The African and the Albatross:
Notes on the Problematic Status of the African Author, Part 3
An examination of the state of modern African writing and literature continued ...
If the compression the African author faces is straining in terms of critical, practical and economic factors, it can become severe in the face of the pressures he faces in his own home environment. Political pressure on writers has existed for a long time, ‘indeed from the time when Plato, in his Republic, recommended that the poet must be banned into exile from the ideal State; from the time when Socrates was condemned to death by poison in Athens; from the time when the poet and novelist, Petronius, had his veins opened and was left to bleed to death at the orders of the Emperor Nero’ (Marechera, 1987, p. 109). In African countries where dictatorial governance or authoritarian rule has held sway, anyone who seeks to expose the true state of affairs about their nation, whether in journalistic or creative forms of writing, is often subject to the brutal force of the state’s machinery. This is of course a global concern. In 2014, according to PEN International, ‘Nine hundred writers around the world were harassed, imprisoned, murdered or “disappeared” (Flood, 2014). African authors make up many of this number and the organisers of the Hellman/Hammet grants in ‘recognition of the courage with which writers face political persecution,’ warn that even more writers, ‘will remain anonymous because of the dangerous circumstances in which they are living’ (Persecuted Writers Honored with Prestigious Awards, 2001). Very few incriminated writers escape without some kind of detention or confinement.
This is not a new development of course. It is worth detailing some of the facts. Just a few of the atrocities committed against writers in the last four decades include the likes of Malawian poet Jack Mapanje, who was arrested and detained without charge under the Banda regime between 1987 and 1991. Tandundu Bisiki of the former Zaire (presently the Democratic Republic of Congo) was tortured and subjected to intimidation when he became a political prisoner in 1976. In fact the list of past violations recorded against the African writer has been comprehensive, as Marechera compiled back in 1987: “The record of atrocities against writers in Africa is a grisly one – only recently in Nigeria itself a newspaper editor died of his injuries when he was sent a parcel bomb. In Cameroon, ‘journalism is synonymous with detention and harassment’. Charles Ndi-Chia, editor of the Cameroon Times, has been detained seven times since 1983. Paul Nkemayang, a journalist for the same newspaper, and another, Pius Kwedi, have also been picked up. In the 1960s, there were, in Cameroon, fifteen independent newspapers; of these, only the Cameroon Times is still publishing. In the Congo, the People’s Republic ‘has taken over the censorship practices of the former colonial administration’; right now the work of the novelist Makouta-Mbouka is banned and he lives in exile. In Liberia, one of the two last independent newspapers had its offices burned down. In Burkina Faso about eighteen months ago, there was one small newspaper run by a journalist. When he went to work one morning, he found the offices burned down. As he had no money to buy new printing presses, that was the end of the independent press in Burkina Faso. The result of all this is that the best African writers and journalists live in exile in London or Paris, or simply live out of a suitcase, shuttling between countries.”
In subsequent years writers such as Daniel Bekoutou from Chad, an investigative journalist was attacked in November 1999 and beaten by operatives who accused him of writing overly critical articles on Chad's President Idress Deby. He then began covering the case of Hissene Habre, Chad's exiled former dictator who was indicted in Senegal on torture charges. Bekoutou wrote numerous articles exposing political killings, torture, and disappearances during the Habre regime. Fearing for his life, he fled to Paris. The Tunisian Moncef Marzouki’s writing is banned in Tunisia. In June 1999, he was abducted by security officials and held incommunicado for several days. He was denied a passport and faced repeated judicial investigations on trumped up charges. In December 2000, he was sentenced to one year in prison for ‘defaming the authorities’ and ‘spreading false information.’ Motii Biya from Ethiopia was arrested in 1997. It was believed to be connected to newspaper columns he wrote and his membership in the Ethiopian Human Rights League. He was held without charge or trial for more than two years. Njaru Philip form Cameroon was targeted by state authorities because of articles he wrote about corruption and human rights violations by government officials. Another journalist, Nji Renatus Che from Cameroon had his house burned down and his family members were harassed after he wrote an article for a national daily paper, "The Mail," in which he said that Sharia (Islamic law) in Nigeria ‘abuses human rights.’ Eritrean Aaron Berchane was forced to flee to Kenya in 2002 after his articles on Eritrea’s social problems such as poverty, prostitution and lack of facilities to care for handicapped war veterans were published. Tom Kamara of Liberia had the offices of his newspaper, “New Democrat” frequently attacked for his focus on democracy, human rights and transparency in government. Chris Abani, the Nigerian poet and novelist was frequently arrested and detained during the 1980’s, often held in the infamous Kiri-Kiri Maximum Security Prison in Lagos and frequently tortured. One of the most shocking of these persecutions was of course carried out against Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed in Nigeria in 1995. In 2014, six bloggers and journalists were arrested and imprisoned in Ethiopia. The country operates one of the most sophisticated internet monitoring and filtering systems in the world. Journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu continue to suffer in prison for their free expression on lengthy sentences. The history of censorship and the intimidation of writers was well-documented during the Apartheid regime in South Africa and in my home country Zimbabwe, the draconian Public Order and Security Act (POSA) is regularly used to arbitrarily arrest dissenting voices.
