How to Write About Africa

An intriguing article by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, How to Write About Africa, appears in the latest issue of Granta magazine. Wainaina describes how Western writers stereotype his continent with politically correct language and images.

Some of Wainaina's observations are relevant to the South Pacific. For example, unless you want to be branded a redneck, you never use the words "primitive" (traditional) or "native" (islander). Samoan writers Albert Wendt and Sia Figiel have long decried the abuse of the "Pacific paradise" concept by the travel industry. A character in Figiel's novel Where We Once Belonged shouts, "Gauguin is dead! There is no paradise!"

I must admit, I too have used slogans like "live the dream" and "treasured islands" to market my guidebooks. But I learned long ago that the best approach is to try to see things through the eyes of the local people. The travel writer who does that will seldom go wrong.

Since posting the link above to Binyavanga Wainaina's article, I've received a few comments from my fellow authors. Ian Heydon had this to say:

Re writing about Africa - I'm also guilty of 'Pacific paradise' type writing, but that's where the writer has to become the travel agent - while I hate scribbling the 'swaying palms, white sand beaches, and clear azure waters' stuff, it is a necessary evil I'm afraid - mind you, I don't bend the truth in one-to-one emails (e.g. quality of Coral Coast beaches, Sonaisali being overated, snorkelling lousy in the lagoon in Vanuatu etc) and I think that honesty is one of our biggest selling points...

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