Black Ghosts: Noo Saro-Wiwa’s new book is a powerful reflection on Africans in China
Noo Saro-Wiwa is a celebrated Nigerian-born travel writer. Her latest book is Black Ghosts. It explores, with candour and compassion, the lives of several African economic migrants living in China, a group of people who are key to trade between the continents. As a scholar of African travel writing and mobility, among other fields, I read the book with keen interest and then asked Saro-Wiwa more about it.
Janet Remmington: Let’s start with the title: Black Ghosts. And the subtitle which outlines your focus: “a journey into the lives of Africans in China”. In your opening chapter, you introduce the reader to the concept of the “black ghost”, which carries connotations of a negated, disdained or uneasy presence. This term even gets translated as “black devil” by users on WeChat, China’s version of the social media platform WhatsApp. It makes for a disturbing introduction to Africans in China. But, as we read on, the reality is far more complex than the implied disavowal and racism. What have you been motivated to investigate through this travel book?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: I remember being amazed to hear that there was a sizeable African community in China. It’s not a country I associate culturally with Africa. I wanted to see how Africans fit into a society that is known for its unprogressive views on race. Black people in countries like Brazil, the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK have always held currency in the cultural sphere despite our economic marginalisation. But in China we don’t have such purchase, therefore I was curious to see how they navigate that society.
Janet Remmington: Your new book heads off in a very different direction to your 2013 award-winning debut Looking for Transwonderland in which you traverse Nigeria, the land of your birth, as we discussed in a wide-ranging interview. Before Black Ghosts, you had mainly visited places around the “Atlantic rim”, you say, where connections were “woven by history and colonialism”. For you, China offered no such familiar, if ambivalent, touchpoints. What did this mean for the writing of your new book?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: Despite globalisation and mass travel, China holds a faint mystique – it’s not visited quite as often as other countries in the region. The language, written and oral, is difficult and in some ways impenetrable. It made me an outsider in the fullest sense, feeling my way around the very edges of that society. My observations were those of someone on the steepest learning curve with no historical or personal attachment to the place. However, my exploration wasn’t so much of China but of the Africans living in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
Janet Remmington: In Black Ghosts, you take your reader for an eye-opening ride through diverse parts of China. You seek out African migrants and find a lot of variety – more than you expected. Can you elaborate on your journey into the lives of Africans in China?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: There was a different vibe. Far fewer of the insouciant idlers on the street that you get back on the home continent. People were busy, evasive initially. I met traders who were there on short regular visits, buying goods to export back to Africa. I chatted with visa overstayers – people who had come as traders but, through various misfortunes, were stuck in the country in limbo.
Then there were highly skilled people, such as the cardiac surgeon or the former mixed martial arts champion who was now a promoter of the sport. He was one of numerous Africans who have Chinese partners. China worked out for him and he led a comfortable life there, but others had more ambivalent attitudes towards the country.
Janet Remmington: In exploring African experiences in China, you reflect on the influence of class, gender and sexuality in addition to race. How do you understand the interplay of these factors in relation to travelling and considerations of settling?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: Migration is somewhat easier for men. Their slower biological clocks give them more time to try and make it in China, and they can make complex domestic arrangements to suit their needs. For example, in Hong Kong I met a man who had wives in both countries (something Chinese men in Africa also do). Intermarriage sometimes occurs between African men and Chinese women who originate from the countryside. As migrants to the city, they too are outsiders of sorts, sometimes with limited rights. Marrying African men sometimes gives them a foothold in the economy.
Class also played a role, for example when it comes to teaching English. Africans with fewer educational qualifications were paid less to teach English. One Kenyan woman I met had to pretend she was American in order to secure a teaching job with decent pay. But when it comes to sexuality, China offers certain freedoms – I saw gay African guys who clearly moved around there in a way that they would not back at home in Nigeria, where same-sex relations are criminalised.
If you told people in the 1300s that Africans would one day populate the Caribbean, and that Europeans would displace native Americans or that Indians would form half the population of Fiji, people would never have believed it. African neighbourhoods in China was not a concept I would’ve envisaged in my childhood.
Migration is unpredictable like that. You never know what the future might bring. Future changes in the economy, the environment, and in China’s demographic makeup could create all sorts of movements of people. With China becoming more exposed to foreigners in ways that challenge citizens’ beliefs and create affinities, could this influence future directions? It could have some bearing on cultural creativity or investment decisions one day.