Since Binyavanga Wainaina’s piece, “How To Write About Africa,” was published, I have watched the debate expand to include how we Africans write about Africa. In fact, there are speculations that some writers – I won’t mention names – are conveniently going the “single story” route for personal gain and recognition, as this is supposedly what publishers and awards committees expect: the sad stories of the grotesque yonder, child soldiers and refugees, malnourished children and hunters in loincloths. As subjective as it might seem, it raises a fundamental question: when does a piece of literature slip from the writer’s hand into an existing pool of stereotypes? Consider this personal story, which, by the way, is not the story of every Nigerian or African, but is a variant of “the single story”: I was born and raised in a slum outside Port Harcourt, where I shared two rooms with my parents, four brothers and a sister, in a dilapidated building without running water and plumbing. The bathroom was in the open, a four-pillared post covered with tarpaulin. We were surrounded on all sides by garbage and open sewers. I lived there for 20 years before leaving for university.
If I were to write a novel inspired by my story, my side of the “Nigerian experience,” it would be a grisly one: the chaos, the stench, impoverished characters, and all that poverty stuff. If the residents of Makoko, a floating slum on the Lagos lagoon (a bridge away from one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Africa), were to write their stories, the world would be flooded with “the single story.” So, how do I document my side of the “Nigerian experience” without adding to “the single story”? What constitutes a balanced narrative, anyway? Should I, in an attempt to project a “positive” image of my country and continent, situate my story in the lush lawns of Abuja and the upper-class enclaves of Lagos? Well, fiction is fiction; I could create whatever I wanted and fictitiously replace my childhood memories with recollections of visits to uncles in London, bike rides on well-paved streets, schools with well-stocked libraries, weekend shopping at glittering malls with grandpa and grandma grinning at me. But then, will this whitewash approach make me a better writer? Isn’t it a cowardly and reactionary way of dealing with “the single story”? If I avoided the dark and grisly side of the “Nigerian experience,” whom do I expect to do the dirty job? How well will they do it? This is the dilemma of the African writer: an honest portrayal of poverty inevitably contributes to “the single story;” doing the opposite is dismissed as presumptuous, for the world expects the African writer to engage the urgent realities on the ground. In the end, one thing is clear: when it comes to writing about Africa, there is more at stake than mere self-expression. // Timothy Ogene