Sunday, November 08, 2009

How To Write About...(Pick a Place or People)

Back in 2005, Binyavanga Wainaina wrote a wonderfully funny satirical piece in Granta magazine called "How to Write About Africa". Here are just a few gems from it:

"In your text treat Africa as if it were one country."

"Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat."

"Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can't live without her."

If you haven't read the essay, run-don't-walk to the Granta web site to read the rest or to order that back issue.

Yes, I know, it's been four years already since he wrote that. Surely things have changed. Maybe not. Listen to Chimamanda Adichie speak of the danger of hearing only a single story about a place. Any place. Thank you, Julie Larios and Sarah Blake Johnson for sending me this link within days of each other.

All this got me thinking about characters in YA books set in countries other than the US or Europe and published within the last 20 years. A few commonalities struck me.

1. Characters who are a combination of the following (pick two or more): long-ago, faraway, poor, depressed, angry, privy to or oppressed by (or both) some ancient tradition or other.

2. If they're not long ago, they still speak and act as if they were. They often don't use contractions, for one thing, or they adopt a labored kind of dialogue, with phrases in their native languages which they immediately translate into English.

3. They are torn between two worlds, two systems. That might be fine if those systems weren't defined as ancient and modern respectively as if a young person from contemporary Pakistan or Mexico or China were not quite of this century. Find me a teenaged character taking this overly philosophical psychohistorical view and I'll show you a well-intentioned writer driving the story to make a point.

4. They're either suffering from something oppressive in their cultures, or inflicting suffering on someone else for culturally grounded reasons.

Look at any of half a dozen YA novels set in South Asia and you might conclude that all the girls in the region are trying desperately to flee oppressive marriage or widowhood or sexual exploitation. You will feel pity for them and more, you will be grateful that you are not in their place. The thing is, you can't see people as fully human if all you can feel for them is pity. It's even more complicated when you are 8 or 10 or 14 years old and those "other" people instead of staying in their oppressive countries have somehow arrived in your neighborhood and your school.

And more complicated still if they were never in some other place at all, but have somehow, contrary to popular belief, managed to survive and are now suggesting that you share your century with them.

This is why we need more stories that don't define cultures as monolithic, impermeable and unchanging, that don't show the people within those cultures as trapped in unending cycles of victimhood. This is why there is a real danger that if the token single "multicultural" story is taken as representative of an entire place or its inhabitants or emigrants, it will leave no room for others to balance it out. This is why I'm pinning Wainaina's essay to my bulletin board. And drinking a cup of chai because, you know, that's what we South Asian types do when we stress out!


  1. Hi Uma,

    Just sitting here in my fringe and feathers, watching TV and sipping on a Coke.

    Oops. Scratch the TV. And the Coke.


  2. I'd seen a YouTube video on this a while back. I don't have the link, but it sounds very much like this essay.

    Of course, I'm doing the quintessential Indian thing by having a cup of tea and having chole simmering on the stove for tonight's supper :)

  3. You forgot the yoga pause, Uma. Chai AND yoga pause :) Excellent rant. I just finished reading Chimamanda's The Thing Around Your Neck. Such a talented writer. But the link to that talk doesn't work... :(

  4. Sorry, Katia, try this one:

  5. and I've fixed it in the post as well--thanks for catching that error.

    Too funny, Debbie. And now I have to log off to go feed the, cats.

  6. Uma - hear hear! Thanks for this post. I've got a few things to say about this but can't post them in a public forum!

  7. Ha! Anjali, the best action I feel I can take is simply to keep writing the stories that matter to me.

  8. Thank you. I wish all people understood that we are people with faults and honors and so many facets. That is what makes for good stories and the joy of learnig to appreciate all people. As a side note, I spent 20 years working with 'troubled' YA's and they are not the way most of the world perceives.

  9. Great post, Uma. And thank you for sharing Adichie's talk. What a lovely person. I want to read her books.

  10. Thanks marileta. I did go read a book of hers after seeing this video: Half of a Yellow Sun. It's beautiful, even stunning in places, and above all a graceful and loving work.

    Renaissance Women: Years ago when I worked in the Special Ed department at the University of Maryland, I heard Peter Leone speak on the subject of "troubled" youth; all these years later I can still recall that the word he used was not "troubled" but "troubling."