The Dangerous Myth of Authenticity
C.B. George on "one of the more bizarre delusions of contemporary life"
Years ago, on a plane, I saw a movie called What a Girl Wants. What can I say? When flying, I’ll watch pretty much anything to fashion a bubble against the opposite but equal threats of exhausted torpor and existential terror. It stars Amanda Bynes as an American teenager who heads to London hoping to connect with her estranged father, aristocratic English politician (Colin Firth). Suffice to say, it contains all the thrills promised in the set up. That’s OK. The last thing someone who doesn’t understand aerodynamics and considers air travel a Faustian pact wants is thrills. Nonetheless, halfway through I lost patience.
The tipping point arrived when Firth’s character emerges from the driveway of his stately home right into Leicester Square. I’m sorry? For me, it was an inaccuracy too far. Even those with the vaguest grasp of London’s layout know that Leicester Square is in the heart of a spider web of streets that make up the West End. No stately homes; just cinemas, fast food chains, and forlorn little handwritten notices—Russian model, genuine 19. I was irritated and promptly switched off.
Even at the time, I knew this was a bizarre reaction. After all, I was hardly watching such a movie for geographical verisimilitude. And why choose that particular moment to lose patience when I’d already spent an hour accepting implausible characters behaving implausibly? But, that’s the point. I didn’t choose. You can choose to inflate an escapist bubble, not the moment you discover its load-bearing capacity. The veracity or otherwise of any piece of storytelling depends not just on the plausibility of the fiction presented as fact, but also on the credulity of the audience. Pop. My bubble burst.
As with movies, so books. As readers, what do we hope for? To be entertained, sure; perhaps to learn something; maybe even to be a little surprised. However, if we’re honest, I don’t think we want to be too surprised. Because aren’t the stories we enjoy most those that express ideas we almost had, ideally with an eloquence we couldn’t hope to match? Just as we tend to read newspapers that fit our opinions, so we tend to enjoy novels that do the same. We may hope the novelist will challenge us within the boundaries of what we believe to be true, but they’d best not cross those boundaries. To read a novel, therefore, is an act of considerable trust—you are trusting the novelist to know their craft, to know their stuff, and to know your boundaries.
This puts the writer in a tricky position—no need to feel sorry for them; nobody forced them to write a novel. Nonetheless, it explains to me why so many novelists answer the question “Who do you write for?” with the glib and gnomic “I write for myself.” Frankly, I reckon “I write for myself” is shorthand for “I write for myself because I know you can’t please all the people all the time. Truly? I write for the people who like my work and not for those who don’t. I don’t say this to irritate further the people who don’t like my work because I would love to write for them too. But to attempt as much? That way lies madness. And really bad writing.” Every novelist knows they are doomed to burst bubbles.
This puts the writer in a tricky position—no need to feel sorry for them; nobody forced them to write a novel.
“Write what you know,” they say. On second thought, let me play with the syntax. “Write what you know, they say” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot when discussing writing a novel. I’ve never heard anyone actually say it, I don’t know who “they” are and I’d query the usefulness of the word “know” when applied to storytelling (see above) and, indeed, more generally (see Wittgenstein). Nonetheless, it’s a phrase that echoed repeatedly in my mind while working on my own novel, The Death of Rex Nhongo.
My novel is set in Zimbabwe. It takes place against the backdrop of the real life death in 2011 of Solomon Mujuru (aka Rex Nhongo), former Zimbabwean army chief and husband of the then Vice-President. It is loosely a thriller of lies on a grand scale; more specifically, it is an exploration of lies in marriage—it is a grand lie about small lies. Central characters include foreign diplomats, an ex-Wall Street banker, a local taxi driver and maid, a secret policeman and an eight-year-old girl. I am not and have never been diplomat, banker, taxi driver, maid, secret policeman or eight-year-old girl. I am also not Zimbabwean. “Write what you know, they say.”
I once took a vacationing American shopping in a Harare flea market. He wanted to buy a souvenir and settled on a small wooden carving of an elephant. When the stall-holder told him it had been made in Kenya, he changed his mind. He wanted something genuinely Zimbabwean. He chose again—a beadwork bangle. This time the stall holder had the good sense not to tell him it had been imported from South Africa. I too said nothing—why burst his bubble? But I couldn’t help thinking that if he wanted something genuinely Zimbabwean—an authentic, contemporary representation of the nation he was visiting—he’d have chosen a knock-off Chinese cell phone. Sure, a knock-off Chinese cell phone wouldn’t have been such a talking point on his mantelpiece. Then again, the time may yet come:
“Goodness, what’s that?”
“It’s an authentic fake Blackberry I picked up in Africa.”
“In Africa? A fake? A Blackberry? Oh those poor wretches!”
“Yes, but such dignity…”
Alternatively, he could have bought shares in Econet Wireless, the ubiquitous local telecoms group founded 20 years ago by Strive Masiyiwa; “proudly Zimbabwean” and paying a healthy dividend year on year. Again, not so good on the mantelpiece, but also perhaps not representing an authentic African narrative to suit his needs—”Oh those poor wretches with their multi-billion dollar conglomerates!”
