feast on steaks and pasta? The world has changed. It used to be post-colonial writers of color, brilliant but troubled souls like a drunken Dambudzo Marechera swinging from the chandeliers of his Western sponsors and peeing on their guilty conscience. It is now the turn of the Western writer to make a fool of him or herself.
So, every now and then at these shindigs, or even online, an aggrieved white writer nursing some deeply held cultural or racial anxieties lashes out at the victim and uses condescending lectures to body shame those who do not look or write like them. In 2014, Helen Rittelmeyer caused a stir with her piece, Up From Colonialism where she mumbled aloud about Achebe and the alleged deficiencies of African writing. Hear her at her most supercilious, reducing African literature to one-dimensional rubble:
But in another sense it was entirely appropriate to call Achebe a contemporary African writer, since African novel-writing has scarcely progressed since he inaugurated it with the celebrated Things Fall Apart. In the decades since that title was published—the same year as The Once and Future King, Our Man in Havana, and The Dharma Bums—the American novel has evolved through a multitude of vogues and phases while the Anglophone African novel has, for the most part, remained as it was when Achebe launched it: unremarkable in its prose, flat in its characterization, anti-Western in its politics, and preoccupied with the confrontation between tradition and modernity.
Rittelmeyer’s essay is instructive for the ease with which she is proxy for a culture that rejects intrusion, or what many now call “cultural appropriation”, that which says Africans for example must remain the other because the other decrees it. I responded to Rittelmeyer with barely restrained fury:
“African literature” in the 21st century, to the extent that it is only judged through analog books by literary “critics” schooled in the 20th century Achebean era, will always distort our history and stories. I have said that many African writers write poor fiction because they tend to force their anxieties about social conditions into the format of fiction. The result is often awkward, they should be writing essays. But I was primarily thinking about books. Today, the vast proportion of our stories is being written on the Internet by young folks who do not have the resources that the West availed Achebe, Soyinka, and Ngugi et al in the 60’s. Why are we judging African literature only through books? Why?
Back to Shriver’s speech, she is upset that some writers, many of color, are concerned about white writers who dabble in literary cultural appropriation. There was a lot that had been festering in Shriver’s mind and she let loose in the speech, using as an excuse, the real or contrived charge of cultural appropriation:
In the latest ethos, which has spun well beyond college campuses in short order, any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch. Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.
Apparently, there are a few writers of color out there (I don’t know any) aided by their white literary counterparts of the liberal left who have now become the literary police of sorts, glaring at white folks for wearing dashiki and penning atrocious pidgin English in their novels – for fame and fortune. What an outrage, why is the white man intruding on our market? Stay where you are, in your nice insular space and write your stuff, while we do our stuff, you are crowding our market, is the charge. Nonsense. I have no proof of this, but apparently Shriver has enough proof and was exercised enough to bore hundreds with a long pedestrian speech about the imaginary consequences of this censorship. I say to the white writer: Write, just write, who cares? All my life, as a black man, my life has been defined by conquest (me, being the conquered), and a full immersion in an appropriated, or dominant culture. It is a good thing I have not needed the white man’s permission to appropriate his way of life. I just find it interesting that some thinkers and writers of color have created emotional fences around an imagined African culture and are elbowing folks in the West for appropriating said fiction. Let’s call this literary ethnic cleansing. Folks, if you are doing it, I say, stop. Dear African writer, pick up the mirror in your Western hotel (funded by your Western patrons) and look deep in it; your life is one long cultural conquest. You are the culturally and physically conquered. Stop whining from the cafes of Europe and North America.
When has this “cultural appropriation” been an issue? The logic of “cultural appropriation”, going by Scaldi’s definition, is absurd and patronizing. This is a non-debate really. In Shriver’s speech, she makes up this charge, and then infantilizes the non-debate with unrelated anecdotes. But then, Shriver has a history of seeing just the dark side in other racial and ethnic groups. Take her latest novel, The Mandibles, which inspired a harsh review by Ken Kalfus, a very fair review given how he subsequently helpfully summarizes her book here in all its offensive glory:
Shriver’s 12th novel is set in a near-future American dystopia where many of the concerns currently expressed by conservatives finally have been realized. After an immigration amnesty, the country is flooded with “Lats” who elect a Mexican-born president who presides over a devastating economic collapse, in part created by runaway entitlements. Shriver observes President Alvarado’s “baby-faced softness only emphasized by the palatalized consonants of a Mexican accent,” a stereotypical image of a pudgy, lisping Mexican that links his perfidy to his ethnicity as would an elliptically described hooked nose on a loathsome Jewish character.
