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.

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. 

When I set out to document the Black experience in Europe, I used An African in Greenland as a template, and not just for its funny and evocative writing. What so many publishers wanted from me was pure polemic; angry sentences denouncing the landscape I was travelling through, for few things ensure white readership like Black outrage. 

But there’s no real power in that. Kpomassie insisted upon the full scope of his sometimes morally ambiguous humanity and, as all the best travel writers do, took us on two journeys: through what he saw but also how he felt, these inner and outer landscapes both richly and honestly detailed. This makes the serious stuff all the more affecting, because while Kpomassie has a lightness of touch, he also offers a unique and moving insight into and empathy with the struggles of this distant community he has ingratiated himself with. His observations of what the Danish did to Inuit culture also allow him to critique colonialism (something he knew all too well, being from an African country under French rule struggling for independence) without victimising himself.

To see this Black man reverse the gaze, describing the weirdness of a white world, is as refreshing as the breeze in the mountains he is among.

Illustration by Michelle Pereira.

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