Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Debate Starts to Sound Academic

I have been fascinated and excited by the debate that Binyavanga Wainaina started with his letter protesting Ryszard Kapuscinski’s depiction of Africa and Africans throughout his career. His foil is Remi Raji of the Nigeria PEN Center who writes with erudition and intelligence, arguing that Ryzard’s participation in a PEN event in NYC should not be “muzzled”. The rest of the debate or discussion if you are a diplomatic type can be found on the sidebar and on this post – always reading from the bottom upward… Read on and let me know what you think.

Hi Binyavanga,

Let me take off from your other “confession” and say that it is necessary to look here, beyond the immediacy of the present affliction, that is the subject of our mutual but different concern, the cause of this unplanned dialogue: Kap? It is important to look beyond the Kap phenomenon and perhaps look inward and ask, where are “we” in the share of ideas of power, or rather, in the power of ideas. Here we tug at a very serious issue of the collective, that is the “African condition” (I am not sure if this is the forum to deliver so many pregnant worries, pains and aspirations); and I can only add that the current rule of such species as the likes of Kap, in the media/culture wars, and many others before him, is the unfortunate result of incapacitations, inflicted and self-inflicted, strewn all over the continent.

Saturday in New York has passed but many other Saturdays in America, Europe, and Australasia will come… We will continue to witness such viral claims of journalese pretending as great literature, at the expense of a race, the othered members of humanity whose nights are still inscrutable and mysterious to behold? We will continue to witness these and other ignominies because our own system of challenge is not coordinated, because the apparatuses of state are wont to turn the other eye, and because the continental intelligentsia has been isolated and denied any significant play in the course of the re-definition and redemption of the State; our skepticism will multiply but will not count if we fail to speak at the right fora and opportunities. What for instance is the African Union without its programmatic punch? And what is a Diaspora divided against itself? The inflation of such blighted imagination as Kap’s did not start in a day, and will not end, suddenly. It goes a long way. But if you don’t believe in “the free-flow of ideas”, how can we make sense to one another? I hope that this journey is not taken in vain. Sincerely,


Hi Remi,

I must say I am enjoying this conversation. Thank you for your insights, and willingness to take this journey with me… Another confession: the secret gagger in me wants him tied and bound, but I know this to be futile and unhelpful. Why does the instinct to gag rear its head?

Because any African knows the particular flavour and danger of his kind of language. It is responsible for many deaths. It is the language that seeks to justify your incapacity, to distance your humanity from his centre. Now, much of what he says, Remi, and this is where the threat of Kap is at its most dangerous: that even though a twelve year old African would laugh at some of his propositions, the very nature of his language is compelling to the exact person he wants as a readership: the liberal European, American who has never been to Africa, and who has deep inside him, built by the ideas of Conrad and Blixen and CNN and countless made for television Dramas, an idea that Yes the African is indeed a strange being, maybe even a child who needs a firm (but loving) hand.

Ryszard Kapuscinski is the intellectual leader of this community, who, sadly (and if his writings were only about affecting the minds of Europeans, I do not care) have a huge effect on our lives. Now. A large part of the history of Africa has been decided by a well-armed and powerful Europe, with a well-armed and compelling ‘way’ of seeing us that justified their actions. Talk to any Reuters or AP journalists based in Africa: Ryszard Kapuscinski is their guru. They put out news that dominates the coverage of the continent to the rest of the world….and their primary source to ‘understand our minds’ is Ryszard Kapuscinski.

So back to PEN. By asking why they invited him, I was not suggesting they gag him – his books are widely available in mainstream bookshops all over Europe and America. Penguin love him, and publish him. But, there are many great writers. What I ask is, Why Kapuscinski?

Is PEN America’s open-mindedness so open that they would invite a known and racist and bender of well-documented fact to their most important event? Where the ‘select’ are called?

How are we to read this? Am sorry. I find it hard to believe that the effect of PEN’s action will be an ‘exposure’ of his falsehoods. What they have done is to ‘validate’ his point of view: to say that there is Meaning and Good in his body of work…and any criticism that comes from such an event will simply show that there is another side to a writer who has already been certified as a “great truth teller’ by PEN themselves…

Whatever happens in New York, he will add to his CV, and get better and bigger book-deals, and have more ‘authority’ than he had before… I wish I believed in the inherent free-flow of ideas that would suggest that, as (you say) the Yoruba say: “A lie may journey for twenty years, soon Truth will break its spell, in one day”.

In these days of spin and the power of one broadcast to reach a whole world, the truth is that it is those closest to the nerve centre of ‘the broadcast’ who will impose their truths on the rest of the world. This is how KAP got to his lofty perch. This is the method that will keep him there. Salman Rushdie, a man I thought had quite a good nose for bullshit says this about KAP:
“Kapuscinski’s writing, always wonderfully concrete and observant, conjures marvels of meaning out of minutiae.”

