Tony Simoes da Silva
University of Exeter
|A call for papers addressing the issue of 'being a child in Africa' in the year 2002 will probably presuppose that the child will be a Black one; and that the essays will address his or her stories, the political and social worlds he or she inhabit, and the ways in which they function in that world. A paper focusing on the 'White child of Africa' would seem, at a first glance, to be out of step with the mood of the present issue of Mots Pluriels. Yet it is also the case that a discussion of African childhoods will, inevitably need to confront the influence on the Black child of European colonialism, and to engage with the very representation of Africa in the European imagination. As Mudimbe (1988) has suggested, taking a leaf from Edward Said's earlier work, Africa was the 'invention' of Europe. Thus, even the most radical re-imagination of an African childhood will conflate a number of colonial political, social and historical factors that impact markedly on the lives afforded African children today. 'Africa remains' a part of a larger imaginative archive over which Europe maintains a strong hold. Indeed, although Africans have in recent years claimed a greater role in the making of their reality, it is often through the eyes of a White narrator that Africa is translated. It is this process that I want to examine in this paper. Specifically, I will explore the thematic focus of this issue of Mots Pluriels by reading a number of works of autobiography, memoir or self-writing by White Africans in which a child's sensibility is central to the works' aesthetic and political make-up.|
As a subject of analysis, Africa has long attracted the attention of a wide number of writers. In addition to the vast body of literary work on Africa, the continent has attracted also the descriptive talents of European travellers, colonial administrators and their spouses, or the nostalgic accounts written 'in exile' by White Africans. The 'love affair with Africa' trope, has in turn given rise to a third category of writing produced by a range of individuals, from Karen Blixen (1937) and Elspeth Huxley (1960) in the earlier part of the 20th century, to more recent figures such as Kuki Gallmann (1991) and Francesca Marciano (1999). More importantly for the purpose of what this essay seeks to do, are the narratives of White individuals born in Africa, who use their accounts of a childhood lived in Africa to make sense of the lives they now lead elsewhere in the world. In the discussion that follows I want to read a number of these texts for the way in which they continually re-frame the interpretation of Africa in the European collective imaginary. The way the child's eye sees Africa, and the place of race in the colouring of an African childhood are central to my reading. I will propose, moreover, that the works are best analysed within a conceptual critical frame that simultaneously attends to their 'personal content', and allows them to function as historical narratives. As Gillian Whitlock notes in her recent study, The Intimate Empire: Reading Women's Autobiography (2000): "Autobiographic writing can suggest the multiplicity of histories, the ground 'in between' where differences complicate, both across and within individual subjects." In so far as they document the negotiations of a colonial and postcolonial conditions, the texts alternate between nostalgic reminiscing and a coming to grips with brutal political contingencies. If the writings of Alexandra Fuller and Peter Godwin belong almost squarely in the first framework, Christopher Hope, Doris Lessing, Dennis Hirson, Drury Pifer and Ryan Malan undertake a meditation that is often deeply unsettling for the narrator and almost always politically fluid, as they seek to re-situate themselves in relation to the newly independent nations. Malan's book, for instance, is simultaneously intimately personal and openly historical, a mixed-genre construct in which autobiography (Malan's own story) is juxtaposed to biography (that of his ancestors), and to history (South Africa's own coming into being as a truly independent nation in the post-apartheid period).
The texts I examine here tell stories of Africa, and about Africa, narratives in which White children are the storytellers engaged in making sense of the rapidly changing worlds round them. The re-centring of the personal experience such works represent, I suggest, might be seen to constitute a re-historicisation of the collapse of European colonialism in ways that privilege the romance of the White man's Africa. In some instances, these stories are in effect metaphoric of a wider attempt by European nations to explain their diffidence in leaving the 'Natives to their own devices'. The child narrator's telling of the story of a 'growing out of Africa' is consequently equally a rationalisation of Europe's growing away from Africa. Narratives by South African-, Kenyan- and Zimbabwean-born White writers often focus on the White children of Africa as 'orphans', their happy, or otherwise, existences thrown into chaos as a result of the new nations' independence from their colonial masters. Almost inevitably as part of the process of story-telling, the White child-narrator will be confronted with the evils of apartheid, for example, and find himself or herself at the threshold of a profoundly life-changing decision - the rejection of all they have always associated with home, with family, with nation and self.
