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.

11 comments:

  1. Now if it was about a Nigerian journalist in, say, Florida, it'd be awesome.

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  2. Bravo! SF does this kind of lazy writing and lazier thinking far too often, and thinks itself great for doing so even more.

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  3. Yeah. Africa is a continent. Not a country. I never realized how much the West does that until I lived in South Africa for awhile. Once I got back, I found the total lack of even an attempt at understanding the differences among African countries - even African *regions* - astounding.

    I'll need to read the story, but honestly, just reading a couple of good memoirs or some secondary stuff would help avert a lot of this lazy stuff. I can think of several really great memoirs involving stories of a similiar bent - white journalist gets himself (usually always *him*self) f*cked in Africa - that are full of real people and set in actual countries with actual politics.

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  4. Hello, Matt! Thanks for the insightful analysis.

    Interestingly, the original submitted draft of "Faraji" had more details about a specific country and cultural situation, but I was asked by the editors to remove that specificity. I'm not entirely sure why; perhaps there was a fear of controversy or politics.

    Still, I could have either stuck to my guns or been sneakier about inserting more detail, so the criticism certainly still applies.

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  5. Well, being that I know Will and how he writes, I honestly doubt lazy writing was involved. It seems choices were made by editorial staff and by writer. But laziness? I don't think so.

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  6. I regret any implication of laziness on Will's part -- really, I shouldn't have made the mistake of pretending to know anything about his motivations or intentions. From our recent brief correspondence, I have nothing but respect for him, and I very much look forward to reading more of his work in the future.

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  7. They asked you to *take out* the specificity?

    Holy crap.

    I find this.. bizarre. I sold a South African ghost story to Talebones that... couldn't have worked as an "African" ghost story.

    That's a weird editorial choice.

    (Matt - I'm the one who made the outright "lazy" comment; I don't think that was you)

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  8. I'm a white South African living in the US, and an improving writer ;). It's hard selling Africa to Americans. It's a fine line between what is interesting and what is patronizing. I think respect for the setting and the people is key, and more an appreciation for what makes Africa special.

    Africa is many things. There is no, "United states of Africa" -- rather it's a continent with over 50 independent nations that are all autonomous and most often non-aligned. The African Union is as different to the EU as hotdogs are to Thai food. Not all of Africa is populated by black people, with the entire north being heavily populated by Arabs, and Bushmen are another kind of people too. Some countries are predominantly Islamic and others are predominantly Christian, some are a fairly even split (as a loose rule, with plenty of exceptions, the North is mostly Muslim and the South is mostly Christian. Having said that ancient African cultures and religions pervade the practice of these two religions most places you go. Some countries have dictators, others have democracies. A few have wars, the majority have peace. Some are technologically advanced, others are more primitive, but they always have cities of various sizes and you can almost always find technology in these cities. Cell phone technology is pervasive. And always the complexity on the ground is greater than you might expect.

    I can also say that as an African living in the US I have lived though the uninformed ignorance of Africa that is plentiful here. I cannot joke about dancing with hippos, or swim races with crocodiles, or dodging lions on my way to my car, or about computers made of mud and bark, etc, because I get believed all too often. I have been asked if we have roads, or if I know what an ATM is (our ATMs were more advanced in South Africa 12 years ago when I left than most ATMs in the USA are today), do we live in huts, do we have electricity, how do I avoid being eaten, and worse. On my first day in the US I was asked if we had computers in South Africa... by a fellow computer programmer... on a project where I had been brought in directly from South Africa to be the expert on site. I had to enquire of him just how he thought I might have become a software expert without hardware.

    There are several SF&F writers out there who have written a of stories set in Africa --some of them having written many of them -- and most of them are overwhelmingly pessimistic in their views on Africa and its future, and I have been on Worldcon panels with many of them and very few have the appreciation that, firstly they barely scratched the surface of the culture/s they visited, and secondly, the cultures they visited could be substantially different from some or all of the other African cultures just in that one country, let alone in the rest of the continent. They were guilty of the equivalent of me coming to the US and judging all of the US by say, Jackson Mississippi, or some rural community in Montana, or for that matter judging the US by a visit to LA or New York, or worse yet by Hollywood or Disneyworld. Nevertheless, in the end it is the story that counts, not the setting, and many of their stories were still excellent. Still, I often feel that writers setting their stories in more popular or more respected settings, like Japan or Europe, take considerably more care on their research.

    Thanks for the article.

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  9. Matt,

    Thanks for the thoughtful critique.

    Will, above, is correct -- our previous editorial leadership, under which his story was purchased, did indeed shy away from connecting fantasy stories too closely to real-world political circumstances. (Not just overseas -- I'm aware of at least a couple good stories last year that were turned down because they involved the current U.S. political landscape, and our editors were always concerned that some real-life occurrence could take place between buying such a story and printing it that would render it outdated in advance.)

    I suspect our new editorial team has a somewhat more 21st-century attitude toward such things. I would guess that in the future, our real-world geographies will be rather more realistic, while those geographies that do need to be vague will tend more toward the fantastical.

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  10. I think the (popular) idea that stereotype has no place in fiction is absurdly misguided, often a well-meaning but naive attempt to excise much that is human. ALL fiction, indeed all thought, plays on stereotype, assumptions, misapprehension and generalization. It's not that stereotypes offer nothing to fiction or are so outmoded and offensive that they should be verboten, but that one should not treat with them simplemindedly or unconsciously. But then, one should do very little simplemindedly, in writing or in life.

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