(Binyavanga Wainaina)

Hi Binyavanga,

I believe we are reaching an interesting point about the phenomenon I choose to abbreviate as Kap. And for that I will be brief. No, I have not suggested that we should not “protest” what others (including ourselves) write about “us”: on the contrary I am saying that when we do so, we should understand the difference between monologues and dialogues. I personally care less about what Granta and Mr. Harding have to say about their own “product”; and of course, I do not speak for PEN America but I do know that Pen’s charter does not approve of any intent to “gag” the other. Rather, it is in a forum as the one you’re attending that the truth can square up to lies and distortions. As the Yoruba say, “A lie may journey for twenty years, soon Truth will break its spell, in one day”. The simple fact that a Wole Soyinka would “share” the same arena with Mr. Kap will tell you that the symbolic day is nigh…

So there, I read, I write, and I teach writing. And I will be delighted to read your novel about this new experience!

Remi (Raji)

Hi Remi,

Thank you for your response.

I write for a living. The question of representing the world I come from is, of course, uppermost in my mind. All I am saying is that I find it difficult to understand why Ryszard Kapuscinski should be speaking at Pen’s gathering this week. The truth is that Kapuscinski occupies a central role in the minds of many (including the PEN American centre). In their minds he is “one of the world leading writers”

It is this that has got him the invitation to New York, to share a strange with people like Wole Soyinka, and Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie.

Of course we will continue to write. But are you suggesting avoiding protesting what others write about us, simply because our writing will ‘replace’ them? That is not true. Conrad is as influential now as he was then … and Ryder Haggard is still in print…is still available in AFRICAN libraries…

The very act of inviting him validates what he stands for and has written to readerships and literary communities who seem not to know better. Jeremy Harding is familiar with Africa, having lived there and he thinks Ryszard Kapuscinski is the ‘Greatest Intelligence to Bear Upon Africa Since Conrad.’

So here I am. In his writing the man insults me, the continent I live in; manufactures facts, and makes sweeping racists statements about the nature of ‘my mind’ – turning the African Mind into some sort of below-the-line not quite human (for a human to be of self-criticism makes him not human I think). He can publish this boldly, without editors cringing (in Granta!)

It is important for us to speak to falsehood and to speak loudly. I do not see the logic behind an argument that says that one’s only response should come from one’s writing.

This is all taking place in 2005, in a conference organised by a ‘culturally’ sensitive, progressive organisation supported by many open-minded and intelligent writers from around the world….

So I am maybe trying to understand PEN America’s reason for inviting him: that maybe everybody’s voice should be represented? Even the unreconstructed racists? His short and snappy sentences?

Or the larger truths he has brought out that make his Victorian attitude towards race somehow palatable?

Is there not, somewhere, a line drawn?

I am asking is it possible that now, a hundred years after Conrad, after years of Achebe and Soyinka, somebody can get away with saying:

“The European mind is willing to acknowledge its limitations, accept its limitations. It is a skeptical mind. The spirit of criticism does not exist in other cultures. They are proud, believing that what they have is perfect…”

Is this how PEN promotes ‘understanding between cultures?”

How very progressive!

I must write a novel about it!
(Binyavanga Wainaina)

(From Remi Raji)
“…Having ‘sympathy’ for Mr. Kapuscinski suggests that he has ‘lost’ something – is the ‘victim’ of something- whereas the truth is the victims are those he chooses to distort with his pen…”

Thank you for the response. This is exactly my point, if I must say it in another way. Mr. Kap has indeed “lost” something that all explorative writers should cherish: the ability to see a part of his own world in the prism of the world he tries to portray, and he’s in fact the victim of his own loss or inadequacy. And this is why many would not agree that the writer here is an expert on African issues.

Those he chooses to distort with his pen are not without their own writers and chroniclers, and therefore the point is for us to have the chance of contending with several perspectives (of facts and lies, naming and mis-naming, of fiction written as truths…) on the same subject. The same continent that fired the “truthful” imagination of Rider Haggard, Joyce Cary and Joseph Conrad is the same one which propelled the “fictional” world of Achebe, and of Ngugi, la Guma, Armah, Ba and the rest.

It is good to see through the media game and the wars are so contentious, but then, you can’t stop the subjectivities of some kind of writer by merely saying it; as a writer, you have to out-write him, the same way a generation of African writers has done with considerable success. Yes, I am not too skeptical about this bit, because I know for every one racist there are eleven anti-racists to give one hope, for now and for the future.

Remi Raji


About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

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