Ironically, the way in which such works often deal with what is seen as a unique and utterly inscrutable relationship between the writers and the Africa to which they say goodbye, or to which they repeatedly re-stress their claim, echoes the narratives of Blixen, Huxley and Kuki Gallmann. Recent 'autobiographies of Africa' share with Blixen even her sense of abjection, borne out of her condition as a White woman in the male-dominated colonial society in Kenya. Blixen's genuflecting plea to Lord Delamere, in Out of Africa, is re-enacted in the works of Malan, Hope, Fuller and Pifer by a 'masochistic' performance of their Whiteness. Such instances range from the bouts of White liberal breast-beating typical of such texts, ranging from the mundane sharing of marijuana (zoll, dagga) with Black work colleagues, to a more politically meaningful sitting down to eat with the servants their meagre rations, to the literally sick-making drinking sessions with the 'natives'. In texts such as Malan's and Fuller's, as the White narrators indulge not in European alcoholic beverages but in mealie meal, or mealie pap, they perform a ritualistic homage to 'Mother Africa' by undergoing profoundly distressing bodily experiences. The attending vomiting, pain and discomfort are crucial metonyms of a re-birth, a journey back to the womb of Africa.
Autobiography, life/self-writing, memoir, testimonio, are some of the ways in which the self seeks to make sense of his or her place in the world. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson write in Getting a Life: The Everyday Uses of Autobiography (1996): "Seizing the occasion and telling the story turn the speakers into subjects of narrative who can exercise some control over the meaning of their 'lives'". Life writing is then partly about defamiliarising the ordinariness of everyday life. Potentially, at least, life as (an)Other has all the glamour of transgression, of overt or implicit shifts across real or imagined boundaries. It is dicey, exciting, dangerous; well, sometimes, which why writing about the self is so often a wonderful medium to pander to the self's natural egocentrism. To read the story of a self is to be invited into the mind of another being. One of the fascinating contradictions of life-writing as a genre is that it both presumes a reasonable static self to be captured in its full complexity, and one whose amoeba-like progression the act of life-writing attempts to portray in its journey through life. Indeed, as Benedict Anderson has argued, "Against biology's demonstration that every single cell in a human body is replaced over seven years, the narratives of autobiography and biography flood print-capitalism's markets year by year."  In the context of a postcolonial coming to terms with a new African order, narratives by White Africans, or those for whom the continent served as background to a more or less memorable childhood, life-writing offers the ability to re-imagine a new place for the now adult narrator.
Consider, for instance, Drury Pifer's Innocents in Africa. The story is told through the perspective of a 'once-child' man, a grown up whose reminiscing about the past reflects a whimsical naiveté. Pifer's recollections are tempered with the weight of lived experience, and a detachment - physical, emotional - from the place and events he recounts. The style is sparse but precise, the emotions hinted at only just by the slightest degree of emphasis. Speaking of his father, he writes:
In this context, Doris Lessing's accounts of her various journeys back to the place she for many years called home, Zimbabwe (though when it was still Southern Rhodesia), offers a fascinating case. Lessing returns as an adult, and as someone for whom the newly independent nation is no utopia of liberated paradise that she will call home. Indeed, Whitlock suggests that Lessing writes out of a tradition in which the past, and an African past in particular, are seen as dystopian constructs. As such her works do not fall entirely within the remit of my paper; she comes as an observer, who will go back to the land she has adopted. Her autobiographies proper, Whitlock remarks in her work, are better suited to a study of the self's intricate transactions in search of a stable reading position. Lessing seeks in the autobiographies, Under the Skin (1995) and Walking In The Shade (1998), to negotiate the divide between the childhood she re-memorialises, and the adult narrator whom she knows is too self-conscious to be an innocent storyteller. That her writing betrays her colonial and postcolonial, subjectivities, at once indelibly marked by her resistance to Smith's Rhodesia and by a long period of residence in Britain, is evident in both the straightforward autobiographies, and in the travelogues of her various visits to Africa.
