Full Moon Fever

Sublime Reflections

AFTER EMPIRE: Chinua Achebe and the great African novel.

By Ruth Franklin,

May 26, The New Yorker

In a myth told by the Igbo people of Nigeria, men once decided to send a messenger to ask Chuku, the supreme god, if the dead could be permitted to come back to life. As their messenger, they chose a dog. But the dog delayed, and a toad, which had been eavesdropping, reached Chuku first. Wanting to punish man, the toad reversed the request, and told Chuku that after death men did not want to return to the world. The god said that he would do as they wished, and when the dog arrived with the true message he refused to change his mind. Thus, men may be born again, but only in a different form.

Achebe at home in Annandale-on-Hudson. Photograph by Steve Pyke

The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe recounts this myth, which exists in hundreds of versions throughout Africa, in one of his essays. Sometimes, Achebe writes, the messenger is a chameleon, a lizard, or another animal; sometimes the message is altered accidentally rather than maliciously. But the structure remains the same: men ask for immortality and the god is willing to grant it, but something goes wrong and the gift is lost forever. “It is as though the ancestors who made language and knew from what bestiality its use rescued them are saying to us: Beware of interfering with its purpose!” Achebe writes. “For when language is seriously interfered with, when it is disjoined from truth . . . horrors can descend again on mankind.”

The myth holds another lesson as well—one that has been fundamental to the career of Achebe, who has been called “the patriarch of the African novel.” There is danger in relying on someone else to speak for you: you can trust that your message will be communicated accurately only if you speak with your own voice. With his masterpiece, “Things Fall Apart,” one of the first works of fiction to present African village life from an African perspective, Achebe began the literary reclamation of his country’s history from generations of colonial writers. Published fifty years ago—a new edition has just appeared, from Anchor ($10.95)—it has been translated into fifty languages and has sold more than ten million copies.

In the course of a writing life that has included five novels, collections of short stories and poetry, and numerous essays and lectures, Achebe has consistently argued for the right of Africans to tell their own story in their own way, and has attacked the representations of European writers. But he also did not reject European influence entirely, choosing to write not in his native Igbo but in English, a language that, as he once said, “history has forced down our throat.” In a country with several major languages and more than five hundred smaller ones, establishing a lingua franca was a practical and political necessity. For Achebe, it was also an artistic necessity—a way to give expression to the clash of civilizations that is his enduring theme.

Achebe was born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in 1930, in the region of southeastern Nigeria known as Igboland. (He dropped his first name, a “tribute to Victorian England,” in college.) Ezenwa-Ohaeto, the author of the first comprehensive biography of Achebe, writes that the young Chinua was raised at a cultural “crossroads”: his parents were converts to Christianity, but other relatives practiced the traditional Igbo faith, in which people worship a panoply of gods, and are believed to have their own personal guiding spirit, called a chi. Achebe was fascinated by the “heathen” religion of his neighbors. “The distance becomes not a separation but a bringing together, like the necessary backward step which a judicious viewer may take in order to see a canvas steadily and fully,” he later observed.

At home, the family spoke Igbo (sometimes also spelled Ibo), but Achebe began to learn English in school at the age of about eight, and he soon won admission to a colonial-run boarding school. Since the students came from different regions, they had to “put away their different mother tongues and communicate in the language of their colonizers,” Achebe writes. There he had his first exposure to colonialist classics such as “Prester John,” John Buchan’s novel about a British adventurer in South Africa, which contains the famous line “That is the difference between white and black, the gift of responsibility.” Achebe, in an essay called “African Literature as Restoration of Celebration,” has written, “I did not see myself as an African to begin with. . . . The white man was good and reasonable and intelligent and courageous. The savages arrayed against him were sinister and stupid or, at the most, cunning. I hated their guts.”

At University College, Ibadan, Achebe encountered the novel “Mister Johnson,” by the Anglo-Irish writer Joyce Cary, who had spent time as a colonial officer in Nigeria. The book was lauded by Time as “the best novel ever written about Africa.” But Achebe, as he grew older, no longer identified with the imperialists; he was appalled by Cary’s depiction of his homeland and its people. In Cary’s portrait, the “jealous savages . . . live like mice or rats in a palace floor”; dancers are “grinning, shrieking, scowling, or with faces which seemed entirely dislocated, senseless and unhuman, like twisted bags of lard.” It was the image of blacks as “unhuman,” a standard trope of colonial literature, that Achebe recognized as particularly dangerous. “It began to dawn on me that although fiction was undoubtedly fictitious it could also be true or false, not with the truth or falsehood of a news item but as to its disinterestedness, its intention, its integrity,” he wrote later. This belief in fiction’s moral power became integral to his vision for African literature.

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond.” From the first line of “Things Fall Apart”—Achebe’s first novel—we are in unfamiliar territory. Who is this Okonkwo whom everybody knows? Where are these nine villages? Achebe began to write “Things Fall Apart” during the mid-fifties, when he moved to Lagos to join the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. In 1958, when he submitted the manuscript to the publisher William Heinemann, no one knew what to make of it. Alan Hill, a director of the firm, recalled the initial reaction: “Would anyone possibly buy a novel by an African? There are no precedents.” That was not entirely accurate—the Nigerian writers Amos Tutuola and Cyprian Ekwensi had published novels earlier in the decade. But the novel as an African form was still very young, and “Things Fall Apart” represented a new approach, showing the collision of old and new ways of life to devastating effect.

Set in a fictional group of Igbo villages called Umuofia sometime around the beginning of the twentieth century, “Things Fall Apart” begins with an episodic, almost dreamlike chronicle of village life through the family of Okonkwo. A boy named Ikemefuna has just come from outside Umuofia to live with them, and soon becomes like a brother to Okonkwo’s son Nwoye. (Ikemefuna’s father had killed a woman from Umuofia, and the villagers agreed to accept a virgin and a young man as compensation.) Over the next three years, the story follows Okonkwo’s family through harvest seasons, religious festivals, and domestic disputes. The language is rich with metaphors drawn from the villagers’ experience: Ikemefuna “grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season, and was full of the sap of life.” The dialogue, too, is aphoristic and allusive. “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten,” the narrator explains. (As the reader has already seen, palm oil is used to flavor yams, the villagers’ staple food.)

