Calixthe Beyala, How to Cook Your Husband the African Way (2002; trans 2013)

51zqAenL6DL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Calixthe Beyala, born in Cameroon in 1961 and resident in France since 1978, is generally counted as one of the second generation of African Francophone female writers – a judgment that is not merely to do with when she started publishing fiction (the 1990s) but also a reflection upon her typically feisty, feminist, vulgar subject matter and her eschewal of standard French in favour of a Parisian-African vernacular (not that I can tell, being monolingual). For all that she has won a number of major literary awards, there is a lot of critical commentary (mainly by men, at least from the sample I have been able to access online) that portrays her as, in various ways, not a proper writer. And I guess there are what some might consider improprieties in this novel, but I found them interesting and/or enjoyable rather than shocking or somehow disqualifying.

How to Cook Your Husband the African Way begins with what appears to be a fantastical premiss, with the black protagonist/narrator Aissatou explaining that at some point she became white:

My roots are black. I’m a black woman, but being away from my roots has confused me. Let me be honest. I embraced dissipation. I abandoned myself to it as you abandon yourself to a heavy fog. … I don’t know when I turned from ebony to ivory, but I do know that I smear my hair with a product called White Glow. Guess what it does?

I am, as I said, not sure when I became white. I now smear my skin with Venus de Milo and other cosmetics made for whites. That isn’t the end of it, though. Because to be white you’ve got to be thin. I’ve tortured my body to make it as small as possible. So now, I don’t have any breasts and my thighs are flat geometries – all because the mirror of the world requires that I make my body pleasing to white men. A beautiful woman is flat as a pancake, thin as a rake or a slice of Melba toast. Melba toast snaps easily. Crickle crackle. (7)

However, as soon becomes clear (and is already hinted at in the full version of the quoted paragraphs), this fantastical transformation should not be read literally. This is not like George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) or Melvin Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man (1970). It is a moment of hyperbole that captures a certain truth of double-consciousness, of a black woman’s conformity to white standards of beauty, of her willed bodily transformation and the abandonment of African aspects of her cultural heritage it entailed:

I am a white negro woman and food poisons my powers of seduction. I make my body sing by peeling my buttocks, by minimizing my breasts, convinced that if I make a martyr of my stomach, I’ll win a great prize. The pores of my trim body will exude divine sensuality. (15)

And apparently, where white Parisian men are concerned, they do. Which is of no help whatsoever when she falls in love/desire/passion with the Malian Suleiman Bolobolo, the new tenant in her building, who lives with his senile mother, who keeps a chicken in their apartment and who thinks she is in contact with the inhabitants of planet Oburne.

Aissatou’s initial approach to winning Bolobolo is to follow her white consciousness:

Rainbows appeared in the sky to answer women’s need to seduce. When a woman wants to seduce a man, she must smell sweet and glitter. Which is why we visit the lingerie shops when we’re in love. The modern knicker is available in all the glorious colours of the universe. These are consolations the gods have granted us to make up for the fact that we are mortal. (28)

But she realises that she is both ‘in Paris and not in Paris’, bilocated between ‘the African jungle’ and ‘a different jungle, the metro’ (33). And although she cannot ‘be bothered’ (40) to return to or embrace some half-remembered/half-invented version of négritude or africanicity, she can follow the advice she imagines her mother would give:  cook for him, cook African meals that awaken his senses and sensuality, and thus capture his heart (and loins).

And in between each short chapter, there is a recipe or two – for meals as varied as paprika ngombo, boa in banana leaves, domba de macabe, mango puree on toast, and crocodile in tchobi sauce.

The novel tacks a course somewhere between essentialism and cultural constructivism, using the later to undermine the former even as it tend to rely on the former to explore notions of identity and hybridity. The tone throughout is a little bit raunchy – or at least blunt about sex – without ever being pornographic (a charge often levelled against Beyala). And while it is never laugh-out-loud funny, it is always comical.

Time heals all wounds though it doesn’t really wound all heels. If only. (9)

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George S Schuyler’s Black No More. Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

9781555537753_p0_v1_s260x420First edition: New York: Macaulay, 1931
Edition used: New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969

Frequently praised by HL Mencken as

the most competent Negro journalist […] the most competent editorial writer now in practice in this great free Republic[1]

Schuyler has been largely neglected in histories of sf, partly because of the difficulty of penetrating his pseudonyms (including Samuel I Brooks, Rachel Call, Edgecombe Wright), partly because sf constitutes only a tiny fraction of his massive output, partly because he was published outside of the regular pulp venues, and partly because his politics were somewhat at odds with genre norms. So, for example, his novellas ‘The Black Internationale’ and ‘Black Empire’ (1936–38; later collected as Black Empire), which depict a conspiracy of black professionals manipulating national and international politics to reclaim Africa as a black homeland, did not appear in Amazing or Astounding but in the Pittsburgh Courier – not a publication to which sf historians would necessarily think to turn.

