African Settings in Contemporary American Novels

By Dave Kuhne | Go to book overview

Preface

American novelists have placed their stories in a multitude of Africas: the jungle rain forest of the Congo basin, the vast deserts of the Sahara and the Kalahari, the highlands of Kenya, the badlands of southern Ethiopia, and the veldt of South Africa. American authors have not limited their use of African settings to wild or natural Africa; they have placed their novels in African cities from one tip of the continent to the other, from Tangier to Cairo, from Lagos to Nairobi, from Dar es Salaam to Cape Town. As if actual African landscapes, nations, and cities did not provide adequate literary settings, a number of contemporary American novels are set in invented African nations meant to represent the characteristics, values, and conflicts of the entire continent. Americans have written about Africa of the past, Africa of the present, and Africa of the future. African settings have been featured in numerous genres: postmodern fiction, science fiction, historical fiction, and action and adventure fiction.

For many American authors, the appeal of Africa is its "otherness," its difference from the contemporary United States. Africa is a place where Americans go to discover the truth about themselves by comparing their values with African values. Africa is a testing ground that provides numerous challenges; Africa, as Harry Veer--a character in William Harrison Africana--explains, is where you go to "take your gut temperature" (46).

In Landscapes of Fear, Yi-Fu Tuan observes that attitudes toward place are not fixed. What one culture fears, another reveres; the rain forest of the Congo, which seems so frightful to European explorers, is a friendly, nurturing, idyllic place to the Mbuti, the Pygmy people who inhabit the forest (37). A similar forest, however, is described by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart as the home of evil spirits, the place where one disposes of twins and other blasphemies (21).

-ix-

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