The gist of it is that the author, Wendy Belcher, has made a study about the opening lines of books written about Africa, and has found that..."Most travel books about Africa open with the author alone, carried along by some vehicle, looking down over some landscape and feeling anxious."
The books she quotes range from the tail end of the 19th century and range on through Evelyn Waugh ("They were still dancing when, just before dawn on October 19th, 1930, the Azay le Rideau came into harbour at Djibouti (Evelyn Waugh, "Remote People," 1931)), Alex Shoumatoff ("The plane got into Kinshasa at three in the morning (Alex Shoumatoff, "In Southern Light," 1986)), Mark Hudson ("The plane flew low over the Mauritanian desert. One could pick out the routes of ancient dried-up rivers cut into the eternity of mountainous, uninhabitable rock. But at this height it all looked reassuringly small, like a child's excavations on a beach ... It rapidly became dark, and soon only a ribbon of pink separated the blackness of the sky from the blueness of the haze over the earth, into which we descended as though into an abyss (Mark Hudson, "Our Grandmothers' Drums," 1989)), and, finally, herself ("A wave of wet heat swept over me. It pushed by, pungent with asphalt and ocean and greenness. I swayed and clutched the metal railing. Its coolness did nothing to mute this sensation: the warm air was amniotic fluid, and in it I was moving back into something both forgotten and deeply known. Looking up as I descended the steps, I could see the terminal across the shimmering airstrip (Wendy Belcher, "Honey from the Lion," 1988)).
Sometimes books about Africa open with expectations of trouble, or in the midst of some sort of trouble, or the sigh of the White Man's Burden, or the recoil of the White Man's Revulsion (usually triggered by dirt and poverty and disease, the likes of which more often than not exist back where the visitor just came from, only not in places where can see them or chooses to look). But not, apparently, very often. Hemingway is an outlier, with an opening set in a hunter's hide - surprisingly, with the hunting safari being what it is (or was) for Africa, there aren't all that many other books taking the same opening line. But the vast majority, it would seem, still open with the author on some conveyance dependent on his century (ship, in the early accounts, and then increasingly airplane), just landed or about to land on African soil, and worried.
Okay, I had to do it.
My own "Houses in Africa" was sitting there on my shelf, taunting me. I couldn't QUITE remember how I'd begun it, but I was almost certain that I did it with an airplane, feeling anxious - so I picked it up to find out.
BOth right and wrong, as it happens.
If you count the beginning as the beginning, then the book opens with a prologue called "Here Be Dragons", and the prologue's first paragraph goes like this:
A friend once told me that the difference between the two of us was the fact that I build nests, and she was happy to live out of suitcases. Back in 1973, I thought my nest was invincible. I knew where I belonged, cosy in my world; I had the quiet routine of my days, a clutch of 'best friends' at school, grandparents with whom my relationship was one of mutual adoration. I was ten years old... and with very little warning the world I had built was about to come to an explosive end.
So far, so good - no airplanes.
But then we hit the real beginning, Chapter 1. And we get:
The air smelled odd. The tarmac of the airport was warm even through madly inappropriate winter shoes. And the sky... the sky looked strangely painted, as thought torn from a work of art, and it was altogether too big. The horizon stretched endlessly, shimmering in the distance, and the big sky was everywhere, vivid, blue, dotted with cotton-wool puff clouds.
My family landed at the Lusaka International Airport towards the end of October, wearing all the paraphernalia the Northern Hemisphere winter demanded. What we discovered in Africa was the balmy air of tropical summer - and the fact that our luggage, containing any possible changes of clothing more conducive to our new climate, had not arrived with us.
EEEK. Airport. Anxiety. GUilty, guilty, guilty.
But, see, our friend Wendy talks about "travel books" to Africa - and that presupposes, well, travel. When making rabbit stew, it makes sense to first catch your rabbit - and if you're writing a travel book to a new place, or a memoir-of-the-outsider (which is what I wrote), it makes a great deal of sense to kind of ARRIVE at the place you're going to be writing about before you start writing about it. These are all, by definition, outsiders who are coming in - Wendy Belcher bemoans the fact that no books she found started in the midst of a weding, or a meal, or a mosque - all facets of the complicated African tapestry of life. But all of those things, by that very definition, are kind of part of the fabric of life, implying a continuity of existence, implying that the person writing them would not be an outsider at all but rather somebody who is acclimatised to the place and the time and the people and exists within those experiences. A "native" as it were, someone born in a place and growing up in a place, someone familiar with the geography and the culture and people that surrounds them, would not be writing a "Travel book", not in the sense that Wendy is talking about. It's a whole new genre. Karen Blixen began her own famous book with "I had a farm in Africa", but even she recounts travels to and from the place. We white folks, and unless I'm simply not seeing it I don't think that Wendy found many, or indeed ANY, black writers to quote in her article, can assimilate deeply into the African mythos, can accept it all, can take it in, can practically join tribes and live by tribal rules - but it isn't us who penetrate Africa, it's Africa who lets us in. There's a difference. And even given that an irritating piece of grit in an oyster can produce an actual peral, the fact still remains that the pearl was created to protect the oyster and not to prettify grit. What we who go to Africa take from her is mother-of-pearl accreting on our gritty selves, what we perceive as Africa's precious gift is still only a self-defense mechanism, and once the pearl is removed from the oyster it is not a treasure lifted so much as an irritant removed. This realisation - that there are places that you can sink into completely and think you know and understnad and are utterly accepted by in return but which, when you leave them, show no traces of your passing - can be a deeply humbling one.
And in order for any such outsider to write a book about Africa, he or she needs to arrive there from somewhere else.
And as far as my own memory is concerned, I still remember my ten-year-old self being cowed by the size and scope of that sky. I had caught my rabbit, in a manner of speaking, without even realising that I held it - it would be decades later that the book "Houses in Africa" would be written, but the memories were there, and they were incredibly, almost frightenigly, vivid when I started to write them down.
It began with my setting foot on African soil. It began in ignorance and innocence. It began with a blank page. Perhaps that is the best place, maybe the ONLY place, to begin.