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REVIEW: A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

Paris, 1923
The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides.

Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.

Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming-yet fleeting and often cheap.

Amidst the wonders-and dangers-of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for-and what she can no longer live without.

Dear Ms. Raybourn,

I’ve read – and enjoyed – most of your Lady Julia Gray mysteries. Your foray into the gothic in The Dead Travel Fast wasn’t as much of a hit with me. Still when I noticed this book at Netgalley, my antennae perked up and I zipped over my request to read it. A book set in the 1920s and in Kenya? Cool and so NOT a Downton Abbey clone. Bring it!

A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna RaybournMy initial impression was these people are J Peterman catalog come to life. Both in Paris and in Kenya, the crowd among whom Delilah lives and with whom she was brought up are just the type of people to have perfumes designed just for them and carried in special handcrafted fitted leather train cases. This is the smart, sophisticated set who do live it up, use cigarette holders and dance until dawn in riotous clubs run by androgynous managers. This is the age when people still monogrammed linen and flatware upon which divorce changing names would wreck havoc. And that’s before we even get to Africa and the safaris. Thank goodness for the dukas there where one can stock up on those little necessities like duck confit, goose pate, champagne and whatnot before heading out into the bush. One must be civilized after all.

Kenya is only referred to by that name a few times – usually it’s “Africa” that is said but is this what the white settlers and visitors would have used given the colony’s name? I’m wondering how the race relations aspect of the book will go over. It’s not all “white settlers arrive and teach the natives a thing or two” or worse yet “whites arrive to save the day.” In fact, the political unease is already simmering and the whites are aware that things might not stay quiet for long. In trying to salvage a bad situation, Delilah even makes things worse before she does the “grand gesture” that saves someone – and wrecks his life.

At times Delilah is not an easy heroine to cheer for nor an easy woman to even like much less love. But she is unique and as her mother writes her, if one is going to hell one might as well dance all the way and give people something to remember you by. She’s a true image of a 20s flapper with a Parisian couture wardrobe to die for, a taste for Sobranies, sex and the ability to slug back massive quantities of booze. She is also abrasive if she’s annoyed, hellbent on getting her own way and a damn good shot. I found her fascinating and cheered as she got the better of just about everyone in the story.

Ryder is larger than life as well. Truly a man’s man in a man’s world. He’s suave, fearless, has bedded most of the white women in the colony, has the natives fighting to be porters on his safaris, can also down rivers of alcohol, smokes like a faulty 2 cylinder engine, can track any animal across the savannah and then deliver a horse whipping to cads in full view of the crowds at the Nairobi train station. Yet he can be gentle to Delilah’s poor cousin Dora and is far ahead of his time in terms of conservation.

Delilah and Ryder are of course much alike in that they’ve been badly hurt in love before but in different ways. Delilah might as well have crawled in the grave with her first husband while Ryder learned too late whom his first wife really loved. Both have tried to cover their hurt in similar fashion – by partying and by indulging in a glut of one night stands and – in Delilah’s case – ultimately empty marriages. Though she did be faithful to each husband while married to him. The pain they’ve each suffered cut so deeply that they’ve evolved ways to dull it to a haze of oblivion and show me more by their actions than any protestations that “they’ll never love again.”

As such, it takes a lot for either one to show the cracks in the facade much less let someone into their hearts. They fight almost like it’s foreplay and end up attacking each other as much as it’s having sex. There’s truly nothing pretty about that encounter. So if it’s not nookie that brings them together, what is it? Something I like to see even better and which means more to me about how two people think about each other – in their every day actions. Delilah proves she’s got the grit to not only survive but thrive in Africa. She takes care of what needs doing even if it’s distasteful to her, she has standards below which she won’t sink, she’ll stand up for what is right and heaven help anyone who crosses her. Ryder is loyal to his friends, willing to bend the law when the occasion demands and it’s for a good cause and cheerfully takes advantage of idiots who only want to go out and shoot something. He also comes through in the end with a grand gesture of love – even if Delilah initially has to have it spelled out for her

In the end, neither Delilah nor Ryder is perfect. I foresee fights and smashed liqueur bottles galore as they work out their relationship but they’ve come so far from where they were and have helped each other heal that even with the probable fireworks, I think they’re well suited and headed for a HEA. B


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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. Jody
    May 03, 2013 @ 08:14:51

    I can’t wait to read this! Our reading tastes are very similar, and if you liked this, I know it’ll be good.

