last night

‘So, you think you can fictionalise Africa?’
‘Sorry?’
Silence.
‘Well, no, I’m not sure. What I think is that the journalist’s mantra of objectivity is false. There is no objective truth. What interests me is the area of doubt, and the idea that we actually never know that what we’ve seen is really what was there. I’m not sure that conventional non-fiction forms allow much space for doubt and imagination.’
‘Have you heard of the film Flames?’
‘No.’
‘It’s a film about female liberation fighters in Zimbabwe.’
‘Ah -‘
‘It was made by white people.’
‘Oh -‘
‘They decided to turn it into fiction because they couldn’t get all the material they wanted on the record.’
‘When was it set? Under Smith, or now, under Mugabe?’
‘Then. Liberation from colonialism. From whites. And these whites, the film-makers, they sexualised the women. The women were doubly oppressed in the film, as black Africans and as women.’
‘That sounds bad. What was the film like?’
‘Oh, obviously I didn’t watch it. I didn’t want to. Why would I want to watch a film about Africa made by whites? Imagine! A film about Zimbabwean liberation made by whites!’
‘Were they white Europeans, or white Zimbabweans?’
‘I think there was one white Zimbabwean and the rest were Europeans,’ pause, ‘but they were Whites.’
The breed, presumably.
‘This reminds me of Kapuscinksi, and the debates about his work.’
Blank.
‘He was Polish. A journalist for the state news agency, and also a writer. He wrote books about Iran, the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Angola and, oh, lots of other places. Some people loathe him, others love him. In Kenya, there are some writes – Binyavinga Wainaina is perhaps the most outspoken on this – who hate Kapuscinski’s work on Africa. They say he was a racist who made things up. And there are some Europeans interested in Africa who agree. Strangely, his book on Angola, Another Day of Life, is popular among many Angolans I know. Many black Angolans. They know he made stuff up but the images and the narrative he employed succeeded in providing a marvellous insight into Angola at that time, when the Portuguese were all leaving.’
‘There are so many whites who make stuff up about Africa. Do you really think you should be considering fiction?’
‘Yes. I do. In part to protect my sources.’
‘And do you really think it would be a good idea to do a project like this in Africa?’
‘Yes, I do. You could take the news reports coming out of somewhere like Sudan, and have Sudanese writers, or East African writers turning them into fiction. It would be great. I love the idea that something very creative, something very exciting and positive can be produced from all the violence and the negative press.’
‘And you think that African journalists could do this despite the lack of electricity and water and all the other stuff they have to put up with?’
‘Sorry?’
‘You think they could keep up technologically, that the lack of electricity wouldn’t be a problem?’
‘Look – it wouldn’t have to be exactly the same project, but it could be something similar. What’s the problem? There are plenty of people across the continent who are writing books and writing journalism, and who manage to file stories every day despite the difficulties they encounter. Why should this be any different?’
She’s laughing now, chuckling to herself: ‘And all that heat. All the traffic. In Nigeria, it would be very difficult.’

I know this is going nowhere. I want to say ‘But there are so many Nigerian writers. Brilliant Nigerian writers. And so many reporters. OK, they’re working in conditions that are not as easy as we are here in the UK, but they produce a lot of work.’ But I know it’s a waste of time. What I am saying is floating over her head because of my skin colour. I have no right whatsoever to write about Africa. And because she is black, she has every right to tell me all about that huge continent. She has the monopoly on the entire continent because of her skin colour, because she was born in Nigeria. That she is mixed race, that she is the product of a Nigerian parent and an English parent is irrelevant. She is Black and only black. African and only African. I am white and only White. I belong to Whiteland.


the night before


‘I get really sick of my friends who are mixed-race who say they’re black. I say to them ‘What about your mum (or dad)? Doesn’t she count? Doesn’t the white bit of you count? And it’s like, they just wanna prove they’re black or they’re against something or they’re angry. They’re half and half, or a third and two thirds, or whatever, but they aren’t one or the other. And why do they care?’
‘Perhaps -‘
‘Sometimes, when I’m performing, and I mention that I’ve got a white boyfriend, black people in the audience go crazy. They start shouting. I got bottled in the wrist by one guy, just because I said I had a white boyfriend. When I’m performing and there are lots of white people, I think they all heave a sigh of relief.’
‘Christ, it’s all a bit pathetic isn’t it?’
‘Exactly.’
We drink a bit.
‘But you know white and black audiences can be very different. I think a lot of black people, well, you know, we’re brought up in a way that at the theatre or at a comedy or whatever, we interact and shout out and say what we think. You’ve gotta be up for it with a black audience. With white people, they listen a lot more.’
‘It’s funny you say that. Before you arrived and went on stage, there was a woman here. She was a young black woman. The only black person in the room. And she was very up for it, you know. She was right up there and ready to interact with the comics. At one point, she started singing along to the comic who was singing on stage before you got up. She had an amazing voice.’
‘Oh right! Great!’
‘Yeah, she was. But the comic got kind of annoyed with her, saying she was an attention-seeker. And then she started saying she was mad. And what was worst of all was some of the audience went along with it. They were bullying her.’
‘Oh right. But I’d heard she was mad…’
‘No. She wasn’t. She was just chatty, extrovert and I think a bit nervous.’
‘And maybe she was used to that sort of interaction on stage?’
‘Well, exactly. It’s like when we went to see Elmina’s Kitchen in the West End. The audience was 90% black – and it was the noisiest conventional theatre show I’d ever been to. People responded to the play verbally. But if you go somewhere like the National, the wealthy upper-middle class audiences sit and say nothing, and if anyone does make a noise, people get angry. It’s not done.’
‘Yeah.’
‘But I don’t think it’s simply a black thing. I used to hang out at this Working Men’s Club in Hammersmith. I had a friend there, Betty. We used to go and play Bingo and I’d buy her Port & Lime. Once I won the Bingo and I had to buy seven Port & Limes for Betty and all her friends. But the point is that there, at the Club, a very white very working class club, everyone was very outspoken, very noisy, always shouting and yelling. ‘
‘It’s amazing being a black female comic. There are still times when I get on the stage and a member of the audience will say, Ha! You’re Black! And I’m like, Yeah, I’ve known that for the last 31 years – is there any other insight you’d like to share with us all?

the night before that

‘It’s nice of you to say stuff about the way white people behave in Africa. You don’t need to.’

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2 thoughts on “last night

  1. I think that’s really sad.

    That nigerian girl is strange – let’s see, I can fictionalize everything, because it’s ‘fiction’ you know, errr, that’s a memory and creativity thing.

    If I’m living in Ruanda or in New York it’s pretty normal to write about it; to imagine personalities, images, colours, whatever, demons. To write what I’m seeing and what I feel.

    I’m in Angola but I’m a person, I have feelings and thoughts. Eyes. And a brain. (That’s important.)

    Brain.

    ‘Fiction’, ‘writing’, ‘non-fiction’ they aren’t ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘red’ or ‘green’.

    They are just mine. Yours. Whatever.

    P.S. Maybe we can arrange a meeting between that lady and Mia Couto, Pepetela, Ondjaki, Luandino Vieira, Coetzee. I would love it.

  2. Miguel. I was very sad too. And you’re very sweet to write. And I, too, thought of Mia Couto, Pepetela and Coetzee and the great Agualusa who make so many Southern Africans so proud, regardless of the shade of their skin. Your comment comes just as I’m almost thinking, “oh throw in the towel – this battle’s too big”.
    I hope you we meet soon.

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