In my previous post I said that some readers of my book A Garden in Africa asked two questions – the first I have already answered and the second one is this – why is my book only (or at least mostly) about the experience of white people in Africa?
The answer is linked with my previous post in which I wrote of the legitimacy of writers drawing on their own lives to create literature.
In my foreword to A Garden in Africa I made it very clear that my sources were the experiences of white people in colonial-era Kenya. And that it would have been presumptuous of me to try and create a work of fiction based on the experience of black Africans. I grew up with black Kenyans, especially those of the Kamba tribe. I spoke their language, shared their childhood games, learned their folklore and customs. But I would not presume to say I “know” those people because the socio-cultural gap between us was very wide. I could not possibly tell their story with any veracity or integrity. Such a story could only be told by a black Kenyan – and it would be a very different story to mine.
I set out to tell the story of a young white woman who overcame tragedy and adversity and showed amazing courage in living a remarkable life in a remarkable country. The way in which she farmed her land, embraced the mission of raising the living standards of those tribespeople who came under her aegis and gave freely of all that was best in western civilisation shows colonialism in a favourable light – and I make no apologies for that. The history of the world is the history of one culture colonising another and if this hadn’t happened we’d all still be wearing woad or waving spears! In my book, the garden that Flora created – a real garden, a true garden – stands as a metaphor for the colonial experience in Kenya; it was created from blood and sweat and tears, it flourished for a brief and glorious while, and it finally succumbed to change.
I wrote about what I knew, just as I always do. If I had written about black people it would not have had the same truth. DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin were once lauded for the way in which Porgy and Bess represented the life of Charleston’s Gullah community with such authenticity. But did they? Only a black South Carolinan can really say. Duke Ellington didn’t think so but instead spoke scathingly of Gershwin’s “lampblack negroisms”. Even today I suggest it would be hard for a white person to put themselves inside the skin of a black person, or a Chinese, or an Indian. And vice versa. Not impossible – think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day which showed such a subtle understanding of the English class sytem. But it takes a really fine writer to achieve such an “under the skin” ability to transcend the racial, social and cultural divide.
That is, of course, if you want to write from the inside. If you are content to stand back and observe what you can from the outside then that’s fine…except that many readers will not realise that they are standing there on the outside along with you. THIS is the difference between mere “writing” and great literature. Not, I hasten to say, that I think for one minute that I am a writer of great literature – I write great gardening books! But when I DO venture into fiction I try as much as possible to stick to what I know and research thoroughly what I don’t.
The disadvantage for young writers is that their life experience is both short and small. But writing about what you know is not limited to writing about one’s self. There are rich veins of literary gold to be mined in the lives of our relatives and friends and it is here we should be digging and delving if we want to write good books.