    If you like the 1920’s setting, have you read any of the Phryne Fisher books by Kerry Greenwood? There’s also an Australian TV series based on them that’s available on Acorn Streaming. It’s equally good, if a bit sanitized.

  2. LJD
    May 03, 2013 @ 08:39:57

    Did you read the novella that comes before this, Far in the Wilds? It was mentioned as a deal on DA several weeks ago (free–and it’s still free, apparently) and I downloaded it, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

  3. Jayne
    May 03, 2013 @ 08:51:20

    @Jody: I’ve never heard of the Greenwood mystery books but they look wonderful – and have fabulous covers! Thanks for the rec.

  4. Jayne
    May 03, 2013 @ 08:55:31

    @LJD: Yes, I read it before finishing “Spear of Summer Grass.” You don’t have to read it first before starting the book, if you don’t wish. It’s about Ryder and two other minor characters in “Spear” in a time shortly after the end of WWI. It gives a bit of background on the type of person Ryder is and why another character married someone she doesn’t love. The tone is a bit different from “Spear” since “Spear” is told in Delilah’s first person POV.

  5. Brian
    May 03, 2013 @ 08:56:37

    Thanks for the review Jayne. I like her Lady Julia books (the early ones more than the later ones) so this ones going on my list right away.

  6. Jayne
    May 03, 2013 @ 09:01:52

    @Brian: I totally agree about the Lady Julia books and hope that this new setting will revitalize Raybourn’s juices.

  7. Tina
    May 03, 2013 @ 09:29:35

    I’ve had my eye on this book for awhile — the setting, the time, the booze swilling heroine. But the blurb wasn’t really selling me on it and I kinda cringe at reading “romance novelization” of British colonization of East Africa, the rise of Big game hunters, the huge plantations and marginalization of the tribes. But I do admit this review does pique my interest a bit more and I am curious about how race relations are handled — if at all. It is so rare for a historical romance to be anything but utterly white that the possibility of any sort of racial anything could be worth the look.

  8. Amy Kathryn
    May 03, 2013 @ 09:29:46

    I am really enjoying the Phryne Fisher television series. The costuming and such is wonderful. It reminds me of the Mrs. Bradley PBS series in many ways just with a younger lead. I have the first book on my kindle but I was a little hesitant since I had a hard time with the first book of Greenwood’s contemporary series.

    I have this book from the library ready to read. I saw on Ms. Raybourn’s blog that she will have a few more stand alones before possibly returning to Lady Julia novels. There will be another digital novella out though in the next year or so.

  9. Jody
    May 03, 2013 @ 10:30:42

    @Amy Kathryn
    I have a hard time with Greenwood’s contemporary series, too, but the first six or seven Phryne books are delightful. The book Phryne is substantially more …um… adventurous, shall we say, than TV Phryne.

  10. Aisha
    May 03, 2013 @ 11:24:37

    “I’m wondering how the race relations aspect of the book will go over”
    I’m not sure that ‘race relations’ is the correct term here, but I think that this satirical article by Binyavanga Wainaina (who is Kenyan) will say it far better than I will:

    In response to LJD and Jayne, about the prequel novella – Megan S and I were quite critical of the blurb for Far in the Wilds on the April open reader thread, and feeling guilty for having criticised the book and its assumed premise solely on the basis of its blurb, I decided to read the novella. I got to page 19 where Ms Raybourn writes “The men and the Africans gathered around the lion…” because of course ‘Africans’ cannot be ‘men’. Suffice it to say that I will not be reading Ms Raybourn again.

  11. CD
    May 03, 2013 @ 12:14:43


    “The men and the Africans gathered around the lion…” because of course ‘Africans’ cannot be ‘men’.

