Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Saturday's Guardian Review carried an interesting piece by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Orange Prize shortlisted Purple Hibiscus and the new Half of a Yellow Sun). In it she examines historical validation of/accuracy in fiction (specifically war fiction), and looks at some of the books which, despite themselves, taught her about a time and place while keeping her engrossed in the fictive story and characters. Adichie writes:
The novels I love, the ones I remember, the ones I re-read, have an empathetic human quality, or "emotional truth". This quality is difficult to fully define, but I always recognise it when I see it: it is different from honesty and more resilient than fact, something that exists not in the kind of fiction that explains but in the kind that shows.
She relates this to Shimmer Chinodya's excellent Harvest of Thorns:
What struck me most...was that I emerged from it with a complex portrait of Zimbabwe's war of independence from - at last - the point of view of black people without ever feeling as if I had been lectured.
This feeling of not being lectured I also agree is an important part of really good fiction. Pedantic, hectoring, lecturing fiction (particularly about issues, subjects or parts of the world I am not familiar with) is boring, and will definitely lead me to give up on a book. But a writer who manages to convey a richly textured background as part of the story, through descriptions of the landscape - both geographic and political - and also through the complexity of characters, now that makes for a great kind of fiction. Of course, can I think of brilliant examples right now off the top of my head?! I'll have a think, and let you know later.

An additional issue Adichie raises which has nothing to do with writing itself, except in passing as a common theme across African fiction and with an everyday emotional resonance across the continent, is this:
The wonderfully restrained sense of deep disappointment underlying Chinodya's narrative reminded me of how similar the histories of many African countries are, how passionately people believed in ideas that would disappoint them, in people that would betray them, in futures that would elude them.
In recent weeks, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (most recent book published is GOD HAS A DREAM: A VISION OF HOPE FOR OUR TIME) has frequently appeared in the British and South African press. I suspect this is in the run-up to the nobel laureate's birthday next month. In a recent article in the South African Mail & Guardian, Tutu echoes some of the disappointment Adichie describes:
"In the struggle, people overwhelmingly were altruistic. They were clear they were striving not to subjugate anybody but to throw off the shackles of oppression and injustice, to usher in a new age of freedom for everyone.

"I naively believed that come liberation these ideals and attitudes would automatically be transferred to how you operated in the new dispensation. And there's no question at all, it is a very disillusioning moment when you discover that we jettisoned very, very quickly those high ideals and this sense that you were there for the sake of a struggle and not for your own aggrandisement. The most devastating thing is discovering that we are ordinary, we are so human. We have succumbed to the same kind of temptations. We are not a special breed. We have feet of clay."

Weary and vexed as he is over such issues as corruption, crime and Aids, Tutu still raises a ringingly optimistic view of his nation's future.

"We are regarded with awe and admiration for showing the world that it is possible for those who had been involved in bloody conflict to evolve into comrades; to undergo the metamorphosis of the repulsive caterpillar into the gorgeous butterfly by opting for the path of forgiveness and reconciliation instead of retaliation, retribution and revenge. Let us become what we are, the rainbow people of the God, proud of our diversity, celebrating our differences that make not for separation and alienation but for a gloriously rich unity." - Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
While dismay and disappointment at the antics of our politicians and leaders lies thick on the ground across the continent, I have found it is a mutual feeling in the west too, if less likely to cost you your life. South Africa, thankfully, in recent years is a country where opposing the incumbent government does not result in torture and death (which certainly cannot be said of the previous Nationalist government). But it is the strong, unwavering voices of people like Desmond Tutu that keep it that way. Long may he reign as the "nation's conscience"!

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