02 November 2009

Zunguzungu

I had promised myself I would not blog again until I had finished x, y, and z, and while x and y are finished, z (an essay about J.M. Coetzee's memoir-novels) is beating me up and winning.

But I'm going to pause in the fight for a moment and break my self-promise because today I discovered Aaron Bady's astoundingly excellent blog Zunguzungu via a marvelous post Bady wrote at The Valve about Chinua Achebe and the African Writers Series (a post that previously appeared on Zunguzungu).

It's been a long time since I last encountered a blog where the excitement of discovery came from finding someone giving expression to inchoate thoughts I'd never quite found words for, but that happened again and again as I read through Bady's blog, especially the post "When Good People Write Bad Books" and this earlier Achebe post, referencing Norman Rush (whose Mating I adore, or, at least, I adored when I read it about ten years ago) to explore the idea of "great writers" and who has the authority to write about/represent particular cultures in writing -- the discussion in the comments section is as wonderful as the post. Indeed, in one of the comments, Bady sums up what I most respect in fiction far better than I ever have:
...what I find most interesting in Achebe is his attention not to questions of who is right and who is wrong (since every perspective is flawed and mediated) but his exploration of how official truths are produced, which TFA as novel becomes a vehicle for. Or, in Arrow of God, his interest in how official truths get subverted when they don’t “work” the way they’re supposed to. In both cases, it seems like he manages to make any conception of “representation” take on so much water, so fast, that you’re left, like Foucault reading criminology texts, scratching your head and trying to figure out how people come to believe the things they do, instead of trying to figure out what the correct belief should be.
It's not all about Africa and African lit -- Bady's interests are wide-ranging and eclectic -- but that's what first captured my interest and attention, so it's what I'm highlighting here. I was taken, too, with Bady's explanation of the blog's title:
In Tanzania, you learn that you’re an mzungu when children shout “zunguzungu!” and follow you around, and in California you learn to forget because they aren’t there to remind you. But you still are, so I’ve kept the name, even though I’m now writing about other things. And I won’t define what it means, because you can if you want, and words aren’t so easily corralled into order as it might sometimes seem, thank goodness. And anyway, it’s not such a bad thing to be, really. They were delighted to see me, and I was delighted to see them, if not for the same reasons.

I learned a long time ago that I’m a white guy from the United States, long before I ever left Appalachia. But being called an Mzungu–for out of the mouths of children!–can teach you different things, if you let it. Too many people take the name Mzungu as an insult; but it isn’t, not exactly. Tanzanians sometimes use it as a compliment for other Tanzanians; wewe kizungu sana! It isn’t that either, not quite. Race is physicial, but “kizungu” is tabia or utamaduni, words that get mistranslated as culture or civilization, but mean something deeper about how and why people relate to other people the way that they do. Some people like to be called “Western,” and some people don’t; some people have that option and some people don’t. But I’ve taken the name zunguzungu for this blog not as a claim but as a provocation, and a reminder for myself. I’m really not sure what it means, on the deepest level, and I want to remember that ignorance. It also means many different things, so I want to remember that too. But whatever “zunguzungu” is, I know that I am it; the task, then, is to make that “it” into something good.
I could keep quoting all night. I won't. I have a z to keep working on before I let myself return to this here province. Meanwhile, you should be reading Aaron Bady.

(Oh, you want to know what I think of Coetzee's Summertime? Well, since I'm here already... It's magnificent and thought-provoking, of course, because I think Coetzee is just about the best living writer in the English language, at least among the living writers of English I know. It's been billed as the third in a trilogy of memoir-novels begun with Boyhood and continued with Youth, but though the "John Coetzee" of those books seems to be roughly the same creature as the "John Coetzee" of Summertime, the book itself is more of a piece with Dairy of a Bad Year [a book I think I underestimated when I first read it] and Elizabeth Costello in the ways it forces readers to become active, even self-aware participants in the meaning-making in a more insistant way than many other books -- indeed, it seems to me that Coetzee is using the fame he gained from winning a second Booker Prize and then a Nobel to question the whole idea of the writer as role model and authority -- an idea he's been questioning pretty much his entire career, but the changed and extraordinary circumstances of his life now give him some particularly powerful tools [in the form of readers' expectations and desires] to work with. I don't think it is a coincidence that Disgrace was his last novel to have a traditional narrative structure [it being the work that got him his second Booker, and the first I have with the word "bestseller" emblazoned on the cover]. I also think Summertime shows how vital the conversations and essays in Doubling the Point are to understanding a lot of what Coetzee is up to, even now, nearly twenty years after that book was put together. Confession and complicity remain powerful concerns for him. More -- hopefully, much more -- on this subject anon...)

2 comments:

  1. What a delightful way to wake up. Thanks for the kind words! And yeah, Coetzee. One of these days, I'm going to lock my house, put the phone in the bathtub, and re-read his entire oeuvre from beginning to end.

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  2. Thanks for this tip. Definitely to be added to the shortlist of blogs I read regularly.

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