African Settings in Contemporary American Novels

By Dave Kuhne | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Africa: What Place Is This?

To understand the role of African settings in contemporary American fiction, it is important to recognize the connotations that Westerners have traditionally associated with Africa. Images of Africa and Africans in contemporary American fiction are usually either extensions of or reactions to notions about Africa popularized by earlier European and American authors. Africa, as it is represented in many British and American novels, is a mysterious and fearsome place. African environments are consistently described as harsh, challenging, frightening, and deadly; Africans are frequently portrayed as primitive, savage, and hostile. In American fiction, African settings are what Leonard Lutwack terms "landscapes of difficulty," places where characters test themselves against challenging conditions (33). For characters in American and British novels, African settings offer the challenges of remoteness, harsh topography, deadly disease, severe climate, dangerous wildlife, and hostile indigenous peoples. Most of all, African settings are landscapes of difficulty because Africa is strikingly different from the United States.

Indeed, Africa is frequently considered to be in binary opposition to the West. Chinua Achebe, for example, maintains that there "is the desire--one might indeed say the need--in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe" ( Hopes 2). Achebe refers to Heart of Darkness as a work that "projects the image of Africa as 'the other world,' the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization," and he maintains that the image of Africa as the "other" is the dominant image of Africa in the West ( Hopes 3). John Cullen Gruesser echoes Achebe's analysis: the "West is one thing--good, reasonable, bright, and so on--while Africa is its opposite-- evil, irrational, dark" (3). Examples of the binary opposition of the West and Africa are numerous. The West is a technologically advanced world; Africa is a world that has not yet experienced technological development. Nature has been tamed in the

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