The utility of fiction is that, ideally, it requires nothing but a writing device, a creative mind and a quiet room. Good fiction is often outward-looking and incorporates lived experience, but it certainly doesn’t have to. This is why, I suspect, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, the editor of Safe House: a collection of African creative nonfiction released in May 2016, says creative nonfiction in Africa is in a ‘germinal’ phase. Writing nonfiction means going out into the world, which inevitably means spending both time and money. In other words, you can’t just make stuff up. Safe House highlights the bright future creative nonfiction has in Africa. It incorporates a variety of internal travelogues (a needed break from travel narratives about people from Western countries travelling to Africa), stories of immigrants in Africa, true crime narratives and multiple examinations of how contemporary LGBT communities often find themselves at a juncture between legislation and culture.
A portrait of place
Despite these otherwise broad themes, I was most surprised by the specificity of most of the stories. National identity takes a backseat to local lore, and even the most modestly sized neighbourhoods feel like living, breathing places. Kofi Akpabli’s ‘Made in Nima’ chronicles how one neighbourhood both reflects and resists larger societal change; how history is permanently etched in certain landmarks that look completely nondescript to an outsider. That is where the medium of creative nonfiction is more useful than a travelling outsider’s account of place, how ‘The grounds may be littered, but every kilometre of Nima soil is soaked with cultural and historical significance.’ (p44) Misingi Sasis’s ‘Nairobi Nights’ captures this same specificity with beautifully wrought black and white pictures of Kenya’s capital at night. Though the introduction to these photographs tends towards melodrama, every single one of the photographs warrant sustained attention. On a similar note, though the true crime stories that comprise the collection are well written, well researched and engaging, they may not offer much to a reader not interested in this genre of storytelling to begin with.
I was most surprised by the specificity of most of the stories. National identity takes a backseat to local lore, and even the most modestly sized neighbourhoods feel like living, breathing places.
While some of these stories are literally and thematically a portrait of a place (about watching how the world revolves from a fixed position), others are decidedly about movement, about the frustration of internal or regional displacement, about how the difference between being 50 and thousands of miles away from home is meaningless when there are both legislative and literal impediments to returning. The collection’s (surprisingly funny) opening story ‘Fugee’ chronicles Liberian writer Hawa Jande Golakai’s struggles to get back home while at the same time providing a ground-level account of the spread of Ebola.
Other pieces in the collection are about something closer to voluntary displacement: ‘Eating Bitter’ by Kevin Eze traces the lives of 10 000 Chinese immigrants in Dakar who have profited handsomely from development and mercantilism. This is a relatively small population that most outside of Dakar are unfamiliar with, yet their experience is entirely unique and their story is important. These small pockets of immigrants exist throughout Africa, all with their own unique trajectories, successes and failures.
The unique struggle that is LGBT activism
Allfrey mentions in the introduction how LGBT stories ‘articulate the tension between tradition and modernity’ in Africa, but they also do a fantastic job explaining how LGBT activism is an entirely unique struggle in each country. Barbara Wanjala’s ‘A Woman’s Smile’ sums this idea up well: ‘In Gambia, it’s the law that catches you. In Senegal, it’s the mob that catches you.’ (p153) In some cases, the law is the only barrier between a burgeoning LGBT community and an otherwise hostile culture; in other cases, discriminatory laws exist despite the larger society having well-documented support (or indifference) for the LGBT community. Elnathan John’s ‘The Keeper of Secrets’ details how the yan daudu – sometimes translated as male homosexuals and in other instances as transgender men – are able to coexist within the wider Hausa community. More importantly, it explains how local communities influence how laws are enforced; how the difference between a discriminatory law that is actively practiced and a discriminatory law that exists in name only can be the difference between freedom and prison: ‘When [the police] realized that no one in the area was [concerned with] outing us as homosexuals or complaining about our existence, they did not bother us so much.’ (p101)
While some of these stories are literally and thematically a portrait of a place, others are decidedly about movement, about the frustration of internal or regional displacement, about how the difference between being 50 and thousands of miles away from home is meaningless when there are both legislative and literal impediments to returning.
‘Forgetting Lamido’ by Chike Frankie Edozien, the last story in the collection, is not only a culturally astute examination of the necessity to hide one’s homosexuality for the sake of career success in Nigeria, but also a heartbreaking tale about what happens when love is deferred; about how romantic interests not pursued beg the question, ‘What if?’
“Forgetting Lamido” highlights one of the strongest points of this collection: how it effortlessly alternates between the personal and the political; how sometimes the personal is political, in the words of Sarita Ranchod, author of the story ‘Border Crossings’. Last month, Allfrey wrote an article for the Guardian, titled, ‘Writers need new ways of talking about Africa’s past and present’. The continued support for and cultivation of creative African nonfiction seems a vital step towards achieving this goal. I suspect that Safe House will be followed by similar collections in the future, and its importance will only be realised retrospectively.