The challenge for African writers, the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o famously asserted half a century ago, is a challenge of language; if violence was the weapon of physical subjugation, then language was the weapon of spiritual subjugation.
Alongside the challenge of language stood the marginalisation of female African writers, and the alleged predominance of the West in determining who is celebrated or not as a great African writer. Add to that the preoccupation with how Africa is portrayed by African and non-African writers and you have a cocktail for a conversation about African literature; whether in fiction or non-fiction, these faultlines have been some of the most rigorously debated questions amongst Africa’s literati and indeed beyond; but increasingly, “African Literature”, always an elusive beast to pin down, is becoming a moveable feast that defies the easy conversations of yesteryear.
In a year of milestones, it might be time to ask ourselves whether or not certain conversations are staid. A decade on from Binyavanga Wainaina’s witty, takedown of stereotypical writing about Africa – How to write about Africa – and 50 years since the publication of three classics of post-colonial literature, Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino, Grace Ogot’s Promised Land and Flora Nwapa’s Efuru – how much has changed? Well, for one thing, we can tentatively say that the marginalisation of African female writers amongst the celebrated is over. Over the past decade, a slew of writers from Chimamanda Adichie, to NoViolet Bulawayo have put a firm female voice at the heart of African literature, producing some memorable heroines in African literature; and their rise is contributing to a re-evaluation and celebration of the pioneering female voices of post-colonial literature, from Ama Ata Aidoo to Flora Nwapa.
Add to that the formidable female presence within African publishing, from Bibi Bakare-Yusuf at Cassava Republic Press, to young digital starters Barbara Njau and Kudakwashe Kamupira of Bahati Books, and you have a measure of a remarkable change; but if the demon of male dominance has been laid to rest, the other old challenges remain, albeit being faced with new vigour, not least the old challenge of African literature’s relationship with the West.
Nowhere has there been more criticism than around the political economy of literary prizes. Wainaina, a past winner of the Caine Prize (2002) has critiqued its dominance in public perception, notably African public perception, and Adichie, when asked about the prize remarked that the best African writing was “in her inbox”. Increasingly though, these boxing matches with the West’s literary pre-dominance are becoming a sideshow, compared to the activism of a new generation of digital publishers and writers across the continent; from the Etisalat Prize for African Literature, the Jalada collective’s prize and literary publications, to the Saraba and Kwani? Manuscript Projects, the field of African recognition in literature has certainly become more vibrant than just the Caine Prize.
Nevertheless, the modern conundrum for African writers remains because the primary consumer market for writers remains the West, or more broadly speaking, it is international, rather than on the continent. Given the cold reality of economics though, demography may soon make it more profitable to be a successful writer on the continent than in the West, the size of markets like Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya dwarves the publishing markets in the UK and elsewhere, if the challenges of distribution can be met. Whether African writers are ready for that remains to be seen. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the issue of language where most major writers still eschew African languages for English, French or Portuguese. That said, earlier this year, in a quietly explosive digital moment, the literary collective Jalada translated a short story, The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright by Ngugi wa Thiong’o simultaneously into 30 languages, 28 of them indigenous African languages; a year ago, Ankara Press, an imprint of Cassava Republic, translated 14 short stories into various African languages on Valentine’s Day; so it seems publishers in Africa are increasingly waking up to the possibility of African literature in indigenous African languages being a huge market opportunity for them.
After half a century of hand- wringing, there seems to be a tentative groundswell of literary activism reclaiming these languages – a conversation in which the voices on the continent are primary – reflecting the fact that it is no longer true that writers need to leave home to have a voice; successfully remaining on the continent or at least visiting frequently, now seems to be de rigeur and even necessary, to be a legitimate voice from the continent.
More importantly, African writers are increasingly putting their support behind African publishers by publishing first on the continent; both novels by Zimbabwe’s Tendai Huchu were published first by his Zimbabwean publisher, Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday was published first in Nigeria following great anticipation, and Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule Bringing Ice-Cream to the Sun, was also published first in Nigeria by Cassava Republic.
While it’s a stretch to say that the digital landscape has equalised an unequal situation, African writers with access to the publishing capital and kudos of the West have been at an advantage for a long time. But the tide of legitimacy seems to be turning.
Earlier this year, Siyanda Panda Mohutsiwa wrote that she was tired of immigrant literature and the roster of big African titles (Americanah, We Need New Names, Ghana Must Go to name a few). If there appears to be a tidal wave of diasporic experience celebrated by Western publishing, then increasingly today, it is matched by writing rooted on home ground – for instance, Blackass by A. Ignoi Barrett and Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.
But the diaspora/ non-diaspora divide might be a false dichotomy. The real revolution is happening in publishing. It is driven by increased digital access across the continent, both in the form of blogs, and publishers, who are making it easier for new African voices to emerge that have no need to be linked to the market demands of the West; these interactions are spurred on by social media campaigns, hashtags and controversies such as #100DaysofAfricanReads that bring the “African literati” together.
It has also been helped by the rise of a new literary activism around festivals, including the Hargeisa Book Fair (Somaliland), Ake Festival (Nigeria), Writivism (Uganda), Africa Writes (United Kingdom), and Storymoja (Kenya) – and in South Africa, a vociferous movement to decolonise literary festivals. The world has the internet to thank for some of this – alongside better economic times and a youth bulge on the continent; certainly the internet has proved to be African literature’s “Gutenberg moment” – side-stepping certain issues, if not the ongoing problems of physical distribution, a new generation of writers and publishers are tackling questions that are not just literary but economic. The knotty question of language, where Ngugi has been the battling knight, urging African writers to return to indigenous languages, has become not one of impracticality but of willingness – as both publishers and writers experiment with initiatives like Jalada’s, and the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize founded by Mukoma wa Ngugi and Lizzy Attree which gives awards to writing in Swahili.
While these publishing actions remain symbolic, they bring to the fore questions for African writers that bring up deep insecurities – who they are writing for? And by whom do they want to be read? These are not easy questions to answer – but they remain at the heart of the publishing economy. For if African writers want to replace the West with Africa as the primary audience, there is still a lot of work to do. As for the new writing itself, over the past ten years, in both fiction and non-fiction, African writers have charted new courses – even if there have been painful battles about their symbolic meaning and positions vis à vis the West.
When NoViolet Bulawayo published her novel, We Need New Names, a review by a fellow Caine Prize winner fretted that her work was playing into the “disaster porn” narrative so roundly critiqued by Wainaina. Be that as it may, in truth a quieter revolution seems to have emerged, of two strains; one, a current of writing that pays much attention to the daily life of the continent, and its history – emblematised by work like Tendai Huchu’s Hairdresser of Harare, and Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu. The second is genre fiction, which has increasingly been a medium of success for African writers, such as Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat, amongst others – even Adichie’s Americanah was arguably a romance novel writ large in that vein. Perhaps this keys into another potential revolution in African literature, the emergence from Europe’s false dichotomy of high and low, for determining what is popular and what is worthy of literary worship; in the new world of African writing where the internet plays a great role, there’s a smorgasboard of styles to choose from, but nobody is trying to maintain the illusory divide between literary fiction and popular fiction.
What everyone is trying to figure out, though, is whether Africa can resolutely become its own source of validation and the main market for its own literature. The obstacles still remain formidable, but increasingly, African writers and publishers have the tools and are ready to do the work, and the economics and demographics of the continent are on side.