    Ouch. If that is Raybourn’s approach to colonial Kenya, then for the sake for my blood pressure, I going to have to give this a miss. I cringe even when people talk about “Africa” as if it were a country, and that’s rather more understandable given people’s general knowledge of the region, although not understandable if you’re actually living there…

    It’s a pity – the heroine sounds interesting and a welcome change from the usual. However, putting that character type in a colonial environment… The self-indulgence that would be fun in other settings would just leave me incoherent with rage. And let’s not get started on white big game hunters – ugh. As someone who’s lived and worked in the region, and knows Kenya fairly well, it would be difficult for me to read any book that makes white colonial settlers sympathetic unless the novel was written very well and with a great deal of sensitivity. From Aisha’s quote above, it doesn’t look like this is the case.

  12. Janine
    May 03, 2013 @ 12:34:13

    @Aisha & @CD: Is the line written in omniscient POV, or in the third person POV of one of the characters? I’m asking because in a character’s head, such a line might be part of the depiction of the POV character’s racist attitudes. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the author shares the sentiment.

  13. Eggletina
    May 03, 2013 @ 13:19:16

    The prequel novella is third person POV from the hero’s perspective; the novel is 1st person narrative from heroine’s POV. Re the criticism:

    “The men and the Africans gathered around the lion…” because of course ‘Africans’ cannot be ‘men’.

    I don’t think that is how Raybourn meant it, and I don’t think you should view this through a 21st century political lens. She’s portraying white colonial attitudes and perceptions from the 1920s, not our own time (though I admit her depictions of the various natives is over-simplified and stereotypical, but not in a way that offended me nor any worse than other depictions of a romanticized culture and location which I quite frequently see in romances and adventure novels). Plus, the white colonials aren’t depicted as sympathetic characters (for the most part). In fact, the hero and heroine are highly flawed and often not very likeable at times.

    I had a few quibbles with the novel, but like Jayne enjoyed the story enough to give it a solid B rating.

  14. Aisha
    May 03, 2013 @ 13:21:25

    @Janine: its omniscient POV if I remember correctly.

  15. Aisha
    May 03, 2013 @ 13:33:53

    @Eggletina: Ok sorry you may be right re the POV (I deleted the book so I can’t check), but even if it is meant to be the H’s POV, he is,I gather, meant to be depicted as someone who is fairly egalitarian and liberated (for his time) in his views regarding the ‘natives’. And as an ‘African’, I am offended and I reserve the right to be so.

  16. Eggletina
    May 03, 2013 @ 13:44:11

    @Aisha: I totally understand. It’s obviously a sensitive matter and a hot-button issue for many readers.

  17. Janine
    May 03, 2013 @ 13:57:41

    @Aisha: You have every right to be offended and no one else (especially those of us who aren’t black) has the right to tell you should feel differently or read the material differently.

    From a writer’s standpoint, I think it can be tricky to portray colonial protagonists’ attitudes in a way that is both historically accurate and sensitive. And from a reader’s standpoint, I know that for me, when it comes to Anti-Semitism, I can be sensitive both to portrayals where none of the European characters harbor prejudices against Jews (because it seems like important history is being erased), as well as to those where they do.

  18. Eggletina
    May 03, 2013 @ 14:57:33

    Good points, Janine. I think it is tricky for authors. BTW — I didn’t mean to tell anyone how they should feel. I know better than to use ‘you’ in a sentence that way; it will come back to haunt me every time! Lesson learned.

  19. Jayne
    May 03, 2013 @ 15:26:20

    As far as big game hunting, Ryder is not someone who shoots at anything that moves nor does he allow his clients to do so either. This is laid out in the novella and repeated here in the book. His views on conservation are actually fairly advanced. As Eggletina said, most of the white colonials are fairly unlikable people and not just because they drink massive amounts of alcohol. There is also a feeling of unease among them that they don’t step carefully and keep a firm grip, they’re going to lose their places in the colony.

    Delilah and Ryder are at least aware of the fact that they are not only outsiders here but that the political and racial situation is a crock. No, they’re not out singing Kumbaya with the Masai, Turkana, and Kikuyu but they do see the tribes as different and not one African Borg. They also don’t go in for the standard white colonial disdain or treating the tribes like children to be lead by their superior white example.

  20. Jayne
    May 03, 2013 @ 15:38:38

    Sorry, should have added this to my above #19 comment. I am well aware that I’m reading this book as a white, middle aged, middle class American and that my view points and interpretation of the characters and situations are my own and not meant to try and persuade anyone to either read or not read the book.

