Transposing Invictus and a few issues between online retort culture and trauma writing: a response
By Hannu Afere
This is not an article about the FBI and advanced fee fraud. This is about poverty porn, trauma porn and the Nigerian social media culture of reactionary clap-back criticism.
Last week, 8th House – the publishing house I work for – announced a call for submission for an anthology of contemporary West African poetry, where part of the guidelines read:
WHAT DO WE WANT?
We want poetry which attempts to answer questions about contemporary Africa and African-ness.
What is the present truth and beauty, and from what does it derive?
Is there a spectrum between what is ‘authentic’ and the political/cultural narrative? Is there a spectrum between the culture that can live; the life that can be lived and is real, and a social, economic and political apocalypse? Should we worry about extinction of intellect, imagination and humanity?
WHAT WE DO NOT WANT
Shortly after, I stumbled on a Twitter thread started by Jerry Chiemeke, concerning the case of poverty porn and trauma writing in the guidelines. (These are the last three concerns in the excerpt above.) The thread attacked the presumed exclusion sentiment in the caveat ‘What we do not want’.
The guidelines meant not to encourage exclusion or obliteration of the recently staple subgenre, trauma. Trauma, in any form experienced, is not to be belittled – this wasn’t an intention, to begin with. Reducing the content of the guidelines post to such purported intention of an exclusionist agenda is the danger of a half story. The last thing we need is to limit our voices since we have spent too long doing just that. Instead of clap back criticism, engage. Instead of mordant invectives, converse, debate.
It was puzzling to see how this turned into such bad energy of reactionary declarations to even drag 8th House for making this exclusionist proclamation. To them, it was disrespectful: Who died and made 8th House referee over what subjects are permissible to write about? Primarily, however, the bone of contention remained the phrases ‘poverty porn’ and ‘trauma porn’.
Perhaps, it was a misunderstanding read from the guidelines to mean only one thing: an attack, a limitation in scope and complete disregard for the sensibilities surrounding pain and the need to put them down in ink and paper. Perhaps this is justified. But these impressions cannot be all the truth. The pursuant discourse I sought was to discontinue the cancerous proliferation of Trauma Pander.
Poverty porn is literary voyeurism. Poverty porn is facetiae that presents human beings in vulnerable, deeply personal moments and advertises their trauma (and degradation) for consumption. Trauma porn is the exploitative sharing of the blackest, saddest, most disturbing parts of our troubled existence to shock others.
It is 2019 and it is becoming easier for our art to be sacrificed on the altar of shock value. African literature is still plagued with the problem of stereotypical representation. It is deceptively easy for writers to fall into the familiar tropes and hideaway better, rewarding stories in favour of said tropes. While it is not anyone’s place to decide stories that should be told, we can’t deny the voices we put out need to be as diverse as the voices that have stories to tell.
We all know the perniciousness of western influence on non-western literature and we all know how as Africans, writers sometimes tell stories of trauma and poverty not because those are our stories, but because they are the stories we think the west wants to read. At any given point in time on social media, there is a scramble for major contracts, mainstream outlets and international validation.
Poems about misery in Nigeria are a dime a dozen. It’s so easy to share dark stuff, talk about evil, about political avarice, about religion as a killing machine, about police brutality and infant mortality. I do not have a problem with these, because they are our reality. What I have a problem with, is the poorly written poem: the flimsiness looms in front of my eyes and haunts me for days on end, the one-dimensional portrayal of blackness as a quality eternally tethered to pain. These are the songs of those before us. These will probably still be the songs of those who come after. They are the songs of millions right now and why would one deign to navigate these sensitive issues with such ricketiness? Such superficiality?
The South African writer and conceptual artist Stacy Hardy once said (and I agree): ‘I think all writers have a responsibility to provoke the imagination, to open up new worlds . . . I’m compelled to write against the mundane, against easy choices and learned responses, to take risks, to take liberties’.
Since I have come to know what is what, I have made a promise to myself not pander to or participate in sharing another black person’s misery on social media, in any journal or in any of my books. It is a personal decision. To some, this might sound boorish or unenlightened. Perhaps it might even look like I am the proverbial ostrich whose neck is stuck in the ground, but my position is quite the reverse. Sharing these things without proffering solutions is simply proliferating black trauma porn.
I understand the attempt to raise awareness. But there is a difference between knowing and caring and being proactive about the situation. The proposed anthology, which the call for submission was made is not a circus. We are not shying away from our painful past. In the end, the hero of our story is not some charity-publisher (the direct equivalent of a teary-eyed Instagram celebrity rescuing children in the Dark Continent). We are the heroes of our own stories. We want poetry which attempts to answer questions about contemporary Africa and African-ness, poetry that probes present truth and beauty and from what it derives. Is there a spectrum between what is ‘authentic’ and the political/cultural narrative? Is there a spectrum between the culture that can live (the life that can be lived and is real) and a social, economic and political apocalypse? Should we worry about
Fighting poverty and healing from trauma is a marathon, not a sprint. Poverty and trauma porn undermines our ability to stick it out. If we’re going to make it to the finish line we have to run with a good measure of empathy, respect and dignity.
Before I wrap this up, I would like to share an anecdote. It’s an experience that has contributed in cementing my thoughts about this issue.
Four months ago, I walked into a meeting with a couple of international investors who had a special interest in African literature. From the get-go I had the suspicion that what they were looking for was some of the stereotypical stuff I have mentioned.
After pitching, I was asked, quite demurely, to modify my ideas to fit the market they had in mind. I saw through the business-speak, immediately confirming my distrust. Naturally, I kicked against the suggestion. Prejudice, no matter from which direction – faith, race, social status or gender – is a most deadly plague which the world seems to be eternally battling with.
First of all, I am a Nigerian living in Nigeria. Why should I represent something that does not reflect the overall-ness of my experiences, growth and meiosis? I put my foot down and insisted on working on how we could emerge as facilitators of the healing process through truth and reconciliation.
On the strength of that meeting, one of the investors befriended me and has since become my highest paying client. Our friendship and partnership wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t stood my ground. In the words of Wole Soyinka, ‘I don’t know any other way to live but to wake up every day armed with my convictions, not yielding them to the threat of danger and to the power and force of people who might despise me’.
Perhaps to understand a thing or two about the healing process we need these words from William Ernest Henley’s ‘Invictus’:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Let it be heard from our quarters, at least: We shall not glorify pain■
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DISCLAIMER: The thoughts expressed in this essay are that of the author. Praxis Magazine is only a publisher, not an endorser of them.