The two black characters are similarly ill-treated. One, a social worker, is the novel’s only character who speaks sub-standard English. After Alvarado renounces the national debt, she says, “I don’t see why the gubment ever pay anything back. Pass a law say, ‘We don’t got to.’ ” It was once common in newspapers, fiction and nonfiction to report the speech of “ordinary” people in standard English, while voicing minorities in dialect or vernacular, as they might sound to white ears; this still happens from time to time, unfortunately. By recording only the speech of minority characters in sub-standard English, you stigmatize the entire ethnic group as something other than normal. No one speaks perfectly. Respect for your characters suggests that if you record one’s solecisms, dropped consonants, drawl or brogue, you will faithfully record everybody else’s, too.
The most problematic of Shriver’s minority characters is an African American woman who has married into the white family at the heart of the novel. She suffers from early-onset dementia and is a danger to herself and to others. As the economy collapses, the family loses its home and treks across Brooklyn with the woman at the end of a leash. A plot development that features an uncontrollable black person who has to be kept under restraint like a dog seems guaranteed to hurt and provoke outrage. I wrote, “If ‘The Mandibles’ is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.” I was thinking of ads in bus shelters and, honestly, I imagined they’d be wrecked.
These are the kinds of fiction that made Achebe call Joseph Conrad a thoroughgoing racist. So there you have it: Is cultural appropriation the issue or is Shriver ignorant of seminal literary works like Achebe’s about the power of narratives to define and dehumanize the other? With respect to Africa, Achebe would say that the issue is not about cultural appropriation, but about the bigotry and imbalance of the stories that have helped shape Africa as the heart of darkness. Dear Ms. Shriver, write what you want and do not feel guilty about it. If you look around you, and all you see is white America, by all means write about it. There are readers, even for you. African writers like Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o recognized the imbalance of the stories from across the seas, and proceeded to change the literary paradigm. They shifted the balance of power between the hunted and the hunter. What Achebe and Ngugi did with their books was masterful, a stroke of genius. In my essay, Of African Literature and the Language and the Politics of the Stories I stated the following:
Achebe and Ngugi proved that one could take the English Language and appropriate it for oneself and write with it as if one was writing in one’s indigenous language. Read Achebe’s books, especially Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, No Longer at Ease, and A Man of the People; the beauty of Achebe’s novels is in how he took the English Language and fooled the reader into thinking that the characters are speaking Igbo. Reading Things Fall Apart especially, the reader would be forgiven for thinking that Achebe was writing in Igbo. The man was a genius. Achebe’s approach was brilliant on many levels; economically, trying to sell a novel in the language of my ancestors would be a huge challenge. Not many people would buy it because many of my people speak the language but can neither read nor write it. Besides, there is not much of a market for works of fiction written in my language. That is the least of our challenges. Achebe and his generation of writers brilliantly sidestepped that challenge by being creative with the use of the English language. They appropriated the English language and made it uniquely their own. That is how it should be.
Many white writers have nurtured the perverse tradition of infantilizing characters of color, of making caricatures and stick figures out of their lives, as I pointed out in my review of Onitsha. Decades ago, Achebe deconstructed this dysfunction in the now seminal critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which he denounced Conrad as a thoroughgoing racist. He followed up with his essay, Today, the Balance of Stories, in his book of essays, Home and Exile. The Atlantic has a good interview of Achebe that summarizes his points succinctly. Sadly in many cases, as part of “cultural appropriation” or uncritical mimicry of their white literary masters, many contemporary African writers like Chris Abani are guilty of this sin (read my essay, The Balance of Our Stories, and my concerns about the Caine Prize for African writing, in How Not to Write About Africa and The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences), and have contributed to the pejorative, that single story of poverty, disease and deprivation called poverty porn. African writers have become the problem they deride.
Many African writers perform a perverse form of appropriation. Their characters are poverty stricken stick figures, caricatures of real life. They love to live rent-free in the troubled heads of the diseased Africans of their fiction. They don’t see diseases, rapes and wars elsewhere in Europe and North America where they frequent, thanks to generous grants by their Western benefactors. When they do write about the West, it is the single story of the stressed out immigrant doing sketchy things just to send money home via Western Union. In their books, there are no thinkers, no dreamers of substance, unless they are white. All you read of is poverty porn, for profit. Ka-ching Ka-ching, all the way to the bank, the self-loathing flies on wings of cultural appropriation. Chimamanda Adichie talks eloquently about the perverse power and danger of the single story, and she is right; I would only add that the distortions are primarily the fault of African writers who in their books continuously feed a hungry west with the stories that they want to read. I talk about this at length in my own essay, The Balance of Our Stories.