Despite the pastoral setting, there is nothing idyllic about this portrayal of village life. If the yam harvest is bad, the villagers go hungry. Babies are not expected to live to adulthood. (Only after the age of six is a child said to have “come to stay.”) Some customs are cruel: newborn twins, thought to be inhabited by evil spirits, are “thrown away” in the bush. The Igbo are not presented as a museum exhibit—if their behavior is not always familiar, their emotions are. In a pivotal scene, a group of men, including Okonkwo, lead Ikemefuna out of the village after the local oracle determines that he must be killed. The boy thinks that he is at last returning home, and he worries that his mother will not be there to greet him. To calm himself, he resorts to a childhood game:

He sang [a song] in his mind, and walked to its beat. If the song ended on his right foot, his mother was alive. If it ended on his left, she was dead. No, not dead, but ill. It ended on the right. She was alive and well. He sang the song again, and it ended on the left. But the second time did not count. The first voice gets to Chukwu, or God’s house. That was a favorite saying of children. 

Tradition holds the people together, but it also drives them apart. After Nwoye finds out that his father killed Ikemefuna, “something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping of a tightened bow.” When the first missionaries arrive, those who have suffered most under the village culture are the first to join the church. To Okonkwo’s dismay, Nwoye is among them. The missionaries, though ignorant of local customs, are not all bad: one in particular treats the villagers with respect. But others show little interest in their way of life. “Does the white man understand our custom about land?” Okonkwo asks a friend in puzzlement. “How can he when he does not even speak our tongue?” the other man responds. In the book’s final chapter, the colonizer’s voice takes over; the silence that surrounds it speaks for itself.

Western reviewers praised Achebe’s detailed portrayal of Igbo life, but they said little about the book’s literary qualities. The New York Times repeatedly misspelled Okonkwo’s name and lamented the disappearance of “primitive society.” The Listener complimented Achebe’s “clear and meaty style free of the dandyism often affected by Negro authors.” Others were openly hostile. “How would novelist Achebe like to go back to the mindless times of his grandfather instead of holding the modern job he has in broadcasting in Lagos?” the British journalist Honor Tracy asked. Reviewing Achebe’s third novel, “Arrow of God” (1964), which forms a thematic trilogy with “Things Fall Apart” and its successor, “No Longer at Ease” (1960), another critic disparaged the book’s language as “folk-patter.”

This was a grotesque misreading. In a 1965 essay titled “The African Writer and the English Language,” Achebe explains that he had no desire to write English in the manner of a native speaker. Rather, an African writer “should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.” To demonstrate, he quotes several lines from “Arrow of God.” Ezeulu, the village’s chief priest, is curious to find out about the activities of the new missionaries in the village:

I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eyes there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow. 

Achebe then rewrites the passage, preserving its content but stripping its style:

I am sending you as my representative among these people—just to be on the safe side in case the new religion develops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight. 

By deploying stock English phrases in unfamiliar ways, Achebe expresses his characters’ estrangement from that language. The phrases that Ezeulu uses—“be my eyes,” “bring home my share”—have no exact equivalents in Achebe’s “translation.” And how great the gap between “my spirit tells me” and “I have a hunch”! In the same essay, Achebe writes that carrying the full weight of African experience requires “a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.” Or, as he later put it, “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”

Achebe’s views on English were not yet widely accepted. At a conference on African literature held in Uganda in 1962, attended by emerging figures such as the Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka and the Kenyan novelist James Ngugi, the writers tried and failed to define “African literature,” unable to decide whether it should be characterized by the nationalities of the writers or by its subject matter. Afterward, the critic Obi Wali published an article claiming that African literature had come to a “dead end,” which could be reopened only when “these writers and their western midwives accept the fact that true African literature must be written in African languages.” Ngugi came to agree: he wrote four novels in English, but in the nineteen-seventies he adopted his Gikuyu name of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and vowed to write only in Gikuyu, his native language, viewing English as a means of “spiritual subjugation.”

At the conference, Achebe read the manuscript of Ngugi’s first novel, “Weep Not, Child,” which he recommended to Heinemann for publication. The publisher soon asked him to sign on as general editor of its African Writers Series, a post he held, without pay, for ten years. Among the writers whose novels were published during his tenure were Flora Nwapa, John Munonye, and Ayi Kwei Armah—all of whom became important figures in the emerging African literature. Heinemann’s Alan Hill later said that the “fantastic sales” of Achebe’s books had supported the series. But the appeal of English was not purely commercial. A great novel, Achebe later argued, “alters the situation in the world.” Igbo, Gikuyu, or Fante could not claim a global influence; English could.

Political imperatives were not hypothetical in Nigeria, which, having achieved independence in 1960, entered a prolonged period of upheaval. In 1967, following two coups that had led to genocidal violence against the Igbo, Igboland declared independence as the Republic of Biafra. Achebe himself became a target of the violence: his novel “A Man of the People” (1966), a political satire, had forecast the coup so accurately that some believed him to have been in on the plot. He devoted himself fully to the Biafran cause. For a time, he stopped writing fiction, taking up poetry—“something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood.” Achebe travelled to London to promote awareness of the war, and in 1969 he helped write the official declaration of the “Principles of the Biafran Revolution.”

But the fledgling nation starved, its roads and ports blockaded by the British-backed Nigerian Army. By the time Biafra was finally forced to surrender, in 1970, the number of Igbo dead was estimated at between one million and three million. At the height of the famine, Conor Cruise O’Brien reported in The New York Review of Books, five thousand to six thousand people—“mainly children”—died each day. The sufferers could be recognized by the distinctive signs of protein deficiency, known as kwashiorkor: bloated bellies, pale skin, and reddish hair. Achebe’s poem “A Mother in a Refugee Camp” describes a woman’s efforts to care for her child:

She took from their bundle of possessions 
A broken comb and combed 
The rust-colored hair left on his skull 
And then—humming in her eyes—began carefully to part it. 
In their former life this was perhaps 
A little daily act of no consequence 
Before his breakfast and school; now she did it 
Like putting flowers on a tiny grave. 

The heartbreak of Biafra shook the foundations of Nigerian society and led to decades of political turmoil. Achebe took the opportunity to distance himself temporarily, spending part of the early nineteen-seventies teaching in the United States. During these years, as the independence era’s potential for brutality became clear, he set out to correct the colonial record with even greater vigor. In essays and lectures, he railed against what he called “colonialist criticism”—the conscious or unconscious dehumanization of African characters, the vision of the African writer as an “unfinished European who with patient guidance will grow up one day,” the assumption that economic underdevelopment corresponds to a lack of intellectual sophistication (“Show me a people’s plumbing, you say, and I can tell you their art”). He was infuriated to find how widespread these attitudes remained. One student, learning that Achebe taught African literature, remarked casually that “he never had thought of Africa as having that kind of stuff.”

