Updated: Jan 11, 2021
What have critics said about African writers?
In his paper Themes in African Literature Today, Per Wastberg states: “African Literature does not create masterpieces in the fastidious Western sense of the word. The interest lies in what the works deal with and not so much in what they constitute as poetry or form.” Could this be the smug, Eurocentric perspective I discussed in my previous blog? Wendy Belcher, Princeton professor of medieval, early modern, and modern African literature, thinks Wastberg’s statement is ludicrous (personal communication) and states that in fact she has a class titled, “Masterpieces of African Literature.” One might accuse Wastberg of being racist with his statement, but the author was active in the anti-apartheid movement and ironically a friend of South African writer and political activist Nadine Gordimer. Could that be why Wastberg excluded South African writers in his analysis of African literature?
Gordimer with Mandela in Johannesburgh, 2005 (Credit: Radu Sigheti/Reuters)
Nadine Gordimer’s writing arose in the Apartheid era. Social and political injustice stimulates great fiction. Particularly for sub-Saharan Africa and Africans, the colonial and postcolonial eras were key in shaping the themes African writers have tackled. The 1950s
Things Fall Apart: an icon among African writers (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
were a kind of golden age for African writers, particularly with Chinua Achebe’s famous Things Fall Apart (TFA). That work has been analyzed, critiqued, evaluated and examined in so much depth, I doubt I can add to it, but most critics appear to agree the TFA tale of Nigerian villager Okonkwo is a strong statement about the destructive consequences of colonialism on African culture and society. But Achebe also became a forceful critic of post-colonial Nigerian governments as well. After a car crash in Nigeria in 1990, he left Nigeria for the United States, where he died in 2013 after a career of teaching at Bard College and Brown University. The success of TFA was, and still is, profound. Translated into myriad languages and selling more than 12 million copies worldwide, the work is required reading in many colleges and secondary schools around the globe. It is held up as a classic in African literature and literature as a whole. To this day, African writers name it as an inspiration and a standard to which to aspire.
Themes tackled by African writers
Ali Mazrui listed seven themes in African writers wrestle with: the clash between
Africa’s past and present;
Tradition and modernity;
Indigenous and foreign;
Individualism and community;
Socialism and capitalism;
Development and self-reliance;
Africanity and humanity.
If Mazrui is right, then Things Fall Apart embodied one or more of the themes. But I’m not
Amos Tutuola, an unique voice among African writers (Photo: schoolbag.info)
certain that Amos Tutuola‘s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (PWD), which beat TFA to publication by six years (1952 and 1958, respectively), does. The novel is about an unnamed man (the narrator) who is addicted to palm wine. When his tapster (one who taps the palm tree for the sap used to prepare the wine) dies, the desperate narrator sets off for Dead’s Town to try to get the tapster back. He travels through a world of magic and supernatural beings and goes through multiple tests before gaining a magic egg with never-ending palm wine. Published by Faber and Faber, the story is told in pidgin English, which became some of the focus of much of the West’s criticism.
Although Dylan Thomas described Tutuola’s work as “young English” and praised the book in a marvelous review, others were not as sanguine. The New York Times Book Review described Tutuola as “a true primitive” whose world had “no connection at all with the European rational and Christian traditions,” adding that Tutuola was “not a revolutionist of the word, …not a surrealist” but an author with an “un-willed style” whose text had “nothing to do with the author’s intentions. Rational and Christian traditions? Seriously? Other adjectives used to describe Tutuola’s style included, “lazy,” and “barbaric.” This kind of contemptuous commentary is a good example of Eurocentric smugness about their literature, to which I referred in my previous blog.
Other notable African writers include Ghanaians Ama Ata Aidoo and Abena Busia, Nigerian Wole Soyinka, who won the 1986 Prize in Literature (the first African to have done so), Senegalese Sembene Ousmane, Cameroonian Ferdinand Oyono, Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nigerian Cyprian Ekwensi, Guinean Camara Laye (whom Adele King and others believe did not solely pen either of his novels L’Enfant Noir [The African Child] and Le Regard du Roi, particularly the latter) and Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah, who wrote the memoir The Eloquence Of The Scribes, an exploration of the connections between the oral and written traditions of ancient Egypt, feudal Africa and contemporary Africa, some of which I touched on in the previous blog.
Young Camara Laye (Photo docsafro.com)
Breadth of African writing
In taking a critical look at the work of African writers, we need to be careful not to think of their themes and subject matter as monolithic. Lucianne Englert points out in an article that in fact there’s a vast array of types of literature from African writers. And Michael Chapman of the University of Natal, Durban, suggests we use the plural form, literatures. He states, “African Literatures remind us that Africa is far from homogeneous in language, culture, religion, style, or in the processes of its modernity. Rather, it is what Ali A. Mazrui describes as something of a ‘bazaar.'”
A second pitfall is to entertain the impression that the works of African writers has somehow stopped. No, Chinua Achebe isn’t all there was or is. There is a rich collection of worthy contemporary African writers, including my fellow Soho Press author, Okey Ndibe.
I recommend taking a look at Publishers Weekly’s 10 Essential African Novels, in which five modern African authors choose their two favorite African novels. It’s a great list that includes some of Mazrui’s seven themes and even others, perhaps.
African writers who draw attention to themselves have to a large part penned literary fiction, but I personally think a lot about another genre I’d like to see from African writers, and that’s mystery fiction and detective stories. Purists may argue that by definition, African literature cannot possibly include mystery fiction. Nevertheless, in an upcoming blog, I would like to consider the present state of mystery fiction by African writers.