Every now and then, American readers — especially Bay Area readers, whose global consciousness is more self-consciously muscular than most — take a liking to a certain region, then fall upon new books about that place locustlike, as fast as New York can produce them. In the late ’90s, it was China. Around the turn of the millennium, it was India. Cuba had a brief but valiant flash after the Elian Gonzalez crisis. Now it’s Africa.
Best-seller lists are like mirrors held up to the communities that spawn them. They’re not plain ordinary mirrors, either, but made of special glass that reflects hidden agendas, collective obsessions, and contagious waves of guilt. Given this, or maybe because of this, readers tend to gaze fixedly at their own local lists and gloat: That’s us.
The Express‘ monthly best-seller list, calculated from sales figures at East Bay independent bookstores, is as us as Indigenous Peoples Day and fog. Only glancingly does it overlap the New York Times‘ list — the closest thing to a national literary mirror — hewing instead its own territory, then looking around smugly to see whether the rest of the world will ever catch up. Our list is less celebrity-driven than the Times‘ list, with fewer thrillers. It favors thought over no-obligation entertainment. Ever since 9/11 its most consistent theme has been “America Sucks,” initially interpreted as “It Was Our Fault” and later as “Everything Bad Is the West’s Fault.”
Last month it segued into “Colonialism: Face the Consequences.”
From The Piano Tuner‘s Burma to The Namesake‘s India to When the Elephants Dance‘s Philippines, it permeated the fiction top-ten, boasting that trendy blend of exotic food, forbidden love, and cultures in crisis. But it has really found a home in books about what used to be called the Dark Continent.
Last month’s list included two, Alexander McCall Smith’s The #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Anchor, $11.95) and Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest (Grove Atlantic, $24). Several others came close but didn’t quite make the cut, and others have surfaced on the list over the last few months. Snapping these up, as so many readers are now doing, whets the appetite for more. It is then that you realize just how many high-profile, heavily promoted new books about Africa have been released by major New York publishers in the last year: nearly two dozen, from love stories to war stories to travelogues to memoirs to environmental death-knells — and all of them written by white authors. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.
What’s that about? For all their bubbly coverage on NPR and their authors’ respectable credentials, are these books just literary versions of the colonial-era Europeans-only country clubs and bars they work so hard to mock? Are more books about Africa being written and submitted by black writers but rejected by publishers? It makes you wonder.
Europeans have been writing and reading about Africa since the moment they first saw it. And why not? The outrageous animals, the weird trees, the towering anthills. Tribes. Music. Masks. For white readers of generations past, a book about Africa was a book about foreign adventure, case closed.
But the Wild Kingdom shtick is obsolete. Too much has happened for it to be okay anymore, or enough anymore. Sure, the new breed of Africa books serve up atmosphere: In McCall Smith’s cozy mysteries featuring self-made and eminently sensible Botswanan sleuth Precious Ramotswe, the ethnically Scots but Zimbabwe-born author posits huts and witch doctors in the bush and hoopoes in the backyard. Kenya-bred but ethnically British Reuters reporter Hartley paints vivid pictures of desert and forest in his harrowing catharsis of a memoir. Raging elephants and ravenous lions fuel crucial plot points in Canadian newcomer Robert Sedlack’s grimly hilarious vacation-gone-wrong novel The African Safari Papers (Tusk, $13.95). And exotic imagery — glittering sea, sandy beaches — forms a running backdrop in Ambushed (Algonquin, $24.95), Berkeley-based AP reporter Ian Stewart’s account of being shot in the head and left for dead in Sierra Leone.
The difference is that today’s Africa books cast their authors’ personal stories in sharp close-up over those natural backdrops, instead of the other way around.
Tearjerkers such as psychotherapist Carolyn Slaughter’s incest-in-the-Kalahari memoir Before the Knife (Knopf, $12) and emergency surgeon Jonathan Kaplan’s The Dressing Station (Grove, $14) are gut-baring confessionals, first-person chronicles of triumph and tragedy … which happen to take place in Africa. Equally intimate are Tanya Shaffer’s Somebody’s Heart Is Burning (Vintage, $13), based on an African sojourn which set the Berkeley actor to reassessing her middle-class privileges, and Paul Theroux’ Dark Star Safari (Houghton Mifflin, $20), in which America’s most famous first-person traveler crosses the continent overland.
