15 April 2007

The Ear, the Eye, and the Heart of Africa

Periodically I write about how a fantasy novel reflects the values and anxieties of the author's nation. Knowing nothing about Nancy Farmer, I wasn't sure whether her The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm would do that. It’s set in Zimbabwe, but is she Zimbabwean? (Her name implies that she doesn’t come from its ethnic majority, at least.) Was she writing from within that culture, or reflecting the outlook of another nation projected onto it?

As it turned out, Farmer makes that sort of analysis easy. Not only does her book --

I can't go on without acknowledging ****SPOILERS**** ahead

-- address the question of national spirit, but it turns that spirit into a supernatural character. At the end of the book, the evil spirits of Gondwanna, in northern (but still sub-Saharan?) Africa, do battle with the spirit of the Zimbabwean Shona. As Farmer explains in her appendices:

A mhondoro, or lion spirit, is concerned with a land and its people as a whole. Because the Shona people are actually made up of several tribes, each one has a mhondoro and a lion spirit medium. In Zimbabwe of 2194, I have combined these into one.
So Farmer is actually more nationalist in her depiction than the traditional, tribal system.

And then there's Resthaven, a stop in the young protagonists' flight that also explicitly embodies a culture. The children's father says:
"Much of Africa was being overlaid by European customs. It seemed--then--that our culture would be destroyed by the outside world. And so Resthaven was created."
This area is not simply national in spirit, but continental. Its appeal extends beyond Zimbabwe. Again, the children's father:
"...it's Jerusalem, it's Mecca, it's the Hindu city of Ayodhya. Every culture has one place it will not allow to be touched. This is ours. As long as Resthaven exists, the Heart of Africa is safe."
And what is Resthaven? It's a preservation of pre-colonial village life, sheltered behind immense walls and continent-wide taboos. Its inhabitants are by and large ignorant of the modern world outside, with its mile-high skyscrapers and hovering limousines.

Farmer doesn't mince words about the drawbacks of living in Resthaven: sexist division of labor, infanticide, accusations of witchcraft, no modern medicine, the sheer boredom of watching cattle. Nevertheless, the narrative seems to imply that there's value in preserving such a culture from change. That brings up two questions.

First, as Farmer's discussion of the nineteenth-century arrival of Matabele/Zulu in Zimbabwe acknowledges, African history includes great change over time. And what about variation over space: how much does traditional Zimbabwean culture share with traditional Ghanaian, or Kenyan, or Nigerian? I don't know, but I doubt an unchanging peasant village from the medieval Holy Roman Empire could be presented as the "Heart of Europe."

Indeed, would a Western author be so favorable in depicting an effort to freeze-dry a culture? Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time takes on that situation, starting with the "Heart of America" as a frontier farming town, and treats the effort as largely sinister. But does Resthaven simply reflect a greater pan-sub-Saharan-African respect for ancestral traditions than America has?

The penultimate episode of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm shows us another culture within this futuristic Zimbabwe: that of the English tribe. As the appendices remind us, the British ruled the country (as Rhodesia) for a little less than a century, 1890-1979. That culture is represented by Mrs. Beryl Horsepool-Worthingham, a householder who both shelters the children and refuses to let them leave. She saves her best food for her pets and populates her yard with ceramic gnomes. She cares only for her garden club, snips at the children's manners, and tries to squeeze money from their parents.

The book includes some more sympathetic British-Zimbabweans, including the Ear and Mrs. Horsepool-Worthingham's son, but none is so immersed in a separate English culture as she. And, interestingly, none is female. Although The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm doesn't make such clear statements about the English national spirit as it does about mhondoro and the "Heart of Africa," there are plenty of hints that we should take Mrs. Horsepool-Worthingham and her coterie as typical or essential of English colonials.

I doubt an American novel published today would depict any group besides the British quite so one-sidedly or negatively. Or am I reading too much into Farmer's portrayal of the Englishwomen of Zimbabwe? After finishing the book, I found this interesting interview with her, which covers her twenty years in Zimbabwe, how she came to write this book, and how she published it only after returning to the USA. Among other comments, Farmer says:
I never got along that well with white Zimbabweans, especially the women. They considered me a mannerless, low-class American and I thought of them as rotten, mean-spirited fascists.
Okay then.

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