  21. Aisha
    May 03, 2013 @ 16:34:16

    I have been trying to decide if I should respond because I may cause offense in the way I do so, although that is not my intent. I am just not sure how to phrase this more diplomatically and make my point, so I beg your tolerance for my inadequacy in advance. I appreciate what you are trying to say here and that your intentions are good, but I was not seeking to be appeased, nor @Eggletina: do I require your understanding of my supposed sensitivity, or @Janine: your affirmation of my rights. While I appreciate what I assume is both of your intent in your responses to my comment/s, I raised what I did as a matter of principle, and because the blatent dehumanising racism (and I think that criticism stands – bearing in mind that I could not finish the prequel or read this book, but both of you did, so you are more equipped to judge how the hero is portrayed in this historical context and how the quote I extracted ties in with that portrayal) that it represents was not being picked up by anyone else. It saddens me that this is so.

    Added to this, the reader’s standpoint, derived from her varying markers of identity are, to me, inconsequential in this case. I am not offended BECAUSE I happen to be ‘African’ (full disclosure – I am South African born and bred, but I was not considered to be, under apartheid racial classifications, Black – although I am now, under current legislation. I’m not sure what I would be in America – not that it should matter, which is my point).

    One final thing, the whole conservation discourse is one that is highly fraught (I think the article I linked to earlier will be illuminating in this regard). Briefly, it ties in with what is more highly valued (animals/’nature’ vs human needs – access to grazing land, protection from marauding animals, etc), and who gets to assign that value, among other things. Too often, the two broad areas of sustainable development, green and brown issues, are constructed and presented as being in opposition, and this goes back in some ways to the imposition on indigenous peoples of colonial ideas around ‘conservation’.

  22. Janine
    May 03, 2013 @ 16:52:59

    @Aisha: No worries on my account, I am not offended, and I’ll go take a look at the link you posted. Also, to clarify, I haven’t read the book and am not offering an opinion on it. Jayne’s review caused my interest to perk up but your comment about the novella gives me considerable pause. I am not sure where I’d fall in if I did read it, but I wonder whether it might help if I felt the author was trying to portray her character as prejudiced (at least initially), which is why I asked that question.

  23. Aisha
    May 03, 2013 @ 17:11:21

    @Janine: Oops sorry for that. I was kind of mixing you and Jayne up. I’d forgotten who had actually written the review :(. From the little I did read (and from Jayne’s comments here), I did not get the impression that Ryder was being portrayed as prejudiced – there was something involving an earring/piercing that was, I think, supposed at that early stage to show how …. evolved and reflective of 21st century sensibilities he was, at least in terms of race. Although of course I may be wrong in this interpretation. Sorry again.

  24. eggletina
    May 03, 2013 @ 21:12:42

    Well, with all that out of the way, is there anyone else out there with opinions who have actually read the entire book who would like to comment? I don’t know how to discuss books with people who haven’t actually read them (that’s not meant as a criticism; we’re all human and have our deal-breakers).

    I also would like to know what term the author should have used in place of ‘Africans’ (which I believe was used as a broad term rather than derogatory) that wouldn’t have been offensive and still be succinct in trying to use a collective one-word description to describe a multiplicity of distinct ethnicities and cultures that have settled in a particular region and still be accessible? I really do understand the criticisms, but from a writer’s perspective I think that issue is hard to work around, and there will always be people who will be offended.

    I’d also be interested in opinions — whether you’ve read the book or not, because obviously it is controversial — whether it is acceptable for outsiders to ever write about or romanticize a culture they don’t come from. In this day an age, I get the feeling it’s harder and harder to successfully accomplish.