Such a comprehensive list is a direct indictment on the authorities in these countries who cannot abide the free and dissenting voice. As Ashworth and Fichardt report: “Many Africans have sought to reinforce their hold on power by controlling the flow of information, writers have been victims of a wide range of human rights violations … Rigorous censorship laws enable governments to keep writers under a tight reign. This grip is reinforced by direct or indirect supervision of the activities of the writer's associations … The fact that a staggering number of African writers have gone into exile else-where in Africa or left the continent altogether, inevitably has an impact on the writers left behind (1992, p. 5).”
In some countries, these ‘writers left behind’ are subject to appalling infringements of their creative integrity. First is the issue of direct censorship, of having one’s words effectively erased, or held captive and prevented from public dissemination by a biased authority figure who steps in and obliterates the independence of the author. Attwell, analysing J.M. Coetzee’s essays on censorship entitled Giving Offence, writes, ‘The problem presented by the censor is that he interposes himself between the desiring subjectivity of the writer and the desired object’ (2015, pp. 102 - 103). Coetzee himself describes this imposition as: “Working under censorship is like being intimate with someone who does not love you, with whom you want no intimacy, but who presses in upon you. The censor is an intrusive reader, a reader who forces his way into the intimacy of the writing transaction, forces out the figure of the loved or courted reader, reads your words in a disapproving and censorious fashion (1996, p. 38).”
The main focus of Coetzee’s concern, alluding to a series of essays on paranoia by Freud, rests in the psychological pressure which is brought to bear on the writer who is subject to the censor’s glare. The creative mind, when exposed to severe scrutiny and the policing of the intellect, is naturally subject to perverse manipulations which are likely to influence the quality and content of what is produced. We must remember that this is a different kind of paranoia to the type experienced by the writer in exile. I am referring to writers who have chosen (or have no choice but) to remain in environments which are extremely hostile and act subversively in all manner of ways to prevent the writing act from unfolding freely. The very fact that they manage to write anything at all suggests that whatever is written is by its very nature an act of compromise between the desire of free expression and the scope of what is acceptable to the censor. Coetzee’s essays also deal with, as Attwell notes, ‘a meditation on what it is like to be a public intellectual in a time of violence, when reason is subordinate to contagion. It reflects on the difficulties of crafting a position out of a distrust of all prevailing positions, and out of the self-doubt that infects someone who fears that success, in such a climate, can only come at the price of abandoning one’s principles’ (2015, pp. 101 - 102). The free writer out and about on the street in such an environment is likely to have calculated ways to circumvent the wrath of the authorities, or else he is very unlikely to be in a position of liberty. The persecuted, harassed or imprisoned writer has either already miscalculated or else has demonstrated outstanding qualities of bravery at the expense of his own freedom. The question is what nature these miscalculations take on? Is the writer supressing the content of his writing to fly under the radar, in which case he is enacting a form of semi-self-censorship, or is he inventing ingenious ways to circumvent the literature police by covering his text in such a veil of density that it remains oblique to the myopic view of the overseer? Although great works of art have undoubtedly been conceived under these circumstances, I am sure they are never done so by the artist’s preferential choice. Either way the result is toxic: ‘Censorship is not an occupation that attracts intelligent, subtle minds,’ writes J.M. Coetzee, adding that it ‘puts power in the hands of persons with a judgmental, bureaucratic cast of mind that is bad for the cultural and even the spiritual life of the community’ (McDonald, 2004).
