Win a copy of ‘The Ghosts of Eden’

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On Monday I reviewed The Ghosts of Eden, a beautifully written book about two very different boys who grow up in Africa, and then fall in love with the same woman. I have the pleasure of being able to give away a copy of this great book, so that you can discover how good it is for yourself.

sharpThe author, Andrew Sharp, has kindly agreed to judge the competition, and has written a thought provoking question for you to answer:

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Authors writing about Africa – particularly white authors living outside Africa – would be glass-eyed not to find themselves glancing up in uneasy self-examination after reading Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s piece in Granta magazine titled ‘How to write about Africa’.

His article is a sound-off against the stereotypes and clichés that appear all too often in books set in, or about, his continent. There are the sunsets: ‘always big and red’. There is the ‘big sky’ and ‘Wide Empty Spaces’. There’s ‘The Starving African’. There’s ‘The Modern African’ who is ‘a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa’.

Subjects never covered in these books include ‘ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans.’ Also: ‘Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances.’ ‘Animals’ as opposed to Africans ‘… must be treated as well rounded, complex characters….’ with ‘family values: see how lions teach their children?’

Oh, and make sure that you mention that ‘monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice’.

Wainaina is hitting out at books that patronise Africans, as well as rolling his eyes at overused description, but the article raises questions about whose perspective a novelist writes from.

A novel’s tone, themes and portrayals come from the imagination of the author, and that imagination rises like vapour from a mind that has been landscaped to a great extent by the cultural background of its owner.

So, finally, the question:

Is it really possible for a writer to take a reader into the viewpoint of a character from a different culture to their own, or is this unattainable – and does it matter?

For a chance to win The Ghosts of Eden, just answer Andrew’s question in the comments section below. 

The competition closes on the 2nd July, and is open to everyone in the world!

Good Luck!!


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15 Comments

  1. Violet says:

    I have read a lot of books based in Africa but they have mostly been written by African authors. I remember reading Do they hear you when you cry and yes, it is on Genital mutilation, a term generally associated with Africa, but what I remember most about the book is the descriptions of the author’s town, the everyday life, the sights and the sounds. Scenes like these stay in my mind for a long time and I believe it would be difficult to capture this unless you are a native.

    I’m an Indian and when I read books written by non-Indians about Indians I most definitely cringe. It because they write what the world expects to read.

    So to answer the question, yes, it is possible but it would take a lot of effort and research on the writer’s part to look beyond the stereotypical images and caricatures. And does it matter? Well it depends on who the audience is. People who have never been to that place would not mind, would not even know the difference, but the locals might have a different story to say.

    Too much rambling eh? I’ll stop :)

    Thanks for the opportunity to win this book.

    Love the linked article by the way…

  2. I remember reading an article in an anthropology book in college about a grad student who was doing ethnographic research in Africa. One night she recounted the story of Hamlet, which she’d brought with her, to the men of the village. She had thought that Hamlet would be universal, but the Africans sided with Hamlet’s uncle. They thought it was only right that after having killed his brother he marry Hamlet’s mother.

    It’s these sorts of assumptions that writers, like anthropologists, have to wrap their heads around when writing about other people.

    But with that said, should a writer never write outside of their own demographic? Is it just as bad for a writer to write from the POV of someone of a different gender or sexual orientation as it is to write about other cultures and places? And what about people from different time periods?

    If a writer does his research, and is able to step out of an ethnocentric view, then it can be done.

    I agree that audience also plays a part. I was a Zadie Smith reading a couple years ago when a young, black woman asked how she is able to write so well about older white men. Zadie Smith sort of shrugged and said that the young woman had her own perception of what an older white male is like, and if you already have some sort of perception, it isn’t that hard. Or maybe their perception, though the same, was wrong.

    And there is that whole stand-by of write about what you know. But maybe it should be, write about what you can imagine. And if you can imagine the details of another life in a place half way around the world, then why not?

  3. Dorte H says:

    (not trying to win anything).

    I have just finished Alexander McCall Smith´s first novel about the female detective, Mma Ramotswe, from Botswana. I think he does it fairly well, describing her in a loving and quite knowledgeable way, but the style is humorous and that makes it difficult to judge. She is in some ways a cliché (the fat, happy African), but that is certainly not because the author doesn´t know better. He has just chosen the distance which humour creates.

    Hope this makes sense.

  4. Susan Shearer says:

    Is it really possible for a writer to take a reader into the viewpoint of a character from a different culture to their own, or is this unattainable – and does it matter?

    I hope so. I’m working on a pilot set in the Mathare slums of Kenya based very loosely on my time there and the people I have come to know and love.
    While I would never claim to understand the intimate inner workings of every person’s heart, I believe we all share a common thread through our very humanity. Customs and tribal rules and beliefs add a flavor that one would hope to honor while trying to capture it for the page and screen.
    As a writer we empathize with our characters to get inside them and create believability through truth. I have asked Kenyans to critique my script so that it can be as realistic as possible. It’s my hope to touch, move and inspire the viewer – if not to become part of the global community, then to look at themselves and the way they live.