  25. Aisha
    May 04, 2013 @ 01:37:21

    @eggletina: Again, I’m not sure that I should comment given your first sentence, but then I read your next paragraph and this “I also would like to know what term the author should have used in place of ‘Africans’”, and I am frankly flabbergasted. I would actually like someone to read that bit in the novella from which I extracted the quote (its about a third of the way through with the lion) and tell me if they think I am misinterpreting this. To reiterate, the quote is “The men and the Africans gathered around the lion”, while the women headed for Ryder (as I said, I deleted the novella so I am paraphrasing the additional bit). To me, and I would think to anyone, this is clearly, and unforgivably, racist. The ‘Africans’ are a separate category from the ‘men’ (or the women for that matter). How can that possibly be justified? The one is a gendered category and the other is… I’m not actually sure – race? born on the continent? Again, I’m not sure but either way that does not really matter here, since my point is that in the context, the problem is not that the word was used as a “collective one-word description to describe a multiplicity of distinct ethnicities and cultures that have settled in a particular region” but to distinguish them from ‘men’ or as other to those presented as ‘men’ (and therefore less than human). “there will always be people who will be offended” – I honestly thought that everyone here or at least the majority would be equally offended but perhaps that was too hopeful (?) of me. I don’t know if that makes my point clearer at all. If not, maybe someone else can weigh in.

    In response to your last question, I don’t agree with standpoint theory, that posits it as pretty much impossible for writers to write about cultures and contexts other than their own (or academics to research them). I do believe firmly that should this be undertaken, the writer or researcher has a responsibility to learn as much about that culture/context and to treat it with sensitivity and respect. And that does not mean romanticising it, which can be almost as harmful as demonising – both serve to essentialise false interpretations.

    Last, “In this day an age, I get the feeling it’s harder and harder to successfully accomplish” – if it is (and I don’t agree that this is necessarily so) but if you believe it is, I am sorry to say that it may be because, to paraphrase Huxley, when you look into the abyss long enough, eventually it will look back. In other words, the difficulty, as I see it here, is that the ‘natives’ are no longer silent (and no, I am not referring to myself in the third person, but I do include myself there).

  26. Aisha
    May 04, 2013 @ 05:09:19

    Sorry to post again, but I had a few things to add. 1st, I think much faster than I type (as I’m sure most of us do) and so sometimes words get lost, so anyway, coming back to this thread I noticed that the last line of my post above should actually read “referring to myself in the third person PLURAL …”.

    2nd, @Jayne: no offense but in fact, by tagging this a recommended read, you are trying to persuade others to read the book. What I have been doing then is largely in response to that recommendation, because I thought that other DA readers would be similarly appalled by the apparent evidence of racism in the prequel to this book, and should be made aware of it in order to make a more informed decision.

    That said however, 3rd, while I think my points are relevant to this review, I am not aiming to make people uncomfortable, to play the moral police, or to derail the discussion, so please, as I have said before on other threads, just tell me to shut up if I am getting out of hand. Eggletina tried to do so I think, but than drew me back into the discussion with her subsequent questions.

  27. eggletina
    May 04, 2013 @ 08:42:03


    your posts actually made me think about how authors have used those the words ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’. When I asked the question above, I was thinking about how they’ve been used by other authors and throughout Raybourn’s novella and novel. I can’t refute your point about the sentence you single out. I also think if you had read further and/or read the novel you’d find it continues to be a problem. I’m out of my depth even trying to discuss this. I feel like anything I say is going to come out wrong or across as very ignorant, prejudicial and unenlightened so I’ll bow out before I stick my foot even further down my throat.

  28. Carolyne
    May 04, 2013 @ 09:29:41

    The prequel triggered my “this is going to be told with a colonialist perspective on the world” spidey-sense in early pages, and I wasn’t finding enough in it otherwise to want to keep going and see how the characters fit into that mindset and how/whether it was illuminated. I’ve read so much with that perspective; I want strength in characters, description, plot to convince me to step into the mire.

    It’s a challenge to provide enough of a counterbalance to a distasteful POV to keep the reader with the story, and I take these books as cautionary examples. I don’t want to spend a romance alternately exhausted and infuriated, so the book needs to have strong self-awareness of what’s being done with its POV, for example by showing the tension in what the reader is seeing (what is described) and how the POV character perceives and vocalises it. It can be done, but I’m not sure this series achieves it. I still have the prequel and am now curious to read it with all the discussion here in mind.

  29. hapax
    May 04, 2013 @ 10:12:08

    @Aisha —

    I do want to thank you for your courteous and eloquent discussion of the problems in this book. I didn’t want to add to your criticism, since I am not African and I haven’t read the books in question, but I very much appreciate that these issues are being raised.

