17 May 2007

Details of Representation

The question (problem? issue?) of how Third World countries get represented in First World fiction is one that has interested me for some time, mostly because I'm hyper-aware and perhaps hyper-sensitive to my own status as a First World reader.* My ideas about such representations have run quite a gamut over the years, and continue to shift and change almost daily.

Today, my thoughts returned again and again to Will Ludwigsen's story "Faraji" in the April/May Weird Tales. I read the story mostly because Paolo Bacigalupi had some good things to say about it, and I like Paolo and respect his intelligence. Also, I like the efforts of various people at Weird Tales to bring the magazine into the 21st century. So I was all primed to enjoy the story.

But I couldn't. There are good things about it, certainly, and I could see why it had been bought and published -- the pacing is deft, there's a very clear narrative voice, and the setting is exotic.

The setting is a prison in an unspecified African country, where an American journalist has been held for nearly a year after being captured by a group of rebels who killed his two companions. In prison, he meets a boy (Faraji) who experiences time as a complete entity, and is thus able to know his own future as well as the narrator's. Eventually, the U.S. gains a gung-ho president who decides to send the military into various Third World spots to "remind the Third World of America's superior will" and our narrator is rescued along with Faraji so that the two of them can, presumably, go off to live out their predicted (predestined?) lives and learn that deaths can lead to meaningful events for the living. Or something like that.

There is an attempt at moral complexity in this story that I respect. I wish more stories aimed as high. I really wish I felt this one succeeded in its ambitions.

The central failure of the story is in its representation of Africa. The story is set in the future, it seems, or at least an alternate present, because there is a "President Russell" in the U.S. By not naming the African country where the narrator is imprisoned, the story unfortunately plays off of "Dark Continent" stereotypes that set all of Africa up as a mysterious, primitive, and brutal Other. It could be argued that the narrator is someone for whom the continent is, indeed, that, but I think such an argument utterly misses the point. The point is: Why tell this particular story in this particular way at this particular time?

A better argument against my position is that of the realist. Are you saying (the realist might ask me) that we shouldn't write negatively about Africa? There are places in Africa that have experienced almost unfathomable brutality. There are places in Africa where journalists are imprisoned, tortured, killed. Why shouldn't a writer portray such things?

Of course writers should portray life as it is lived. Of course they should not shy away from the horrors -- the human capacity for brutality is infinite. It is not that a writer should not portray such things, but that such things should be portrayed with care.

To claim that a story in which a naive white journalist from the U.S. goes to an unspecified African country, stumbles into an area where he shouldn't go, watches two of his friends get murdered, and then is kidnapped and imprisoned in a horrible jail from which he escapes only via a deus ex America -- to claim that such a story is either just being realistic or, on the other hand, shouldn't be taken very seriously because it's just entertainment, is to ignore an awful lot of things. It is to ignore that the idea of a place called Africa is an idea fraught with stereotypes for many First World readers, readers for whom "Africa" is a place they see on the TV news whenever there is a particularly bad catastrophe. An idea that holds fascination for us because it posits a place full of horrors, a place that it isn't "civilized", a place that lets us feel particularly good about our own lives, our privileges and luxuries.

Africa in such a story is not a place at all, but an idea, and that idea is the same damn one that Conrad and so many lesser writers used. There is a difference between setting a story in "Africa" and setting it in a particular place at a particular time. There is a difference between using the idea of "Africa" as a prop for your plot and actually writing about Africa. I think those differences are vital, particularly when writing about places that have suffered so much stereotyping in First World readers' minds.

Obviously, Will Ludwigsen didn't want to write about a real place in Africa. (He wrote about real places in the U.S. -- here's just one sentence: "In May 1994, I graduated from the University of Florida College of Journalism with a head full of ideas about the role of the journalist in society.") If he didn't want to write about a real place in Africa, why use the continent at all, then? To show that liberal-minded middle-class white Americans need a dose of "reality"? That seems to be the general thrust of the plot. But this isn't a story about reality at all. It's a trite fantasy based on colonialist cliches that, for First World readers, lend an air of exoticism to the setting. Playing off of those cliches and indulging First World readers' conceptions of the exotic is something I think writers should be careful to avoid.

Why do I think this story's primary effects come from its setting, a setting built from unfortunately exoticizing ideas? First, because the story doesn't need to be set in "Africa" -- there is nothing inherently African (or "African") in the story. Second, because the plot device of a character who can see the future and uses this knowledge to help another character reach some sort of enlightenment is hardly original, so if the story possesses interest that interest must lie elsewhere. Third, because "Africa" is always a convenient setting for a tale of naive white people gaining knowledge, perspective, and new philosophies through difficult experiences, with their new knowledge, perspective, and philosophies often given by wondrous natives. Blecch. (Personally, I prefer Paul Bowles's tales of whites in Third World countries -- his white characters suffer and often die and don't really learn anything except how ignorant and misguided they are.)

I'm reluctant in my criticism, and trying to be as fair in my expression here as I can be, because I do want writers to reach beyond their own realms of experience, to stretch and strive and imagine. But doing so requires a lot of skill and a lot of empathy. And for all I know, maybe Will Ludwigsen -- about whom I know nothing -- is from somewhere in Africa or has lots of experience with certain places on the continent. It doesn't matter to me. What matters is the story itself, and what that story conveys. (It's perfectly possible for any one of us to write badly -- utilizing cliches and stereotypes -- about our own experiences and societies.) What matters is that this story should have been written with more care and thought, with more consideration for the details of representation.

Details are what doom "Faraji". The vagueness of the setting allows cliches and stereotypes to blossom. Bad writing is imprecise writing, and for all the skill Ludwigsen demonstrates with pacing, with voice, with narrative, he fails to demonstrate the most important skill that his story needs: precision. Specificity. Detail. The kind of specificity we get in so many good and great books about Africa written by people who know something about the place, especially African writers themselves, people for whom Africa is not an idea, but (now) a continent of nearly a billion people and more than 50 countries, a continent with diverse and rich histories, a continent with, yes, plenty of misery, but also plenty of beauty and wonder.

We First World readers need fiction about the relationship between the First World and the Third World. We need to read stories about First Worlders in the Third World and Third Worlders in the First. We need to write openly and honestly about histories of oppression, misunderstanding, misconception, suffering. We need to acknowledge the limits of good will, the deficiencies of naive liberalism, the failures of grand plans. We need to imagine and to empathize. But we need to do so with an acknowledgement that what we write is not written from or on a blank slate, and so we must write with tremendous care. We should remember the satirical warnings offered by Binyavanga Wainaina in "How to Write About Africa". We should consider carefully the ideas of Achebe and Ngugi and so many other Africans who have written and thought about what it means to write and think about Africa. We should aim for complexity, because a complex perspective is the only one that gives us any hope of getting away from the "Darkest Africa" cliches and toward more nuanced and supple perspectives -- representations that don't neglect the more powerful details, the details that most deeply affect how we construct the worlds of our imaginations and most powerfully influence the worlds of our everyday lives.

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*Yes, I know the terms "Third World" and "First World" are relics with lots of baggage. Every other term I've encountered for these concepts seems problematic as well, for various reasons, and so for now I'm using the most familiar terms, but also calling attention to their inadequacy, or at least my lack-of-total-comfort with them.