Written by Tessa Harris
I’m a Namibian studying fiction writing, in England. For the moment it’s mostly English people who read my work, which is mostly about Namibia. They even like it sometimes. They like finding out about ‘places out there’, foreign places. It’s exciting, like going on holiday. Not, you know, real or anything. Not something you’d want to do forever but fun, recreation. Apparently I’m good at writing ‘local color’. I think ‘local color’ just means I’m good at describing the place I have lived in all my life; my lecturers think it’s a nice thing to say about my work. My home is ‘local color’, not Here in nice internationally colored England.
People are too polite to say they don’t care about what’s going on out there so they let it be ‘entertaining’. And up to a point I’m okay with that: I write about people and relationships and the interesting world, I write to tell stories, not international news or history. Probably I could set my stories anywhere and probably the people who read them would be a bit happier if I did just set them in London or New York. People just getting on with ordinary lives and problems and sadnesses in Africa is somehow distasteful and unaware. Shouldn’t there be a little more war? or Ebola? or starving children, some real stuff. It seems that heartbreak, loneliness, love and comfort are feelings that are only important and real when they are portrayed here, in England.
Of course there are academics who think that the whole novel is a dead form anyway and that nothing new can be written about people anymore, but even they think that if you write about ‘out there’ then it is interesting. Namibia is still a novelty. That’s not everyone here, obviously. Some of them even know where Namibia is and if they have studied any history recently they know about the German genocide of the Herero. They really like to tell me about the genocide. A lot. Or about that time they went to Zimbabwe.
They really don’t like not knowing about Africa, it embarrasses them. No one wants to be that kind of arrogant, closed-minded westerner. So if they don’t have any proof that they have insider knowledge they keep quiet. It’s all very English, very polite. I get a little bored having to explain things that are obvious in my stories sometimes. If someone is called Hifikepunye Pohamba they are probably, almost certainly, not white. I also have to reassure people that they are not being racist. A lot. Because obviously I’m the boss of that. And I know all about what’s happening with Boko Haram in Nigeria and the football in Egypt. Obviously I know everything about the football. It’s great, being so wise and knowledgeable, I love it.
The fact is that I’ve only lived in Windhoek and Cape Town and even those two places are so complicated that I know just enough to know I don’t understand most of what’s going on. What worries me mostly is how easily people understand my stories given how little they know about my home, about my continent.
Am I just simplifying the most complicated beautiful things I know so that people who don’t want history lessons can take a moment of pleasure from stories that are only pretending to be about Namibia.
The following photographs form part of an ongoing photographic series which documents the abandonment of broken umbrellas. The idea was initiated by Nicola van Straaten and all of these photos (and many more) were contributed by Tessa Harris. Due to living in damp and rainy England she comes across abandoned and broken umbrellas pretty regularly. You can see the entire series at para-pleure.tumblr.com.