There are also direct practical measures which can impede writers who remain in situ as it were. As Marechera goes on to say, ‘financial measures can also force writers out of business. They can be indirect, as in the case of publishers, who, afraid of their government, continually reject a particular writer’s work’ (1987, p. 109). Some governments also act subversively to control what reading material citizens can access. In Kenya, for instance, the responsibility of publishing school books has, ‘rested on the two government funded firms, the Kenya Literature Bureau and the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation. This is a deliberate attempt by the government to monitor every detail that is communicated to the wider school audience. This move has effectively driven away the spirit of competition in the publishing industry’ (Chakava, 1996). As a result, ‘In such conditions, the writer in Africa who has courage is fast becoming something like Dostoevsky’s underground man, in Notes from Undergound, veering between idealism and paranoia, between honourable principles and grossly humiliating circumstances … the writer, whether poet or journalist or novelist or playwright is, in Africa, in the same situation the Russian writer was under the Czar’ (Marechera, 1987, pp. 109 - 110).
Naturally, there is a long tradition of the writer becoming an active participator in the political sphere. I would imagine almost every writer who writes with what I would call a ‘national conscience’ is familiar with Orwell’s famous dictum that no writing ‘is genuinely free from political bias’ (2004, p. 5). And that a writer essentially pursues his craft because ‘there is some lie that [he] want[s] to expose, some fact to which [he] want[s] to draw attention, and [his] initial concern is to get a hearing’ (2004, p. 8). Nigerian author Ben Okri has recently said, ‘we need uncomfortable truth-sayers’ and I have personally always held Camus’ statement from ‘Le Mythe de Sisphe’ as a personal ‘writing mantra’: ‘cherchant ce qui est vrai ne cherche pas ce qui est souhaitable’ (seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable). (2000). Perhaps the best way to illustrate my concerns about the levels of compression the writer faces from his own environment is to speak of it now from personal perspective, to present a kind of ‘case study’.
What of the white writer in Africa? What of myself? It would seem that the white writer from Africa finds himself in a curiously dichotomous position. He is white and therefore ‘Western’ but also African. A white writer is automatically signified by both his ethnicity, from which he cannot readily extricate himself for he is forever marked by the distinguishing texture of this skin, and by his parentage, from which extrication should be permissible but which is explicitly denied by the monocracy who determine the cultural dictates of society. One of the biggest threats to the writer’s function is that of marginality, as we have seen, of being assigned to a generic collective as opposed to the autonomous individualism which the traditional author and his output is entitled. Across many African states xenophobic overtones towards the white subject are not only ignored but form part of an aggrieved national agenda. Especially in Southern Africa and the former British colonies, any white person is by default presumed to be of British origin and of colonial extraction. Often in the lexicological praxis of the state, no two nouns are attributed with more negative association than ‘British’ and ‘colonial.’ So much political capital has been made out of them that they at once prefix an entire discourse of historical blame and justification for any and all continued action, no matter how disjoined or disparate.
In my own home country of Zimbabwe, there was a claim made by the former late President Robert Mugabe that whites are ‘enemies of the state’ and this is an example of this very concentric nationalism. Everything spirals down towards the bitter colonial legacy of the first white settlers and their demonised agnate, as if every white person were directly descended from the loins of Cecil John Rhodes. Illogical as this presentation may be, it does neatly perpetuate the red-herring antics of political opportunism from which the ruling party make considerable capital, in turn generating a perverted axiomatic currency which stigmatises the persona of the white Zimbabwean attempting to write today. The problem for the white African writer rests in how to establish a sense of counter-discursive legitimacy in response to the vitriolic wave of anti-white rhetoric which is issued from the statehood of a place like Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. According to Terence Ranger: “This goes under the name of ‘patriotic history’. It is different from and more narrow than the old nationalist historiography, which celebrated aspiration and modernisation as well as resistance. It represents the ‘disloyal’ questions raised by historians of nationalism. It regards as irrelevant any history which is not political (2005, p. 220).”
