Helon Habila liest, P09 (Photo credit: lutzland)
Poverty is in the orbit of controversy. A point of order has been raised with respect to the direction contemporary African literature seems to be taking. The presentation of the continent as perpetually conflict-riven and impoverished is eliciting a critical backlash. Dissenters are stepping into the line of fire to protest that Africa’s fairer vistas are being cropped out of the emerging literary canon.
New writers seem to be repackaging the Dark Continent mantra for the affluent Western segment of the market. The vectors are being slanted to caricature Africa as the most unsightly division of the world map, or so the dissenters claim.
Nigerian writer Helon Habila has objected to the inordinate obsession with poverty, war, child soldiers, genocide, child prostitutes, patriarchy, political violence, police brutality, dictatorships, predatory preachers and dead bodies in this new canon.
He protests against a palpable anxiety to cover every ostensibly African topic, apparently from a checklist copied down from a prototypal Western news service.
The writers have been rapped for signing into the global media echo chambers’ crusade to convince us by every device applicable that Africa is the hopeless continent.
Stereotypical stories, Ghanaian writer Cameron Duodu argues, harp on "horrors that do exist and need to be expunged, but which are by far not the only stories worth reporting".
The swelling protest, therefore, does not seek to disqualify altogether literary coverage of Africa’s problems.
As a matter of fact, it clamours for equal or more coverage of the sunny side of the continent.
It calls for a conceptual overhaul of the current template — for a clean departure from the misrepresentation and under-representation to fair representation of the continent.
Critics have further taken on the continent’s more influential award panels for a selection criterion they perceive to be slanted towards the stereotypical stories.
The Caine Prize, in particular, recently came under fire for allegedly encouraging writers to "perform Africa", that is, write about the continent with a model script in the back of the head — one that carries better chances of winning, being a new rendition of the familiar angle.
Habila queries whether the current body of new work is not contaminated by the prevailing political economy, hence more of a "Caine-prize aesthetic" perpetuating itself from a vacuum instead of fair representation of the continent.
"Writing is an incestuous business: style feeds on style, especially if that particular style has proven itself capable of winning prizes and book deals and celebrity," Habila argues.
So the line is in the sand. Some of the dissenters are critics without solutions though.
Habila belongs to the post-nationalist school — one that wants a wall of separation between literature and politics.
As such, Habila expresses disenchantment with Africa’s image politics, approving rather of passages describing kids watching porn in a basement or the humour and falling snow in NoViolet Bulawayo’s "We Need New Names."
The post-nationalist prescription is, therefore, clearly bankrupt of ideological utility.
Other schools of thought want the literary task-bar to feature new functions in line with the developmental trends across significant tracts of the continent.
However, literature not being an institutionalised discipline informed by set manuals, the challenge has not had much headway so far.
It has also been argued, contrariwise, that writers write from chiefly sensory perception not what they contrive from a one-dimensional ideological prism, hence the objection to sunshine literature probably the same way Willie Dzawanda Musarurwa would object to sunshine journalism.
All the sides are right up to the extent that they are not bigoted as to plant a hedge around their convictions and rule the cross-fertilisation of observations.
On the one, it must be acknowledged that stereotypes desensitise, distort and demobilise. They must not be allowed to submerge our identity, our optimism and our anticipation of better days.
However, writers must not allow their legitimate aversion for stereotypes to unduly play into the hands of authorities who they must unsparingly hold to account.
Where poverty and oppression are the reality of life for millions, there is every reason for issue-based literature, especially in favour of the disenfranchised.
Across the world, there is a class conspiracy which is perpetually exclusive of the poor. With such a caste system, the story of a nation is not necessarily the story of the poor.
Economic recovery does not always translate to better prospects for the villager in Gutu or the graduate hustler in downtown Harare. It may mean more perks for the honourable MP, a fatter salary for the CEO — and crumbs for the rest.
The writer must zero-in on the skewed patterns, fight in the corner of the disempowered and agitate for equal development.
The high health risks of a typical ghetto life, the truncated livelihood of the university graduate, diseases running loose in the suburbs in the absence of running water, funeral parlours and fuel plants poisoning drinking water to keep their profit intact — these are issues up for grabs.
These are questions up for urgent answers and the writer worthy his or her salt must stake their claim in deliberations of the day for the mitigation of these conditions.
Well-off academics and politicians calling for life-and-death problems to be stuffed under the rug because they have something to salvage of pseudo-intellectual scruples can wait.
Leaders who want a picture-perfect and copy-clean characterisation of the continent must work to achieve it on the ground first and in the library later.
Multitudes struggling for a daily meal must not be annihilated from the discourse because their story does not fit into a public relations template for the continent.
Fashioning himself as the Prophet of Justice in "Devil on the Cross", Ngugi wa Thiong’o faults people who want the less palatable aspects of their countries concealed.
Gatekeepers, out to muzzle Ngugi’s persona, Gikaandi Player, argue that the story he wants to tell is too disgraceful and too shameful hence was only worth the cover of darkness.
"I asked them: ‘How can we cover up pits in our courtyards with leaves or saying to ourselves that because our eyes cannot now see the holes, our children can now prance about the yard as they like?’" relates Gikaandi Player.
"Happy is the man who is able to discern the pitfalls in his path, for he can avoid them. Happy is the traveller who is able to discern the stumps in his ways, for he can pull them up or walk around them so that they do not make him stumble," he says.
Ugandan writer Brian Bwesigye faults Habila’s circles for urging writers to refrain writer from writing about their own suffering people, directing them, instead, to red herrings, thereby erasing African realities off the literary landscape.
"Why? Why brother, sister, do you deny that there are those of us living in disreputable conditions on the continent?
"Why do you deny us space to engage our leaders, readers and whoever else (majorly their partners in the West) who have misruled us this much? Why?
"Do you not realise that any expression is a political act, even if it is about negating politics?" Bwesigye fumes.
War and poverty in Africa must be erased not in reflective literature but stopped in their tracks. Writers must hit harder and swifter till authorities extend the two hands of love — charity and justice — to the continent’s poor and fettered masses.
Having said that, the writer’s prime domain must not be self-directed commercialisation of the continent’s problems but a pro-active quest for better prospects for the continent.