The reason every book about Africa has the same cover—and it’s not pretty

As part of Africa Week here at NMMU I attended a lecture last night by UCT Professor Harry Garuba about Textualized Literature. First he spoke about Textual Territories which are areas of the world that have been written about so much that the writing has forever altered our perceptions of the place. He gave the example of Robben Island being inextricably linked to Nelson Mandela that the perception of the island will always be viewed through the “Mandela lense”.  Then he made the argument that Africa itself is an over-textualized territory.  First, Africa was written about by people who “discovered” various places in Africa.  They wrote tales of discovery.  There were diaries by missionaries, memos from colonial administrators that wrote back to their home countries of the manners and customs they witnessed.  These might be considered amateur ethnographies.  Literature of this first type that has reached canonical status are: Heart of Darkness, King Salomon’s Mines, Mister Johnson, Out of Africa, and Tarzan and the Apes.  These books participate in othering which is a process where the authors define identity by what they are not.  They identify themselves at the norm and everything else is negative or abnormal (white/black; good/evil; Christian/heathen; civilized/primitive or savage).  These texts and pieces of literature were published by the colonial powers about the land and people they were occupying in the colonies.

The next wave of literature then writes back to the empire.  African writers read the canonical works of literature and answered back with their own form of ethnographic novel.  Nobel Prize winning author Chinua Achebe said that he wrote because he didn’t see himself in the books he read for school.  As he was growing up he noted that at first he imagine himself as the explorers finding finding his way through the jungle.  But then he came to realize that in the book the author would have written him as one of  the dark faced cannibals not the explorer.    Achebe’s generation of authors wrote deeply contextualized pieces to show themselves through the books illustrating their own rich culture with long-standing traditions.  This generation was writing back to the cannon and presenting a unified front.

Following that wave were authors who wrote back from the perspective of further marginalized people.  So, homogeneity gives way to heterogeneity and differences within a culture are given room to be exposed.  In this wave class and gender are discussed. Some of the books in this category are: So Long a Letter, The Joys of Motherhood, Woman at Point Zero, A Man of the People, The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born.

Then comes the 3rd wave or post-independence writers.  They are struggling with the current realities of African life and culture throughout the continent.  There is disillusionment with the current situation because the promised life that they were fighting for during apartheid or colonial domination has not come true as it was imagined.  These authors are posing what could be called a Marxist challenge to their current governments.  Professor Garuba argued that literature from South Africa should be considered interconnected to the literature from other countries on the continent.  These new writers are offering plural truths which allow for levity and a new lightness of being.  He postulated that the next concern for African cultural literature are authors who are represented as African authors but who no longer live in Africa.  It seems simple that this will happen because publishers find it easier to deal with a local author rather than one who is on the continent.  However, these authors call into question the authenticity not of their individual voice but their individual voice being held up as representative for a whole people once again.

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