Behind the Tendency Classics: Anthony Sams' "Toto's 'Africa' by Ernest Hemingway"
 
Title: "Toto's 'Africa' by Ernest Hemingway" 

Author: Anthony Sams 

Date of Publication: July 1, 2011

Excerpt:

The plane was almost gliding. The young man looked at the wristwatch again. His head spun from whiskey and soda. She was a damned nice woman. It would take a lot to drag him away from her. It was unlikely that a hundred men or more could ever do such a thing. The air, now thick and moist, seemed to carry rain again. He blessed the rains of Africa. They were the only thing left to bless in this forsaken place, he thought—at least until she set foot on the continent. They were going to take some time to do the things they never had.


On the inspiration for writing the piece:

I was teaching a course on literary forms and styles at the time. One of the assignments was to take a work by one author and rewrite it in the style of another author from the course. We had been reading texts with strong and unmistakable styles, and among them was Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, which is a slim volume that functions essentially as a best-of collection of his short fiction. 

The students and I were exploring the famous "iceberg style" of Hemingway's prose, specifically in the book's title story and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," which are both set in Africa. There are no shortage of pieces that lampoon Hemingway's terse, icebergian style of writing, but I hadn’t seen much that playfully jabbed at Hemingway’s use of the African continent as a device in his fiction and the development of the myth he made for himself. That was on my mind when I caught Toto's "Africa" on the radio for the umpteenth time.

I've always thought the Toto song was absurd; that's why it's such a fun song to sing along with. And just like Hemingway's Africa stories, the song uses selective imagery to create a backdrop for its characters while romanticizing and reducing Africa. Suddenly the two seemed like a perfect match.

On the writing process:

I think the lyrics are among the great unsolved mysteries of the 1980s. The song is full of half-hints, contradictions, and lines that are easily misheard. It refuses to explain its ambiguities. At the risk of giving it too much credit, there's almost a kind of messy icebergian storytelling at work in it. It feels like there should be something more to it, something under the surface. There's been a lot written lately about how “Africa” has become "the Internet's favorite song," but at the time there weren't too many takes out there about it. It was relentlessly catchy and completely nonsensical, that much we agreed on. I think the hallmark of an effective parody is attention to detail, but once I decided there were things about the song I couldn't explain, the writing process opened up. I found the lyrics and listened to the song on repeat as I wrote the piece.

The first draft came out quickly (in just an hour or so), and it was too long and far too serious. I cut and cut over the next few days until the draft seemed lighthearted, passably Hemingwayesque, and short enough for a style parody not to overstay its welcome. To me, the butt of the joke is that high and low art have more in common than some people imagine, but that had to be clear from the start, not suddenly revealed at the end.

On the audience reaction to the piece:

The song’s ascendance into full-blown Internet meme has given the piece a greater longevity and relevance than I would have imagined when it was first published back in 2011. The piece still pops up in unexpected places at unexpected times. I recall reading someone who said the song never made sense to her until she’d read this particular version. Honestly though, I still don’t understand what the hell the song is about.

- - -

We're providing this post free to the public. More bonus content like this, including content calls and our long-lost column McSweeney's Recommends are available to patrons starting at the $5/month Bronze Gourd Tier and above. Please consider becoming a McSweeney's Internet Tendency patron today!