White eyes

Pressure on African writers to avoid the criticism of poverty porn limits the imagination of the writer and the ability to speak truth to power.

Image credit Patrick Tomasso (@impatrickt) via Unsplash.

The best way to listen to music is on shuffle—one never knows what comes next or what to expect. The unpredictability, the sudden change of groove as the music shuffles, reminds me of life as we know it—or, perhaps it is like being in a Leye Adenle crime novel, an unpredictable universe. When life gets complicated, I plug into my playlist of Afrobeats songs, listening as the steady groove of Niniola’s Maradona segues into Timaya’s reggae infused Kom Kom. Here, I find a comforting escape. The appeal and power of Afrobeats lies in its heavy danceable musical beats, with vocals riding the waves of the riddim, inviting the listener to konko-below and forget their sorrow. With every note and beat drop, it is clear that the musical team behind the song, just like the listeners, are enjoying themselves.

Contemporary Afropop music is unapologetically local; the lyrics a stream of often vacuous words strung together, just for rhyming effect. This creates memorable rhythm and shared social symbols from random objects—like how cassava becomes a metaphoric phallus or how “assurance,” according to  Afropop superstar Davido’s prescription, is a conferment of expensive gifts as an expression of love. Made without an external white gaze, Afrobeats functions without rules, channeling the spirit and language of the locality of production to have far reaching aesthetic merit and social impact in ways that Anglophone African literature rarely does. This is instructive, perhaps anthropologic: as a genre, Afrobeats—lyrics proudly sung in indigenous languages or pidgin English, interspersed here and there with English or French—grew within the African continent, finds its popularity at home first before achieving fame abroad and still holds strongly to its African identity. Despite its growing popularity abroad, the genre makes no effort to make itself eligible  to any audience apart from its original constituents in Africa.

The contemporary literary equivalent to endogenous Afrobeats is the market literature tradition in Kano, northern Nigeria. For many years, writers, like Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, writing in Hausa, have explored their lives for themselves and in their language, using paper to quietly challenge a conservative society by telling stories of life and love desired and lived in secret. For these writers, mostly women, there is little need to “perform Africa” because their readers are close to home, grounded in their language and the signs it points to, as well as the social meaning it connotes.

The idea of “performing Africa” is rooted in pandering to a Western audience by deploying the stereotypes often associated with the continent. Because Afrobeats is made with a local audience in mind, it has stayed above this posturing. However, many Anglophone African writers have had to contend with African critics calling out the stereotypes, the performativity, the false representation, and pandering present in some African literature—or as Makoma wa Ngugi states in his book, The Rise of the African Novel: “the battle that Achebe carried to Conrad has now become fratricidal to the extent that African writers and critics are accusing other African writers of offering the West a Conradian Africa.” This alludes to how the sad phenomenon of “poverty porn” plays a central role in performing Africa through embodying a historical Western perception and stereotypes of Africa and Africans.

As a discussion within Africa’s literary circle and beyond, critics of poverty porn have, for the last decade, pushed the boundaries of representation. But, perhaps most importantly, they tell the world that African identity isn’t a single, simple idea—one that is riddled with poverty, starving children, helpless women, and jobless men—rather, it’s a complex, multifaceted confluence of ideas and realities. Helon Habila points to this in his critique of NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel We Need New Names. And over the last decade, the Nigerian critic, Ikhide Ikhleoa, has called out instances of poverty porn in African literature shortlisted for awards. Given the diversity of the continent and genres, most of the examples used here are culled from Nigeria.

In order to break this poverty porn induced perception of Africa and the performance of Africa in literature, the need then arises to present an alternative story far removed from the endless destitution in media; to produce works that conform to a certain progressive standard and avoid the trap of poverty porn. That is, literary works that show the Western eye a cosmopolitan Africa, with trendy coffee shops and fashion outlets dotting the streets of Yaba, Lagos; the tech revolution sweeping through Nairobi, Kenya; the high-rise buildings dotting the skyline of Johannesburg; or successful, middle class Africans in the diaspora—otherwise called Afropolitans. Makoma wa Ngugi goes on to critique this alternative representation of Africa—particularly in Chimamanda Adichie’s works describing them as suffering “from an African, middle-class aesthetic” and “diaspora slumming” because Adichie chose not to tell the “single story of poor, fly-infested Africans.”

Smashed in by historical and ill-informed stereotypes about Africa and critical calls to write a new Africa, it might seem that there is no in-between; an African writer is either writing poverty porn or over-representing by telling stories of successful, latte drinking middle-class family melodrama. This demand on African writers limits the imagination, the scope of their writing and the power to speak truth to power—or as the Nigerian-Ghanaian writer, Taiye Selasi, argues, results in the pigeonholing of African writers and denial of artistic freedom. But if the work of the artist is to create (and stay honest to reality, without prejudice or agenda) and this work ends with creation, does it then make sense to limit the imagination of an African writer with the burden of ideal representation?

Habila, in response to what he calls “performing Africa” in  Bulawayo’s debut novel, writes that the better parts of the book occur when “Bulawayo … is enjoying herself—when she doesn’t feel she needs to be both a player and a commentator at the same time.” Then Habila writes: “The world is a dark and ugly place, a lot of that ugliness and injustice is present in Africa, but we don’t turn to literature to confirm that. The news is enough. What we turn to literature for is its ability to transport us beyond the headlines.” Despite his advice, Habila fails to see how his criticism of Bulawayo censors and denies her the privilege of self-expression and enjoyment as she attempts to write and speak her truth. Perhaps an even more dangerous implication of Habila’s criticism is that if Africans fail to tell these stories then others will, à la American Dirt style. And, on the other hand, he then goes on to confirm the reality of many lives on the continent which Bulawayo writes about.

The death winds of the Spanish Flu bled into colonial West Africa in 1918, an uninvited guest arriving aboard a colonial-era ship filled with infected bodies. With the stench of death in the air, citizens of West Africa—particularly in the hinterlands, far removed from the Atlantic Ocean and news reports—were sent into a panic as they attempted to make sense of this new disease that caused otherwise healthy men and women to drop dead like flies within days. Over the years, historians, scientists, and social scientists have attempted to explore the impact of this imperial disease on British colonies, using facts and figures as an anchor. Yet, despite its reputation as a vessel of objectivity and quantitative data, numbers do not tell the whole story, often obscuring the human face of an issue.

It is through the words of Buchi Emecheta in a Slave Girl and Elechi Amadi in The Great Ponds that we gain a more critical, humane insight into the extent of the damage the influenza pandemic wrought; how small warring communities in the hinterlands of eastern Nigeria sought for an explanation and prayed for deliverance; how the pandemic affected local economics and the little people whose face and lives are subsumed and lost under facts and figures. It is in this same way that Charles Dickens literary works play a crucial role in how we relate to the poverty of London in the Victorian era; and the Bronte sisters recount for us the lives of the middle-class of that era. Should we, in any case, accuse Dickens of writing poverty porn for attempting to represent the otherwise unseen and unheard members of Victorian society whose lives were shaped by poverty and trauma? Or accuse the Bronte sisters of suffering from a middle-class aesthetic fever?

Literary works have aesthetic merit and are social documentaries, giving the future access to the lives of yesterday and today. Literature reflects the mood and sign of times gone by or fast receding. Placed side by side, the works of Dickens and the Brontës present a fuller picture of the times they lived in, allowing today the opportunity to imagine yesterday from a variety of experiences while giving us language to describe them. To then accuse African writers of either writing poverty porn or middle-class anxieties when they write their reality is to censor and to deny tomorrow access to the variegated life stories being fashioned today. And even more dangerous is the harm criticism of poverty porn wrecks on the confidence of a writer. This burden of presentation in African literature comes with guilt and a political burden when writing: I am writing the truth, but does it cater to a Western lens? Does my writing, true as it may be to the lived experiences of a group within the continent, feed into the unfavorable Western view of Africa? Is there an intentional erasure of the stories of millions of Africans when we label some African literature poverty porn? Slowly, unbeknownst to the critic, these questions feed into a denial of agency and access to self-definition for an African writer who writes what they know. What this does is to bog the writer down with the responsibility to represent a perceived African ideal rather than the reality as they see it, at the risk of the truth.

Perhaps one could argue, and not be entirely wrong, that critics who accuse and berate African writers of writing poverty porn are themselves embarrassed about the reality of Africa—particularly in relation to the West. Often, these critics are in the diaspora from where they look down on Africa, cringing at the news images coming from the continent. Both the critic and the writer worry about representation and the readers’ perception of Africa, perhaps the question we should be asking is: for whom does an African writer write? It stands to be reasoned that the problem is not with what is written, but for whom it is written for. Afrobeats (or even Nollywood, Nigeria’s large film industry) does not carry the burden of representation because its primary audience and market are Africans. If African literature was produced with an African market in mind, would poverty porn be an issue seeing as we Africans are all so familiar with the reality of our states? It makes sense, at this point, to note that although often used interchangeably, a product’s audience and its market are distinct, with the former being more specific and narrowly defined than the latter. Consider for instance Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday, a book that is distinctly local to a specific part of northern Nigeria, with a domestic resonance for its audience. Yet, as the book’s international success indicates, the market for such books is global.

This distinction between audience and market for African literature is a result of the publishing economy, and its historical set-up, with deeper implications on the politics of writing. With a well-defined structure, network and a long history, publishing in the West is a bigger enterprise than it is in Africa. This explains why all the major prizes, structures of literary recognition, and other symbolic legitimization are in the West. And why African writers often look to the West for literary and, sometimes, commercial success and legitimacy. The writer, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, argues that African writers “are telling only the stories that foreigners allow us to tell.” This statement points to the history of contemporary African literature, as it paints an immediate picture of how African writers, in a bid to achieve success and appeal to (often white) publishers, editors, and the market abroad, may pander to stereotypes. The insistence of Western publishing and editorial that an authentic representation of Africa must involve poverty and stereotypes shows that the Western vision of Africa is still Conradian.

Yet, Nwaubani’s statement  is at once true but also very limited as it assumes that literary success can only be achieved in the West, failing to fully recognize—or refusing to acknowledge—the growing publishing environment in the continent, and that some African literature are commercial success in Africa with sales dwarfing many of the well-known text in the West. I recall when I worked as a communications officer at Cassava Republic Press that Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s debut novel, In Dependence, sold over three million copies in Nigeria alone. Yet, authors like Manyika whose publishers are small independent publishers often do not get as much attention as other authors published by big, Western publishers who have probably never even sold close to that figure.

We must allow writers to write without guilt, to explore and honestly tell the story of Africa in the plural without pandering or pigeonholing, bearing in mind that life—whether lived in Aba or Arizona, Benin or Bahia—is complicated. To do this, however, African writers must first reclaim the narrative, and piece together a mosaic of a contemporary Africa, one written with optimism and hopefulness without denigrating the complexity, diversity, humanity and, most importantly, truth of their own vision and imagination.

Further Reading