Compelling narratives: stretching ‘memoir’ in ‘African lives’

Geoff Wisner sets himself a sizeable task in ‘African Lives’, to introduce the life-writing of the continent: I don’t envy this anthologist. His introduction makes the case for the long history of autobiographical writing in Africa. Wisner argues it needs to be rescued, to be valued by readers and publishers. This collection has Work To Do, seeking to convince readers of these extracts that what they are reading is Literature. Yet as he points out himself, a significant number of the extracts are not from conventional autobiographies:

a memoir does not always appear under that designation. A first-person travel book may be more revealing of the author than of the place, and more worthy of the name memoir, than a book identified as ‘memoir’ on the cover…. in an effort to include more distinctive or significant voices, I have stretched the definition of memoir…

Extracts from Emmanuel Dongala, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Okey Ndibe, Wisner notes, were published as essays.  This makes an analysis of their role as life-writing difficult. Dongala’s essay, perhaps less well known than the other two pieces, takes one incident ‘one morning in October 1997 in Brazzaville, Congo, before a makeshift roadblock…’ It’s a powerful essay, considering the difference between written activism and dealing with unthinkable violence, but is it really autobiography? The author tells us that:

I have always been a social activist, and I have written many articles criticising the passivity and cowardice of many of my intellectual peers who have stood by silently in the face of political corruption and the violation of human rights in their countries.

But we have no way of knowing the context of this statement in terms of the full biographical life. How does the violence relate to his understanding of his childhood, his schooling? How has it impacted on him in the years after?  Raising questions of intent, some of these texts were first speeches, interviews, even trial interviews.   These are compelling documents in themselves, but are they life writing? They certainly touch upon key issues familiar to the auto/biographer, so from ‘Thomas Sankara Speaks’:

Thomas Sankara (from wiki open source)

There are events, moments in life, that are like an encounter, a rendezvous, with the people. To understand them you have to go back a long way into the past, the background, of each individual. You don’t decide to become a head of state. You decide to put an end to this or that form of bullying or humiliation, this or that type of exploitation or domination.

Though reflecting upon his political career, there are clearly issues with considering edited interviews as life writing. As any young student of history could tell you, early in the classroom you are told to be careful with your sources, to question their origin, to think about how they were produced and the audience expectation: what rules are the texts following? Apply this to ‘African Lives’ and interdisciplinarity shows signs of strain. What do you mean, repurposing the speeches of Lumumba, the legal testimony of Biko? How can these be read in the same way as autobiography? Is any sign of the autobiographical better than none at all, for those denied the conventional option by tragedy? And yet my criticism breaks down in the face of clearly carefully selected texts. For example,  Biko’s testimony at trial, of all things. Describing the impact of apartheid-era racism, he used personal experience of school sport:

When you go to school for instance, your school is not the a same as the white school… You find for instance even the organisation of sport (these are things you notice as a kid) at white schools to be absolutely so thorough… You could get in a school 15 rugby teams. We could get from our school three rugby teams. Each of these 15 white teams has got uniforms for each particular kid who plays. We have got to share the uniforms amongst our three teams. Now this is part of the roots of self-negation…

It is this theme of attitudes and memory of childhood that I am particularly interested in for my own research, so it is unsurprising that it is this theme in the collection that I found most gripping. Childhood is a highlight of much in this collection. I found myself nodding in agreement at Wisner’s comments on the charisma of childhood in Nkrumah’s autobiography: 1156023-2‘Like many political memoirs, Nkrumah’s is most interesting in its early pages, before personal matters give way to accounts of meetings, speeches, and policies’. An extract from Christian Dumoux’s account of ‘Childhood in Madagascar’ (Une Enfance Malgache), describes in a few short pages a miscellany of playmates and play from ‘fantastic tales with dragons, witches and legendary warriors’ to stealing chewing gum, distributing the cards of American films stars, because ‘Everybody knew about John Wayne and Gary Cooper’. enfmalgcouverture_mIn a few pages of memories, a diverse community on one Madagascan street is recreated.

In the introduction Wisner mentions the range of writing available in South Africa alone that made choice difficult. I think this comment can be expanded: to contrast this one volume for example to the four volumes allocated to ‘Women writing Africa‘. As my research into biography and autobiography in West Africa continues to develop, I’ve been looking for accessible texts for students,  collections of biographies: ways to make comparison and cross-reference straightforward in class. Wisner points out that many of the texts extracted here are now difficult to locate, making the book valuable to university classes and libraries. Hopefully expanded collections with more space for more autobiographical voices, accompanied by discussion of these texts will be possible in the future.


If you are interested in biography on the African continent, you may also find the following post of interest.

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