On the 19th of February I trekked down to Gaborone to hear what British author Carolyn Slaughter had to say. I’d not heard of her before I found out she was coming to Botswana, but I quickly bought and read one of her books so as to have a bit of reference when I heard her speak. She lived in Botswana pre-independence when her father worked for the colonial government in Maun, Francistown, Mafikeng, and Gaborone. Her memoir, Before the Knife gives insight into expat, colonial life; that purgatory of not quite being here and not quite being there. The book is brutally honest about her experience and I appreciate that quite a bit. I’d hoped I’d hear that honesty in her talk in Gaborone.
I thought she’d speak about her experiences, her writing, her books. In any case, that’s what she knows about and one would expect her to speak about that. Instead the topic was “Where are the Botswana writers? - an inspirational discussion on African Writing and possibilities for Batswana writers”. I’m not sure where that topic originated, but I hope not with the author. I know that sometimes authors are asked to speak on topics they know very little about. There is the assumption, wrongly, that writers should know everything. When I’m in such situation, I just say no. I will not speak on something I know nothing about. I wish Ms Slaughter might have considered that answer.
She’d last been in Botswana in the 1980s as she admitted. From her talk it was clear she knew nothing about the writing done in this country either in Setswana or English. She spoke a bit about Bessie Head, but had to have facts corrected by a member of the audience.
She spoke about writing on the continent as if nothing had happened since the 1970s, speaking of Achebe and Gordimer; stating that JM Coetzee was the best author to study if you want to understand the slave/master dynamics and the nuances of colonialism (!?!!!!). The only modern writers she spoke about were Zimbabweans Petina Gappah and NoViolet Bulawayo, who she wrongly described as a lawyer. She spoke about We Need New Names, but, surprisingly, did not once mention the Caine Prize story from which the book originated, and the Prize which is so important in discovering new African fiction writers.
How do you speak about conflict and war on the continent and narratives about them and not talk about Chimamanda Adichie and Aminatta Forna? How do you speak about traditionalism vs modernism without speaking about Lola Shoneyin? How do you not mention exciting writers like Teju Cole, Binyavanga Wainaina, Lauren Beukes, Chika Unigwe, Sarah Lotz, Taiye Selasi, Damon Galgut…honestly the list goes on and on. I felt like I’d fallen into a black hole. There are so many exciting, current writers on the continent and to only mention two writers, one of which put out a short story collection and seems to have disappeared, is not representative in any way of “an overview of African fiction”.
She went on to give suggestions about what Batswana writers might consider writing about (because we can’t find topics on our own) and suggested that maybe there were no writers in Botswana because the country was just “too peaceful”. When she gave us all permission to write about war on the continent because wars in Africa are just as important as the wars in Europe- “all wars are equal”, I looked around the room to see if I was the only person trying hard to stop myself from banging my head on the table in frustration.
Honestly, I don’t blame Ms Slaughter for her woeful lack of knowledge about literature on the continent and in Botswana. She doesn’t live here or write her. She knows nothing at all about the publishing climate or the challenges and opportunities we have. I do think she should have said no, this is not something I should speak about, but, for whatever reason, she decided otherwise. For that she is accountable. I guess my real beef sits with whoever invited her and gave her such a topic. It smacks of neo-colonialism- let the foreigner tell us what to do and we’ll all just nod our heads and follow. Are we not past that?
Surely we are long, long past that.
(This first appeared in my column It's All Write in The Voice newspaper)