    I haven’t read the book and I don’t intend to (as much as I like Raybourn’s other writing) because I got such a strong whiff of “We Are Africa”* from the blurb. The bits I have read online only reinforce this impression. Life is too short, and there are too many good books to read, to slog through one that I am pretty sure I will find offensive just to see if the author somehow manages to “salvage” things in the end.

    It’s a pity, because I have family in Kenya and I would dearly love to read a historical romance set there that gets it right.

    *Sorry, reference to a song in the musical THE BOOK OF MORMON, a savage satire of white folks enlightened by appropriating the amalgamated landscapes and culture of the “primitive but wise” people of the “Dark Continent”

  30. wikkidsexycool
    May 04, 2013 @ 11:06:11


    Thanks so much for the link to the satirical essay by Binyavanga Wainaina titled “How to Write About Africa.”

    I read the piece and even the comments, and its spot on imho. I plan on reading the Raybourn novel, and I’m glad I read this thread.

  31. Ridley
    May 04, 2013 @ 12:34:06

    @Aisha: That satirical essay by Binyavanga Wainaina left me toasting my monitor. That was great. Thanks for sharing it.


    I’d also be interested in opinions — whether you’ve read the book or not, because obviously it is controversial — whether it is acceptable for outsiders to ever write about or romanticize a culture they don’t come from. In this day an age, I get the feeling it’s harder and harder to successfully accomplish.

    I would argue that it’s not any harder to accomplish, but rather that it’s harder to get away with lazy portrayals without getting called on it. Conversations like this one are a feature, not a bug. This is an object lesson in an ongoing education in privilege.

  32. GrowlyCub
    May 04, 2013 @ 13:17:13

    I read both the novella and the book. I have 2 observations:

    As far as the romance goes, my resounding answer to the question asked at the end in the reader guide: ‘What is D and R’s potential for a happy ending?’ is

    Zero, nada, zilch.

    It’s a book about 2 adulterers who feel no compunction about destroying other people’s happiness, all with the excuse that their hearts were broken. (Ryder sleeps with his Indian employee’s wife under his nose and Delilah says on the first page, ‘I have never stolen another woman’s husband. Oh, if I find one lying around unattended, I might climb on, but I never took one that didn’t want taking.’) They’ll continue to commit adultery until their livers give out which for the unfortunates they encounter hopefully happened soon after the close of the book.

    On the setting: it so totally buys into the myth of ‘the Africa’ that only really cool people will survive and that’s really wasted on the natives that I was left feeling extremely and utterly uncomfortable (prettified version of what I really want to say).

    ETA: I also thought Ryder had better chemistry with the casual love interest in the prequel than with Delilah.

  33. Danielle
    May 04, 2013 @ 13:19:44

    @Aisha: Thank you for not letting these issues pass unnoticed and undiscussed. As much as I am always looking for romances set anywhere outside the British Isles and North America, the genre’s nostalgia-approach to telling stories of colonisers unfortunately remains an ongoing problem.

  34. leslie
    May 04, 2013 @ 15:50:33

    @Aisha: Thanks for sharing the link to Binyavanga Wainaina’s terrific essay.

    And as for the novella….. I too found it offensive and erased it minutes after downloading.
    Thank you for your comments.

  35. Aisha
    May 05, 2013 @ 04:04:41

    For everyone who enjoyed the link, my pleasure (although all I did was copy and paste a link :). I enjoyed it too, but the pleasure was muted by the strong, but understandable (to me) vein of bitterness and cynacism that runs through it. If anyone is interested, this is a link to what I consider to be one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever heard or read – it always brings a lump to my throat and, more often than not, leaves me in tears – – It is Thabo Mbeki’s ‘I am an African’ speech from 1996, given in Parliament (when he was deputy president) on the passing of the Constitution. (caveat – Mbeki was a deeply problematic leader domestically, but his African vision – he, together with Obasanjo and Bouteflika, led the Nepad initiative and precipitated the revitalisation of the OAU into the AU – was and remains inspiring)

