Report Realism

At Gukira, Keguro has posted some provocative thoughts on "report realism" in Kenyan fiction:
Over the past 15 years and more specifically the past ten years or so, Kenyan writing has been shaped by NGO demands: the “report” has become the dominant aesthetic foundation. Whether personal and confessional or empirical and factual or creative and imaginative, report-based writing privileges donors’ desires: to help, but not too much; to save, but not too fast; to uplift, but never to foster equality. One can imagine how these aims meld with traditional modes of realism and naturalism and also speak to modernist truncations and postmodern undecidability. However, report realism names a more historically accurate way to name a genre indebted (very literally) to NGOS in Kenya.

The report aesthetic goes beyond citing NGO facts and figures. It is concerned, above all, with a search for truth and accuracy and is threatened by imaginative labor.
I cannot comment on the specific accuracy of Keguro's observations, because I'm not in Kenya reading aspiring writers' work. But I was interested in the observations because when I was in Kenya (over five years ago, now) and talked with some young writers there, the sorts of contemporary writers they cited as inspiring them were people like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. Indeed, that's mostly what was available for fiction in the bookstores, with most stores putting Kenyan and African fiction, if they stocked it at all, in dusty corners. Yet the writers who cited these inspirations to me were, with one exception that I can think of (someone who'd spent quite a bit of time in the U.S., in fact), writing in a very realistic, documentary manner. That can happen anywhere, though, if you only talk to a limited sample of people; I hoped (and assumed) that there were other writers out there aspiring to different sorts of writing, whether fantastical in its content or experimental in its form, because aesthetic diversity makes for healthy reading-writing ecosystems. And there is some such work being written (heck, Ngugi's Wizard of the Crow is a good example); it just seems hard for it to get attention or to be celebrated in the way documentary realism is.

I'm a dedicated (if undisciplined) reader of African fiction, and particularly Kenyan fiction, but I'm very much an amateur and obviously an outsider, so I'm wary of saying anything other than, "Go read Keguro's post," because anything I say could easily be taken as a white American guy telling African writers what to write. My desire is not to tell anybody anywhere what they should write; instead, I would hope to encourage us all to do what we can to create the space for people to write what most compells them. Great writing of all types happens when writers find the forms and styles that allow them to express their own unique experiences and imaginings.

The danger of report realism is its normative power — if writers think this is what they should write, or this is the only type of writing that will get them an audience beyond their closest friends, then it is not just limiting, it is insidious and harmful.

Those of us outside of Africa who want to encourage more attention to African writing and more opportunities for African writers sometimes reinforce such harmful assumptions. The Caine Prize is a perfect example. In my Rain Taxi review of Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing, I said that the Caine Prize judges' narrow tastes are helping to limit the possibilities for writing from the continent. That was born out again during this year's Caine Prize. I don't blame the writers for that.

J.M. Coetzee was criticized (rightfully, I think) for lending his name and fame to an African fiction prize/anthology that ended up including, it seems, only white writers. It looks like Coetzee only read the 21 finalists and then was tasked with choosing winners from that group, and that the reading was anonymous, so his opportunities for knowing much about the background of the writers was limited, but still, he's a hugely famous Nobel winner and could, at the end, have pulled his name or said something publicly. He didn't, but he did write the most reluctant introduction to such a book that I've ever read. The very first paragraph reads:
The 21 stories that made it to the final round this year are of a generally higher standard than the finalists for the last award, which suggests that the standard of entries as a whole may be higher. If so, this is a promising development. On the other hand, the kind of short-story writer we are all hoping that an award of this magnitude will attract, recognize, reward, foster, and perhaps even launch into the wider world — the newcomer with naked talent, a feel for language, and a fresh vision of the world —stubbornly fails to arive.

I don't know about "naked talent" (what does that look like in a text?), but the feel for language and fresh vision of the world are certainly things that have been, with some exceptions, lacking from the Caine Prize, too. The workshop stories presented in the annual Caine Prize anthologies, though, show that this isn't necessarily the fault of the writers, but of the type of writing that gets rewarded and encouraged.

And that, ultimately, is why I think Keguro's post is important, and why I hope it will not only be read and debated, but that it will help lead to an environment where report realism isn't the only option. Keguro says it better than I ever could:
I want to advocate for wild imaginations—wild forms of writing, non-linear narratives, an obsessive attention to detail, writing that strains at the edges, reaches beyond itself. I’m interested in writing that lives in secret folders on computers, scurries under beds and into drawers when friends visit, worries that it will be deemed obscene, crazy, impossible. I’m interested in writing that dares truth-the truth of feeling, the truth of form, the truth of seeking, the truth of language seeking byways and creating paths. I’m interested in writing beyond report realism.

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