In search of authenticity

In March this year Elnathan John, the Nigerian author of Born on a Tuesday, was in Ghana to promote his novel. I attended a reading he held at Vidya bookstore in Osu and I had a fun time. When we had the chance to ask him questions, a lot of them focused on his identity and the experience of growing up as a minority in Northern Nigeria (I admit I asked that question). One woman specifically asked him whether he felt the tale of a Hausa Muslim in Northern Nigeria was his to tell (Elnathan is not Hausa and may not be Muslim). That question is not out of place in the modern search for authenticity in literature, film, music and art.

Authenticity in a work of art is not an easy concept. It is one of those things which many people see as important but will struggle to define and will probably disagree with others about whether a work is authentic or not. The basic idea, as far as I can tell, is that for a work to be authentic, it must spring from an authentic experience. The kind of experience that will be tainted by the prejudices of an outside observer. This is the kind of experience in which one is a subject and one is not talking about an object even after years of careful observation. The criteria for authenticity is so stringent that it cannot be protected simply by the identity of the artist and thus it transcends identity politics.

In Matthew Clair’s piece for the Guardian that inspired this post he talks about the desire for authentic blackness that was sought by white liberals from black intellectuals. Perhaps the search for authenticity has always been there but it is now only gaining prominence. But this goes far beyond a white or Western audience looking for works by people of colour.

In 1977, Chinua Achebe published a scathing critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This critique was not just about the novel but about the Western conception of Africa. He says:

Quite simply it is the desire — one might indeed say the need — in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is still widely celebrated as masterpiece of authentic literature. And his brilliant critique of Conrad only served to elevate the novel to a standard which the stunted and prejudiced works of Western writers on Africa could never hope to match. And for me, growing up in the 1990s, authenticity had been represented by African work by Africans. But this view of authenticity was simplistic.

Ghanaian writer, Amma Darko, best known for the novels Beyond the Horizon and Faceless is reported to have said the following in an interview in 2004:

We’ve started writing from our point of view because, for a while, you were writing for us […]. So […] if we are writing, probably there is some pain that has to come out. And I think rather than take it as male-bashing, you must take it as a means to better understand the women folk of Africa […]. You were always portraying us as all-enduring, all-giving mothers and that is the attitude we find in males […] but I don’t want to be all-giving all the time, I don’t want to be all enduring, I want to be angry, I want to react

From: Male-bashing and narrative subjectivity in Amma Darko’s first three novels [PDF] by Mawuli Adjei

The quote from Darko gives us another perspective through which the authenticity of a work can be viewed. The centrality of male characters in some works once regarded as authentic is problematic now in the way in which female characters were little more than props.

The criteria for authenticity now involves an intersection of nationality, gender, sexuality and class. Whenever a work is being critically judged you are likely to see these issues mentioned.

The search for authenticity appears to be conflating two things – genuineness and representativeness. What makes a work of art genuine is debatable. Even more debatable is what makes it representative. However, I think that a work should only seek to be genuine because it is almost always going to fall short of being representative. The cure for unrepresentative work is to get work from perspectives as diverse as possible. Let’s get work from women, ethnic and racial minorities, young people, poor people and others to get a wider perspective. As far as genuineness is concerned I struggle to define it but in the words of Justice Potter Stewart – I know it when I see it.

In a world as globalized as ours the parameters of genuine (not representative) experience should be expanding. For example, many people growing up in Ghana are more familiar with music from other parts of the world than traditional music. If someone who grew up in a milieu of hip hop and R&B but never heard more than two borborbor songs decides to make borborbor songs, is that genuine? And if the person chose to make hip hop, is that fake?

These are questions I doubt we will be finding answers to anytime soon. However, I do believe that a little bit of humility is needed on the part of artists and critics as well. I am a Ghanaian man who has written about Nigerian, Kenyan, American and British politics and also about women. Was my work genuine? I do not know. It is always going to lack the quality of a lived experience and thus it will hang on the lower rungs of the authenticity ladder. And I have learnt, not without a little bit of resistance, to admit that.

Elnathan’s answer to the woman was that even in writing about oneself one may be trespassing on the territory of others as you are a part of some of the most intimate memories of the people who know you.

I would not go as far as that. I will just say that it is important to have a willingness to listen and to admit that one is operating in a field in which people have superior insight. It is important for us all to see ourselves in the mirror of other’s opinions. And it is also important that we do not seek to erase the experiences of those we are able to observe and superimpose our perspectives.

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