Achebe recounts this anecdote in “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ ” (1977). Examining Conrad’s descriptions of the “savages,” Achebe shows that the novel, far from subverting imperialist constructions, falls victim to them. Marlow, the story’s narrator, describes the Africans as “not inhuman,” and continues, “Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman.” And yet the blacks in the novel are nameless and faceless, their language barely more than grunts; they are assumed to be cannibals.The only explanation for this, Achebe concludes, is “obvious racism.” Many have responded that Achebe oversimplifies Conrad’s narrative: “Heart of Darkness” is a story within a story, told in the highly unreliable voice of Marlow, and the novel is, to say the least, ambivalent about imperialism. The writer Caryl Phillips has asked, “Is it not ridiculous to demand of Conrad that he imagine an African humanity that is totally out of line with both the times in which he was living and the larger purpose of his novel?” But, even if Conrad’s methods can be justified, the significance of Achebe’s essay was that justification now became necessary: he made the ugliness latent in Conrad’s vision impossible to ignore.

In contrast to European modernism, with its embrace of “art for art’s sake” (a concept that Achebe, with characteristic bluntness, once called “just another piece of deodorized dog shit”), Achebe has always advocated a socially and politically motivated literature. Since literature was complicit in colonialism, he says, let it also work to exorcise the ghosts of colonialism. “Literature is not a luxury for us. It is a life and death affair because we are fashioning a new man,” he declared in a 1980 interview. His most recent novel, “Anthills of the Savannah” (1987), functions clearly in this mold, following a group of friends who serve in the government of the West African country of Kangan, obviously a stand-in for Nigeria. Sam, who took power in a coup, is steering the nation rapidly toward dictatorship. When Chris, the minister of information, refuses to take Sam’s side against Ikem, the editor of the government-controlled newspaper, the full wrath of the government turns against both of them. The book does not match the artistic achievement of “Things Fall Apart” or “Arrow of God,” but it gets to the heart of the corruption and the idealism of African politics.

Achebe insists that in its form and content the African novel must be an indigenous creation. This stance has led him to criticize other writers whom he regards as insufficiently politically committed, particularly Ayi Kwei Armah, whose novel “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” (1968) presents a dire vision of postcolonial Ghana. The novel begins with the image of a man sleeping on a bus with his eyes open. Streets and buildings are caked with garbage, phlegm, and excrement. Beneath the filthy surfaces, structures are rotten to the core. Armah’s novel has been acclaimed as a vivid rendering of disillusionment with the country’s new politics under Kwame Nkrumah. But Achebe finds Armah’s “alienated stance” no better than Joyce Cary’s, and particularly objects to Armah’s existentialism, which he calls a “foreign metaphor” for the sickness of Ghana. Even worse, Armah has said that he is “not an African writer but just a writer,” which Achebe calls “a statement of defeat.”

Is it too utopian to imagine that the African novel could exist simply as a novel, absolved of its social and pedagogical mission? Achebe has been fiercely critical of those who search for “universality” in African fiction, arguing that such a standard is never applied to Western fiction. But there is something reductive about Achebe’s insistence on defining writers by their ethnicity. To say that a work of literature transcends national boundaries is not to deny its moral or political value.

In 1990, Achebe was paralyzed after a serious car accident. Doctors advised him to come to the United States for treatment, and he has taught at Bard College ever since. “Home and Exile,” a short collection of essays, is the only book he has published during this period, though he is said to be at work on a new novel. But, if Achebe is largely retired, another generation of writers has taken up his call for a new African literature, and the majority have followed his lead: they embrace the English language despite its colonial connotations, but they also seek to establish an African literary identity outside the colonial framework. And the achievements of African writers are increasingly recognized: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun,” an excruciating and remarkable novel about the Biafran war, won Britain’s Orange Prize last year.

The “situation in the world,” fifty years after “Things Fall Apart,” is not as altered as one might wish. As Binyavanga Wainaina, the founding editor of the Kenyan literary magazine Kwani?, demonstrated in a satiric piece called “How to Write About Africa,” racist stereotypes are still prevalent: “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. . . . Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat.” But the power of Achebe’s legacy cannot be discounted. Adichie has recalled discovering his work at the age of about ten. Until then, she said, “I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.” 

 

May 30, 2008 Posted by | Chinua Achebe, Fiction and Novel | Leave a comment

The Courage of Rachel Corrie

By Amy Wilentz*, Truthdig, May 26, 2008

Reviewed: Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie by Rachel Corrie [W.W. Norton, 2008]


By all rights, Let Me Stand Alone should not be an easy book to read. Doom hangs over this collection of the journal writings of Rachel Corrie, who was a 23-year-old American peace activist when she was crushed to death by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer in Gaza five years ago. And yet most of this book whizzes by in a series of delights: in descriptions of autumn football games in Washington state, and ice in the winter mornings, of war seen on television, of the wind, of Corrie’s grandparents’ house in Des Moines, the used-book store in Aitkin, Minn., her mother tending to her dying grandmother, her own face. And this is all before the age of 14. When she was 2 years old, she looked at Capitol Lake in Olympia, Wash., her hometown, and said (famously, in her family): “This is the wide world, and I’m coming to it.”

It turns out that Rachel Corrie was first of all a miraculous child; then, an amazing changeling of a girl; later, a difficult, challenging, brilliant teenager, and finally a demanding, charismatic young adult. Most important, she was a very able writer from a remarkably early age — about 10 years old, or 11 — an immediate, sensory observer, a good thinker, a rebel eventually. Above all, she was always human, never caustic (though she could be casually cruel to her parents, like all adolescents), and almost painfully alive to the give and take within families, among friends, between lovers, between siblings. She would go on to carry this feeling of connectedness to its logical extreme, because among the many things she was, Rachel Corrie was above all a natural extremist. She felt other people’s pain really and truly. As a grown-up, she feels connected not only to her parents, her sister, her unpredictable boyfriend and to others around her, but also to the mentally ill people with whom she worked in Olympia (“Don’t we all hear voices?” she asks her journal), and to the world. She also felt responsible for mankind’s lapses in humanity. That natural extremism and dedication to goodness took her into activism, and that’s how she ended up in Gaza — her shoulder blades, face, six ribs and spinal cord broken under the blade of that bulldozer.

But this book is not all about Rachel Corrie’s progression toward this terrible fate. It’s really three books in one. It’s a coming-of-age book about a certain kind of American girl, an upstanding, stalwart child of the Pacific Northwest, who loves freedom the way a pioneer child would, as part of the normal course of things. As a child, Corrie is like a Mark Twain character: You would not be surprised to see her in a thin dimity dress or in smocked gingham, with her blond hair in a braid, playing barefoot in the reeds near Huck’s river. As she gets older, she flirts with all the syndromes American girls now flirt with: drinking, smoking, anorexia. “Then she cursed herself for spending so much time thinking about herself,” she writes. But she survives; she’s an American survivor — and if you didn’t know beforehand the wrenching end of her story you would assume she could survive anything. The first half of the book reads like a best-selling Oprah-endorsed literary tell-all memoir (or anyway, almost all … there is an editorial hand involved in culling the journals, and that hand belongs to the Corrie family), written by an exceptionally creative and gifted girl.