Her portrait of the independent Zimbabwean nation in African Laughter is tinged with a sense of anger and frustration that go beyond that of the detached observer. Although as travel writing such works function at a different level from other, more straightforward examples of life-writing, Lessing's own sense of connection with the land, with 'mother Africa', means that she soon begins to harangue the new rulers for their inability to govern their (but also, crucially, her) Africa. She writes, in the opening section of African Laughter, "Then: 1982": "Zimbabwe, like other new black countries, has a corrupt ruling elite. This is far from an apologetic class of robbers. On the contrary: they are proud of themselves, boast and display their wealth." (1993: 9). Reading those lines as I do 20 years after she wrote them, Lessing seems uncannily prescient, especially in her insight into Robert Mugabe's character. When we consider that the new nation was then barely 2 years old, however, her indictment seems almost churlish. It reads like the kind of think Ian Douglas Smith, the White minority leader, might have said to justify his own illegitimate regime. What makes Lessing, Malan, and Hope particularly rewarding 'case-studies' is that these are writers for whom White mythographies in the mould of Out of Africa are abhorrent, and the 'great new dawn' of Independenc Day is something they see themselves having helped bring about, if only by packing up their bags and settling down to a more sedate existence elsewhere. When they write of the journey back to Africa, the narrative voice betrays at once fear and elation, anticipation and angst about what one is about to re-encounter. The return, often carefully rehearsed prior to the big day, can be emotionally cathartic, but also bitterly disillusioning. Malan's and Lessing's stories at times reflect all the elements of the 'Africa as a degenerate space' narrative, where White people will need to go native if they are to be allowed to reconnect with Africa.
Within the context of Smith and Watson's definition of autobiography as "the practices through which people assemble narratives out of their own experiential histories", and the extent to which it is "contextually marked, collaboratively mediated, provisional" (9), African Laughter provides an excellent insight into the 'colonised' mind, in the sense that, as Fanon (1961) so well put it, both coloniser and coloniser remain trapped in the hopelessness of their situations. Lessing is much too rational to allow herself bouts of undiluted nostalgia; if she does not like what she sees now, she detested what preceded it. She is perfectly conscious of the ideological veils that cloud her writing to attempt to re-invent Africa for a European readership; that at times residual traces are present in her work attests to the durability of colonial interpellation. Lessing is, after all, of Africa, and out of Africa.
In contrast, Alexandra Fuller's recent Don't Let's go to the Dogs Tonight (2002) overtly revisits the colonial imaginary archives of a love affair with Africa so well articulated in Karen Blixen's narrative. That the love affair is now tempered with a fair dose of cynicism befits the requirements of a self-consciously postcolonial narrative of Whiteness in Africa. Fuller's parents work and manage many farms, but never quite own any of them. The one instance when they come closest to doing so, or so they feel, ultimately falls prey to Mugabe's first, half-hearted attempt at land redistribution. Mad as the proverbial dogs in the mid-day sun, the English Mrs. Fuller first reacts by taking out her anger on the African women and children who come to occupy her land, but then relents, and moves away. When the government eventually purchases the farm for a fraction of its supposed value, the money has to be handed over to the bank. It, not the Fullers or the squatters had always been its only owner. Africa has never been kind to the White person.