Such books stoke the exotic fires while slaking modern readers’ thirst for memoirs — a voracious thirst based, cynics might say, on laziness, as it is easier to swallow someone’s account of a time and place than to study multiple sources, compare, and contrast. Today’s Africa books blend blood and guts with the frisson of the unfamiliar. They blend human warmth and horror — there is pretty much always horror — with the ever-PC inference that the worst bits are the West’s fault. The American and European lumber companies reviled in Dale Peterson’s Eating Apes (University of California, $24.95) for giving poachers easy access to the chimps and gorillas they kill wholesale and sell for food … DeBeers and the other diamond firms fueling the tragedies exposed in Greg Campbell’s Blood Diamonds (Westview, $26) … the European- and American-made assault rifles wielded by battle-mad kids in Daniel Bergner’s In the Land of Magic Soldiers (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $22) … interventionist policies and capitalist schemes … the West, the West, the West.
Now there’s a formula.
And oh yeah, did we mention? They’re all written by white people.
Is it wrong — in other words, is it racist — for white readers to make best-sellers out of books about Africa by white writers, then to nod sagely upon finishing them and feel informed? Are those who bought Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (Harper, $15) or Robert Wilson’s harsh but skin-pricklingly rich Gulf-of-Guinea thriller Instruments of Darkness (Harvest, $14) nothing more or less than blithe but unwitting perpetuators of colonialism?
It has happened before. To learn about black America in the 1950s, white readers turned in droves to Black Like Me (Signet, $6.99), journalist John Howard Griffin’s account of touring the South with his Caucasian skin medically tinted deep brown. To learn about the underpaid (and largely nonwhite) underclass, they turn now to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed (Owl, $13). It’s as if, for most readers, such topics require a translator.
You might very well say so. Yet in this life readers take what they can get and, numerically speaking, for every The God Who Begat a Jackal (Picador, $23) — Ethiopian expat Nega Mezlekia’s magical novel about a psychic Abyssinian princess — there are four Precious Ramotswe mysteries and more on the way, not to mention Sarah Stone’s sex-and-death-in-Burundi saga The True Sources of the Nile (Anchor, $13), Christian Bauman’s soldiers-in-Somalia gem The Ice Beneath You (Scribner, $13), William Boyd’s sarcastic A Good Man in Africa (Vintage, $14), and a stream of others including The White Lioness (Vintage, $13), new in translation from Swedish mystery master Henning Mankell, set partly in South Africa. For every The Devil That Danced on the Water (Atlantic Monthly, $25) — Aminatta Forna’s lyrical memoir about her father, executed Sierra Leonean politician Mohamed Forna — there’s a cascade of white writers’ African memoirs, à la The Zanzibar Chest, Before the Knife, and Alexandra Fuller’s youth-in-Rhodesia reminiscence Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Random House, $12.95). BBC journalist Forna, it might even be argued, is half-white and spent all but her earliest childhood in Britain.
Africa is having its literary moment in the sun, and if moments in the sun are the only way we learn these days, then it’s high time. In their books about barely getting out alive, both AP reporter Stewart and Reuters reporter Hartley lament the rest of the world’s ignorance about Africa. Big place, Africa, yet what does the average educated American know about which languages are spoken in which nations and by whom; for whom and by whom and why all those wars are fought; and what else is there, anyway, besides war, AIDS, sharia law, and female circumcision? In this life you take what you can get, and if a radar screen primed by white writers is, right now, the biggest screen in town, it beats butt-ignorance.
GOOD TO GO
What you should be buying next month.
1. War Is a Racket, by Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler (Feral House, $9.95). Originally published in the wake of World War One but still relevant, this slender manifesto by a decorated vet blasts the military-industrial complex.
2. The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark, by Muriel Spark (NewDirections, $12.95). Spanning fifty years of a stunning career, these collected tales of the dead-among-the-living lend a sinister cast to flea markets, office jobs, and more.
3. My Family Album, by Frans de Waal (University of California, $35). Thirty years’ worth of black-and-white photos illuminate apes around the world — from baboon battles to, yes, lesbian sex among bonobos at the San Diego Zoo.
4. Sickened, by Julie Gregory (Bantam, $24.95). Gregory grew up believing she was mortally ill because her mother desperately wanted her to think so — as revealed in this knockout memoir of a Munchausen-by-proxy childhood.
5. Eight Preposterous Propositions, by Robert Ehrlich (Princeton University, $27.95). Placebos might really work and global warming might be nothing to fret about: A physics prof probes controversial issues in the natural and social sciences.