Let Me Stand Alone is also a writer’s notebook. One can easily imagine it being read in a workshop. It includes poetry, and a long (some might say too long) half-fiction, half-confessional love story; rapturous descriptions of nature, and loving details about Olympia (having read “Let Me Stand Alone,” I now vote Olympia, Wash., the No. 1 city to visit in the United States, although I haven’t been there). A love poem about driving on the highway with her mother and seeing a flock of herons is particularly accomplished; here’s a bit of it:

anonymous gray herons
their forms slip into your dream vocabulary
your eyes save them deep in linty pockets and amber jars
but their beaks are needles and they don’t notice you pass
eyes with no pupils in constant dialogue, heron with itself
they send messages with their outlines
they glide into the horizon while you’re forming your reply

Here’s another section, from the middle of the book, where Corrie imagines the salmon of Olympia: “There have been so many times over the last several years when I’ve wanted to be anywhere except Olympia. I think I’ll be gone within the next year. It’s hard to explain it. … The salmon talked me into a lifestyle change. The salmon beneath downtown Olympia are church. Years ago a group of us doing salmon restoration work rode a bus down to the East Bay Marina and observed the hole in the bulkhead. Salmon swim into that hole. Salmon have to make it all the way up Plum Street in that hole. …. Once you know there are salmon down there it’s hard to forget. You imagine their moony eyes while you walk home from the bar in your slutty boots. You’re aware of them down there when you ride around in somebody’s car — fanning their gills. It’s hard to be extraordinarily vacuous when you always have the salmon in the back of your mind: in that pipe down there. …”

In this case, it’s only the pitiable situation of fish that provokes Rachel Corrie’s empathy and political action. For “Let Me Stand Alone” is, as well as a coming-of-age book and a writer’s notebook, also the autobiography of an activist. We watch as Rachel emerges from her lovely, hypersensitive, receptive and involved girlhood, and we’re cheering her: because she is really so good, so kind, so open and sensitive to suffering and injustice — like an old-fashioned saint, a Great Person in the making. I couldn’t help thinking of Joan of Arc as I read along (partly, no doubt, because of the seeming physical resemblance to La Pucelle, a light-haired wisp of furious girlhood). Belief, Christian virtues of selflessness and self-denial, charisma, fervor, a thirst for a cause — Rachel Corrie always had the makings of a martyr.

When she gets to Gaza — a section that represents about a fifth of the book, and, of course, its finale — Corrie’s writing changes radically, with all that the word implies. At first, the change is subtle. Everything is reduced. Her range of emotion contracts, and instead of pure love, angry love, needy love and furious love, Rachel, in the face of the plight of the Gazans, feels only angry love. Instead of frustration with herself, her parents, Olympia, the Bush administration, school, siblings, friends, boyfriend, she feels frustration only at the Israeli government (a nice, broad target for this and other negative emotions, when you’re living in Gaza). She sinks into the reduced and shrunken emotional, intellectual and even physical space of the refugee; Corrie becomes a Gazan. In this sad final section, there were bits I had to skip, because the writing becomes so rote, so predictable, so propagandistic, so meaningless — and it was hard to see such a brave talent, such a wonderful person, become so flat and dull, so prescriptive and hortatory.

And yet I recognize Rachel Corrie in this section. I was young, too, when I had my first tte–tte with evil — for me, it was Haiti under Jean-Claude Duvalier and the various generals and civilian juntas that followed. Like me, Corrie was privileged, liberal, educated, literate, American: Naturally the hunger, deprivation and imprisonment of the Gazans among whom she decided to live is — and should be — too dreadful a thing for her to witness without responding in anger toward their oppressors, as the plight of the Haitian people was and remains for me. Rachel was even younger than I was at the moment of her first encounter, however, and she was a member of an organization in Gaza, the International Solidarity Movement. The ISM’s goal was — in part — to stop Israeli bulldozing of Gazan houses by presenting its people as human shields, facing down the scoops of the dozers. In Haiti, I was not part of any missionary group, and had the luxury of forming my own opinions in solitude. I wasn’t organizing a movement, as Corrie was. I did not want my entire social group back in the United States to come to Haiti to help me stop the mechanisms of oppression there, the way Rachel does in Rafah. Rachel took the humanitarian’s way, the activist’s way, the militant’s way. She begins doing press for the ISM, and her journal-writing and e-mail composition evaporate into a kind of boosterish stew of stereotypical (though not untrue) observations about Palestinian suffering and Israeli oppression.

“Time to go,” she writes in an e-mail. “Meeting with the Youth Parliament.” It’s like watching a lesson taught by George Orwell, with Corrie as the example. There in the border town of Rafah, facing the Israeli army, a gifted writer — still able to witness honestly and well, as we see in small glimpses — begins to remove from her work much of what is human, closely observed, specific and concrete, and substitute instead propaganda clichs that, even when true, feel meaningless and shopworn, and finally, tragically empty, especially in light of Rachel Corrie’s fate. Still, I can’t help admiring her committed work and her youthful engagement; the world might just possibly be a better place if more of us believed in humanity’s essential goodness, as Corrie did, and if more of us were willing to leave our gardens, BlackBerrys, malls and coffee shops behind and work for peace and justice. Her innocence is disarming: “The surreal thing,” she writes, a month and a half before her death, “is that we are safe. White-skinned people stand up in front of the tanks and they open their weird tank lids and wave at us.”

There is a sense of Auden’s “while someone else is eating,” in these final pages, of the evils that go on while we continue on with our doggy lives. “I have been in Palestine for two weeks and one hour now,” Corrie writes in an e-mail just a month before she was killed, “and I still have very few words to describe what I see. It is most difficult for me to think about what’s going on here when I sit down to write back to the United States. Something about the virtual portal into luxury. …” Her talk of “internationals” and “sister communities” may put you off, but the fact of her sympathy and dedication is inspiring. And, as Graham Greene wrote in The Comedians, his novel about Haiti under Duvalier, “Death is a proof of sincerity.”

Because the saddest thing of all about the decline in Rachel Corrie’s eloquence and description, and the simultaneous growth in her activism, is how very short the period of her involvement was. And how much truth, honor and respect was — deservingly — heaped upon her every political pronouncement by the brutality and vicious stupidity of her murderer’s crushing rubber tracks and slicing steel. When it mattered, no one lifted a lid and waved. “My back is broken, my back is broken” — those were Rachel Corrie’s last words.

