19 May 2016
Disclaimer: This write up is strictly for African readers or writers. If your job is to critic fiction written by Africans, then this is not for you, you can like to click on.
The question of the century is one that keeps popping up in every discussion about African fiction. The question is why African writers write tragedy exclusively. Why do they write on and on about civil wars, tribal or religious conflicts, military regimes, poverty, corruption, misogyny etcetera. This has created a sort of criticism and dislike for African literature among African readers. Some even allege that African writers are writing strictly for white audience. The veracity of this claim, this post would not be addressing.
In comparison with American or European Literature that has been dominating the world’s literary space since time immemorial; the popular question is Africa wyd? (What you doing?)
In truth though, writing tragedy is not exclusive to Africans, Khaled Hosseini from Kabul includes violence in Afghanistan as the backdrop of his stories. Other writers include cultural and political sceneries as part of their setting. So why do African readers always complain about it when African writers do it?
In her post in Okayafrica.com, Siyanda Mohutsiwa, a writer from Botswana, said she is done with African Immigrant Literature. Her reason is simple – wasn’t the importance of African literature to connect us ordinary Africans to each other’s lives? She made reference to Teju Cole’s Open City which is mostly set in New York and NoViolet Bulawayo’s. We need new names which though set in Zimbabwe for most of the book, later changed scenery to America. She wrote: “Yes I respect what contemporary authors are trying to do: share their experiences. That their experiences are not particularly original is probably only true to me… African Literature cannot move forward if we celebrate themes that are centuries old. More explicitly, African Literature cannot move forward with the most celebrated authors writing about Europe”
In his response, Teddy, an American based African wrote, “It is quite honestly, simplistic and naïve to argue for “African Literature”. To do so diminishes the global reach of our experience…With the rise of connected technologies, Africa’s chapter in the book of humanity is not stories of four drunk men under a mango tree, it is about four drunk men arguing about the English Premier league with supported stats pulled from their smartphones. Any which way you slice it, the African story is an Afropolitan story”
I quite agree with Teddy’s point of view. However, this is where I am coming from or going to.
1. Why are African writers being told what to write?
2. Why are we complaining about the settings used?
3. Why does African literature need to be used only to classify a category of stories that are rather tragic and sad?
The case I’m making is fiction written by Africans should not be invisible until when it has a thematic preoccupation of social ills and suffering.
Another important truth is that everyone is trying to mirror their reality or a reality that is particularly fascinating to them. When Lola Shoneyin wrote Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s wives, she was going for something fun and interesting. It was this and more. Nevertheless, it mirrored a reality that though may not be relatable to me seeing as I am not for a polygamous home, but it is likely to be relatable to a whole of other people. Who am I to complain that these theme is not original to me? Who am I to question her use of the particular setting. Who am I to say that it cannot classify as African literature until it is contemporary or until it mirrors something really tragic like a war or political crisis?
What about newly released Like a Mule Bringing Ice cream to the Sun, a novel by Sarah Manyika. In this book, she tells of the adventures of a 75 year old Nigerian lady living in San Francisco. Beyond the setting of the novel, the plot is thick with the nuance portrait of the erotic yearnings of an older woman. I have never been to San Franscio but the book is interesting and the theme rather peculiar but original.
Abubakar Ibrahim wrote about an older woman who found love in a younger man (who happens to be a thug) in his book, Season of Crimsons Blossom. The book for me was mostly about the erotic yearnings of this older woman and the way she defied societal expectations and fell in love with a boy old enough to be her son. I have heard of the civil unrest in Northern Nigeria where the book is set but I have never experienced it. Yet, I was able to feel all the emotions that the author invested in his book.
In purple violet of Oshantu by Namibian Novelist, Neshani Andreas, writes about domestic violence in Namibia and I was able to understand it, without the story being one that was particularly true to me.
Hairdresser of Harare is also an example sample of this. It is a book about Dumisani, a gay African man. I have never met a gay African man and neither have I been to Zimbabwe but I could feel his pain at every point in the story.
We are not defined by a single narrative. A whole lot of things are going on around the world and Africans are part of these things. It would be limiting to ask an African writer to not tell her stories based in America or France, or to tell her not to write about Apartheid. I know we get tired of these stories and it’s also recognized that some of these writers, writing about war and suffering, or about the trials of living in a foreign country, write to fit into the mould and be successful. As a reader, is that really what we should be concerned with? Is your job not to enjoy a well written, interesting story?
In her post on theguardian.com, Dr. Ainehi Edoro wrote, “Publishers and critics became used to the idea that any fiction coming out of Africa must lay claim to some truth about Africa. It became the practice to market African fiction not around their literary attributes but around the social and political issues they address.”
She further wrote, and this is what we are mostly concerned with in this post “the practice has gone on for so long that we readers, reviewers, publishers have forgotten how to engage with African novels except from the standpoint of the social or political issues they address.” She ended her post with the fact that we have to stop telling the single story about African stories.
Let me back it up a little bit. This post was introduced with the fact that African writers are being criticized for writing only tragedy.
At the end of this post, I can assure you that you’re not reading enough African books if you still think Africans are writing only tragedy. While you’re not reading enough African books, the ones you read are read from the stand point of seeing some anthropological value.
It is important that you see these books beyond this. For example while in Americanah, Chimamanda wrote about the struggles of a black woman in Africa, she also tells a story about love. The love is so powerful; you will easily never forget it. Also, though Kite Runner is set against the backdrop of tumultuous events as the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy through the soviet military intervention, it is also and majorly father-son story. It is a novel that emphasizes the familial relationship, featuring guilt and redemption.
These are the things we should focus on in a story. And if you’re looking for sci-fi by African authors, Nnedi Okorafor is an excellent sample – she writes fantasy, science fiction and speculative fiction.
But dear African reader, if there’s a genre in African novels that you’re not seeing, or you do not like, it is up to you to correct it by writing your own book!