How to Write About

by zunguzungu

In Pakistan, it’s all about the Mangoes:

1. Must have mangoes.
2. Must have maids who serve mangoes.
3. Maids must have affairs with man servants who should occasionally steal mangoes.
4. Masters must lecture on history of mangoes and forgive the thieving servant.
5. Calls to prayer must be rendered to capture the mood of a nation disappointed by the failing crop of mangoes.
6. The mango flavour must linger for a few paragraphs.
7. And turn into a flashback to Partition.
8. Characters originating in rural areas must fight to prove that their mango is bigger than yours.
9. Fundamentalist mangoes must have more texture; secular mangoes should have artificial flavouring.
10. Mangoes that ripen in creative writing workshops must be rushed to the market before they go bad.

This shtick is, of course, a riff on Binyavanga’s “How to Write About Africa” piece, which was delightful the first dozen times it was forwarded to me. You’ve probably read it. If so, you might find the story about how he came to write it as fascinating as I do:

“How to Write about Africa” grew out of an email. In a fit of anger, maybe even low blood sugar — it runs in the family — I spent a few hours one night at my graduate student flat in Norwich, England, writing to the editor of Granta. I was responding to its “Africa” issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known, a sort of “Greatest Hits of Hearts of Fuckedness.” It wasn’t the grimness that got to me, it was the stupidity. There was nothing new, no insight, but lots of “reportage” — Oh, gosh, wow, look, golly ooo — as if Africa and Africans were not part of the conversation, were not indeed living in England across the road from the Granta office. No, we were “over there,” where brave people in khaki could come and bear witness. Fuck that. So I wrote a long — truly long — rambling email to the editor.

To my surprise, Granta wrote back right away. The editor, Ian Jack, disavowed the “Africa” issue — that was before his time, he said. A year or so later, another Granta editor called. They were doing a new “Africa” issue, and they wanted my perspective. Sure, sure, I said. And then forgot. And then remembered, felt guilty, felt the weight of a continent on my back. I was blocked and more blocked. I drank a Tusker. Finally I wrote something about Bob Geldof. It was shit, said the editor — not his words, but he meant to say that, and he was right. So I went back to work. The deadline came. The deadline went. I was busy working on a short story, busy working on my novel. A cold Tusker. The new Kwani. The beach, in Lamu. The editor called with an idea — why don’t we publish your long crazy email? An extract, that is. Sure, I said, absentmindedly. He sent me a draft. Phew, I thought, absentmindedly. Cut, paste, cut, paste. A few flourishes here or there. Send.

It took an hour.

The issue came out, my article went online. It became the mostforwarded story in Granta history. I started hearing from friends, from strangers; started getting my own words forwarded to me with a cheerful heading, as something I might be interested in, as though I hadn’t written it. I went viral; I became spam. I started getting invitations — to conferences, meetings, think tanks. I started getting mail. Now I am “that guy,” the conscience of Africa: I will admonish you and give you absolution.