Stories such as Fuller's idealise the role White women played in Africa, and speak directly out of, and to the ideological registers of Blixen's and Huxley's texts. It is hardly surprising, then, that Peter Godwin's words on the cover blurb should seek to validate the work as a riveting story of "the eccentric White African farmer". Note the definitive article, with its transparent presumption that one simply could not know about the African White farmer. Fuller highlights in her narrative especially the figure of her mother, a somewhat deranged character whom, we later find out, suffers from manic depression. The formidable Mrs. Fuller is known to her friends, to her acquaintances and to myriad servants as an unpredictable and temperamental individual, capable of sudden and violent tantrums. Out of the many instances recalled none is more brutal than her reaction, in the post-independence period, to the increasing incursions by landless peasants. She comes across as an indomitable woman, the sort of white women the empire might have bred in greater numbers than the men it sent out. One wonders if it ever occurred to colonial administrators to cultivate manic depression as a colonial quality, to be exported with White people to the far-flung corners of the empire. It is symptomatic of the way in which autobiographical narratives of postcolonial Africa produced by White writers operate, that Fuller's mother's story might equally be Karen Blixen's own in Out of Africa. "We have breeding" (4) indeed. It is bred into the colonial disposition to be the centre of attention, a point both Conrad and Achebe made so clearly in their work, even if working from different viewpoints. Ironically, though she betrays no awareness of Alyse Simpson's text, Fuller's story strongly resembles The Land That Never Was (1937). Whitlock has pointed out that the latter work can be read as a direct inversion of the romance of Africa offered in Out of Africa. "The resemblances", she writes, "are produced by Simpson's desire to unravel the vision of British East Africa as a lost Eden by pursuing the other term of the oppositions which are the repertoire of the East African dream: regeneration and degeneration, freedom and imprisonment and eloquence and silence" (118). Centrally, Fuller's despairing reading of the White African farmer uncannily echoes Simpson's own negative depiction of the farming trope in East Africa. But Fuller's story, with its outrageous claims on the readers' attention and empathy - the egotistical behaviour, the careless mothering, the insufferable drunkard parents - has been brought down a few notches from the dizzying heights of Blixen's own romantic heroine. The narrative and 'processual' frameworks remain - but they have been adapted for consumption by a public much more irreverent towards the hidden talents of good breeding.
My Traitor's Heart (1994) has deservedly been seen as a poignant account of a quasi-Freudian split with the motherland. Ryan Malan, a South African journalist who left his homeland in the days of apartheid, writes a witty, bawdy and subversive memoir. 'Authorised' by Malan's impeccable political credentials, the writing conveys an intricate perception of the South Africa to which the narrator returns, and of his place in it. Unlike Fuller and Godwin, for instance, Malan does not return to 'the farm my family once owned', and I use the phrase here to describe a trope of self-writing that could only really be set in former Anglophone settler colonies. Its ironies - the farm my family once owned was almost invariably one my family, or someone on their behalf acquired by pushing the rightful owners off the land - reach their finest and most perverse levels only in stories such as Blixen's, Kiki Gallman's and Fuller's. Indeed, Whitlock remarks that even when at her most self-conscious in her autobiographies, Lessing finds it possible to speak of Africa as an "almost empty land" (199-200). Even someone with Lessing's unimpeachable political cachet ultimately subscribes to it: 'they simply cannot be trusted with their lives, these Africans'. She goes mad when she sees the mess the natives created in the post-independence period. That famous line, 'après moi, le deluge', freshly if silently recycled, and in the oddest of places. But then Barthes we should curse for no longer allowing us to find joy in language.
Malan's work, however, is riveting because we, as readers, empathise with the strain of telling a story of nasty relatives who are also one self. Travelling back from the USA, Malan's narrator is smart and self-conscious in a postmodern, postcolonial way, and the narrative is a kind of mea culpa performed in the manner of the Christian stations-of-the-cross. Malan visits some of Afrikanerdom's most sacred sites, and undertakes at each stop to flagellate himself, metaphorically, really, but also in an almost literal sense, in what seems an attempt to expiate his sins. He gets drunk with fellow South Africans, Black South Africans that is, and then is physically ill. The abject White self seeks to purge himself of the marks of apartheid. These, however, and as Malan recognises time and again, are too deeply ingrained in the pigmentation of his skin. In what I suspect to be an involuntary allusion, Malan offers a thoughtful reflection on Althusserian theories of subjectivity, and especially his notion of 'interpellation'. Malan, the White South African, an Afrikaner to boot (and he does much to explain the importance of such categories), is born an Afrikaner, re-made an Afrikaner and as such in South Africa he will not be allowed to eschew his superiority. I, too, is an Other, acquires here a profoundly ironic resonance. Malan recognises it, and finds himself taking sides with his volk. And here resides one of the central ways in which texts such as Malan's differ from the earlier templates for an 'autobiography of Africa' to which, albeit unwittingly, it pays tribute. While in Out of Africa Blixen knelt before an English colonial administrator on behalf of Black Africans, Malan goes down on all four to beg forgiveness for being an Afrikaner. True, he is drunk or out of his mind on dope when he does it, but it is a start.