    I am also gratified if my alternative critical views provided useful perspective here, but sorry if I closed down discussion and made anyone feel unable to engage. I would though, if I may, like to respond to your question that I missed (ETA – @ Eggletina), about how Africa/Africans is/can be used beyond the problematic way I was pointing out here(but I’m afraid this may turn into a very long post, but I’ll give it a go anyway and be as brief as I can). One of the major problems with the word/s, as I see it (and as Jayne alludes to in comment 19 above, and Wainaina shows), is that it is frequently a collective noun that simultaneously dissolves differences while serving as an indicator or shorthand for other imagined and imposed collective characteristics. So African becomes conflated with Black for example, and what does that mean for the inhabitants of the Maghreb region? Are they not African? And what about about me? All of the people who have settled on this continent over the centuries from various points of origin, and whose descendants now have (and want) only this one home – this conflation would deny me, for one, my claim to my Africanness. The word/s are additionally compromised by the heavy baggage they carry – the continent is war-torn/underdeveloped/poor/diseased/debt-ridden – ultimately hopeless. None of this is true of course, not in the collective, but it is too often the default assumption of uninformed people.

    But this is all restating the problem, so what’s the solution? At its core, it is about recognising and valorising the inherent humanity of all. People are not wholly defined by the shared group identities they may lay claim to. It is also ultimately, for me, about respect and equal treatment. In practice, I suppose this means that a good writer should treat all settings the way she would her own context (although with a little more sensitivity perhaps, since she should be aware that as an outsider, she may not be fully au fait with problematic nuances however diligent she may have been in her research), and all characters should be characters rather than caricatures. I have mentioned elsewhere that I think Alexander McCall Smith is a non-African writer whose No1 Ladies Detective Agency series I have enjoyed (although I haven’t read the last couple of entries). His novels definitely romanticise Botswana, but at the same time, I think they evince a deep respect, appreciation and knowledge of the setting.

  36. Aisha
    May 05, 2013 @ 04:18:28

    @hapax: Sorry, one last thing, I hope :).
    I went to double-check my bookshelves and I am ashamed to say that the only instances of Kenyan fiction represented there are by Ngugi, and they are not romance.

  37. Aisha
    May 05, 2013 @ 08:49:04

    @Aisha: er PPS? Sorry, I realised when I reopened my browser just now that I’d pasted in the wrong link for the ‘I am an African’ speech, so in the interest of accuracy, here is the link to the full text:

  38. Janine
    May 05, 2013 @ 12:12:24

    @Aisha: Thank you so much for the links — I’ve read both Wainaina’s essay and Mbeki’s speech. I would say the Wainaina essay was funny, and it was, but also sharp and incisive. Mbeki’s speech was moving it its affirmation of diversity. Thanks again for linking.

    As for A Spear of Summer Grass, following the comments from people who have read it in this thread, I’ve decided it’s not for me.

    FWIW, my South African sister in law likes the McCall Smith series as well.

  39. wikkidsexycool
    May 05, 2013 @ 12:36:12


    “But this is all restating the problem, so what’s the solution?”

    The solution is to do exactly as you’ve done. Some will get it, some won’t. But I’m writing this to say, as others have, thank you for speaking up. I know of a certain hit novel that spawned a hit film which portrayed African American female domestics.

    All I knew at the time, was that I couldn’t let what was being held up to acclaim as an “authentic” and “beloved” depiction of African Americans from that time period go unchallenged. My rants, complete with historical links turned into a site that now has close to a million hits, (A Critical Review of the Help), and I get questions from readers, universities and students from around the world, seeking out info on what an African American who lived during segregation has to say (like me). But more important, I got assistance and support from a diverse group of women (and men) who understood where I was coming from and were willing to converse about race, both historical and today.

    But what it also did was to make me aware that no one can tell your story, you have to. And
    sometimes you have to speak up, especially if you’ve got information that brings more clarity to a subject.

    Moving on, I created another site with my daughter, which focuses on multicultural books that work hard to make sure characters of diverse races, like you say, aren’t just caricatures. I don’t claim to be a great writer, just someone with a passionate mission. I just got another idea for a novel from this thread. And though it may not go mainstream, sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do :)

    Edited to add: Some of the links and info you’ve shared on Dear Author should really be on a site of your own, if they aren’t already. I’d gladly sign up as a follower. Please know that writers as well as those who do research and also students need to know the other side of the story. You’ve at least provided inquiring minds with tools on where to look and certainly, food for thought.

