The furthest a book has taken me: Johny Pitts on ‘An African in Greenland’

The furthest a book has taken me: Johny Pitts on ‘An African in Greenland’

The Jhalak Prize-winning author of Afropean on how Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s trailblazing 1977 Togo-to-Greenland odyssey subverted the traditional travel-writing gaze and opened a world of possibilities.

Johny Pitts

The furthest a book has taken me? Greenland.

I spent my late teens and early twenties dreaming of distant shores, living vicariously through a travel writing canon dominated by brilliant but predictably white and middle class writers like Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, and Jonathan Raban. They offered normalised – almost neo-colonial ­– Western perspectives set against the humorous, maddening, exotic, dirty, picturesque landscapes of the ‘other’. 

It wasn’t until I read Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s astonishing An African in Greenland, however, that as a working class writer with brown skin I tentatively began to imagine myself as a travel writer. I can say, plainly and clearly, that without it my book Afropean: Notes from Black Europe would not exist.

It wasn’t until I read 'An African in Greenland' that I began to imagine myself as a travel writer

As an intrepid adventure, the odyssey Kpomassie takes us on eclipses anything the aforementioned writers managed to achieve: a nonfiction account – which I must emphasise because it sounds more like an epic novel in description – of a teenager from Togo who escapes a looming induction into a local snake cult and dreams of travelling as far away as possible, which he considers to be the snowscape of Greenland. It will take him ten years – via a stint in France – to get there, but get there he does, producing a beautiful, compassionate, insightful account of his two years living as an ‘African Eskimo’.

Despite being first published as recently as 1977 in France (and translated to English in 1981), it struck me that An African in Greenland might well be the first travel book detailing an account of someone from the Global South journeying north/west (rather than the other way round) for simple curiosity since Ibn Battuta’s 14th-century Rihla. There haven’t been many more such journeys chronicled since, either. 

What is perhaps most impressive and surprising, though, is the humour Kpomassie allows himself in describing the initial shock of Inuit cultures seeing their first Black man (is he a giant, a god or a devil!?), and the cultural differences he experiences, such as the open, casual promiscuity of an Inuit woman he thinks he’s entering into a monogamous relationship with. 

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