Tuesday, July 7, 2015

My under-exposure to Black/African literature and how that shaped the characters in my stories

Collection of novels my father passed down to me :)
Growing up, my writing used to be all about characters with Eurocentric features.  Women with long, fiery red hair (I loved red hair for some reason), or their blond counterparts. I think I remember only including two or three characters with ethnic backgrounds in my stories, a boy from Tanzania, a Middle-eastern guy and a Native American girl (all in separate books). But the rest were all European looking. I feel my overexposure to a media industry, which so often pushed the beauty ideals of white people on me, made me not really have an idea about people with a different background. The internet wasn't available to me at the time, and information about people like myself was scarce.

I remember when my love for reading started growing, during a summer holiday in England, one a day when my cousin decided she wanted to visit the local library. I think my mouth must have hung open upon seeing the aisles of shelves the library had stacked with books by Black/African authors. Of course I was too scared to explore outside of what I was used to, so I went with the usual, books by white authors. I remember thinking that they didn't even have sections dedicated to black authors in the libraries in Oslo (Norway), and how disappointed that made me.


I'm almost ashamed to admit that the very first time I even heard of Chinua Achebe (former well known African author), I had reached the end of my college years. It had been in English class, during a week when we were visiting fables and literature from Africa. That day we were reading an excerpt of his novel, Things Fall Apart. His name looked fairly familiar as it was similar to other Igbo (tribe in Nigeria) names I'd heard in the past. I was thrilled to discover that my intuition had been right once I did my research. As we were in 2008, it was fairly possible to find more material now that the internet had been around for a while.

I feel even more ashamed to admit that the very first book I ever read by an African author wasn't until 2013. 5 years after my discovery of Mr. Achebe. I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and absolutely enjoyed it from beginning to end. I'm not sure I can pick out a single boring part from the book. I was also awestruck to find out that she had lived in one of Achebe's old houses, growing up. Re-wind a couple of years, I can remember asking my dad to lend me a book called Soledad Brother by George L. Jackson and Jonathan Jackson Jr. about a young man's letters from the confinement of a prison in America and his "condemnation of the racism of white America", but my father refused, telling me I was too young.

I'm glad that, after so many years, Norway finally has a wider selection of books by African/black authors, although they still have a long way to go as I feel that they shouldn't only have the critically acclaimed authors' books sitting on their shelves, but also lesser known authors. I kind of like just reading books if they tickle my fancy and not necessarily because everyone is praising it. I started reading Twilight by Stephenie Meyer in 2005 because the cover drew me in, not because it was over-hyped (which it wasn't at the time, anyway. The hype took a few years to be built up). I ended up finishing the fourth book in the saga, Breaking Dawn, in 2007 when things really started kicking off and it began receiving a great deal of media attention.

How badass wouldn't it be with a black Hermione? Just saying @http://www.katieelle.com
Of course I'll always remember the fables my father used to tell myself and my siblings before bedtime when we were younger and how, from then on, I started telling my siblings stories of my own. Some of them about faraway adventures to Africa. But, I'm guessing I would have been more interested in writing about characters who looked more like me if I had had a greater exposure to African/black literature while growing up. Of course I can't really blame my parents for that. My father had a huge collection, but I was never old enough to read them, unfortunately. Only recently did he pass down a pile of books that he read as a young man, which I cannot wait to start reading!!

I hope to raise my child(ren) to appreciate (if at all they start reading) books written by African/black authors and that, by the time they're old enough to read, there are more such books out there.