Department of Secondary Education, University of Alberta, Canada
Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's
Literature, 44, (1), 2006, pp. 20-27.
This paper discusses contemporary English-language young adult novels - and some novels aimed mainly at adults but accessible to mature teenaged readers ' set in sub-Saharan Africa, and how these are read in classrooms in Canadian schools. Only novels published (or republished) in North America (and therefore available to young Canadians) are considered.
In Canada today, most schools are very multicultural. Many students are immigrants themselves or are first-generation Canadians whose parents immigrated from countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America, and there are increasing numbers of students of Aboriginal ancestry. Despite this diversity, students in grades 7 to 12 (ages 13- 18) have traditionally been offered novels written predominantly by American and British writers, most of which have white characters. Even in popular novels that do have black characters, such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) all the action is focalised through white characters, and the African-Americans remain shadowy figures.
In the past decades, there have been changes in the canon of school literature, with an increasing number of Canadian novels introduced into schools across Canada and slightly more attention paid to international perspectives in literary texts. Most Canadian novels selected by teachers still present Eurocentric perspectives, reflecting Canada's master narratives of two founding peoples - English and French - and promoting what Arun Mukherjee (1998) has described as 'the settler-colonial view of Canada', which produced essentialised Canadian characters obsessed with survival in a hostile landscape of ice and snow. In the past few years, however, students have been offered more novels written by immigrant Canadian writers of colour and some English teachers, particularly in the final two years of high school, have selected some literature set in non-western countries.
Over the past decades, at both the senior-high-school level, and in the first year of college, many teachers considered Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart to be the quintessential African text, offering readers a counterpoint to the colonial views of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and illuminating the horrors and paradoxes of colonialism on traditional Igbo life in Nigeria. While this novel continues to hold its own in many educational institutions, its popularity has waned somewhat in the 21st century. In its place, teachers are now beginning to introduce novels such JM Coetzee's Disgrace, with its ironic and cutting portrayal of dysfunctional post-apartheid South Africa. Focalised through a white perspective, this novel brilliantly articulates the complexities of South Africa's evolving rainbow nation and teachers consider that this text offers mature adolescents a valuable literary and contemporary political reading experience.
For younger Canadian students, there are often very few novels set in Africa available for whole-class or independent reading. In the province of Alberta, for example, the provincial government body with jurisdiction over the curriculum recently updated its recommended novels and non-fiction list for grades 7 to 12. Teachers are not required to choose texts from this list, but they often do. Approximately twenty books are recommended for each grade, and out of the entire list, only two are set in Africa: Waiting for the Rain (1987) by Sheila Gordon, recommended for grade 10, and The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (1994) by Nancy Farmer (1994), recommended for grade 9. The authors of both novels are white and lived in Africa in their youth before emigrating to the United States. Waiting for the Rain, set in South Africa during the apartheid era, describes the relationship between a young white and a young black boy who are friends through their childhood until the laws of apartheid force them apart. This young adult book has been widely taught in various grade levels across Alberta over the past twelve years and remains popular with teachers. Its fairly simple theme and characterisation offer a straightforward critique of the apartheid system from what is now a historical perspective, without probing any of the more complex issues in the country. While the book does offer some insights into apartheid from both a white and a black perspective, its main focus is on the experiences of the white boy.
Farmer's more sophisticated novel, a science fiction story set in Zimbabwe of the future, is a newer addition to the recommended list. An award-winning American writer for adolescents, Farmer frequently sets her books in sub-Saharan Africa, drawing on her own experiences to act as a cultural mediator for western readers. This novel, widely recognised as one of her most accomplished, humorously and ironically describes an imagined Zimbabwean society in the year 2194. The three young protagonists have spent their childhood locked in their technologically perfect fortress home, with their every physical need catered to by servant robots. One day, when they leave the house in search of adventure, they are captured and sent into slavery in the plastic mines under the rule of the malevolent She Elephant. There they await rescue by the three unlikely detective heroes of the title. While this novel and Farmer's other young adult fiction set in Africa have received many accolades, Farmer has also been criticised for a tendency to show readers western culture as the norm against which all other cultures are judged (see Brock-Servais 2001; Mangat and Johnston 2000).
For the majority of students in Canadian schools these novels (or similar ones) set in Africa but focalised through a white perspective are the ones they are likely to encounter in their classrooms. Senior high Canadian students in Canadian schools may have heard about black African writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thi' ongo or Bessie Head, but they are much more likely to be familiar with the names of white writers from Africa such as Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and JM Coetzee; and the African books they are most likely to have read in school are those written by white writers such as Alan Paton's famous Cry, the Beloved Country (1961), which portrays the anguish of a conscientious white man in reconciling himself with a corrupt system of government in apartheid South Africa, or Bryce Courtney's The Power of One (1989), the memoir of an English boy's lonely childhood in South Africa during WW II.