The neglect of Black No More, first published in book form at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance in 1931 (when sf books were few and far between), is perhaps harder to explain, although it would not have been promoted as sf and many might have found its dedication off-putting:

THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO ALL CAUCASIANS IN THE GREAT REPUBLIC WHO CAN TRACE THEIR ANCESTRY BACK TEN GENERATIONS AND CONFIDENTLY ASSERT THAT THERE ARE NO BLACK LEAVES, TWIGS, LIMBS OR BRANCHES ON THEIR FAMILY TREES.

When, on New Year’s Eve 1933, Max Disher is spurned by a white woman at the Honky Tonk Club, he decides to take Dr Junius Crookman’s revolutionary BLACK-NO-MORE treatment to turn him white. Adopting the name Matthew Fisher, he returns to his hometown of Atlanta in pursuit of her. There, pretending to be an anthropologist, he takes up with the Reverend Henry Givens, an ex-officer of the Ku Klux Klan, who is starting up the Knights of Nordica, an organisation of

White Men and Women […] Fight[ing] for White Race Integrity. (60)

41DHqZxFNMLTo Max’s delight, the white woman turns out to be Givens’ daughter, Helen. Fearing Max’s growing popularity in his rapidly expanding organisation, Givens is happy to see them married. Meanwhile, Max has been joined by his newly-whitened friend Bunny Brown, and together they make the Knights of Nordica into a major political power, effectively taking over the Anglo-Saxon Association and the Democratic Party. As the black population of America disappears, the central plank of the Knights election strategy is to demand compulsory genealogical testing and race-based social stratification. Crookman and his associates join forces with the Republicans to keep open the BLACK-NO-MORE centres and lying-in hospitals (where any baby born black is turned white so as to avoid social embarrassment). On the eve of the election, Dr Buggerie’s genealogical research – which suggests that if there were as few as one thousand African-Americans who could

pass for white […] fifteen generations ago […] their descendants now number close to fifty million souls (197)

– is stolen, and published in the newspapers:

 DEMOCRATIC LEADERS PROVED OF NEGRO DESCENT
Givens, Snobbcraft, Buggerie, Kretin and Others
of Negro Ancestry, According to Old
Records Unearthed by Them. (210)

Max, Bunny and their loved ones manage to escape. Buggerie and Snobbcraft are not so fortunate. Fleeing though Mississippi in blackface disguise, they are nearly lynched; only after they have proven who they are and that they are white, do the newspapers arrive…

Schuyler_BlackNoMore_CollierBlack No More is a remarkable work of satire, as sprightly and as timely now as when it was written. Its great strength lies in its dyspeptic vision of the absurdity of racism and the hypocrisy with which race is used as a means of obtaining and maintaining power, wealth and influence by some people regardless of colour. This latter is at its most pointed in the sequence in which Max blackmails Blickdoff and Hortzenboff, the owners of Paradise Mill in South Carolina, into paying him to break the imminent strike – a feat he then achieves by seeming to side with the workers, most of them Knights of Nordica who wish to unionise, while hinting that among them are probably some whitened blacks who are constitutionally incapable of not betraying the strike:

Rumor was wafted abroad that the whole idea of a strike was a trick of smart niggers in the North who were in the pay of the Pope. The erstwhile class conscious workers became terror striken by the specter of black blood. You couldn’t, they said, be sure of anybody any more, and it was better to leave things as they were than to take a chance of being led by some nigger. If the colored gentry coudn’t sit in the movies and ride in trains with white folks, it wasn’t right for them to be organizing and leading white folks. (134)

Once the strike is over, the mill owners

took immediate steps to make their workers more satisfied with their pay, their jobs and their little home town. They built a swimming pool, a tennis court, shower baths and a playground for their employees but neglected to shorten their work time so these improvements could be enjoyed. They announced that they would give each worker a bonus of a whole day’s pay at Christmas time, hereafter, and a week’s vacation each year to every employee who had been with them more than ten years. There were no such employees, of course, but the mill hands were overjoyed with their victory. (136)

Because Schuyler’s satire is so wide-ranging, because he treats leaders as cynical manipulators and followers as dupes, because none of his characters seem capable of good or pure motives, it would be easy to label Black No More misanthropic. However, to do so would be to misintepret a comic vision that finds so much humour in venality because those who think they are acting in their own self-interest so frequently are not. Such a perspective produces the kind of absurdism which defines Black No More and which reaches its pinnacle in the last few pages – a few years after the events the novel recounts, it is discovered that those who underwent the BLACK-NO-MORE treatment are in fact lighter in colour than ‘white’ people; consequently, in the desire not to be taken for blacks, people begin to darken their skin colour to look like whites…

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[1] Both quotations can be found in Schuyler, Black Empire (Boston: Northeaatern University Press, 1991), p.312, n.15.