Moreover, he text is particularly interesting for the way it brings together the complex process of self-making at the ethnic, social, political and the psychological levels. For if the past is, in self-writing, a much-visited place, it is also one into which the visitors dip selectively. Malan's is one of the most complex narratives to have emerged out of this political and aesthetic dialectic in postcolonial Africa. When the narrator writes at one stage: "No, I'm lying. I mustn't lie anymore." (50), he knows, of course, that he will, for it is in the nature of the genre to construct a mythic self. The narrator differentiates here between the truths that will slip into the narrative, and the half-truths that constitute the 'thick description' of self-writing. It is at times such as this, when the narrative flow suddenly snaps and the personal story disrupts history, that the internal logic of the autobiographical narrative best reflects itself as process. The story of a childhood lived on the cusp of a shift from colonial to postcolonial becomes then an interesting way of 'zooming in' onto specific moments and manifestations of the European presence in Africa.
If there is one thing that life-writing confirms, it is that we take from the past generally what suits our specific needs at specific points in time. In the words of Equiano, "I have only to request the reader's indulgence and conclude. I am far from the vanity of thinking that there is any merit in this narrative: I hope censure will be suspended when it is considered that it was written by one who was as unwilling as unable to adorn the plainness of truth by the colouring of imagination". Drusilla Modjeska has argued that the contemporary popularity of life-writing forms reflects a newly discovered passion for the story of the self, minus the couch, and relates them to a postmodern celebration of a multiply fragmented / split self. It is an argument that I want to extend to the postcolonial autobiographical narratives to have emerged from Africa in the last few years. But in this post-modern and postcolonial moment, readers too have discovered that the contract they sign with their favourite writers now allows them some fairly basic rights. A more ethical perspective by the writer is one of them, and writers have to accommodate their fussier partners. In the words of Felicity Nussbaum, "the autobiographical quandary after poststructuralism requires that reader and writer are both recognised to be subject predicaments rather than fixed positions that occupy known spaces within history and culture". For the White child of postcolonial Africa this means constantly striving for a balance between traditional ways of telling the African experience, and the pressures of new power structures in modern-day Africa. In the words of Ryan Malan:
 Peter Read, Belonging (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 28.
 Water Benjamin, "These on the Philosophy of History", Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1992): 245.
 A brief note on terminology. Although the term Africa, without inverted comas, will be used throughout the essay, on occasion I have qualified its usage in order to recognise the way it has been interpellated by specific discourses of representation. Similarly, the term postcolonial is used in the discussion to describe a historical period referring essentially to a post-independence Africa. Inverted commas will be adopted to differentiate between such a notion and a more generally accepted use of the term to refer to the period after Europeans arrived in the 'New Worlds'.
 Mudimbe's work, based as it is on Said's groundbreaking Orientalism (1978), seeks to explain the place of Africa within Western cognitive mappings.
 My use of the term 'exile' refers in a sense to a real condition, but it is simultaneously used metaphorically to describe the portrayal of Africa in the works of self-writing I will analyse. Indeed, in the case of some of these texts, the authors continue to live in Africa, if perhaps an 'imaginary Africa'.
 Marciano's Rules of the Wild (1999), a novel, in effect bears testimony to the durability of Blixen's work and to the way in which for White people Africa has always been best dealt with either at the level of romance, dream or nightmare. To quote Whitlock's own framing of Kuki Gallmann's I Dreamed of Africa, in Marciano's text Out of Africa "is there not just ... in the resemblance suggested in the cover blurb, but in a more extensive borrowing of trope and metaphor" (2000, 113).