That’s concrete and specific enough.

*Amy Wilentz, a former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, is the author of “Martyrs’ Crossing,” a novel about Jerusalem, among other books.

May 27, 2008 Posted by | Book Review | 2 Comments

Sexpot Virgins: The Media’s Sexualization of Young Girls

 

By Tana Ganeva, AlterNet, May 24, 2008

In 2006, the retail chain Tesco launched the Peekaboo Pole Dancing Kit, a play set designed to help young girls “unleash the sex kitten inside.”

Perturbed parents, voicing concern that their 5-year-olds might be too young to engage in sex work, lobbied to have the product pulled. Tesco removed the play set from the toy section but kept it on the market.

As M. Gigi Durham points out in The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, Tesco’s attempt to sell stripper gear to kids is just one instance of the sexual objectification of young girls in the media and marketplace. Some of the many other examples include a push-up bra for preteens, thongs for 10-year-olds bearing slogans like “eye candy,” and underwear geared toward teens with “Who needs credit cards … ?” written across the crotch.

Targeted by marketers at increasingly younger ages, girls are now being exposed to the kind of unhealthy messages about sexuality that have long dogged grown women. Girls are told that their worth hinges on being “hot,” which in mainstream media parlance translates into thin, white, makeupped and scantily clad. Meanwhile, acting on their sexual impulses earns them the epithet “slut.” Teen magazines advise girls on how to tailor their look and personality to please boys (in order to entrap them in relationships). Advertisements present violence toward women as sexy.

According to Durham, the regressive messages about sexuality that circulate in mainstream media hamper the healthy sexual development of kids and teens.

Durham’s critique does not end with the corporate media. She also faults adults for failing to engage in reasonable, open dialogue with teens about sex — thus leaving the sexual education of young people to a media primarily concerned with generating profit, as opposed to, say, selflessly helping young people develop healthy ideas about sexuality.

AlterNet talked to Durham on the phone about the sexual objectification of girls in the media and how to help them challenge regressive messages about their sexuality.

What’s the “Lolita Effect,” and why is it harmful?

The Lolita Effect is the media’s sexual objectification of young girls. In the Nabokov novel the protagonist, who is 12 years old at the start of the book, is the object of desire for Humbert Humbert the pedophile. In the book you’re put into the mind of the predator; Lolita, in Humbert’s view, initiates the sex and is very knowledgeable and all that. Nowadays the term Lolita has come to mean a little girl who is inappropriately sexual, wanton, and who sort of flaunts her sexuality and seduces older men. I’m very critical of that construction in the novel and in real life because little girls can’t be held responsible in this way. They’re not born with the understanding or intention of seducing older men, and the burden of responsibility can’t be placed on children. They’re just too young to knowingly enter into these kinds of relationships. The Lolita Effect is the way our culture, and more importantly our corporate media, have constructed these little “Lolitas” by sexualizing them and marketing really sexualized items of clothing and behaviors to them — constructing them as legitimate sexual actors when they aren’t.

In your book you talk about how over the past 50 years female sex symbols have gotten a lot younger. In the 1950s you had people like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, who reached the peak of their popularity in their mid- to late 20s. Now there are 12-year-old models. What accounts for this shift?

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Marilyn Monroe was 27 when she starred in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s a lot easier for me to accept someone pushing 30 as a sexual being. What accounts for this shift? I can make educated inferences even though of course we have no hard data about what actually caused it. Part of it is that marketers caught on, somewhere in the 1990s, which was a very prosperous time economically in the United States especially, that young kids, tweens and children had a lot of disposable income and were spending a lot of money. Last year the market research firm Euromonitor said that worldwide tween spending reached 170 billion dollars. I think a large part of it was the marketers’ realization that they could cultivate cradle-to-grave consumers by targeting very young kids by getting them to buy into the frames that older women have been persuaded to buy into for a long time, such as trying to achieve unattainable bodies and present themselves as highly desirable to men. They could get little girls to start consuming cosmetics and fashion and even diet aides at very young ages and then hold onto them for longer. So I think a lot of it was a marketing impulse.

I think there are a few other factors at work as well. Women have entered the public sphere more and more and have become much more accomplished and successful in the workplace and economically and in terms of assertiveness within their relationships. Little girls still represent a traditional version of femininity: They’re docile, they’re passive, they’re easily manipulated, and I think that’s being held up as an ideal of femininity, which to me is kind of scary.

One of the marketing messages geared toward young girls is the idea that being “hot” and “eye candy” for boys is of paramount importance. How does this emphasis on “hotness” hinder girls’ development of healthy ideas about sexuality?

Let me say first that I think sex is great. I think sex is a wonderful, totally natural part of growing up. I think children are sexual — and that’s not just me; all of the research points to that. Adolescents are trying to understand their sexuality. And I do think that wanting to be sexually desirable is part of being a human being.

But at the same time this construction of “hotness” is rigidly and narrowly defined by the media. And there’s so much emphasis placed on it that it becomes the only thing that’s important in girls’ lives — or at least that’s what the media would have you believe. Because achieving the mainstream media’s version of “hotness” demands being a consumer.

If you’re trying to be “hot” in the ways that they prescribe — conforming to a specific body type, wearing a certain type of clothing — of course you are going to be spending a lot of money trying to achieve it. So there are problems with it. For one thing, it negates and devalues all of the other aspects of a girl’s personality. Sex is good, but it’s one aspect of being a human being. A lot of other things are equally important, like your intelligence, creativity, spirituality and community involvement. All of these things are equally important in terms of being a fully fledged human being. But in many media, girls are told that only being hot matters. So it can warp them into skewed, one-dimensional people, where all these other aspects of their personalities aren’t being developed. So that hampers them, as people.

In terms of sexuality, they can’t experience their sexuality fully and joyfully and individually and diversely because they’re being held up to this very narrow, very restrictive definition of what sexiness is about. So I think it’s problematic on both of those fronts.

Can you talk about the idea that girls have to be “hot” but not “sluts”? Why do you think that this is such a deeply ingrained, pervasive construct?

That’s not new. Girls have had to walk that line for quite a while now, where the emphasis is on being sexually desirable but immediately being condemned if they actually act on their desire. Girls are expected not to have desires of their own. The scholar Deborah L. Tolman identified this — she called it “the missing discourse of girls’ desire” — I think sometime in the mid-’80s. This has been a problem for girls and women all along: They have not been allowed to express their own interest in sex or express their own desires or seek their own pleasure for quite a long time. … It’s a terrible mixed message, and it’s almost impossible to achieve it — to walk around projecting desirability but to never be able to act on it, never be allowed to engage in it. One of the other problems is that because of this idea, girls aren’t given good information about actual sexual activity. They are not given information to make them understand the risks and responsibilities, how to be in control, protect themselves against STDs, unintended pregnancies — that’s missing from the way they understand sex.

