Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Writing the poor into our stories

I live in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, a place with big beautiful buildings, traffic lights and long stretches of unbroken highway. It is a rich man’s town. To illustrate that, there are few sidewalks or pedestrian crossings, and decent housing in the city centre starts at a quarter of a million Naira a year - in two-year leases. An anecdote has it that one minister of the Federal Capital Territory said “Abuja is not for everyone.”
Whether he said it or not, it is certainly been taken to heart. The new minister has committed himself to restoring the city’s master plan. However, he has done this, not by going after the corrupt yet wealthy men and women who have carved out vast plots of land around the city for their personal use, but by destroying shanty towns on the outskirts of the city and beating up and jailing street hawkers.

There is no justification for this. If we look at sheer numbers alone, the majority of the world’s population are poor. This has been true throughout history and across continents. Most of the people who have and will live have little or no access to clean water, good nourishment, decent housing and decent education. The poor outnumber all of us. They always will.

Yet like Abuja’s government, speculative fiction tends to focus on the middle and upper class. Our earliest stories from Gligamesh to Beouwulf to the Ramayana are about the deeds of gods and kings. Those stories that do feature the poor are either cautionary tales - warnings about the lessons of moderation – or they end in acquisition of riches.

Perhaps it was because literacy was so often the domain of the wealthy. Even in oral traditions, only those with the leisure of time could afford to commit prodigious long-form stories and songs to memory. The griot and the minstrel were supported by the coffers of the rich and powerful.

In the imaginary worlds we create today, we don’t inhabit too many worlds dominated by grinding poverty. Most characters born poor get to move up the income ladder. Still, poverty has inspired some of our greatest literature. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were both born into penury. Their childhood experiences gave them empathy and insight that allowed their writing to soar. It also gave both men a prodigious work ethic. Both Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, display the resilience and beauty that is the human spirit, even in the midst of want.

It is easy to write about luxury; to build cities without sidewalks. I think the challenge for me as a writer is to find the stories underneath. The tales told by the underprivileged. Coming from a middle-class background, this will be difficult. However, I think my work, like my city will be a much richer place if I do.


  1. You're absolutely right. I often think of how to do this without getting all preachy in a story. But there's no doubt that multiplicities of experiences can only enrich a narrative.