 Gillian Whitlock, The Intimate Empire: Reading Women's Autobiography (Oxford: Cassell, 2000): 5.
 Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota, 1996): 14.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 1991): 204.
 Pifer's work constitutes a particularly unusual case. Born in the USA, taken to South Africa by his parents at the beginning of the 20th century, his narrative covers a crucial moment in the evolution of White power in the latter country. Although he would eventually return to the USA, his work offers one of the most fascinating reflections on the construction of African-European identity in postcolonial Africa.
 Drury Pifer, Innocents in Africa (London: Granta, 1995): 2.
 If there is a single manoeuvre that allows White, English-speaking liberal to establish their credentials when discussing apartheid, it is by taking direct hits at the Afrikaners. It is a device that in this instance betrays the contesting narrative viewpoints between Pifer as a child and as a grown up opposed to the regime he witnessed as a young boy. The internecine squabbles among White South Africans are treated with both curiosity and contempt, a detachment borne of the narrator's own otherness.
 Equiano, 1996, 146.
 Felicity Nussbaum, "Autobiography and Postcolonialism", Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, 3 (October 1991): 24-30.
 Malan, 1991, 62.
 Whitlock, 2000, 189.
 Benjamin, 1992, 248.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities, revised edition (London: Verso, 1991).
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations (London: Fontana, 1992).
Brewster, Anne. Literary Formations (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995).
Edwards, Paul, ed.. Equiano's travels, revised edition (Oxford et al: Heinemann, 1996).
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks, tr. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto, 1986).
Fuller, Alexandra. Don't Lets Go the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood (London: Picador, 2002).
Godwin, Peter. Mukiwa (London: Picador, 1996).
Gunew, Sneja. Framing Marginality: Multicultural Literary Theory (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1995).
Hirson, Denis. The House Next Door to Africa (Manchester: Carcanet, 1987).
Hope, Christopher. White Boy Running (London: Abacus, 1991).
Lessing, Doris. African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (London: Flamingo, 1993).
Lessing, Doris. Under my skin : volume one of my autobiography, to 1949 (London: Flamingo, 1995).
Lessing, Doris. Walking in the shade: volume two of my autobiography, 1949-1962 (London: Flamingo, 1998).
Malan, Ryan. My Traitor's Heart (London: Vintage, 1991).
Mudimbe, V.E.. The Invention of Africa: gnosis, philosophy, and the order of knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana university Press, 1988).
Ogube, S.E. Introduction to Equiano's travels, revised edition, ed. Paul Edwards (London: Heinemann, 1996).
Pifer, Drury. Innocents in Africa (London: Granta, 1995).
Read, Peter. Belonging (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Said, Edward. Orientalism (London: Routledge, 1978).
Simpson, Alyse. The Land that Never Was (London: Selwyn and Blount, 1937).
Whitlock, Gillian. The Intimate Empire: Reading Women's Autobiography (Oxford: Cassell, 2000).
Tony Simoes da Silva teaches in the School of English, University of Exeter.
Recent or forthcoming publications include The Luxury of Nationalist Despair:
George Lamming's Fiction as Decolonising Project (2000), and various essays
and encyclopedia entries: "De/Colonising Tales", in Jouvert: A Journal of
Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 6: 1&2, 2001, on autobiography; "Raced Encounters,
Sexed Transactions: 'Luso-tropicalism' and the Portuguese Colonial Empire", in
Pretexts: Literary and Cultural Studies, Vol. 11:1, 2002, pp.27-40; entries
on Amilcar Cabral, pp.72-76; George Lamming, pp.269-271 and Lusophone literatures,
pp.280-282 in Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Studies (2001); and a piece on the
work of George Lamming in Wadabagei (2003).
He is the editor of a site on Anglophone and Lusophone African Women's Writing.
|Some other articles by Tony Simoes da Silva|
Geographies of sorrow and renewal:Basali! Stories by and about Women in Lesotho
"Edward Said" by Bill Ashcroft and Pal Ahluwalia (Book review)
"Politics and Post-colonial Theory: African Inflections" by Pal Ahluwalia (Book review)