Writing the Elemental Narrative

Literature Writing


‘An elemental narrative’ is the description we should use for a story that transcends genre. Our understanding of ‘elemental’ relates to what is ‘essential’ or ‘a basic part.’ It means that our elemental narratives always bear the premise that we are writing a ‘basic’ story that touches at the heart of who we are and what we have become. The goal of the writer will be to write a story that is as elemental as a shared humanity, those recognizable qualities that makes us human, and sometimes inhuman.


The word ‘novel’ will serve merely for classification because in my thinking a narrative traverses the edges of fiction, reality, and everything in-between. The writer will not seek to write a story that fits into such categories as literary fiction, because in our time no one has successfully defined what those words mean. Perhaps that term, and classification, resulted from the arrogance of writers of an earlier generation who wanted to distinguish the stories they wrote, or told, from those of writers whose work did not fit into their artistic vision.


Even more, this goal should be taken seriously by an African writer. In truth, classifications – and the conscious practice of adhering to them – have not helped us much. Our publishing industry suffers in part, I believe, from an attempt to elevate one genre over the other. Genres may suffice for bookstores, and libraries, but they should not suffice for writers when they struggle in solitude. Assuming the African writer cares little about attempting to write ‘literary fiction’ but feels compelled to imagine a post-apocalypse world in Mushin, and remains faithful in telling the tale, perhaps we can have narratives that reach an otherwise neglected audience.


I understand the complexities arising from this proposition. One is the question whether narratives are to be written with a ‘value chain’ in mind. That is, should writers think about the mass appeal of their stories while writing? Should we write the Harry Potter series knowing that such a tale might appeal to people in their hundreds of millions? I think the serious writer never bothers about a value chain. Some of the best writing tips have come from ‘genre’ writers, showing that their preoccupation transcend the categorization forced on the sort of stories they publish. Perfect example: Stephen King’s On Writing. Yes, not every writer will speak to the human condition; some might waste so much effort creating fleeting erotic pleasure, or proposing their boring speculative ideas about the next millennium. Yet, there are always those whose stories bring out the ‘questions’ in all of us. When we read The Worthing’s Saga by Orson Scott Card, or read anything by John Irving, or the Afro-SF anthology, we find the limitlessness that bedevils the courageous questioner called a writer.


Our business is to write, to write well, and to ask the hard questions. We should not care if these questions are asked in a story set on the moon or on a bed with rumpled sheets.


My experience with Farad, so far, teaches me how important the elemental narrative is. Some of the best conversations I have had around the book come from friends and strangers who are not ‘mainstream critics’ or ‘literary enthusiasts.’ They are book-loving people interested in how a story speaks to them. They complain, mostly, about the philosophical disposition of the stories in the book – which always puts me on the defensive, because I never intended philosophy. Some of them complain that Farad is ‘littered’ with ‘big words’ and quotes, or that it ‘fills your head with a million and half line of thoughts’. And more than once, that in the book the authorial voice – mine – is ‘loud.’ (I blame the last observation on my love for European novels).


Whatever the case, I am learning to write for no other reason than to stimulate a reader. My idea of an elemental narrative is rooted in the conviction that narratives are open-ended forays in the business of living. We should write the sort of stories we want to write, of course, not the sort that won an award the last time. And, even, our situation is critical.’ For writers based in Africa or anywhere for that matter, there are many factors that determine whether or not we become globally visible. The least of our worries should be the commercial value of our stories, which is actually the agent and publisher’s headache. I am convinced that elemental narratives will not be faithfully written when the writer is bothered about a value chain.


Unfortunately, in our time, the distraction of the commercial value of our work has become almost impossible to avoid. The success of other writers stare us down, and we keep entering for competitions to get lucky enough to be sold to a consuming, Western world. But the road is crooked and narrow, and the chances that we will attain fame are like water in a teaspoon. We may not get famous, we might – the least we can demand from ourselves is to write, to write well, and ask the right questions, regardless of genre.