Dismissing Africa

by Posted on July 17th, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Notes on Witness Vol. XXII

Witness vol XXII, Dismissing Africa

One of the many risks of Witness, “the magazine of the Black Mountain Institute,” presenting an issue dedicated to the theme of Dismissing Africa is that the very notion of dismissing “Africa” already dismisses the individuals who live in Africa. I don’t deny that this volume sometimes succumbs to the pitfalls attached to that risk, but I still really liked the Dismissing Africa issue, both aesthetically and morally.

Featuring thirty-nine contributors in fiction, poetry, photo-essay, and non-fiction, there is a significant range of quality in the work in this issue of Witness, and the editorial preferences in both prose and poetry (but particularly poetry) are a bit conservative for my taste—I don’t dislike a poem like “Landscape with Mud Turtle,” but it doesn’t make any impression on me at all, I’ve forgotten it as soon as I finish reading it. Here’s the first stanza:

I’d have thought my life at halfway would look

half-grown, half-gone, or half-born,
But try as I might I can’t get far enough off to see it.

Among the reeds, the rocking cattails,

the hollow seed pods of last summer’s lilies,

I can’t for the life of me get a long view. And why should I?

My favorite thing in Dismissing Africa is the excerpt from the photo-essay “Bureaucratics” by Jan Banning, which consists of eight posed photographs of individual bureaucrats and groups in their offices—which are of varying quality but uniformly bare. Some of Witness’ prose selections are a bit mannered, but most are excellent, particularly Chris Abani’s nonfiction contribution, “Ethics and Narrative: the Human and Other.” As a whole, Dismissing Africa’s effectiveness not only justifies but rewards its ambition.