It's a hot potato of a cultural question, but Jon Evans tackles it straight on in today's Guardian. It's not too surprising that Evans has an opinion on this one: He's a white Canadian who has written a thriller ("Night of Knives") set in Africa.
Evans's novel recently attracted scathing reader review on Library Thing.
"This is a truly appalling book," the reader wrote. "[I]t's not a book about Africa. It's a thriller about north Americans and Europeans set in an 'exotic' African backdrop. A few Africans have bit parts in it. The picture it paints of Africa is overwhelmingly negative, almost a caricature."
The reader/critic goes on to cite Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina's satirical essay "How to write about Africa" and suggests that "Night of Knives" might have been written using Wainaina's essay as a guide.
Ouch! Wainaina's essay is only too accurate.
How many novels have you read (movies have you seen) that hew painfully close to the following advice?:
"In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. 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. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular."
Evans says he's the first to find Wainaina's essay to be "terrific." He says he's read it numerous times – and in fact says he tried as hard as possible to avoid the pitfalls it describes. And he agrees that, " 'Write what you know' is a valuable safety mechanism. Writing about characters steeped in a living culture that you know only through travel and research is a recipe for offensive disaster."
But where does that leave a white author who wants to write about Africa?
Facing a "fundamental catch-22," laments Evans. "If I write about westerners like myself who go there, then – to quote the review - 'It's not a book about Africa. It's a thriller about North Americans and Europeans set in an "exotic" African backdrop'. But had I populated the book with African protagonists, I've little doubt I would have fallen flat on my face."
So does that mean that an author like Evans simply can't write about Africa?
"I reject that notion ... emphatically," he states. "I can see how novels about westerners in the former colonial world, and particularly commercial fiction such as thrillers, can trigger a defensive reaction. Such books have all too often been patronizing and insulting... But to reject that – or any – combination of author, characters and setting as invalid is to throw a whole nursery-full of babies out with the bathwater."
He also quotes mixed-race novelist Hari Kunzru's vigorous defense of "Brick Lane" (which also appeared in the Guardian), in which he wrote that, "I reserve the right to imagine anyone and anything I damn well please. If I want to write about Jewish people, or paedophiles or Patagonians or witches in 12th-century Finland, then I will do so, despite being 'authentically' none of these things."
To whom does literature belong? Who has the right to create it, to interpret it, to claim to understand it?
I suspect that we'll be fighting over these questions for centuries to come.