For quite some time now I have been wanting to introduce readers of this blog to a book that takes the idea of an autonomous ‘Southern’ perspective — on Africa in particular — quite seriously, and that attempts in a variety of ways, by both theoretical and aesthetic means, to move the discourse on Africa beyond the often predictable tropes (seemingly always oscillating between the extremes of an exotic romanticism and a dark defeatism) of the Western point of view. The book in question, Imagine Africa, was published about a year ago by the Pirogue Collective (the creative arts extension of the Gorée Institute in Senegal) under their own imprint, Island Position. As the Collective’s first print product, this yearbook was published in English (individual pieces were translated from various European and African languages), with the intention that it will be followed by further editions in major African languages.
Imagine Africa is a strange, quite wonderful book: it defies any easy literary or scholarly categorisation. In the words of Breyten Breytenbach, the renowned poet, artist and executive director of the Gorée Institute, who wrote the introduction to the volume: ‘What you have here are fragments of analysis, indictments, exhortations, dreams, stories, and poems’ (p. 5) by a transnational collection of authors, some of whom are African, some of whom are not. It is a book that is defined rather by its ethico-political vision than by offering parrallel expositions of a shared topic by a group of ‘disciplined’ authors. The authors include, besides Breytenbach, Corsino Fortes, Adam Small, Édouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, Trudy Stevenson, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Eben Venter, and Charl-Pierre Naudé.
Central to the ethico-political vision of the book is the notion of ‘imagination’, which functions throughout as both point of departure and expanding horizon of sense-making. Imagination is not invoked here as an individualised, psychologised faculty; nor as purely an aesthetic category. Imagination prefigures, animates and sediments, in shared and translocated figures of meaning, the ethical and revolutionary movement of historical subjects towards a future — a future wrestled from the static (and often statist) metaphysics of both ‘tradition’ and ‘the market’; of both religious or political fundamentalisms and capitalist speculation (‘futures markets’). To imagine may refer to the cultivation of dreams; to the socialisation of hope; to the translation of unspeakable suffering; to what informs and results from the productive, world-making dimensions of human solidarities. To imagine may refer to the reclaiming of the political by worldly, historical, active subjectivies.
In his introduction to the volume, Breyten Breytenbach asks: ‘How to write about Africa? Can it be done? It must be possible because so many have tried and succeeded in proposing a pile of Africas — a vortex, a mountain, a sandstorm of footsteps whispering on the wind, islands, gorillas, people without shadows walking upside down.’ It must be possible, certainly; but writing Africa has historically been treacherously difficult, producing self-fulfilling prophecies much more frequently than illumination or hope. Africa has become, in so much writing, the paradigm case of the ‘hopeless’.
Breytenbach continues: ‘Mentioning Africa brings to the fore either of two discourses. From outside, from the north (which is also the norm), the construct resembles a kind of big black bag into which everything disappears. You know it must contain unimaginable riches and incomprehensible cult artifacts. You suspect it holds something of the genetic pool of bygone expressions of knowledge that should be preserved, and maybe these would have to be artificially cultivated as is done with rare species in a zoo even though they may be no longer of any application in the real world. … Africa will be a luxuray item in the antique store of the mind. … Even well-meaning observers prefer to see the continent as one big black heart making for the projection of illicit expectations, ah, sweet terror, and the vicarious thrill (is the heart not a bag?) of being bitten if you were to put your hand inside, to bring back “home” an exotic disease’ (pp. 3-4).
This is the first discourse, as identified by Breytenbach; this is the outsider view, the Western or Northern view of Africa. The second discourse, however, he sees ‘rising from within through throats swollen with demagogical crap, giving us scraps of “unity” and “independence” shifting the blame, accepting no responsibility, feeding off the guilt of the liberal consciences, dancing and beating drums for the white man, bidding for a position of dependence that could be remunerated. Ah, to be an assisted one’ (p. 4, my emphasis). A philosophy, a theory, a politics, an ethics, a poetics from the South will have to transcend both these discourses; it is not enough for it to merely be geographically ‘local’.
This is why Breytenbach (and the other authors who have contributed to the book) insists on a different approach to writing Africa: ‘Africa will be written — and not to please the masters of culture living in London and Paris and Berlin and New York, neither to comfort existing prejudices nor to inflame imperialist envy, nor yet to fuel utopian escapism. … I contend that the structures of exclusion, erasure, and homogenization which threaten our inclusive humanism, embodying a dream of justice and of modernity, are best revealed through an examination of the anomalous on the edge of the normative’ (p. 5).
Breytenbach ends his introduction by signposting the power of jointly imagining Africa differently, beyond local tyrants and ‘global’ interests, with the so-called ‘jasmine revolution’ in Tunisia: ‘And suddenly a people lose their fear and take to the streets and invent a moral imagination. A dictator and his entourage of buffoons and braggarts and butchers are chased out of the continent. This the people do not because they are dulled by the fanaticism of fundamentalists, not because they want to chase after the poisoned death wish of Western capitalism, not because they want to be Chinese or be slobbered over by Hollywood image-junkies, not because they have been invaded by a foreign power — but because they got to their feet and said: Enough! We have dignity! We have responsibility! We have dreams! We are human!’