Some writers and artists opt not to respond to this brand of politicking and antagonism, choosing to view it as a mere rabble-rousing narrative, devoid and shallow of genuine substance, which continually seeks ways of rewriting elements of the country’s troubled past in order to explicate its troubled present. This non-responsive stance may well in itself constitute a reply. Negating vitriol with silence is a powerfully cogent statement. Other writers and artists, myself included, focalise their narratives in ways which are more directly a response, whether overtly or obliquely, to the insinuations of white culpability and subversion which these sentiments generally expound. My fellow Zimbabwean author John Eppel, for example, intentionally employs satire which he says, ‘gives power to the powerless to ridicule the empowered’ (Shaw, 2012) and goes on to quote Alexander Pope: ‘Those who are ashamed of nothing else are so of being ridiculous.’
A vast public assemblage of utterances against the white subject’s ethnicity exists on record which alone could fill an entire volume. The daily publication of state-controlled media platforms such as The Herald, for instance, or broadcasts from the ZBC relentlessly emphasise an agenda of delegitimising and eradicating the authority of the white voice from public debate. Examples of the tone of such statements voiced in the past include saying, ‘our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy,’ and ‘the white man is not indigenous to Africa. Africa is for Africans. Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans.’ Other comments have asserted that, ‘our present state of mind is that you [the whites] are now enemies, because you really behaved as enemies of Zimbabwe,’ and perhaps, most notoriously, ‘the only white man you can trust is a dead white man.’ Eppel, has aptly described this as ‘verbal genocide’ (Shaw, 2012).
In any other context, such utterances would be classed as racial hate-speech, but in Zimbabwe, and in the wider African liberationist sphere where Mugabe is held to be an elder statesman with considerable anti-colonial credentials, it is somewhat hypocritically tolerated and even vindicated under the banner of what is deemed to be ‘liberation sentiment.’ The closer (Zimbabwean) truth is that its constant proliferation occupies the centre-ground of a very particular class of firebrand neoliberal politics, while simultaneously strengthening the currency of the regime’s motivations for continued power occupancy and for sustaining a system of complex state patronage. But beyond pragmatic objectives, such antagonistic pronouncements also transcend mere political posturing to become endemic to both national and Pan-African consciousness. Chennells refers to this as ‘the current dominant version of history within Zimbabwe’ (2005, p. 133). In many regards, my fiction at its core functions as a counter-discourse, or rather what Terdiman termed ‘dissident discourses’ (1989, p. 80), to the rigorous ideology which has suffused the consciousness of Pan-Africanists for so long now it has even spurned its own derivative: Mugabeism. According to Ndlovu-Gatsheni, a ‘neoliberal-inspired perspective sees Mugabeism as a form of racial chauvinism and authoritarianism marked by antipathy towards norms of liberal governance and disdain for human rights and democracy’ (2009, p. 1139).
I hope, however, I am not so entirely disillusioned as to ignore the problematic imbalances which my own subjectivity as a white Zimbabwean writer poses. This is why I attempt to resist what Mangena claims when he suggests that, ‘any voice of discontent subverts the dominant version of history and translates into protest’ (2015, p. 21). To write merely as protest seems incongruous with the creative nature of writing itself. It is both limiting in the sense that it precludes multiple realms of fictive possibility and limited in that one can only write back to a certain point, and not beyond it; the act becomes repetitively responsive as opposed to creative. For me there has admittedly always been the temptation to view a fictional narrative as a vehicle to confront the issues which press abrasively against me, which grate at my conscience, or which otherwise seem inexplicable. I then set about to tackle them head-on through the act of writing, to reconstruct them in fictive terms. This formulates my own indirect way of attesting to an ideological political process through the practice of writing itself: outcomes prevail over inertia, retribution and regeneration is hinted at, if only on the page.
