I just read Binyavanga Wainaina, “How to Write About Africa,” at Granta 92. I dig this essay, but what do you all think?
[Addendum: YouTube of Djimon Honsou reading Wainaina's essay here.]
I am reminded of Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, which is the story of the African “family” of Nettie, Celie’s sister in The Color Purple. As you know, Celie had been told her sister Nettie was dead, though Nettie had been writing to Celie for years, and these letters had been withheld and hidden from her by Mister, Celie’s abusive husband.
In truth, Nettie had gone to Africa with an African American missionary couple. In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Walker’s Africa is a monolithic body. The young African woman Tashi, of the Olinka tribe, has undergone genital mutilation, and she now lives in America. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read the novel, but I remember Walker’s tone being definitively one sided. All around, in other words, the tradition of female genital mutilation was oppressive, and this had much to do with taking away a mutilated woman’s ability to experience sexual pleasure. There is truth here, but I am also sure the issue has more dimensions to it. It’s akin to us “progressive” American women unilaterally imposing our ideas of feminism and judging the Muslim woman’s veil as total oppression when we know little to nothing of the traditions and experiences involved.
As for myself, this makes me think of the kinds of assumptions Filipino Americans make about the Philippines, its idyllic countryside, its traditions all left intact, its artifacts to be read as symbols. At our UCSC reading last year, Shirley Ancheta noted that for those Filipino Americans who have never been to the Philippines, the carabao is a very powerful symbol, almost mythological. Certainly, where carabao are beasts of burden, they are very important creatures. Much stronger than human beings, they enable the people to work the land, which obviously is crucial for people who live off the land. We understand then, why Manong Al Robles writes about the West Coast Pinoy agricultural workers as carabao, how Robles mythologizes them, and how American labor foremen dehumanize them.
I understand Ancheta’s perspective; going “home” is or can be a pilgrimage. Because we spend so much of our American lives misunderstood as foreigners, we do hope that upon “returning” to the “homeland,” we will be embraced by a people who understand us implicitly. Experientially, I do know this is not really the case, and I read this as well in Barack Obama’s section on Kenya in Dreams from My Father.
Briefly and very generally, I want to say a few things about Obama’s Dreams from My Father, which is non-fiction, and I believe, very cleanly well written and “literary.” In the section of this book dedicated to his first visit Kenya, he meets his complex and sprawling extended family, starting in Nairobi, and traveling into the traditional lands of his father and his father’s ancestors. In the meantime, the space between Nairobi and his father’s traditional lands is not a vast empty space, but populated with actual people with homes and families. Well, I could go on and on about this book, but for now will say that even though Obama writes from his point of view as an “outsider,” trying very hard to understand so many things, modes of operation and interaction, inheritances and responsibilities, that are otherwise implicit or given to everyone around him, I do not believe he oversimplifies “Africa,” or even Kenya and Kenyans here. In the meantime, not everything is implicit or understood; European colonialism has changed people, Western education has changed people.
And the same is true for us Filipino Americans. It’s not an easy combination, western living and thinking, and the traditional ways. To begin with, there is no one uniform tradition, and there is no one neat way of suturing these contradictions together. All this said, I believe Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay isn’t just indicting white people. That is, white people are not the only westerners who other. See, it’s so much easier to write First World Us and Third World Them. We have. They need what We have.
[Related reading on celebrities, aid, and Africa is the interview, "Questions for Dambisa Moyo: The Anti-Bono," in the NY Times here.]
Finally, I am interested in finding more ways of writing the complexities of our relationships between our “motherlands” and “adopted home countries,” our “mother tongues,” and our second (and third, and fourth, and so on) languages, our “traditional” selves and our modern selves, precisely because these aren’t neat binaries. I am interested in finding ways of encouraging good critical reading, such that readers and audiences can actually be open to discussing non-binaries. And I know the conversations can get messy, but that’s great, having to work at figuring it all out.