A few weeks ago, my novel Night of Knives, a thriller set in Africa, received a scathing review from a reader that began with “This is a truly appalling book” and went on to give it 0.5 out of 5 stars. It concluded: “The Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina recently published an article entitled How to Write About Africa, a satirical look at books about Africa. Jon Evans’s Night of Knives might almost have been written using Wainaina’s essay as a guide.”
What’s interesting, at least to me, is that I read Wainaina’s terrific essay several times while writing the book in question, and took painstaking care to ensure that its acerbic advice did not apply. Was I so inept? Was the reviewer so blind? I’ll admit both as possibilities—and naturally I invite you to read and judge for yourself—but neither seems particularly likely. So what was it that spurred such a reaction?
Wainaina’s essay is, in essence, an attack on two things: writing about modern Africa as if it is a mythical and alien place populated entirely by childish people afflicted by endless suffering, and writing about modern Africa through the prism of a western perspective, with white protagonists. I confidently plead not guilty to the first charge—but I happily plead guilty to the second; and my suspicion is that many people instinctively conflate those two separate things.
I’ve travelled extensively and repeatedly through Africa, but all that immersive research can’t help me with a fundamental catch-22. If I write about westerners like myself who go there, then—to quote the review—”It’s not a book about Africa. It’s a thriller about North Americans and Europeans set in an ‘exotic’ African backdrop”. But had I populated the book with African protagonists, I’ve little doubt I would have fallen flat on my face.
I’m not talking about potential accusations of “cultural appropriation”. I couldn’t care less about that. Hari Kunzru said it best: “I reserve the right to imagine anyone and anything I damn well please. If I want to write about Jewish people, or paedophiles or Patagonians or witches in 12th-century Finland, then I will do so, despite being “authentically” none of these things. . . . My work may convince or it may not. However, I will not accept that I have any a priori responsibility to anyone—white, black or brown, let alone any ‘community’—to represent them in any particular way.”
I can’t applaud loudly enough. But at the same time, “write what you know” is a valuable safety mechanism. Writing about characters steeped in a living culture that you know only through travel and research is a recipe for offensive disaster. Even a shared language doesn’t make it much easier: as a former resident of both the US and Britain, I can cite a long list of failed attempts by authors of both nations to write convincingly about the other. Writers who can depict characters from a completely dissimilar culture in a manner persuasive to its inhabitants are rare and great indeed, and I fear I am not one of them.
But if I can’t write about African protagonists, and shouldn’t write about westerners in Africa, it follows that I mustn’t write about Africa at all—and I reject that notion as emphatically as Kunzru does. I can see how novels about westerners in the former colonial world, and particularly commercial fiction such as thrillers, can trigger a defensive reaction. Such books have all too often been patronising and insulting crap. But to reject that—or any—combination of author, characters and setting as invalid is to throw a whole nursery-full of babies out with the bathwater.