I am aware that subjectivity can be a double-edge sword and this is why a writer in my position needs to tread very carefully. In fact, as a writer engaged in a default reactionary mode against the vehement racism of the Mugabe diatribe, I am often given to wonder whether the response by white writers is itself a legitimately objectified counterbalance to the baiting that is meted out to us. Whether what we say in response is the justifiable truth or whether, perversely, our output only serves to further elucidate what is said against us? Are we defeating ourselves? I think this is an interesting concern which must strike at the heart of any discerning white writer’s sensibilities and enforces a sense of cautionary self-policing. I am critical of many white writers who I feel have seized on the opportunity to ‘write back’ with little forethought for the argument that suggests an overly subjective and antagonistic narrative, almost always compiled in the style of ‘memoir’, and in addition self-published (and therefore nearly always devoid of editorial review) is in itself a contributing factor to arguing against the legitimacy of the white voice as antithetically resonant when confronting Mugabeist rhetoric. In my view it raises the statement ‘enemies of the state’ to that of a question in need of exploration. Several white-authored narratives present what Harris calls ‘inscriptions of whiteness’ (Chennells, 2005, p. 103) wherein, even in the mode of fiction, it is inevitable that ‘the writing of white identity is deeply entwined with the writing of self’.
Conjunct to this the issue of navigating the terrain of the political correctness movement is once again raised. Here the white (specifically) male writer, seemingly more than any other of his craftsmen, needs to tread with adroitness and sensitivity. The obstacle one faces in attempting to construct a narrative which answers back with honesty at the Afro-radicalism and nativism which Mugabe’s ideology proffers is the danger of, to again use Coetzee’s term, ‘giving offence.’ Where the black writer is permitted a place in the post-colony of saying whatever he desires about the white figure as a legitimate dialogue with the legacy inflicted on him by colonialism, his white colleague is prohibited, in the internationally policed and censored realm of political correctness, from doing likewise. I feel that this censorship further erodes the legitimacy of the white writer’s voice and establishes the degrees by which such writers continually need to explore avenues of subverting such a containment or else risk the frustration of rendering what is ultimately a repressed and sanitised discourse, and one of an increasingly obtuse set of yieldingly euphemistic constructs.
As my own personal reflections on writing from within Zimbabwe demonstrate, there are several very complex dynamics which factor into the individual circumstances under which a writer operates. My own writing life is just an example and by no means a very extreme one. Even excepting those who are publically persecuted, I am convinced that many of my fellow African writers face far more challenging circumstances and are continually being forced to make compromises in the nature of their working practices. Of course my notes have focused on African writers in particular, but similar difficulties face any writer who finds himself in this position of ‘the other’ when in opposition to ‘the same’. This ‘same’ can take on any form or dimension which casts it as the binary opposite working against the right of the ‘other’ to operate with complete artistic independence and integrity or sets itself up as a threat to the purity of the artistic object itself. It is tempting to believe that in the modern age the ‘Us and Them’ binary is a falsity, a relic of a previous age, but I argue that it still exists; it just manifests in a different form.
These components, all told, and whether they be the well-meaning but misdirected intentions of academics and publishers abroad or the draconian hand of the authoritarian regime at home, all create the levels of ‘compression’ I refer to: a state no artist should endure. This is also why I maintain that the issue of post-colonialism remains a protean thesis. There are levels of inequality within relationships of all descriptions, and the writer in this world who is in any manner compromised by being placed in a position of the subordinate is one whose status is ultimately problematic. While the capitalist enterprise remains the dominant driving force behind so-called multiculturalism, and while authoritarianism remains an unchecked blight in certain parts of the world, writers will be condemned to their lowly position. Writers from Africa seem at a particular disadvantage.
For these reasons, it suggests to me that the writer’s position is symbolic of Coleridge’s burdensome albatross* - our African author bears the weight of an English poet’s metaphor around his neck, a portentous sign of the misfortunes he suffers.
* Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: ‘Instead of the cross, the Albatross/About my neck was hung.’
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©Neal Hovelmeier (Ian Holding), 2020