Updated: Jan 11, 2021
AFRICAN FICTION, WESTERN READERS
African fiction, western readers? Why is that a question?
The sad irony of African writers in the diaspora is that much of their work may never be read in the countries where the stories are set. That’s because, ultimately, the fiction is geared to a largely western markets. That means African writers must tell a story that the presumably mostly western audience will understand.
Africa is rich with custom and tradition, and it varies from country to country (there are 54 in total). Many of these cultures are baffling or illogical to the western reader. In an interview with Rudolf Okonkwo, Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo relates how when she was writing her novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, her editors were sometimes unable to understand the Nigerian Pidgin the author had portrayed in sections of the book. She made some changes as a compromise, but she was less willing to do the same thing in her second novel, Welcome To Lagos, and indeed on occasion said, in effect, “Sorry you don’t get it, but I’m not changing a word.”
With my novels set in Ghana, West Africa, I understand the thin line African writers in the diaspora often have to walk between authenticity of the language and customs of the setting and “selling out” to western sensibilities and levels of understanding. Sometimes it’s a teeter-totter situation with authenticity gaining the upper hand over readers’ comprehension and vice versa, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s usually a “sweet spot” somewhere in between. The devil is in the details.
Young Ghanaian men having a discussion (Shutterstock/Anton Ivanof)
In African fiction for western readers, language may be difficult to represent. I include a full glossary in all my novels set in Ghana, not only to translate phrases or words in one of the indigenous languages (not “dialects”), but also to explain slang terms. For example “Chale” or “chaley” (chah-LAY) means “bro” or “dude.” Funnily enough, “bro” has now entered Ghanaian slang.
Young Ghanaian men like those shown conversing in the photo above are likely to speak in their indigenous tongue, Ghanaian pidgin, or a mixture of both. Here’s a passage from my upcoming novel, THE MISSING AMERICAN (about which I’ll tell you in my next blog.) In this section, one young man is explaining how to defraud an unsuspecting victim online:
“When I call the man on Skype, what he go see is some fine woman smiling at him. I tell him say my computer microphone no dey work well, so make we type instead.”
In context, this is not too difficult to understand, but it’s probably watered down from what it could be in reality. I admit I am not an expert Ghanaian pidgin English speaker nor do I pretend to be. Nigerian Pidgin can be even more advanced and may interject fewer words from indigenous Nigerian languages than Ghanaian pidgin does. It should be said that pidgin is not necessarily a reflection of educational status. Well-educated Ghanaians use it as well and it appears to go along with a certain “hipster” or “cool” affectation. Males seem more predisposed to pidgin, at least in Ghana.
When writing African fiction for western readers, some customs unique to the particular locale might seem odd to the reader. Sometimes it can be presented as an explanation by the writer, or alternatively can be seen through the eyes of an observer. For example, rather than my writing, “They shook hands with the guests from right to left, as is the accepted custom,” the reader can experience it through a character’s eyes. This works especially well if the character is foreign to the culture, i.e. “John noticed how they shook the guests’ hands strictly from right to left, and made a mental note to do the same.” Or John could ask someone in the know, “Do you always have to shake hands from right to left?” This way, the character and the reader are learning something new at the same time.
Another example from Ghana is that eating, giving and receiving must always be done with the right hand, the left hand traditionally regarded as the “toilet” hand. I confess I once handed some money to a Ghanaian with my left hand and felt highly embarrassed when I realized my faux pas. And not as if I didn’t know this. I just forgot! 😔🤦🏽♂️
But I think customs make a novel more interesting, and people who read international fiction and have a less parochial view of the world enjoy reading about traditions that may seem odd. The skill is to incorporate it all seamlessly without its seeming didactic.
Funerals in Ghana are of particular note because of their scale and complexity. These are both difficult and fun to describe. I have a funeral scene in my debut novel in the Darko Dawson series, WIFE OF THE GODS. It must have taken me days to get something halfway decent on paper. Describing how men and women wear the traditional “cloth” is tricky just by itself. It’s sort of like a toga, but not exactly, and it’s certainly never called a toga.
Funeral in Kumasi, Ghana, the men ‘s traditional cloth is thrown over one shoulder and the other is left exposed (Photo: Anton _Ivanov / Shutterstock)
Funeral in Kumasi, Ghana, women in the traditional colors of black and red–both shoulders can be bare. (Photo: Anton _Ivanov / Shutterstock)
Writing techniques for African fiction, western readers
Here are some techniques I suggest if you want to write African fiction for western readers.
Use indigenous language and slang/pidgin in context of the scene so it will be fairly clear what is being expressed. I’m more in favor of using complete sentences in the particular language, e.g. Akan, rather than throwing in a word or two into an otherwise English sentence. I see this sometimes in English novels set in France where a speaker will end a sentence with monsieur, etc., apparently to remind us of the setting. It doesn’t ring true to me.
It may break the “flow” if you translate indigenous words within the text of your novel, so create a glossary. Many readers have told me how much they appreciate having one. Admittedly, having to use the glossary might “break the flow” as well!
Have the reader observe customs through a character’s eyes, e.g. in GOLD OF OUR FATHERS, Darko Dawson comments inwardly how elaborate Ashanti funerals are.
If your editor says she simply doesn’t understand what something means the way you’ve written it, weigh your options. If you dump it, will it ruin the story’s authenticity? Can you compromise or find a smart way to explain it? I would be careful about discarding something you’ve written that sounds just right to you as the author. And respect the readers’ intelligence too! Many like a challenge.
If you’re not sure whether to include a unique custom or turn of language, write it, leave it for a while, and then return to it in the rewrite to see how it reads.
Include customs that are emotionally wrenching or uplifting for the character. In other words, the character is invested in the tradition in some way. In WIFE OF THE GODS, a young woman was given away to a fetish priest and had to go through one of the most agonizing rituals as part of the ceremony.
In the end, readers will be fascinated by some of the scenes you have written that incorporate different manners of speech, behavior and traditions. Even better, they will ask you about it at your next book signing!
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