Cultural appropriation is the least of our problems. We need new names and voices to drive the appropriate narrative and to return the bored readership to literature, especially African literature. It is a failure of leadership. In my review of the shortlisted offerings of the 2016 Caine Prize I offered the following:
Those who criticize the Caine Prize raise excellent points, but I concede that to the extent that it is directed at the Prize, the criticisms give the impression of entitlement and privilege. Today’s writers should bear most of the blame. The reader seeks genuine innovation in the writing; bold and energetic pieces that keep folks glued to the reading monitor. This is the 21st century. In all seriousness, I pray daily that the equivalent of iTunes comes to rescue the vast majority of African writers from the tyranny of orthodoxy. They seem to spend the best part of their productive lives hoping to land that book contract or win that prize. The odds are beyond intimidating. Which is sad. And frustrating. The best writing of this generation of writers is on the Internet and on social media. And it is really good stuff. Sadly, but understandably most African writers have no choice but to submit themselves to the tyranny of the lottery that passes for traditional publishing.
Yes, it is a failure of leadership, a refusal to innovate. We are looking in the wrong places. I return to my rebuttal to Rittelmeyer and restate my frustration about the way things are in the world of literature:
“African literature” in the 21st century, to the extent that it is only judged through analog books by literary “critics” schooled in the 20th century Achebean era, will always distort our history and stories. I have said that many African writers write poor fiction because they tend to force their anxieties about social conditions into the format of fiction. The result is often awkward, they should be writing essays. But I was primarily thinking about books. Today, the vast proportion of our stories is being written on the Internet by young folks who do not have the resources that the West availed Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi et al in the 60’s. Why are we judging African literature only through books? Why?
There are exciting things happening in literature. Look around you, African literature is alive and well on the Internet. Young Africans are writing up a storm, using innovative techniques. Talk to Ainehi Edoro who runs the beautiful blog BrittlePaper, read the new and free anthology of stories online on her web, Enter Naija – The Book of Places edited by Otosirieze Obi-Young. Ignore the institutionalized single story despair about the state of Africa in African fiction. All over the Internet many African writers are doing innovative things with literature and showcasing African communities as the sum of their stories. It is challenging but they see immense opportunities and are taking advantage of them. It bears repeating: The definition of “cultural appropriation” by Scaldi is patronizing, provincial and insular. But then, I wish traditional African writers who write books of fiction would be just as insular and provincial, by simply writing and not worrying about what the other thinks. It is true, with traditional publishing ruled by powerful Western gatekeepers, African writers are not negotiating from a position of strength.
There is good news. The Internet and social media is the new publishing house for young Africans and for good reason. This is now how we read and write. Social media immerses the reader in the reading and writing culture of the young, especially young Africans. Everything they do seems to be online, the culture is rich and the language fascinating. The result is robust and engaging literature, with the reader and the writer swapping roles and providing each other feedback in real time. Faithful to the oral tradition of African storytellers, young African writers have turned social media into a robust, rollicking and addictive playground. The new writers are on social media entertaining us for free. What we get on social media we will never get from books, certainly not the ones edited and published in the West. Beyond that, it is the three dimensional nature of the discourse that thrills me, engaging postings inspire a long rollicking thread to die for. No wonder in the 21st century, the book is fast becoming a distraction. Young African writers do not feel a need to italicize African words like egusi and ugali and no longer provide helpful footnotes explaining African words and sayings. Google is your friend, they say. Good for them. They are not writing for a Western audience, they are simply writing – and inviting the world to immerse themselves in their world and google their way through the labyrinths of the rich catacombs of their lives. Help yourself to our world, they say. That would be true cultural appropriation. But wait, there is a limit. Do not mess with our jollof rice. Eat it, don’t fix it like Jamie Oliver tried to do by using alien ingredients like coriander, parsley and lemon. Who does that? That would be war.
About the Author:
Ikhide R. Ikheloa is a blogger, social and literary critic who writes non-stop on various online media. He has been published in several books, journals and online magazines. He was a columnist with Next Newspapers and The Daily Times of Nigeria, where he held forth and offered unsolicited opinions on any and everything to do with literature and the world. And he currently blogs about politics and literature at http://xokigbo.wordpress.com