Is there a comparable set of messages about sexuality aimed at boys?

It’s not as pervasive. Here’s what I think about boys. I think they’re getting a lot of messages about girls as sexual objects, in music videos and in video games. In most of the media targeted to teens and even to tweens, girls are always presented as eye candy and sexual objects. Both boys and girls are getting that message. Now, the message that boys are getting about sexuality and masculinity is that male sexuality is predatory, often violent and not emotionally engaged. Those are problematic constructions too. But in the end, girls bear the brunt of those constructions because they give boys an awful lot of power. They don’t really put boys in vulnerable positions; they put boys in more powerful positions. In the end it harms both boys and girls. They are not getting good information. They’re not getting an ethical, mutual understanding of sex and sexuality, where it’s about consensus and cooperation and understanding each other on some human level. It’s all about predation and submission.

You emphasize throughout the book that girls are not zombified, unthinking consumers of media but tend to be very critical of media representations. So to a certain extent, these offensive images and messages must resonate with the desires of many girls. How do we deal with the fact that sometimes sexuality isn’t very P.C.?

In the sense of wanting to adopt some of these (sexual) costumes and things like that? I think there is a playful side to it. And I’m not criticizing out of hand. I’m not saying that girls shouldn’t wear makeup or high heels. I don’t think any of that is true. Because I do think that there is a lot of fun and playfulness involved in some of that. But I do think that girls need to think about it and to make sure that what they’re doing is intentional and is making them feel good about themselves and good about their bodies and knowing that they have a lot of different choices. If they want to adopt a certain type of costuming one day that’s OK, but they can go out in their baseball hats and blue jeans another day. They should be allowed to make informed choices about how to present themselves to the world, and they need to understand the consequences of those presentations. I think we need to have a lot of discussion about that with girls, just as long as it doesn’t become a type of obsession that limits their views of what it means to be a girl.

The other side of it for me is that they should always feel like they’re safe when they do that. As long as they feel like they’re making choices that don’t put them in a bad position, and also the adults around them don’t feel like they’re putting themselves in a vulnerable position. But one of the problems is that for many, many girls those choices are not completely safe, especially if they are in a situation where they could be at physical risk. We just need to be thinking really hard about how they’re choosing to make these kinds of moves.

In the book you describe yourself as a pro-sex feminist. How did this perspective inform your approach to the topic?

It was very important to me not to be moralizing and coming across like I was policing or repressing girls’ sexuality. I wanted to make it clear from the start that sex is a good thing and a really normal part of being a human being, and that we ought to acknowledge that children and teenagers are sexual and we shouldn’t draw back in horror. One of the problems for me is that in the U.S. we have such a puritanical view of sex — we absolutely refuse to talk about it, we don’t have good sex-ed in schools, we don’t give kids straightforward, accurate information about sex.

I wanted to, in a way, redefine the term pro-sex. I’m pro healthy, progressive ideas about sex. And I’m totally opposed to regressive or restrictive ideas about sex. I think that’s a little different from the way it’s normally defined.

You discuss how conservatives as well as progressives often talk about the wrong things and jump to faulty conclusions about young people’s sexuality. What are some of the things that both sides get wrong, and what’s a good middle ground?

One of the things that at least one of the sides gets wrong is this abstinence-only business. Realistically, it’s really hard to stop kids from thinking about and experimenting with sex. That doesn’t mean that I think 12-year-olds ought to run out and have sex. But only and always making it taboo, wrong, scary, terrible is going to mean that children don’t feel like they have the safe spaces in which to express sexual feelings and ask the kinds of questions they need to ask to get the information they need. A lot of studies show that kids in the U.S. don’t know where to go for contraception, for example. They don’t know where to get counseling if something goes wrong. They don’t know how to express their needs in sexual encounters — their comfort levels of where to stop and things like that. I think it’s a problem that we don’t have a matter-of-fact approach to sex and treat it like a normal part of public health and humanity and talk about it a lot more.

But on the other hand, on the more liberal side, there’s this “anything goes” attitude where “it’s all great” and we should never say anything about it because somehow that translates into being anti-sex or being repressive or for censorship. I don’t think that is true either. I think we need to understand that sometimes critique is necessary, that children are children and that they need some guidance and that caring adults do have a role to play in terms of helping them through these really difficult issues that are very hard for kids to navigate on their own. So I think there are problems on both sides. I don’t think we should say anything goes, and I don’t think we should police kids.

In terms of the pro-abstinence crowd, there seems to be a lot more outrage over things connected to sexual health, like the HPV vaccine, sex-ed, and condoms in schools, than there is about sexual media images.

Yes, absolutely, which is crazy and hypocritical. That’s really at the core of what I’m writing about. We applaud all of these sexualized representations out there that I think in the end are very exploitative and really regressive. But then we won’t deal in a straightforward way with the real-world issues that need to be addressed, like children understanding contraception and understanding STDs. So it’s just nuts that the abstinence-only movement turns a blind eye to the really problematic representations of sexuality in the public sphere.

Why do you think that is? Do people just not realize how influential media are?

There might be some of that. Sometimes people dismiss the media as being unimportant or trivial or just entertainment with no impact whatsoever. For people that study the media, it’s clear that it’s not just background noise, that we live in a media-saturated environment, that media shape our understanding of the world. So I don’t think that we should just dismiss it. I think that we ought to take media seriously.

Do you think that these media images are consonant with regressive attitudes about sexuality?

I think so. It’s awfully hard to pinpoint causality, but certainly in some ways media reflect cultural, very patriarchal attitudes, where women are sexual objects and nothing more, and only certain types of bodies are presented as sexual. But at the same time, media are recirculating and reinforcing these attitudes. So there’s a vicious cycle going on. For example, with violence against women: I completely understand the argument that these media reflect and in some ways are cathartic because they represent these social problems. But then at the same time they’re recirculating them and reinforcing them.

What do you think about the controversy over the new “Grand Theft Auto” game?

I do have issues with violent video games, because the way gender is presented reinscribes these really traditional and polarized views of masculinity and femininity, where men are violent aggressors and the women are almost always presented as sex workers — they’re always strippers or prostitutes. So there are almost no women with agency or power, who can command actual respect from men. And again, there aren’t men who could work things (nonviolently), for example. So I definitely don’t see them as progressive representations.

Can you talk a little more about the profit motive in media that in part drives these regressive representations of sexuality and sexiness?

