Time, Place and the Diaspora Writer

This blog was first published on Commonwealth Writers site.

By Mildred Barya 

Criticism of an African writer writing from a distance (those born or living in the Diaspora who write about Africa) inevitably focuses on the writers’ identity and the space they occupy, rather than how they’ve crafted their work. Does this imply that some writers require permission to tell their stories? Or is the idea of entitlement located on identity symptomatic of everything that’s wrong? This was the topic of a discussion with four writers – Jennifer Makumbi, Noo Saro-Wiwa, Chinelo Okparanta and Juliane Okot Bitek – chaired by Goretti Kyomuhendo at the second African Writers Trust Conference in Uganda this week.

Is someone from Nigeria, for instance, better placed to understand and write about events in Nigeria than if they’re living in New York or elsewhere? The panel suggested this assumption was self-destructive, because we all live individual experiences, no matter where we are. This critical stance forgets that writers have a strong sense of the individual, and that each book is an expression of someone’s individuality. Authors of fiction write from the imagination. No matter what reality’s influence is, the imagination is still in charge of telling and shaping the story that becomes a character’s reality. It is a terrible suggestion that Diaspora writers living in relative luxury in Europe or the USA can’t tell a story about how life in the slums is lived back home or elsewhere. For me to question and judge the author’s work based on their cultural identity rather than merit is a criticism against imagination itself. It is to tell the author that they have no right to imagine the world they’re bringing into being.

Bill ChengYet the criticism of culture suffered by the African writers in the Diaspora is not restricted to African authors only. Bill Cheng set his novel Southern Cross the Dog in rural Mississippi among mostly black folks. Cheng is not black, nor has he ever lived in Mississippi – he is a Chinese-American born in Queens. The reviewers who pointed this out (almost all of them) implicitly posed the question “Can we trust him?”, judging Cheng’s voice and authenticity not as a writer but as a Chinese-American. The reception to his book challenges set beliefs that are deeply-rooted in fear when it comes to evaluating works of ethnic writers.

When blacks, Asians or other non-whites write about spaces outside their birth or current residence, craft alone doesn’t suffice; a writer’s race and identity become a critical part of the analysis. Not only are different standards and expectations placed on a non-white writer, but the writers may also be accused of just seeking recognition from the western audience, due to their depictions of the places they’ve left or not lived in for long.

Why does the non-white writer’s race and physical departure become critical when talking about the text? In the case of Bill Cheng, why is his race and not having lived in the South significant? What makes him different from Stephen Crane who wrote The Red Badge of Courage and never witnessed the American Civil War? Or Adam Johnson, an American who wrote The Orphan Master’s Son, set in North Korea and won the Pulitzer to boot. It seems that, “In a society masquerading as post-racial,” Gracie Jin writes in an online article, “it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man. People of color, on the other hand, are expected to speak only for themselves.” But this could well be another dangerous assumption that the writer’s aim is to speak for this and that group. They may be writing to entertain themselves, their magical cats, and not in the business of representation.

Jin also suggests that “Ideally, the authority of a work of fiction should be judged against the standards of the world that it creates, not by its alignment with a rigid notion of reality”. African writers in the Diaspora can negotiate different places or the place in-between skillfully in their work. Why not admire instead of attacking them?

Commonwealth Writers is the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation. It inspires, develops and connects writers and storytellers in a range of disciplines.

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