In his scathing satirical essay “How to Write About Africa,” Binyavanga Wainaina lays out a litany of racist, colonialist cliches that abound in Western writing about Africa.
“Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions,” he says. “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.”
The essay is, from start to finish, a dressing-down of the smug, self-congratulatory nonsense that proliferates in fiction set in Africa written by non-African writers. (This kind of lazy stereotyping even extends to book cover art, as the blog Africa is a Country pointed out last year.) Wainaina lambastes authors who rely on bigoted cliches wrapped up in sentimental imagery instead of trying to represent the complexity and diversity of people’s lives on the African continent.
From a craft standpoint, Wainaina’s critique highlights not only implicit racism of so much writing “about Africa”, but also its staggering lack of specificity. This is the nature of cliches: they rely on hackneyed phrases and too-easy generalizations. They are not particular in any respect. As Wainaina says sarcastically, “Broad brushstrokes are good throughout.”
In good writing, no matter where it’s set, broad brushstrokes can’t suffice. Literary fiction has to be vivid, has to be particular. It has to resist the temptation to resort to familiar ways of seeing. Why is a phrase like “my heart skipped a beat” or a scene in which a character rushes to the airport to confess their love to someone considered bad writing? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with those cliches in themselves. It’s that they aren’t specific. They don’t tell us what those particular characters would do or say, and they don’t relate the episode in a way you in particular would write it. Cliches are shortcuts, ways of avoiding doing the work of writing attentively about the world around us.
And the results, as Wainaina’s essay makes clear, can be disastrous. Through cliche, we slip into fiction that treats 900 million people as if they are one homogeneous group. This kind of corner-cutting is not just lazy, not just careless, not just bad writing. It also has the capacity to do real harm.