One of the toughest parts of writing Crossing the Heart of Africa was trying not to fall into the morass of cliché that pervades the body of literature about the continent, at least the majority of it written by non-Africans. Sitting down to write about Africa as a Westerner is to step into a minefield of hackneyed images, stale themes and stereotypes that date back centuries. The problem bloomed in the 19th century as European explorers, missionaries and travelers started churning out breathless accounts of the "Dark Continent." Although Grogan isn't nearly as bad as some, he certainly has one foot in that camp; some passages in his book are genuinely cringeworthy.
One of the best descriptions of the issue I've found is Binyavanga Wainaina's acidic essay in Granta titled "How to Write about Africa." "Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated," he writes with blistering irony:
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn't care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.
Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it — because you care.
Paul Theroux's latest book Dark Star Safari, in which he follows a route similar to Grogan's and mine except from north to south, gets nailed twice in the essay's very first sentence: "Always use the word 'Africa' or 'Darkness' or 'Safari' in your title." (The piece was so popular Wainaina wrote a follow-up, "How to Write About Africa II: The Revenge.")
Some of the more offensive and inaccurate clichés have been stamped out ("cannibal savages" that need to be "civilized" for their own good), but many persist, and new ones are still cropping up. For example, as Wendy Belcher asks in an article in Salon, why do so many accounts of Africa start the same way?
Most travel books about Africa open with the author alone, carried along by some vehicle, looking down over some landscape and feeling anxious. If I were a critic, rather than a practitioner of the genre, I could start right in with a long essay on this finding. I can't do this, however, because I am distracted by my dismay. To be an utterly "conventional" writer, open your book about Africa with yourself arriving. Let me admit it then: I am guilty as charged.
Whatever the explanation today — writerly laziness, or simply the unavoidable result of outsiders trying to encapsulate a place so much larger than life, so alien, that words simply fail — it does make it difficult as a writer.
All those unoriginal phrases and characters are so deeply impeded in our thinking about Africa that it's easy to forget they're there at all. Movies have just made it worse.
There were moments on my trip where it even seemed like the clichés had started to become self-fulfilling, like this encounter in Chiromo, Malawi:
A man in the front seat introduces himself as Zola Emanuel. He's good-looking in the gaunt way of a long-distance runner.
"In Africa there is no happiness," he says.
"I'm sorry?" This keeps happening, these conversational bombs out of nowhere. It's like a first date bringing up her colon issues before the appetizers arrive.
"There is nothing here." He looks out the cracked windshield at the town square, where people stumble in and out of the Why Not Booze Garden. "Nothing."
He has a point. For whatever reason — politics, geography, misguided attempts by outsiders to help — two-thirds of the least developed countries in the world are right here, between South Africa and the Sahara. The average Malawian barely earns enough in a year to buy an iPod. According to some estimates, the country has a million AIDS orphans out of 13 million people.
I'm mystified why misery is so often a conversation-opener. Everything that's said and written about Africa, all the hand-wringing and blanket generalizations and dismal statistics — I wonder how much of that sinks into your consciousness, living here, like acid rain into limestone. How could you not absorb the pessimism, like a child who's always told he's not good enough?
"Africa is crying, always." Zola says. Am I wrong to wonder if he read that somewhere?
I did my best to face the challenge head-on, by presenting the people I met and the things I saw in an honest, straightforward way, not as characters in an all-too-familiar tableau. It's up to you the reader, of course, to decide whether I succeeded. (One of my proofreaders started to throw a fit every time he crossed out yet another description of a hazy sunset in an early draft — touché.) But it definitely changed how I read, and think, about Africa.
Well, this is the end of my week on the blog. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have, and thanks again to Powell's for having me. Happy travels!
÷ ÷ ÷
Julian Smith is an award-winning travel writer whose work has appeared in Outside, National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian, Wired, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. He is the author of guidebooks to El Salvador, Ecuador, Virginia, and the southwestern United States, and he has been honored by the Society of American Travel Writers for writing the best guidebook of the year. He lives with his wife and daughter in Portland, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Julian Smith is the author of Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure