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Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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“As an American writer” (Toni Morrison on Colbert)

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Toni Morrison is delightful on Colbert, and it was a fun thing to watch. And it’s a small thing, but I was interested to note that Vox Dot Com has a headline in which they declare:

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I saw a few people passing that framing around on twitter, and I was surprised. I thought, huh, what a surprising thing for her to say! I’d never heard her say that. Has she said that before?

A little digging around gave me this Paris Review interview, from 1993:

 

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This is Morrison rejecting the terms of the question, the implication that one is not the other, and the demand that she disclaim being specifically African-American. long the same lines, in a 1981 Newsweek – ”Toni Morrison’s Black Magic,” by Jean Strouse — it is reported that “Morrison hates it when people say she is not a “black writer.”‘ Her response, much more widely quoted than the setup, is pretty clear. She says:

Of course I’m a black writer. I’m not just a black writer, but categories like black writer, woman writer and Latin American writer aren’t marginal anymore. We have to acknowledge that the thing we call “literature” is more pluralistic now, just as society ought to be. The melting pot never worked. We ought to be able to accept on equal terms everybody from the Hassidim to Walter Lippmann, from the Rastafarians to Ralph Bunche.

It’s interesting, because she’s certainly not averse to being an American Writer, but it’s definitely not post-racialism either. This is America as a category containing multitudes that contradict each other; if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be pluralist. You only have pluralism with distinction. In other words, this is an “American writer” which contains categories like “black writer” and “white writer” but which does not melt them together. A = {B + W}, but it doesn’t therefore follow that A=B=W or that B =! A.

The Vox headline is clickbait, it will shock you to learn. Vox adds no value to the clip itself; there is no commentary here, no analysis, just a brief description of the embedded clip. So to get the ~2000 people who have shared the Vox headline to do so, they put words into her mouth that she did not really say. She did not say that she was “not an ‘African-American Writer.’” She did say that she was an American writer, but the notion that this is irreconcilable with “American” seems to me to be a baseless implication. If she said it, it would be an interesting thing for her to say. But she didn’t. She said something similar, and something much more complicated. And since what a site like Vox wants is circulation–and for that, you need something simple and surprising–they framed what she said in ways that mislead you.

Here is how the interaction actually went:

Colbert: “You have said you don’t necessarily like to be pigeonholed as an African American writer. What would you like me to pigeonhole you as? (Audience laughs) Because I have to categorize everybody. Do you want to be pigeonholed as a Korean pop star? How should I just see you as a category? If you don’t want to be an African American writer, how should I think of you?”

Toni Morrison: “As an American writer.” (Audience cheers)

It’s a fascinating little moment. Out of context, the Vox reading is a stretch, but it’s not a wholly unreasonable interpretation of what she said, especially since she goes on to talk about how race doesn’t exist (only racism). But it’s more important to notice that she doesn’t really say very much. The headline “Toni Morrison told Stephen Colbert she’s an ‘American writer’” would be accurate, but boring; the addition of “not an ‘African-American writer’” makes it interesting, at the cost of putting his words in her mouth. Especially if we put her in context of thigs she’s said in the past–if we know that “don’t necessarily like to be pigeonholed as an African American writer” is accurate, but very far from implying “not an African-American writer”–then the Vox reading comings into focus as the interested distortion that it is.

Another way to look at it would be that the Vox headline takes seriously what Colbert says as a joke. When he asks “What would you like me to pigeonhole you as?” the point is that this is a stupid question. He is misunderstanding her point: she is persistently pigeonholed as one thing (and therefore not the other things), and she wants to be all of them at once. The joke is this misunderstanding, his leap to assume that she just wants to be pigeonholed as something different (perhaps, something as arbitrary as “Korean Pop Star”). The audience laughs at this joke, because he is making fun of himself (“Because I have to categorize everybody” he reminds us; “How should I just see you as a category?”). It is not a real question.

When she answers “As an American writer,” of course, she is giving a real answer. And it might be worth noting that she chose one point of emphasis rather than another; she could have said “No, I am an African-American writer,” but she didn’t say that. It might also not be worth making too much of that. She’s having fun. The part where she reads his questions at the start of the interview is kind of great, but it’s also just fun. To turn it into a sober announcement of her identity seems a very lazy way to interpret the exchange. /VoxBashing

There is one more thing I thought was interesting in the clip, though. After she says “as an American writer,” the audience cheers, loudly, and Colbert repeats what she said; you can hear him stalling, working at his next move, working up the next joke. When it comes, I read it as a sly rebuke of the audience’s cheering. After all, she declares herself an American and they’re delighted to hear her claim them: rather than being reminded of racial difference, she claims American unity, and they like that. White Americans are often very pleased by these kinds of claims, the appeal to a sense of American identity which melts all divisions (leaving white behind). So Colbert instantly leaps into a full-throated parody of exactly this kind of American post-racialism, declaring that he doesn’t see race, that he’s evolved beyond it. The way they are glad to hear her seem not to see race–and their quickness to read that into her words–becomes his own transparently self-interested desire to un-see racism. But on him, it’s a performance, a joke.

 

Africa39: We Have New Names

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Ever since I got my hands on the Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara anthology, I’ve been stealing a moment here or there, often on the bus to work, to drop myself into the world of one or two of the stories. I haven’t even finished it yet, because I rarely read more than one at a time, and never more than two; they’re too different, too diverse, and too radically irreconcilable with each other. This is often the way with anthologies, or collections of short stories. You get so firmly embedded in the world of one story that when you have to drop everything and reorient yourself to the next story—to give up one world and take on a new one—it takes real mental work. You get attached to the first story, and you don’t want to give it up; the new story feels strange, foreign, out of place.

To roughly shoehorn this experience into the process that Freud described in “Mourning and Melancholia,” I might say that after reading one story, I don’t want to leave it behind and read another one, because I’m still in mourning for the first story, still processing it. And when I’m reading the second one, that out-of-place sense of uneasiness comes from the fact that I am, still, in the first story: the story has changed, but I haven’t yet moved on. I look for the first story’s characters in the second story, and miss them; I try to place the second story’s characters in the world of the first story, and I don’t find it there. I get restless. My attention wanders. I lose my focus.

This is not a bad thing. This is a good thing. Freud is not the most helpful guide to a short story anthology, because loving a short story only begins when it ends, something you don’t want to try with people with love. When a short story is over, put the thing down and stare out the bus window; don’t mourn it, love it. Don’t move on. Don’t go to the next story. This is the good part! We have to mourn our dead loved ones, because they are dead and we are not. But stories don’t live or die; we read them, and we digest them.

Freud is also not a helpful guide to contemporary African literature. I say this because Mukoma wa Ngugi uses that framework in his review of the anthology for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and I respectfully disagree with a lot of what he says it to say. In his review, Beauty, Mourning, and Melancholy in Africa39, he begins with the generation of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and writes that:

To understand the aesthetics and political distance African literature has traveled between Things Fall Apart and Africa39, one would have to think of it in those terms of mourning and melancholy, of inherited traumas and memories, which define the new African literary generation. For Freud, mourning is “the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on.” In contrast, melancholia describes when “one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost,” and “is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious.” The older generation in Africa can be said to be mourning — they know what they have lost, whether it is language and culture, or land and nation. And their writing is an attempt to recover a lost known object. But the Africa39 writers do not fully know the language they have lost, and have no direct memory of the land and nation that belonged to their parents. In Africa39, the characters, like their writers, have no intimate knowledge of the cultures that formed their parents and grandparents. They are in a state of melancholy.

To be blunt: I don’t see “melancholy” at all in the anthology, or at most, it’s a very minor theme.

Now, this is a very broad and dramatic claim he’s making, a sweeping generalization about thirty-nine writers under the age of forty, and it’s never going to work perfectly to describe all of them. And we shouldn’t hold it to that standard. That’s not even what a review is for. Moreover, though he’s a professor at Cornell University, Mukoma wa Ngugi is a young African writer himself, the son of Ngugi wa Thiong’o—just slightly beyond the age limit for the anthology, in fact—and a respected novelist, poet, and critic in his own right. His Nairobi Heat is sitting half-read next to my bed. But I think most of the things he says about this anthology are mostly wrong. And that this is a good thing.

These are writers who, mostly, don’t seem to care nearly as much about Achebe or Ngugi–or Joseph Conrad–as Mukoma wa Ngugi does. They’ve moved on. You can think what you want about that, but to me it seems very clear that their literary universe is promiscuously broad. This is something that is new, I think. In the 1970’s and 80’s, when writers like Dambudzo Marechera or Yambo Ouloguem didn’t want to write like the generation of Achebe and Ngugi, they still had to deal with their elders somehow, still had to contest their authorial authority, and as Simon Gikandi once pointed out, that’s more or less what they all had in common. And, of course, a great many African writers still revere the generation of Achebe and Ngugi; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel begins with the words “Things started to fall apart when…” and the specter of Ngugi wa Thiong’o haunts Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place. It would be easy to find other examples, almost too easy. But it’s definitely not compulsory, not in the same way. And the clash of colonialism and tradition that you find in the works of the first generation of postcolonial African writers is almost totally absent from this anthology. It’s just not there. Writers younger than forty, it will perhaps not surprise you to learn, are not obsessed with the things their parents and grandparents lost, whether it be language and culture, or land and nation. They have their own accounting of losses and longings.

I do think Mukoma wa Ngugi is marking the very important shift in emphasis that this anthology very nicely represents. Chinua Achebe rests in peace and power. But the under-40 generation of African writers that make up this anthology lack Things Fall Apart as their commonly formative point of reference, and they don’t dwell on colonial dispossession in the way his review suggests they melancholically do. They read Achebe and Ngugi in school, perhaps, or about colonial history as adults, but they’ve read a lot of other books, too, and they still are. The past isn’t what unifies them, because almost nothing does.

I don’t want to declare this anthology to be post-postcolonial or anything, and not only because that hyphenated word makes my brain hurt. These writers can speak for themselves, and they are doing so. If you read them, you find that they say a great many different things. Some of them pass the Ngugi test: Mohamed Yunus Rafiq can remind us of Amos Tutuola, for example; Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond allegorizes Mama Africa and Rotimi Babatunde takes us back to colonizer and the colonized in fresh and strange ways. Those stories have not been lost; on the contrary, Achebe and Ngugi have been absorbed and digested. But these writers are hungry for other dishes too, and they eat their words with different palm oil than Achebe’s proverbs, washing them down with other beverages than palm wine, and carrying different traumas than the loss of the mother tongue.

This is why, if you go into this anthology with a single story about African literature—say, a story about the loss of language and culture, or land and nation, and a desire to recover those things by writing—you will find yourself chasing ghosts. You will have no idea what to do with a story like Clifton Gachagua’s “No Kissing the Dolls Unless Jimi Hendrix is Playing” (you still may not, regardless; when great poets write fiction, things get strange and wonderful). But writers like Ndinda Kioko, Mehul Gohil, Linda Musita, and Okwiri Oduor—to acknowledge that I am biased in favor of the Kenyans—aren’t really writing about what was taken from their grandparents or great grandparent: they write about the violence of the present, as well as its joys. These are new stories, and the old ones won’t help us very much in reading them.

Even the writers who were born and raised outside of Africa—people like Tope Folarin or Taiye Selasi—don’t write with the melancholy that Mukoma wa Ngugi seems to expect from them. You can think what you want about Selasi’s “Afropolitanism,” but there’s nothing melancholy about it. And while Mukoma wa Ngugi’s reading of Tope Folarin’s story—in which “we see trauma handed down to the next generation like a prized family heirloom”—is sharp and insightful, and helped me better understand what Folarin is doing with the story, he also fills his sentences with negative verbs, writing of Nigeria that “they cannot account for it,” and of their African names, “they cannot account for their names either.” I would say the opposite: all they can do is account for these things, and they do it in creative and unfaithful ways.  They do not go back to their parents’ Africa, nor do they want to; they make their own roads home.

When I interviewed Tope Folarin (forthcoming at Post45), he found himself (almost apologetically) talking about “what it means to be a human in the 21st-century, when borders are collapsing.” Finding himself repeating “the same kind of Thomas Friedman point,” he hesitated—perhaps not liking the taste of Friedman on his tongue—but went forward anyway: “It’s a cliché at this point, but there’s something to it: borders are collapsing, and the net facilitates communication and that sort of thing”:

When I was in Oxford, studying for my masters, I was writing a thesis on identity, and kind of in the midst of it, I discovered that the ideas I was trying to address in the academic framework actually probably fit better in a fiction framework. Maybe in an artistic framework. Because, I was trying… My thesis, for my master’s project, was that we have the option of creating our own identities here in the 21st century, and I think that’s something our parents and grandparents didn’t have. I have the option of saying “This is who I am,” in a way my parents and grandparents didn’t have. My fiction is really interested in investigating that idea. Here’s a character who’s in this situation; what does he decide, and why does he decide what he decides?

I don’t think most of the writers in this anthology would agree about what African literature is, isn’t, or should be. But the thing I love about the anthology is how far it’s willing to walk past anywhere African literature has been before, how utterly un-representative almost every story has the courage to be. I don’t think there’s ever been a collection of stories by African writers that is quite so resolutely un-singular as this one, so impossible to summarize or describe. That’s why I think Mukoma wa Ngugi’s attempt to do so fails. But that’s not his fault: that’s the fault of the writers for straying so far from home. And because, instead of negative verbs, they packed bags and bags of question marks, as they set out on their way.

Noted

In West Africa, disbelief and distrust in medical science is a problem:

“Some in the crowd were silent, baffled by the white building and the moonsuits worn by the health workers. In that part of the world, not everybody believed in the infectious theory of disease, the idea that illnesses can spread through microbes. Why wouldn’t the doctors let people see or touch their loved ones at a funeral? Many people distrusted the government, and spiritual explanations for the disease circulated.”

In the United States, by contrast, we know and understand that Ebola can be spread by genetics:

“Her daughter was in school and sneezed a couple of times. They took her temperature and placed her alone in a room, called my sister and said, given the situation…” Solomon’s sister was asked to temporarily remove her daughter from school: a girl who has never been to Liberia, and has not had contact with anyone returning from Liberia for two years.”

Cover your mouth, Liberians, so as not to spread the disease:

“If I’m on the Metro, I don’t talk,” he said. “If I’m on the bus, I don’t talk. If people hear the accent, they think you are Liberian, then you have Ebola, which is not the case. Not all Liberians have Ebola.”

Alphonso Toweh was riding a bus when a man sitting next to him politely asked where he was from. “Liberia,” said Toweh, a writer from Monrovia who is visiting the Washington area, home to the nation’s second-largest population of African immigrants. “At that point, the man went far from me,” he said. “He did not want to come close to me. People, once they know you are Liberian — people assume you have the virus in your body, which is not the case.”

Rwanda is one of the hardest hit areas of Liberia:

“I don’t feel comfortable sending my daughter to school with people who could be infected with Ebola.”

“Really concerns me. I don’t want to keep my boy out of school.”

“Tell us when we come into the door. Don’t smile in my face and have a secret like that.”

“Anybody from that area should just stay there until all this stuff is resolved. There’s nobody affected here; let’s just keep it that way.”

“I think for another couple weeks. I don’t think it would hurt, I mean you have a lot of children that are involved, so I don’t think it would hurt.”

Where Justice Found Is

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If a man assaults a woman’s body, where does she seek redress? Where does she find justice?

If she stands in a public space and proclaims her grievance—or if her sister proclaims it for her—she will be told that she is in the wrong place. The public is the wrong place for such statements. She should go to a different place, the courts: There she will find justice. She should trust justice.

If she goes to the courts, if she proclaims her grievance there, and demands justice, they will tell her to stop talking. We will handle this, they will say, soaking up her words with the alacrity of a paper towel blotting up a spilled drink. Give us your statement; release it to us. We will hear you–after all, we are justice–but after that, let no one hear you again. Oh, do you have witnesses? Will others support you? Give us their words as well. We need them all, all their words. Give us all of their words, every last one. Then, wait, and say nothing. Don’t call us. We will call you. 

Sometimes they throw away the paper towel immediately. Sometimes they wait a while.

If a woman assaults a man’s good name in public, where does he seek redress? Where does he find justice?

If he stands in a public space and proclaims his grievance, he will be heard. He will. As he declares himself murdered–even “raped”–he will become the victim of his story, the target of a vindictive vendetta, with “no chance at all to defend himself from the virtual mob.” This defense will find desiring ears: men will sympathize with him, and narrow their eyes, muttering darkly about rights, due process, objective evidence, and reasonable doubt. These feminists, they will say, they have an agenda. First they came for you, but by God we will speak up. Such lynchings cannot be allowed to stand. This mob justice. A man’s good name is his home; if it is taken from him, he is homeless! A man’s good name is his castle. He has a right to privacy. Whose business is it what he does in the privacy of his body?

If he goes to court to clear his name, he will be presumed innocent, her story reasonably doubted. If it can be proved that it cannot be proved that he is guilty, then she can be proved guilty of assaulting his name. And if this can be proved—if it can be proved that it has not been proved that he is guilty—then she is guilty of assaulting his name. Without proof, what right had she to say anything? She should have kept silent. She will learn. And so will her sisters.

Waiting For

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“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” (Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes)

The idea of “the facts” has done a lot of damage in its career, but one of its most insidious effects is its ability to justify inaction. “Until we know all the facts, we can’t” is a phrase that gets placed at the beginning of many a cowardly sentence; in a world where “we may never know what really happened,” waiting for all the facts to come out is a little like waiting for Jesus to come and fix things. When we don’t want to act, it can be a relief to pretend we don’t know what we know—to arbitrarily raise the standards of proof we require—and pose as skeptics, as reasonable doubters. When we don’t like the opinions that we might otherwise find ourselves holding, waiting for “the facts” can be a wonderful alibi from looking honestly at we know.

Courts do not give justice, because they do not try. They follow a formal procedure, at best. The laws on the books require certain things, commands them to act in certain ways, and sometimes they do. Sometimes the arbitrary result of legislative fiat actually describes what actual courts and police do, in practice. But even if courts and police follow that law to the letter—and we all know they do not—the outcomes they produce are always the poorest of substitutes for “justice.” Some would say that courts and police exist so that we do not struggle for real justice; go home, go home, they say, there’s nothing to see here. Wait for the courts to sort things out. You don’t know all the facts.

Is it justice that Michael Dunn will go to prison for shooting a 17 year old because that young man played his music too loud and was black? No, it isn’t. Justice would be if black kids stop getting shot. Had Michael Dunn not been found guilty, it would demonstrate the extent to which killing a black youth is not always a crime in the United States, and that certainly is injustice. But Dunn is a symptom, not the cause of the problem; we live in a culture that can make murderous white men with guns a lot faster than they are—occasionally, rarely, almost never—sent to prison. You don’t get justice by occasionally, rarely, almost never sending murderers to prison; what you get is peace of mind, the ability to tell yourself that justice has been done. And the next time a white man, or a cop, shoots a black teenager to death, we will all say, hmm, I wonder what he did to provoke it. He must have made a furtive movement. We will interview the witnesses, and after the killer tells his story, we will regretfully admit that we may never know all the facts of the case. We will let legal process take its course. We will wait for the formal mechanisms of the law, and we will put off asking for the substance of what the law promises.

That women are assaulted, every day—that men attack and harm women in ways that are both physical and emotional—is a fact that never quite becomes a fact. It is said, sometimes, but it is not quite heard, does not quite get entered into the record of evidence. But if you ask a woman when the last time a man assaulted her body, when the last time she was made to feel unsafe and not in control of her own flesh—and if you need to ask, then you probably are not a women—the answer will probably horrify you. That’s not fact, though; that’s anecdote, the singular that struggles against being made plural. It doesn’t spur the engines of justice into action, because they are always isolated incidents. What made him act in that way? What was she wearing? What did she do? Occasionally, a rapist is convicted; occasionally, a case of molestation results in social or legal sanction for the assailant. Occasionally, something happens that you can call justice, if you want to reassure yourself. But the occasional consequence for the occasional violation doesn’t have anything to do with creating a world where women aren’t systematically and generally intimidated, violated, and kept in their place.

It’s not a fact that it’s legal to kill black kids in the United States, but the occasional guilty verdict for the occasional Michael Dunn is not what makes it untrue; what makes it untrue is our refusal to look at what we know, and have the courage to believe it. A white man with a gun knows quite clearly who he can and can’t shoot. That’s why black kids keep getting shot. The same is true for that delicate creature endowed with a penis, that fragile butterfly whose good name and reputation requires all the energies of industrial misogyny to sustain and propel. They know—we know—where it’s safe to use it, what homes, what bodies, and what desires can be violated. We know who has ground to stand on, whose home is whose castle. We know whose bodies can be secure. None of it has anything to do with justice, or “the facts.” Justice is somewhere beyond the place where we act on what we know.