  40. Ridley
    May 05, 2013 @ 18:05:31


    sorry if I closed down discussion and made anyone feel unable to engage.

    If that happened, that’s not anything you have to apologize for. There’s no shortage of privileged points of view. Sometimes people like us need to just shut up and listen to people like you.

  41. Aisha
    May 06, 2013 @ 02:43:30

    @wikkidsexycool: I never watched that movie, partly because I was aware of the chatter around it, and I don’t generally seek out things that I will find offensive (except, every once in a while, the comment threads on some news sites, just to remind myself of just how rampant racism, misogyny, generalised bigotry, and ignorance remains – something I tend to lose sight of because of my own particular environment and the people I choose to include in my daily life – I never comment on these however, since the level of engagement is not something I am willing to participate in). Anyway, the silver lining of that movie, and your reaction to it, is that it served as the catalyst for you to develop a site that has become a locus of discussion on race and race thinking, so kudos to you :). I, on the other hand, don’t think I have the necessary degree of commitment to run such a site properly, and besides, I prefer to keep my online presence to a minimum for multiple reasons. Finally, I am very interested in learning more about that novel :).

    @Ridley: Thank you, but I am also very aware of my own privileges and wary of possibly using them to the detriment of others. And I would hope that, at least in some ways and at some times, I am included in the ‘us’ and that you join me in the ‘you’ :).

  42. Jayne
    May 06, 2013 @ 02:44:57

    @Ridley: What you said, Ridley. I think some of our most interesting discussions have started when comment threads have branched out beyond the original review/editorial.

  43. Ridley
    May 06, 2013 @ 10:01:26


    And I would hope that, at least in some ways and at some times, I am included in the ‘us’ and that you join me in the ‘you’

    It’s all intersectional, so of course. In this matter of the legacy of colonialism, though, you’re on team Lived Experience, and all of us on team Outside Looking In can learn a lot from you if we just listen.

  44. CD
    May 06, 2013 @ 16:45:10

    This has been a really interesting discussion – thanks to Aisha and others for their comments. I read Binyavanga Wainaina’s article when it first made the rounds, and it is both hilarious and painfully incisive (in both meanings of the word).

    I just want to quickly add a couple of points to the discussion:

    1. I do understand the point that there are huge minefields to navigate for white “Western” writers to write fiction set in the South, and especially around the colonial period. Because of the history, you are under a lot more pressure to do your research, to really think about your own prejudices and assumptions, and most importantly to really understand WHY you want to write that setting in the first place and what you want to achieve. In short, you have to be very very careful. And to be honest, that’s all to the good.

    2. My objection to the use of the word “Africa” as if it were a country or a region is not only because it doesn’t take into account how large and diverse the continent is, but also because of Aisha’s comment about the baggage unfortunately associated with the “Africa”. It’s difficult to describe but using “Africa/Africans” when you mean Kenyans or Nigerians seems to me to deny the complexity and humanity of those whom you’re talking about. I may be oversensitive here but I feel the same way about how people use the firstworldproblems hashtag – it’s not necessarily racist or even meant in a negative way, but it perpetuates the idea of “Africans” as not having a shared humanity – of always being the “Other”.

  45. We should let the historical genre die
    May 07, 2013 @ 08:56:10

    […] […]

  46. MD
    May 12, 2013 @ 16:50:54

    I am way late to this, but wanted to point out that The Book Smugglers had a review of “The Spear of Summer Grass”, and what they say after reading the book matches what Aisha had to say. Well worth reading, I think

  47. Daily Deals: Dead witches, troubled girls, and a classic story of America
    Jul 05, 2013 @ 14:04:23

    […] liked this book enough to recommend it although she acknowledges that there are problematic portrayals in the book. […]

  48. Dear Author | Daily Deals: Dead witches, troubled girls, and a classic story of America
    Jul 05, 2013 @ 19:41:34

    […] style="light-blue rounded"]Jayne liked this book enough to recommend it although she acknowledges that there are problematic portrayals in the book. […]

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