Not Tonight, Darling, I'm Still Reading Achebe

Monday September 15 2003

It is not the job of literature to sanitise life. If this were the case, the Bible needs much re-editing, writes Special Correspondent BINYAVANGA WAINAINAI was going to write about pornography the other night. It was going to be scathing, witty and profound – so profound that a certain archbishop, sitting by the kitchen cabinet, The EastAfrican spread out before him, tears rolling down his cheeks (and not from the presidential onions), would say to himself:

"We have sinned against a great man. I am sorry, Albert Chinualumogu Achebe."

I was riveted instead by a film, partly about the life and work of a great woman and writer, Virginia Woolf. The film, Hours, runs along the seams of truth with such resolution that it is hard to leave it without feeling rejuvenated.

It was a Hollywood production, and of course everybody was better looking than anybody could possibly be; and violins wailed a little bit more than they should; but the director was brave enough to avoid sentiment as much as Hollywoodly possible. In years to come, some historian will call this age America is living in, the Age of Big Guns and Mindless Sentiment.

At the end of the film, Nicole Kidman, who plays Virginia Woolf, says something that will stick in my head for a long time.

"To look life in the face and to know it for what it is; to love it for what it is...


What a guiding light for any artist this statement is!

What good advice it is for those who wish to start to sanitise truth from our syllabi.

People who frequent second-hand bookshops will tell you that there are some people who buy books to look for sex in them. They will find this in any book, the Bible even. They will look for the sweaty brown pages, and read nothing else. I guess part of what we should do to have a more moral youth is to delete the Songs of Solomon, which surely give teenagers too much to think about.

So, there are some people for whom any portrayal of anything sexual or sensual is an aphrodisiac; it excites them, it turns their mind to mush. For them, therefore, even breast-shaped milk packets are pornography. Should we ban Maziwa Lala, which is suggestive on two fronts at once?

What some members of the Catholic church seem to be suggesting is that if we clean the entire country of any possible sexual suggestion, people will stop having sex, or at least stop thinking about it. This must be the general direction of their campaign against A Man of the People.

I read A Man of the People many years ago. What I remember is a hilarious book that ridicules the pretensions of Africa’s new elite – Chief the Honourable MA Nanga, MP, being a memorable example. I do not remember the sex. So I bought a copy of the book last week, sadly a new copy, so I was not able to quickly cut to the sweaty pages. I skimmed through it, relived some memorable scenes, and still failed to find the scenes that will surely drive youth mad with lust and cause them to lose their moral fibre.

For me, what this book did, what most of Achebe’s books did, was open up this continents of ours: its past, its present, its problems, its irrepressible humanity. I cannot remember a scene, a word, a phrase, a sentence where Achebe abandoned his humanity to sensationalise.

What is pornography?

The explicit depiction or exhibition of sexual activity in literature, films or photography that is intended to stimulate erotic, rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.

Come on! Why can’t these people find a better cause? Most of our teenagers spend half their lives seated in front of the television set watching mindless Mexican soap operas where pouty female characters have seven or eight husbands over 300,000 episodes; they frequently marry their relatives; they live in lily white households where black people are simple minded, or servants, or both.

In many libraries around this country, there are still books written by people who see Africans as near-animals: Robert Ruark, Wilbur Smith, John Gordon Davis. These books are crammed with sweaty torn pages, rape, sexism, racism and enough gratuitous violence to satisfy even the most fervent Rambo lover. About these, I hear silence.

It is not the job of literature to sanitise life. If this were the case, the Bible needs much re-editing, for it too portrays real life, and the portrayal of real life tends to threaten many. Literature must not flinch from truth, however unpleasant. If the Achebes and Ngugis did not write what they did, who would have put a mirror to our history; asked the hard questions; loved this continent by constantly challenging the status quo? Who would look our lives in the face and to show them for what they are?

This nonsense must stop.