Gail Collins outlines the growth of African literature, from the 18th century to modern times.
In 1761, a small child, Phillis Wheatley (as renamed by the family she worked for) was captured and taken from her home in West Africa to Boston in the US. Fortunately, she landed in the arms of a benevolent family who taught her to read and write but they would have been totally unaware that this would lead her to become the first African to have work published in the UK and US with her collection of poetry – Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral – in 1773.
Today, African writers are still in the throes of getting their words firmly planted on the world’s literary map, but their remarkable stories and talents are finally receiving the reward and recognition they deserve.
On the African continent, writers have been faced with a plethora of hurdles to overcome, starting with an average literacy rate of 70% against a global one of 90%, with some countries falling lower still, such as Côte d’Ivoire at just 47% and the far from recovering war-torn South Sudan at just 37%.
This is tempered by other countries on the African continent driving literacy rates higher, such as Namibia with an above average 92%, due to a robust national literacy programme that was introduced nearly 30 years ago.
Then consider reading culture, structural problems from within the publishing industry, issues of financing, piracy and less than robust economies. These are ongoing problems which need to be resolved within individual countries but in 2020, the brutal killing of George Floyd propelled the world into old territories still unresolved and sparked a renewed social movement to fight racism and inequality. It touched industries and corporations worldwide, compelling them to look within.
The world of publishing was not exempt, and spurred on by writers such as the Nigerian/British author Bernardine Evaristo, momentum has gathered, creating a broader window of opportunity to reach a wider audience for African writers.
In June 2020, a letter arrived at the offices of the UK’s leading publishers from over 100 Black writers. An excerpt from that letter read: “We are calling on you to help us tackle the deep-rooted racial inequalities in the major corporate publishing companies and support grassroots Black literary communities such as booksellers, book clubs and the Black Writers’ Guild.”
The Black Writers’ Guild was formed in the UK during the process of sending this letter and already has over 200 members who will remain vigilant in the effort to ensure publishers recognise Black literary talent.
Foundation of the modern African novel
In the latter half of the 20th century the world was introduced to a book that is acknowledged as the foundation of the modern African novel – Chinua Achebe’s classic, Things Fall Apart.
This is a book that nearly did not happen as he naively sent his only copy of the handwritten manuscript from his home in Nigeria to a typing agency in England, where it lingered for several months as a non-priority.
Fortunately, he finally received the typed-up copy and after several rejections from British publishers it was accepted by Heinemann and published in 1958. The book was received with global critical acclaim.
This opened the door for many other writers across the African Continent and led Heinemann to the realisation that the post-colonial publishing industry was not supporting African literature.
In 1962 they addressed this with their African Writers Series, which over the decades has included books from Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ghana’s Ama Ata Aidoo. Penguin’s Modern Classics imprint took over the series in 2010 but there were immediate concerns that the contemporary African writer was not being included.
In 1986, new history was made when Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian poet and playwright, became the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, followed closely by Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz in 1988. Nadine Gordimer became the first African woman to win the same prize in 1991.
The millennium seemed to bring a gradual decline in mainstream publishers looking for new African writers, but recent years have corrected this, bringing new historical literary firsts, notably Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker Prize triumph in 2019, when she became the first Black woman to receive this highest literary honour in the English language, in a joint win with Canada’s Margaret Atwood.
Evaristo’s winning novel – her eighth – Girl, Woman, Other is a glorious, intelligent celebration of women and in 2020 she became the first woman of colour and the first Black British writer to get to No 1 in the UK paperback fiction charts, where the book held the top spot for five weeks, remaining in the top 10 for 40 weeks in total.
She was joined in this significant moment by fellow African author and award-winning journalist, Reni Eddo-Lodge, who also rose to the No 1 spot in the UK paperback non-fiction charts with her 2017 debut, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – a book that triggered conversations across the nation’s desks and dinner tables.
African writers in the limelight
In the last decade African writers have again emerged into the limelight, prompting Cassava Republic Press, a leading Nigerian publishing house established in 2006, to open a London office in 2016. Its founder, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf said:
“African writing is not a genre. It encapsulates different genres. I want African writing and writers to feel that they have the freedom to write whatever they want to write without feeling they have to represent a continent, or indeed think that there’s a truth out there waiting to be discovered and captured in words.
“I want to publish books that tell stories of their moment, as well as stories of the long expanse of an imagined past and unknown future. I want to see stories that play with content, form and language.”
There has been a wave of independent UK and US publishers promoting work by a new generation of adventurous and bold African writers, such as Oneworld Publications. They have taken chances and had huge triumphs in discovering novels from writers around the world that have been ignored by the big publishing houses.
One such success story is that of award-winning Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, who achieved global acclaim for her first novel Kintu in 2014, representing literature for Uganda much as Chinua Acheba did for Nigeria. The paperback edition of her latest novel – A Girl Is a Body of Water – is due to be released in the UK in June 2021.
Other triumphs last year came from Maaza Mengiste with her second novel, The Shadow King, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – the first by an Ethiopian to receive this honour – and Tomi Adeyemi’s second breathtaking instalment of her Legacy of Orisha fantasy series for young adults, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, netting her two books at the same time on the New York Times bestseller lists.
2021 will continue to see this fledgling acknowledgement of the scope and contribution African writers are bringing to the literary arena, which involves both established and contemporary authors.
Debut writers such as 2019 Whiting Award Winner Nadia Owusu, with her heartfelt and exceptional memoir Aftershocks (Sceptre, February 2021) and Caleb Azumah Nelson’s beautiful and complex love story, Open Water (Viking, February 2021) lead the way in a new year and possibly a new optimistic decade for the next generation of African writers. Buki Papillon joins this list of new writers with his remarkable coming-of-age story, An Ordinary Wonder (Little Brown, March 2021).
More seasoned writers will also grace our bookshelves or Kindles. Writing runs in the family – Mukoma wa Ngugi, son of renowned African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o has a new book out this Spring, Unbury Our Dead With Song (Cassava Republic Press, March 2021); it has been described as “a love letter to African music, beauty and song” and will be his eighth published book.
Suyi Davies Okungbowa, who made an impact with his debut fantasy book Godhunter in 2019, rises again with the first tome in his Nameless Republic fantasy trilogy, Son of the Storm (Orbit, May 2021), proving again that African writing cannot be restrained within its own genre.
It would be remiss to conclude this article – that can never do justice to the immensity of African writing – without returning to Wole Soyinka. During the 2020 pandemic lockdown, the 86-year-old Nobel Prize Winner put time to noble use by producing a new novel almost 50 years after his last. Chronicles from the Happiest People on Earth has already been published by Bookcraft Publishers in Nigeria and will simultaneously be released in the US and UK in September 2021.
He published his first novel – The Interpreters – in 1965, the same year, incidentally, that he was arrested for holding up a Nigerian Broadcasting Studio in Ibadon with a gun in a bid to broadcast his demand to cancel the Western Nigerian regional elections.
A man of principles, beliefs and profound talent, his new novel tells the story of a pact between four friends to use their talents to make a significant change in their country, but the challenges ahead come at a cost – much like in real life.
So in a sense, the circle is complete with one of the African all-time greats joining the fresh young talents in giving the world something wonderful, unique and profound to celebrate in the midst of the havoc and tragedy caused by the pandemic – a fresh explosion of African creative writing.
Read more about African literature on our New African Readers’ Club page.