I believe the Western cult of authenticity to be nothing more noble than the latest manifestation of capitalist materialism and abstraction of value from practical function.
The value attributed to the myth of cultural authenticity is, I think, one of the more bizarre delusions of contemporary life. In the West at least it seems particularly prized by a certain kind of liberal mindset that willfully ignores its logical conclusions and concomitants. It is a mindset that can mock a rapper who fabricates a criminal background and idolize the authenticity of a convicted felon. Seriously? Me, if I must choose between someone who pretends to have shot people and someone who’s shot people, I go for the fantasist every time. It is a mindset that holds dear an essentialist view of “indigenous culture” even as it disdains the same essentialism in the nationalist intolerance currently blighting the US and much of Europe.
In fact, I believe the Western cult of authenticity to be nothing more noble than the latest manifestation of capitalist materialism and abstraction of value from practical function: in the Western world where everyone’s got a flatscreen TV, buy yourself a genuine Kenyan-Zimbabwean wooden elephant and feel the kudos…
However, the perniciousness of this particular delusion is that it also finds traction outside the West. After all, non-Western cultural producers want to sell their wooden elephants; they want their kids to grow up listening to something other than rap music; and, most of all, they want to tell their own stories. It would be asinine not to support this desire, especially in a country like Zimbabwe with a history wrecked by colonialism and a present still blighted by its offspring (Economic Structural Adjustment, aid agencies, sanctions, cable TV, take your pick). But it would be every bit as silly to think that to abstain from writing any Zimbabwean setting or character constitutes such support.
As I write this, Harare is in the throes of civil unrest. After more than 35 years under the government of President Robert Mugabe and ZANU (PF), the people’s exhausted torpor seems to have finally given way to existential terror. Yesterday, Zimbabweans took to the streets demonstrating against police harassment, unpaid wages, cash shortages and rampant corruption; and the corrupt, cash-strapped, underpaid, harassed police meted out summary justice. Who knows where it will end?
This morning I get an email from a friend who’s been following the news. He has a question and, in the absence of knowing someone on the ground, turns to me (thus allowing the pair of us to indulge the grand tradition of discussing Zimbabwe’s wellbeing at great distance). The essence of his question is this—why’s it taken so long for the citizens to rise up? Solemnly accepting the responsibility of my role as “expert,” my answer is long and various. But, in this context, one paragraph is relevant. “You need to understand,” I write. “That the success of the independence war against an apartheid regime was predicated on uniting the people behind the freedom fighters as the authentic heirs to Zimbabwe. Since 1980, ZANU have successfully maintained this narrative to the point that the President has almost been portrayed as the personification of the nation. Any dissenting voice, therefore, can be represented as not just anti-government, but anti-Zimbabwean.”
No sooner do I send this off than I read of the President’s response to the demonstrators. “They are not part of us,” he says. Trust me, the “us” here is not “us, ZANU,” it is “us, Zimbabwe.” He is saying, if you don’t support me, you are not an authentic Zimbabwean. That is quite an assertion for someone who claims a democratic mandate. And yet seen in local historical context it is perhaps understandable (if not sympathetic).
The horror of British colonialism in Zimbabwe robbed people of their identity—not just by taking away land and self-determination, but by denigrating values. The freedom fighters’ strategy, therefore, was to reimagine an authentic national identity which the general population would support and which they, and only they, embodied. It was brilliant. It was absolutely necessary. And, if not sowing the seeds of current problems, it certainly tilled the soil.
Authenticity is the child of that colonial pastime exoticism, and sibling to the bigotry of essentialism.
Is this a grandiose defense of writing a novel outside one’s knowledge and experience? No. I have written a novel within my knowledge and experience (as, of course, every novel—by anyone, ever—has been written), albeit aware of the limitations of both. Instead, it’s an attempt to explain that the delusion of cultural authenticity is a dangerous one. Authenticity is the child of that colonial pastime exotification, and sibling to the bigotry of essentialism.
Years ago I had a poster of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night on my student wall. I liked that picture. Years later I saw the original in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I was underwhelmed. I felt like I knew it too well. My companion that day chastised me as a philistine. He told me to consider the brushwork. It would give me a completely different feeling for the painting. I considered the brushwork. It didn’t. He said that I should be grateful to see the original and that my poster was a lousy imitation. I told him not to be so daft. I was indeed grateful to see the original, but had I not been able to, I would have been grateful for my lousy imitation—better that than not see the picture at all. Again, he said I was a philistine. I’ve been called worse. We agreed to differ.
I have lived with the characters in The Death of Rex Nhongo a long time and I care deeply about their wellbeing: not just in the novel (where not all can be saved), but also in the wider world (where their stories may be). It is a grand lie about small lies, but it contains heartbreaking truth. Of course I already know that for some readers it will be a mansion opening into Leicester Square, for others an authentic wooden elephant, and others a poster of The Starry Night. I’m OK with that. As a novelist, I know I am doomed to burst bubbles. And, besides, I take penitent solace in the fact that just as a reader entrusts me with their bubble so I entrust them with my own… a bubble within which my every intention is understood, every nuance fully grasped, and every error lightly forgiven. Pop.