  5. Matthew says:

    I think it’s doable for a foreigner to have acquired enough understanding of a culture to breathe life into his characters. The credibility boils down the how thorough the research is. I ask myself this question when I read Lisa See’s Peony in Love, and very soon, Shanghai Girls. She seems to handle the Chinese culture and superstitious traditions very well and most importantly, she’s snapped them in the correct context.

  6. Of course, Lisa See is part Chinese, and her family is from Chinatown in San Francisco, so in a way, even when she sets her novels in China, she is writing about her own culture, though it may have been distilled through the experience of immigration in America.

  7. Ros says:

    I definietely think it is possible to do. You can become steeped in a culture by living in a country and, I think, outsiders sometimes can be more perceptive about a culture than the people who have always lived in it. You are an observer and often have a greater awareness, perhaps because you are looking to understand how to find your position or fit in to that culture.

    It’s similar to questioning whether a man can write from the woman’s perspective and vice versa, to which I would definitely say yes. One of my favourite books is Shouting at the Ship Men by Tim Geary, which does exactly that.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I would love to win a copy of Andrew Sharps’ “Ghosts of Africa.” Thanks.

  9. I’m sorry. I’m not sure whether I added the above information.

  10. Kristen says:

    I do think it is possible and possible to do it well although it is equally possible to do it poorly, relying solely on cliches and stock scenes. But to say that only a member of one group, sex, nationality can write well from the perspective of that group, sex, nationality discounts the intelligence and creativity of the human animal.

    Certainly writing from a different perspective would take more research and require draft readers from the chosen group, sex, or nationality to help verify or maintain the integrity and authenticity of the character(s) but I have faith that good authors recognize this and would go to lengths to ensure this. Will inauthentic books still be written? Absolutely.

    But there are books that come out from people who are members of the group, sex, nationality being written about that are inauthentic because they romanticize or are trying to sell a false notion as well.

    It seems to me that what matters most is not whether there are some cliched descriptions (Africa really does have some amazingly big, red sunsets and some wide, empty spaces after all) but whether the author can catch the heart of the people and place not his or her own. Go beyond the grain of truth that created the cliche and delve into the real, everyday. Find the universal humanness and the author will have hit on the important matter, whatever his or her group, sex or nationality.

  11. Wendy says:

    Susan Shearer wrote: While I would never claim to understand the intimate inner workings of every person’s heart, I believe we all share a common thread through our very humanity. Customs and tribal rules and beliefs add a flavor that one would hope to honor while trying to capture it for the page and screen.

    Terrific answer!

    I do think it is possible to write a credible story without stereotypes even if one does not live in a particular culture or time period. Historical novels depend upon the author’s research and creativity to recreate that period in history…certainly the writer never grew up in that “culture”.

    I think, as Susan so eloquently said, that our common thread of humanity makes it possible…along with good research…to honor another’s culture in our writing.

    I would love to win this book – it looks wonderful. Thanks for the opportunity.

  12. debnance says:

    Mercy! Yes, of course. Why else would someone bother reading books? Why else would people bother writing them?

  13. Lori L says:

    I think it is possible for a writer to take a reader into the viewpoint of a character from a different culture. I think the key is research and maybe immersion into the culture. Obviously the novels that are not successful at this happen when the author simply doesn’t care enough to take the time to research. Not that I’m going to point any fingers at any specific writer, but this laziness or unwillingness to learn about an area or culture on the part of some writers extends to even different areas in the writer’s own country, where it would be much easier to visit the area, do research, expand out of their own ethnocentric narrow-minded rut. Does it matter? It does to me. Greatly.

  14. Kristi H says:

    Is it really possible for a writer to take a reader into the viewpoint of a character from a different culture to their own, or is this unattainable – and does it matter?

    I think that it is definitely possible – but not only is it the responsibility of the author – as detailed in all of the wonderful answers above – but it is also the responsibility of the reader. As a reader, you need to be open and receptive to actually hearing what the author is trying to say – and want to learn and immerse yourself in that culture. You need to be willing to let go of your own stereotypes and beliefs in order to reach the viewpoint of the character you are reading about. (I believe this is true of any book – not just those of different cultures) The character needs to engage you so that you actually care and feel a connection to the story.

  15. Teddy says:

    “Is it really possible for a writer to take a reader into the viewpoint of a character from a different culture to their own, or is this unattainable – and does it matter?”

    Yes, it is possible. It has happened to me. It isn’t always easy though. Too do this the readetr often needs to be able to set aside his/her personal beliefs and sometimes suspend what he/she has learned in school. I think it is important, but not always crucial to the story.

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