Wednesday, 5 November 2008

How to write (books) about Africa: A Guide for the Aspiring Westerner

by Tolu Ogunlesi

This was inspired by the now-famous Binyavanga Wainaina (wiki) article, How to Write About Africa, originally published in Granta

1. Join the Peace Corps. In all honesty, this is enough. Join the Peace Corps, and you will write about Africa. Whether you’d really like to, or not. There’s something about the Peace Corps that makes you suspect that it’s an undercover MFA program, haunted by muses and sundry writing spirits

But then, here’s more specific guidance on what to do after you join the Peace Corps:
Spend 1 year in a lost village. This is the "100% Proven and Guaranteed" way to get inspiration for a book on Africa. Visit the city, or even a small town at your own peril; there you will waste your mornings at the local Starbucks and your evenings fighting obesity and gorging on greasy McDonald’s fare and Heineken six packs, almost like you were back home in Minnesota or Idaho. Another drawback, one year in an African City is a sure way to go back home without setting eyes on even one African beast.

Examples of existing "peace-corps books":
· The Village of Waiting (1988) by George Packer
· Black Papyrus: A Year in the Life of an African Village (2003)
· Why the Sky Is Far Away: A Folktale from Nigeria, Retold by Mary-Joan Gerson (1974)
· In Bikole: Eight Modern Stories of Life in a West African Village, illustrated by Monica Vachula, 1978
· State of Decay: An Oubangui Chronicle; A Novel of African Adventure (2001)
· The Children of Mauritania: Days in the Desert and by the River Shore (1993)

2. Make sure your book title has at least one of the following "buzz-words"
Tribe, Genocide, Slave, Hills, AIDS, Scramble, Matchete, Village or Grave.
These words help magnify searchability on Amazon and Google, and standoutability in crowded bookstore shelves, and rumors have it that Amazon actually preferentially ranks such books e.g.

· Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village (Henry Holt, 2003)
· The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa (Basic Books, 2001).
· Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).
· My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989).

Also very importantly, try to make sure that the word Africa appears in the title. See Rule 1 for more examples.

3. Still on titles. "Farther is better" is the Golden Rule.
The farther your title is from ordinariness, and the closer it is to the Exotic and/or Fantastical, the better:
· When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa (Little, Brown, 2007)
· We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)

4. Get blurbs from at least 2 of the following:
– the latest African-baby-adopting white celebrity diva
– the latest celebrity African ex-child-soldier
– a Chinese Government official extolling the "rich" virtues of the continent (caveat: this might not go down well with the US State Department, and will therefore invariably affect your chances of getting a US Publisher)
– one of the growing numbers of African hawker-or-herdsgirl-turned-new-york-supermodel...
– Bono

5. Last but not the least. Your cover photo. You certainly need to get this right. Instead of the hackneyed (Conradian) images you’d find in The Economist (No. 1 Suspect) – fly-covered, potbellied children, an AK-47 clutching "rebel", a family posing outside a hut, cows, a queue of black-skinned humans clutching bowls and smiling) – Be Positively Different
It's now called CSR - Continental Social Responsibility. Use a toothless, smiling, saggy-breasted black-skinned African "Ma" clutching Coca Cola in one hand, and an iPod in the other.
It's a globalised world after all…


rayo said...

where do u come up with this stuff? rili hilarious!

R.E.II™ said...

You should write one first about Africa :) really intriguing indeed

Waffarian said...

You should do "how to write (books) about Post-colonialism: A guide for the aspiring african.

The experiences of an achiever....... said...

lol!!!! i'm cracking up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Just read this!!! and boy!! was it interesting!!!