Academic journal article ARIEL

Innate Civility: Whiteness in Camilla Gibb's: Sweetness in the Belly

Academic journal article ARIEL

Innate Civility: Whiteness in Camilla Gibb's: Sweetness in the Belly

Article excerpt

In a short essay recently published in a 2007 issue of Granta magazine, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina offers advice to non-African authors who might be keen on setting their work on this "other" continent. "How to write about Africa"--meant, clearly, as critical commentary on the existing and myriad literary misrepresentations of Africa, its peoples and their cultures--begins with a pointed byline: "some tips: sunsets and starvation are good." The article goes on to provide suggestions about choosing titles ("[a]lways use the word Africa,' 'Darkness' or 'Safari'"); selecting cover art ( [n]ever have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book"); describing physical geography ("[w]ide empty spaces and game are critical"); and developing characters ("African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life--but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks"). Most importantly, perhaps, Wainaina insists that, as author and/or narrator, you must "[ejstablish early on ... how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can't live without her" (Wainaina).

Little of what troubles Wainaina about non-Africans' writing about Africa, it would seem, is present in Camilla Gibb's 2005 novel Sweetness in the Belly. Given the novel's attentiveness to the social, cultural, and political particularities of its narrative's time and place, not to mention its overarching problematization of the ways in which identities are "read," Sweetness in the Belly might well be praised for avoiding most of the concerns outlined by Wainaina. Gibb's extensive, first-hand research and scholarly essays on Ethiopia compellingly suggest, moreover, an author with an awareness of, and sensitivity to, precisely the sorts of concerns which Wainana identifies.(l) Broadly speaking, Sweetness in the Belly traces the coming-of-age of a "white" girl who is born to nomadic British parents but raised as a Sufi Muslim in Morocco and who spends several years in Ethiopia before being exiled to England. Clearly, the narrative attempts to challenge constructions of Africa as the monolithic "dark continent." Rather blatantly critiquing the history of British imperialism, the novel also implicitly engages with enduring colonial discourses of "race" Insofar as the protagonist/narrator, despite her "whiteness" and her British-Christian-English-speaking heritage, becomes a devout Muslim, culturally and linguistically connected to Africa, her story thematizes the notion that who and what "we" become has little to do with "racial" determinism and/or family bloodlines.

Yet, I begin with Wainaina's article for the direct and indirect (2) ways in which it speaks to Gibh's text, raising questions about why even the most "impeccably liberal" (3) of white characters ultimately, albeit subtly, reinforces the very values which she explicitly eschews. Impossible to ignore are the tensions between, first, the protagonist's self-conscious critiques of colonial discourses, racially-inflected social hierarchies included, and, second, her implicit failure to sustain a "resistant" stance to discourses of colonialism and imperialism. How do we cope, as readers, with the subtle turns in the novel which undermine the ostensibly "constructed" nature of its protagonist/narrator's identity? What does it mean that we are left, ultimately, with a "happily-ever-after" conclusion predicated on her return to the place and the culture of her familial, not to mention "racial," roots? A careful reading of Sweetness in the Belly reveals the extent to which this novel's adherence to generic realism necessarily perpetuates what Daniel Coleman refers to as the "standardizing ideals" (10) of whiteness. Reinforcing the binaries it seeks to dismantle (self/other, colonizer/colonized, white/black), the novel illustrates the deeply-entrenched nature of colonial discourses: for the narrator and main character of Sweetness in the Belly, whiteness is and--despite her best efforts--remains a category of privilege. …

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