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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Cliches of Africa

How to Write About Africa

Here's an excellent satire about writing about Africa. I think its point is more that Africa is always painted with the same brush, whether in fiction, non-fiction, movies, news, or other media, but it also has some good points about writing cliches. While reading this I thought a lot about Romancing the Stone, the Lion King, and even Shaka Zulu.
I recently had a conversation with my father-in-law about why all these celebrities are suddenly involved in African charity - Bono, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Madonna, and the associated B- and C-listers like Randy Jackson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Alicia Keys, and on and on. We were trying to figure out if there was something they knew that we didn't.
Africa is like the C-grade to the Old West as far as a romantic setting. Topless natives replace Indians, jungles replace deserts and plains, money-grubbing diamond financiers replace outlaws, conservationists replace sheriffs. The difference is Africa is a lot more foreign, exotic, and colorful.
What the hell does this have to do with writing? Well, I see two things. One is that you must tell the truth. This means that you could write about Nebraska Smith, African diamond hunter, swinging from vines, and interacting with tribes of bloated, starving Masai. Or you could write a story about a school-age child in Africa coming of age. I think I'd read the second story first, as I believe the former would be a mass-market paperback for $5.95 with both hero and heroine having about the same disproportianate chest size.
The other is about cliches. The Africa described in the article is the same Africa everyone envisions when someone mentions the word. Corrupt politicians, occupation, basically everything you read in Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now. There's nothing but grassland and jungle everywhere, and there are no schools or buildings. Everyone is hoping for that guy with the beard from the Christian Children's Fund to come by and give them a sandwich. These are all the cliches to avoid. Why? Because we've already heard that story before. And someone's already told it better.
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