How difficult it seems to be for Europeans and Americans to visit Africa without being unwanted outsiders. And how easy it is to see why that Africans would feel that way. During the nineteenth century, Europeans visited Africa as explorers and were astonished by what they saw. Mary Kingsley, an intrepid Englishwoman, was one of the first women who traveled extensively in Africa. She started out in the 1890s and wrote popular books about what she observed in a
continent that few Europeans had ever visited. Most of the people she had known in England assumed it was strange, uncivilized and riddled with irrational traditions and superstition. Kingsley recognized better than many explorers and missionaries that African culture, which seemed so strange to Europeans, had developed because it worked for the local people. She understood, for example, why many Africans clung to polygamy. She pointed out that polygamy made sense because “it is totally impossible for one woman to do the whole work of a house — look after the children, prepare and cook the food, prepare the rubber, carry the same to the markets, fetch the daily supply of water from the stream, cultivate the plantation, &c, &c.” (Travels in West Africa, 211).
Kingsley was sympathetic, but she always viewed Africans from the outside, more as a curiosity to be observed than as people to be known. We can excuse her for being so provincial in her point of view, but surely in the more than a century since her books were published, we have learned better. Unfortunately many modern travellers act very much as Kingsley did. A modern tourist descending from a cruise ship or a tour bus will often stare at African women pounding grain while carrying a baby tied to their body with a cloth sling. Most tourists snap picture after picture to post on their Facebook page. But watching tourists snap pictures of people working and going about their ordinary lives is a chilling experience. Should people ever be reduced to objects of curiosity? Haven’t we moved beyond that in the many years we have been traveling around the globe and intermingling with other cultures?
European colonists moved to Africa in large numbers during the 19th century, especially the more temperate areas of Southern Africa such as Rhodesia and South Africa. There grew acclimated to the climate and learned to love the continent. Surely the barriers between the races should have broken down over all that time. Yet recently reading a book written more than 100 years after Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa, I was struck by how little some things had changed in relations between the races. Alexandra Fuller’s memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, is a fascinating account of growing up in a white family in Rhodesia as it achieved freedom and became Zimbabwe during the turbulent years of the late 20th century. I was surprised when I came upon this passage:
And this is how I am almost fourteen years old before I am formally invited into the home of a black African to share food. This is not the same as coming uninvited into Africans’ homes, which I have done many times. As a much younger child, I would often eat with my exasperated nannies at the compound (permanently hungry and always demanding), and I had sometimes gone into the labourers’ huts with my mother if she was attending someone too sick to come to the house for treatment. (pp. 235-236)
Surely after having spent almost all of her life among black Africans, it is surprising to realize the distance between this girl
and the people who lived around her. Naturally a child takes on the attitudes and habits of her parents and mirrors the ways in which they interact with others, but it is sad to see how vast the gulf between black and white Africans even those who have lived as neighbors for years and sometimes generations. Western colonists in all countries seem to have lived in their own small, narrow world side-by-side with, but never truly integrated into the lives around them. And the saddest part of all is that we are still doing it.
Western diplomats, tourists, aid workers and troops travel around the world living sometimes for years in the midst of societies they seldom understand or value. Life in a gated and fortified community can seem much like life in an American suburb, completely remote from the “locals” who we are trying to influence. Americans are famous for not bothering to learn the language of the countries in which they spend time, even long periods of time. Sarah Chayes in her recent book Thieves of State tells us how a lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to listen to local citizens in Afghanistan has led to mistakes and problems that might have been avoided.
How long will it take for us to learn that a global world requires listening and interacting, not just traveling and imposing our ideas wherever we go?
I’ve spent a surprising amount of time this month looking at old books, first at the California Antiquarian Book Fair where I saw an amazing number of valuable and beautiful old books. It’s fascinating to see early editions of books by the likes of Charles Dickens and Willa Cather, all of them far too expensive to buy of course. Old children’s books from 30, 40 or even 50 years ago were featured by some of the dealers. I guess a lot of book collectors enjoy rereading the books of their childhood. And as I discovered later in the week, I am one of them.