Adolescent students in younger grades may have had their familiarity with African novels extended through independent reading, both inside the classroom and at home. For example, teachers and librarians that I know have offered their students a wider range of novels set in Africa, for example: Crocodile Burning (1992) by Michael Williams, the story of a young black actor set in Soweto and on Broadway; Song of Be by Lesley Beake (1995) which evocatively portrays the changing lifestyle of the Bushmen in Namibia; and several recent books that explore contemporary issues of terrorism, traumas of exile, and the devastation of Aids, including Beverley Naidoo's The Other Side of Truth (2001), a story of terrorism and emigration set in Nigeria and England, and her collection of stories of traumas suffered by South African children in successive decades, entitled Out of Bounds ' Stories of Conflict and Hope (2002). In Many Stones by Carolyn Coman (2002), an American family comes to terms with the murder of their daughter in a township; and in Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton (2004), and The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis (2005) the young protagonists suffer the devastating consequences of dealing with Aids.
Most of these books are sensitive and empathetic portrayals of the experiences of both white and black people in Africa and they offer Canadian students valuable and imaginative insights into life in contemporary Africa. All of them, however, are written by white writers. And while I categorically agree that the power of imagination is the most essential ingredient in writing fiction, I still do believe there are issues of power and control related to the lack of access in Canadian schools to books by black writers. However valuable it is to have books written by white writers about Africa, it is also crucial for North American readers to have access to books written by black African writers about their own experiences.
This situation, of course, is not limited to North America. As Maddy and MacCann (1998) point out: The power of position determines who will be allowed to speak, and White power still rules in the world of South African education and children's literature. Whites dominate the media, and their voices are welcomed into the United States and Great Britain by publishers, critics, and librarians. Jenkins (1998) agrees that the ' authentic voice of Black authors is still scarce'.
Over the past few years, a new series of books set in Africa has swept across the western world, reinforcing this dilemma of white power even further. For many adolescents in Canadian schools today, Alexander McCall Smith's detective series, beginning with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (1998) is their most likely encounter with African novels. Although intended for adults, these novels are appealing to readers as young as 12. In the many glowing reviews of these books the words 'charming' , 'honest'
, 'hilarious' and 'life-affirming' frequently appear.
Set in modern Botswana, the novels revolve around the amusing exploits of Mma Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's only female private detective. Precious is described as ' a woman of traditional build', who is ' fat and contented'. She is a mix of the modern and traditional. On the surface she appears to be a feminist heroine confidently building her own business, but she also brings to her profession an innate respect for men, a confidence in the powers of goodness, courage and humility and a deep love for Botswana and for tradition. Presented as a kind of contemporary 'mother earth' combined with 'Miss Marples', Precious appears to have won the hearts and minds of a vast reading public. In 2003, the novels sold more than a million copies in the United States alone and over five million worldwide. At that time, the books had been translated into 26 languages with plans for a film adaptation by (the recently deceased) Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient and Cold Mountain, and the series has continued to increase in popularity since then. The author is an Edinburgh law professor who lived in Botswana in the early 1980s, when he helped to set up a law school in Gabarone. He trades in making the books as delightful as possible, seeking to create an Africa of innocence and beauty with characters of high moral virtue.
Anecdotal comments from students in grade 9 in a Western Canadian junior high school suggest that the novel series is making an impact in schools and that it is raising some questions about elements of Botswanan life. One girl commented: The chief reason I have enjoyed reading this series so much is because of the main character, Precious Ramotswe - She is courteous, intelligent, determined and responsible and is comfortable about being a 'traditional Botswana lady' in all respects. I get a sense of a culture that is very different from ours, where people truly care for others in need and look after them as if they were close family members. Although the books are very easy and pleasant to read, the author does not hesitate to talk about serious issues such as dangerous and illegal witchcraft practices.
Another girl explained: I really enjoyed this book. We haven't read anything like this before. The setting of the story made it interesting, it showed Botswana modernising with American ideas. But Botswana still has old-fashioned ways too. Like Mr Charlie Gotso who buys muti from a witch doctor. I don't understand why someone would want to buy muti. Killing someone to have their
bones and their skin to make you powerful doesn't make sense. Medicine is supposed to help you. Murdering someone doesn' t help anyone.