That’s a really key point in my argument. The media are for-profit enterprises, and we need to recognize that from the start. Whatever they do to represent any aspect of human experience, it’s going to be connected to generating revenue. When they represent sex and sexuality, very obviously it’s going to have a commercial motivation behind it. So we get these definitions of sexuality that are yoked to consumerism, and sexuality is only represented in a way that will stimulate consumption. So they’re not acting in girls’ best interests, and they’re not acting in society’s best interests; they’re acting to generate profits. We ought to understand that however media represent sexuality is not going to be in ways that is good for anybody but the corporations!

What happens, though, is that media are influential in teaching kids about sex. There are studies indicating that because we don’t have discussions about sex anywhere else in society — most kids don’t get it at school, most of them don’t get it at home — kids get a lot of their sexual understanding from the media. So they’re going to only get corporate representations. They’re not going to get alternative ideas about sexuality or counter-messages or scripts that could challenge some of those types of representations.

You also make the point that we can’t blame everything on the media. What do you think of the tactics of conservative watchdog groups like the Parents Television Council?

Some of them are very censorious in their approach. I think there are some watchdog groups that are really helpful. One group I go to a lot is Common Sense Media, because I think their movie reviews are good and fair and they give you a lot of information so that you can make decisions about the media. But others are really inclined to repress representations in ways that I think are problematic. So I think we ought to be careful about that. I’m totally opposed to censorship. But I do think that parents could, and should, monitor their kids’ media consumption, because not everything is appropriate for children of all ages. Even recently in my own life I’ve seen little kids traumatized by watching violent media. But you can’t keep kids in a bubble forever. As they get older, they’re going to be exposed to these things, and the most helpful thing that anyone can do is talk about what’s going on in the media with children and offering them ways to maintain distance and be critical of these representations and understanding the selling intentions behind them and all of those things. But I know that not all parents or counselors or teachers are informed enough about media studies or media literacy to be able to bring these things up or to offer these perspectives.

So one of the things I argue for in the book is media literacy education in the schools. I really think that in this world it’s as important as reading and writing, maybe even more important, for kids to understand the media.

But there’s probably about as much funding for that as there is for sex-ed.

Yeah, totally. At the same time I think parents can go to these watchdog organizations, but to use their own judgment in terms of which ones they’re going to rely on. They can cobble together different perspectives and make good decisions. And the third thing is, in my book there’s a sort of DIY media literacy for everyday people because I think a lot of these analytical strategies in the province of media scholars that are talked about in academic journals and conferences — these never get out to the general public, who need them more than we do. One goal of the book is to offer those strategies to people in the real world.

Is that basically what you would tell a parent who is concerned about overly sexualized media images but doesn’t want to send the message to their kid that sexuality is bad?

Yes. Share values, talk about them, critique them. What I’m arguing for is the exact opposite of censorship, which is just a lot more critique and public discussion and debate about all of this.

Should we be trying to change the media, or is it best to stick to informing people and kids about it so they become more critical consumers?

To me the most important thing is to develop critical consumers, to put agency in the hands of consumers. There are a lot of interesting groups out there working with the media. For example, there’s a group called the Media Project, and they work with TV writers to try to put more factual, more diverse information about sexuality into TV shows. Not in a preachy kind of way, but in a way that would expand ideas about sex.

The thing I want to emphasize is that any adult can start a conversation with their kids, even when they are really, really young, even as young as 2, which is what I’ve done with my kids. Not even specifically about sex, but about the selling intent behind advertising and comparing what goes on in real life compared to fiction and helping them sort out facts. You can start getting them to be critical of the media when they’re very young.

 

May 26, 2008 Posted by | Interview, New Book | Leave a comment

Family secrets, state secrets

By Rahnuma Ahmed*, NewAge, May 26, 2008

Family secrets can be state secrets. Our mothers and fathers need to tell us stories. We need to discover ways of talking about silenced histories. And about the silenced present.

History is never more compelling than when it gives us insights into oneself and the ways in which one’s own experience is constituted.
   Amitav Ghosh, in a letter to Dipesh Chakrabarty
   
   

I do not see my life as separate from history. In my mind my family secrets mingle with the secrets of statesmen and bombers. Nor is my life divided from the lives of others.
   Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones
   
   

‘We hated it if anyone asked us about her’
   

‘MANY widowed mothers were forced to re-marry, some for reasons of social security,’ these were Amena’s opening words when I went to interview her. Amena Khatun works as a conservator and archivist for the Liberation War Museum. She was speaking of their family life after 1971.
   

Things did not always transpire as intended, she added. Her mother’s second marriage had been short-lived.
   

My father? He is Shahid Abdul Kader, he had a furniture business, it was new. But by then the war had started, and his friends and workmen had left to fight for liberation. I was a few months old, my other brother, the one younger to me, was not yet born. My elder brother was two and a half years old. I think my father was planning to go away, to join the struggle, but it happened before he could make arrangements for us. They took him away. We lived in Mymensingh, our area was full of Biharis, I think they could sense what was happening, and they targeted my father. Actually, it was a Bengali woman, a razakar, who came and called him. She came and said, so-and-so wants to talk to you. My father stepped out and found a group of Bihari men and women waiting for him. It was May 28, 1971.
   

My grandmother, it was her, my nanu who raised us. Her struggle was much greater. My mother? Oh, she was very young, only seventeen or eighteen, she hardly understood anything. She was forced to re-marry, this was later, in 1977 or 1978. She had no other choice.
   

For us kids it was a new experience, we had not seen a man before. My mama was five years older to me, he and my older brother, they were the only men in the house. My uncles came later but nanu didn’t like them, she was worried that they would take us away, put us to work on the farm, that we would have to give up our studies. My younger chacha had wanted to marry my mother but she didn’t agree to the proposal. She said, he was like a brother.
   

And in the middle of all this, here was this new man, we could tell that he was intimate with her. When he appeared, she was a different mother. Sometimes I think, did we deserve this? If my father had lived, life would have been very different.
   

By the time my mother gave birth to a daughter, that phase [her married life] was over. That little sister of ours was the most exciting thing that could have happened in our lives, she lit up our home, all our dreams centred around her. We couldn’t think of anything else. We didn’t want to.
   

But whenever we went to the village, people would say, she was born of your mother’s second marriage, wasn’t she? We hated the sound of those words. Of course, what they said was true, for them it was not unusual. They were just curious, they would keep asking us and I don’t blame them. But I hated it, bhaiya didn’t like it either. My sister? She was too young to understand. But how can you stop people talking, and so we stopped going to the village. We wouldn’t go, hardly ever.
   

Much later, right before my sister took her matric exams, we were forced to tell her. In a sense, she found out for herself. You see, her friends kept asking her, ‘But if you were born in 1971, how can you be this young?’
   

