Kenyan-born Binyavanga Wainaina who lives in New York wrote How to Write about Africa for Granta‘s 2005 winter edition. It’s old, but I hadn’t read it before one of my Facebook friends posted yesterday. This profound piece of satire is poignant and uncomfortably true and has apparently created a lot of debate.
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.
(Above is the filmed performance of the essay directed by Jesse Dylan who worked with Binyavanga and the Beninois actor Djimon Hounsou.)