Despite the books' obvious appeal to readers young and old, McCall Smith is beginning to receive
some criticism. Dr Roberta Hammett, a Canadian education professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, and Dr Joyce Mgombelo, originally from Tanzania and now at Brock University in Ontario, whom I interviewed recently,both agreed that The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is entertaining and provides escape reading, but they also felt that beneath a benevolent exterior, it creates problematic stereotypes of Botswanan life, and attempts to universalise the experiences of black people in Botswana. Precious offers readers a comfortable persona of a woman with a superficial feminist stance who allows herself to be victimised and moves forward smiling and happy. The novel, they suggested, is very appealing to white readers, making them feel comfortable about the earth mother figure of Africa and allowing them to laugh at rather than with the characters' naïve understandings and traditional African beliefs. This liberal humanist perspective conceals the colonial view of Africa that is perpetuated through the novel, pretending to view indigenous life and knowledge as pure and untouched, while concealing or making light of the horrors of life in the mines suffered by Precious's father - a job that eventually killed him. The book exists in a depoliticised, ahistorical context and offers a mirage of a semi-rural Africa that is comforting and pleasant. As Richard Bartlett (2003) has commented:
In condensing the beauty of Botswana into the efforts of one 'traditional' African woman, who is an ideal African citizen, McCall Smith allows readers who view Africa as an homogeneous place to affirm their own ideals of what Africanness is. This concept of Africa through which Mma Ramotswe takes us is not threatening, it is not a place of myriad ethnicities and countries and religions and dilemmas and poverty and diseases - it is the Africa of western idealism.
Pat Rodrigues (2005), drawing on personal correspondence with MCall Smith and personal contacts with a bookstore in Botswana, explains further:[I]t seems clear that McCall Smith has a non-Botswanan, even non-African, readership in mind for the novels: the narrative explains much more about the culture than would be necessary for a native readership; furthermore, McCall Smith has said he believes it exceptional for Africans to read novels; according to Gaborone's most established bookshop, the Botswana Book Centre, black customers have not shown great interest in the series.
One of McCall's Smith's recently published books, aimed more specifically at younger readers, offers more subtle representations of sub-Saharan Africa. In a collection of 33 African folktales, retold and republished by McCall Smith under the title The Girl Who Married a Lion and Other Tales from Africa, animals canspeak and disguise themselves as humans and evil spirits separate the weak from the strong and brave. The allegorical nature of the stories honours oral traditions of the past without any pretence that these stories represent the Africa of today. The publisher draws on the success of McCall Smith's earlier books by introducing the tales with a 'letter' from Mma Ramotswe from the detective series, expounding on the virtues of the traditional stories in the collection.
Outside the current popularity of McCall's Smith's books, there are contemporary white African writers such as JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and Damon Galgut who offer mature teenaged Canadian readers a more complex and sophisticated approach to African cultures and politics and successfully resist a mimetic representation of black characters; while white writers of young adult novels, such as Beverley Naidoo and Deborah Ellis offer in-depth and imaginative novels about contemporary African life for younger readers. Authenticity is a thorny issue in writing, and there is no reason not to praise the many exciting African novels written by white writers that are available for Canadian students today, but these same students will have far richer reading experiences of African literature once publishers and teachers in the west provide access to African novels by writers from all backgrounds and experiences.
A version of this paper was presented at the IBBY conference in Cape Town, South Africa, in September, 2004.
Bartlett Richard (2003) 'A woman who also happens to be a detective' African Review of Books
http://www.africanreviewofbooks.com Reviews/mccallsmith.html (accessed 3 April 2005)
Brock-Servais, Rhonda (2001) 'Intercultural travel or adventures at home in The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm' Children's Literature in Education 32 (3): 155-66
Jenkins, Elwyn (1998) ' Country Survey: South Africa' Bookbird 36 (1) 46- 50
Maddy, Yulisa Amadu and Donnarae MacCann (1998) 'To the Point: Ambivalent Signals in SA Young Adult Novels'Bookbird 36 (1): 27-32
Mangat, Jyoti and Ingrid Johnston (2000) 'Reading Culture ' Behind a Glass Jar' : Adolescent Readers Responding to African Fiction English Quarterly 32 (3 and 4): 27- 32
Mukherjee, Arun (1998) Postcolonialism: My Living Toronto: Tsar Publications Rodriguez, Pat (2005) 'An Examination of the Relationship between two Novels set in Southern Africa in their Use of Voice in Narrative'Unpublished BA dissertation, Birkbeck College, University of London
African Novels Cited
Achebe, Chinua (1996) Things Fall Apart Heinemann
Beake, Lesley (1995) Song of Be Puffin
Coetzee, JM (2000) Disgrace Penguin
Coman, Carolyn (2002) Many Stones Puffin
Conrad, Joseph (1902, 1994) Heart of Darkness Penguin
Courtney, Bryce (1989) The Power of One Heinemann
Ellis, Deborah (2005) The Heaven Shop Oxford University Press
Farmer, Nancy (1994) The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm Puffin
Gordon, Sheila (1987) Waiting for the Rain Laurel-Leaf
McCall Smith, Alexander (1998) The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency Polygon
McCall Smith, Alexander (2004) The Girl Who Married a Lion: and Other Tales from Africa Pantheon
Naidoo, Beverley (2001) The Other Side of Truth HarperCollins (also available from Puffin)
Naidoo, Beverley (2002) Out of Bounds: Stories of Conflict and Hope Klett
Paton, Alan (1948) Cry, the Beloved Country Charles Scribner's Sons
Stratton, Allan (2004) Chanda's Secrets Annick Press
Williams, Michael (1992) Crocodile Burning Lodestar