I guess we needed to grow older to come to terms with the truth.
   
   

‘A dirty nigger’. Racial prejudice and humiliation in the British Indian army
   

‘As a child, I remember hearing only idyllic stories of my father’s life in the British Indian army,’ writes novelist Amitav Ghosh, in a letter to historian Dipesh Chakrabarty.
   

But towards the end of his life, before he died in 1998, my father told me a very different story. During the siege of Imphal, he had turned away from the main battle to confront a South African officer who called him a ‘dirty nigger’. After this, other stories poured out, stories of deep-seated racism within the army, very different to the idyllic picture that Amitav had grown up with. He writes, why did my father (and, in some sense, all our fathers) avoid telling us these stories? Speaking of such things must have been difficult, he muses, especially because they were at odds with their vision of themselves as ‘high-caste, bhadra patriarchs’. He adds, what may seem to be mere instances of racism were not so, they represented the system itself. Western liberal thought, whether that of JS Mill, or Bentham, or any other nineteenth century British writer, is built on racism, writes Amitav.
   

His question is: if we reproduce these silences of history, are we denying or abetting in structures of exclusion and oppression?
   
   

Post-independence armies of South Asia
   

Did racism survive the departure of the white colonisers in 1947? Are post-independence armies of South Asia non-racial and hence, non-racist? Is it meaningful to talk of race and racial differences in our cultures?
   

East Pakistani (later Bangladeshi) scholars spoke of ethnic differences in racial terms. They said, Pakistan’s military commanders perpetuated the recruitment policies of their colonial masters. ‘Martial races’ – meaning Punjabis and Pathans – were over-represented in the national armed forces, whereas the majority Bengali population, and smaller minorities like the Baluchis and Sindhis, were largely excluded. Indian historians maintain, imperial institutions like the army and the civil service allowed particular forms of racist practices, because of their proximity to the ruling race. They also say, racism survived independence. The north-eastern provinces, known as the seven sisters, have been subjected to decades of racist oppression by successive Indian governments.
   

Is ethnic discrimination in Bangladesh racist? Educated paharis, who have suffered militarily, tell me that ‘ethnic discrimination’ as a term does not do justice to the horror of their experiences. I was speaking to a young woman whose father was hung upside down for days, and later died a broken man. And to a young pahari man who was detained for several weeks, and was severely traumatised because of what he was made to witness.
   

Family secrets can be state secrets. Our mothers and fathers need to tell us stories. We need to discover ways of talking about silenced histories. And about the silenced present.

*Rahnuma Ahmed is an Anthropologist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Contact: rahnuma@drik.net

May 26, 2008 Posted by | Rahnuma Ahmed | Leave a comment

Singing to a Political Beat: Interview with Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour

BRUSSELS, Apr 28, 2008. Inter Press Service – If a European rock music fan has just one album by an African artist in his or her collection, there is a higher than average chance it was recorded by Youssou N’Dour. The Senegalese man’s status as his continent’s most lucrative cultural export was underscored in 2005, when he was the only African to appear at the main Live8 concert in London’s Hyde Park, an event that attracted several billion TV viewers, according to its organisers.

As well as delighting audiences with his ebullient live performances, N’Dour regularly lobbies world leaders, urging them to show greater resolve in tackling African poverty. At last year’s Group of Eight (G8) summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, he joined Irish rock stars Bono and Bob Geldof in protesting at how pledges made by top industrialised countries to increase development aid are not being honoured. A goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children Fund (Unicef), he has been especially eager to see international efforts to combat malaria intensified. 

N’Dour spoke to IPS Brussels correspondent David Cronin. 

IPS: Data published in the past few weeks indicates that the amount of aid that rich countries give to poor countries is falling. Does that distress you? 

YN’D: If G8 countries decide to reduce their aid for development, that would be a catastrophe. With the increase in the cost of living, especially in poor countries, we need more aid, especially because children are more exposed to diseases like malaria. I’m very disappointed by the reduction in aid. 

IPS: Louis Michel, the European commissioner for development, said last week that he does not believe European Union governments regard development aid as a priority. Do you agree with him? 

YN’D: What Louis Michel says is the truth. But it is not enough. The European Union must maintain its leadership on aid. 

IPS: But is that undermined by its efforts to foist trade liberalisation on Africa? And do you agree with Abdoulaye Wade, the President in your native Senegal, who has been very critical of the Economic Partnership Agreements that the EU wants to conclude with Africa? 

YN’D: I agree completely with Wade. The agreements between Europe and Africa must be changed. 

Everyone knows that the system of trade is not fair. Take the example of agriculture. Europe can subsidise its farmers but farmers in Africa are not subsidised. When European farmers sell their products, they sell them at a cheaper price than our agricultural products. That is not fair. 

IPS: European vessels operating off Senegal’s waters have been accused of causing a great deal of damage to the fisheries sector in your country. The old fisheries agreement between the EU and Senegal has expired and not been renewed. Is that a good thing? 

YN’D: For the past eight years, the government in Senegal has tried to pursue a certain vision. It is right to try to change the historic accord. A government that enters power without trying to change things should have to jump. 

IPS: How do you feel about the electoral impasse in Zimbabwe and the challenge it presents for Africa? 

YN’D: The problem in Zimbabwe is one of courage. There are good things happening in Africa but we are a continent of contradiction. We have seen democratic elections in some countries. But when the world sees an advance for democracy, we then see something like what has happened in Zimbabwe. It is tragic. 

The world must help to advance democracy. There must be transparent elections. And when somebody wins an election, they must be able to govern. 

IPS: Your 2004 album ‘Egypt’ addressed your Islamic faith. You have described Islam as a religion of peace but since the disc was released we have seen atrocities like the London bombings in 2005. What is your response to European politicians and some commentators who equate Islam with terrorism? 

YN’D: Islam is a religion of peace. But every religion has a minority of extremists. The media gives the impression that extremists represent the totality of Islam. The reason why I made ‘Egypt’ was to show another side. 

IPS: You have worked closely with Bono and Bob Geldof. How do you feel about the criticisms they have received, the allegations that they have become too friendly with world leaders, such as George W. Bush? 

YN’D: Bono, Geldof, Youssou N’Dour: we have created a new type of diplomacy. A cultural and artistic diplomacy. We are not for either the left or the right. 

If leaders do things that should be encouraged, we should encourage them. If they do things that should be denounced, then they should be denounced. 

I have never been in favour of the war in Iraq. But I do agree that Bush has done good work on malaria and AIDS. We are not only here to criticise. We are also here to encourage. (END/2008) 

May 25, 2008 Posted by | Interview, Youssou N'Dour | Leave a comment