A few days after going to the Book Fair I went to an estate sale in a neighborhood not far from where I live. The owner had been an antiquarian book dealer and the house was jammed not only with the usual stuff of estate sales—costume jewelry, china dishes, and small pieces of furniture—but with shelf after shelf of old books. Many of them were leather bound, small books from the 19th century or cloth bound books from the early 20th century. Wandering along those shelves, pulling out the books was a great pleasure, but it took a while until I came to my greatest prize. I found a small book that I remembered from my childhood—the tale of Aucassin and Nicolete.
It was one of my favorite books from the branch of the public library in Queens that I visited so often. I remember exactly the place where it stood on the shelf, near the fireplace where the librarian used to conduct her story hours. I was surprised to find the romantic tale again and surprised to recognize the black-and-white line drawings in the book. Luckily for me, the book only cost seven dollars, so I was happy to bring it home where I could pore over those pictures the way I used to do when I was a twelve-year-old in love with romantic stories. The lines of poetry that close the story still sound charming:
Nicolete as glad as May.
And they lived for many a day,
And our story goes its way.
What more to say?
The books that twelve-year-olds—these days they are called tweens—read today are far larger and more elaborate than the books I remember from the library. I guess television and online entertainment have drenched our world in so much color and action that quiet black-and-white drawings and stately, old-fashioned stories no longer hold a reader’s attention. Graphic novels have won a place in children’s libraries; refugees and death have become a focus of attention and action often jumps far more quickly than it used to. The world is big and children should be introduced to many aspects of it. I just hope that they will spend enough time with their books that they will remember them and when they are older will be able to turn back to their favorites and enjoy them just as I do mine.
It always surprises me to find how much novels change over the years—change, that is, in my reaction to them and my feelings about them. When I reread a book that I read in college, it often seems like an entirely new book. And the same is
true of writers that I knew and loved when I was young. As you grow older you sometimes see them in a new light. Virginia Woolf was a writer much admired by the English majors that I knew in college, at least all the female ones. She wrote sensitively about the innermost feelings of women and their relationships with friends, families and lovers in a way that was different from the male novelists whose books we read in other courses. Virginia Woolf had a sister, a painter named Vanessa, but I never learned much about her. Now I am finding out about Vanessa.
This week I finished Priya Parmar’s fascinating historical novel Vanessa and Her Sister, based on the lives of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and their family and friends who formed the famous Bloomsbury group in early 20th century England. The two women at the center of the group were the daughters of Sir Leslie Stephen and his wife Julia. They grew up in comfortable circumstances and were close to their brothers Adrian and Thoby. After their parents died, it was the boys who brought university friends into the circle of young people who now formed the household. Neither Vanessa nor Virginia, of course, went to university as very few women did in those days. It was the men who went out into the world and learned about art, history, and the ideas circulating in the greater world outside of their sheltered London neighborhood. The Stephens girls were
beautiful, charming, and witty and more than that they had a comfortable home and plenty of free time to entertain and discuss ideas about the changing times in which they all lived. In the early years before World War I, Vanessa painted, Virginia wrote and no one worried about having to get a job or do the housework.
Priya Parmar has captured the feeling of the time and has given a voice to Vanessa Bell so that both she and her sister become three-dimensional characters. We can see how the two women interacted with one another and the strains which both of them felt growing up as artists in a world dominated by men. Virginia’s emotional fragility took a toll on the whole family, especially Vanessa, but her books become even more impressive in view of the restricted world in which she lived. Vanessa’s strength in developing her painting and becoming an artist while at the same time managing most of the logistics of holding the family, and later her marriage, together is remarkable.
Reading Vanessa and Her Sister will broaden your world if you care about books and writing and you can have the extra treat of reading Prya Parmar’s blog post about the research that went into writing it. You won’t soon forget Parmar’s novel and you may go back to reading Virginia Woolf’s books too. It’s the kind of reading that should make for a good year ahead.