If the cover design of a book illustrates a dirty child with a spindly neck bearing the burden of a huge head, wafer-thin torso skin stretched over a cage of bones, or any other symbolic synonym of poverty and strife, chances are that the book is about Africa. Sometimes the cover does not give the subject away, and the inner pages will have to perform the task of elevating poverty to literary entertainment. And when it comes to writing about Africa, no one decorates suffering better than the Western writer, either out of sympathy or scorn. African writers who are purportedly seeking Western validation had better present the closest imitation of hell when writing about their continent. The Western reader, it is said, does not find it funny that a book about Africa is deficient in what is now known as Africa's poverty-porn.
Angered by this skewed narration of the continent's socio-cultural experience, some African literary critics have been urging African writers to provide the flip-side of the African story. The continent is not only about poverty, strife, corruption and disease; away with this obsession with negativities, they say. They have a point. But their prescription is rather simplistic for two reasons.
First is that the book is not the only medium through which the West can have a glimpse of Africa. More propulsive, explicit media have emerged: Facebook; Twitter; the movie industry, especially Nollywood; and good old television. There is yet the embarrassment of African NGOs exporting sound-bites and images of squalor to attract Western donors. These are handy to contradict any colourful renditions of Africa, so putting the blame entirely on the writer is curious. Truth is, Africa is lagging behind due to the fanfare of poor leadership and corruption, both being the major suppliers of the material for gloomy African literature.
Second is that prescriptive writing in this case implies an imperative to consecrate falsehood. Most writers are not patriotic enough to lie through their noses in the face of valid, contrary evidence. Wouldn't it appear sarcastic - a fiction too far from experience? There are those whose creativity works better when it depicts reality. Literature is life. Even as fiction, it yet reflects palpable actualities. The African writer has been told what to write so much that the prescriptions have become the malady.
There is yet the point that the critic does not want to read your story; he wants to read his own story in your book - but let that pass for now.
There is, of course, an Africa of healthy children riding sporty bicycles on paved roads; there are no kidnappers and armed robbers manning every street, no AK-47rifles replacing walking-sticks. And men there still hold their trousers in place with belts, not with strips of grenade. Perhaps such perspectives should begin to form part of the African narrative in a thematic sense - if only people would prefer good to bad news. But are these feats to be touted in the pages of a 21-century book, when other nations are launching rockets into space and debating the dialectics of human cloning?
Africa is not the sum of literary representations, whether in terms of poverty-porn or unsung glory. Monotonous as it sounds, its image consists in the expression of its leadership, one whose corruption is manured by the present apathy of literature. Surprisingly, most African writers of today find it old-fashioned to pillory graft, the very source of the excrement that critics find embarrassing. The era of bold, investigative literature is almost totally gone.
The most eloquent deplorations of corruption, especially in Nigeria, are to be found in the works of old-generation writers. The Nigerian corrupt politician, flying in his sleek private jet over a topography of rot, is such a lucky menace: apart from scanty media reports that even lack follow-ups - due to the sheer repetitiveness of theft - literature offers him indulgence by silence. Yet the poverty-porn critic wants to make him luckier by legislating his shame out of publicity. He is also clever, the politician. With his money, he can purchase being edited into a fine gentleman, and those who lampoon him must be doing so from the blight of ethnicity or religion.
Now, this is not to hold brief for the poverty obsession in African literature. A balanced approach is welcome in its uncensored reality.
Critics seeking the re-telling of Africa had better direct attention to the right source of Africa's shaming history - the politician whose graft is largely under-reported. Literature, being a more permanent form of writing, can keep the poverty-porn writer out of circulation if it addresses the very source of that art.
*Immanuel James Ibe-Anyanwu is a young Nigerian writer based in Lagos. He has not won anything. He boasts 25 rejections for his yet-to-be-published book. His articles have appeared in several national dailies and online media, including Ynaija, NaijaStories.com, Daily Independent, The Nigerian Telegraph, The Emerge Review, among others.*
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