Intellectuals must strive to redefine African literature

Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek.

What you need to know:

  • As Africans who live on this continent, we understand the plurality that characterises our experiences.
  • The gains made have been slow in coming, with the first black superhero — Black Panther — cast only recently.

Since the colonial times, the question of what really constitutes literature that can be collectively referred to as “African Literature” has often been problematic, raising more questions than answers.

The questions of whether what is African ought to be defined by geography or by the concerns that the literature deals with is an ongoing debate.

But whether or not these delimitations ought to be used to provide a definitive scope of what African literature is or provide an assessment of what this literature is capable of becoming is a big dilemma.

In the formative years of creative writing in the English, French or Spanish expressions in Africa, the bane of literature that was available to the budding African were mainly from the West, and many, therefore, could not resist the temptation of aping these models.

The result was that a number of writers had writings that sounded more and more like the Western ones, complete with their imagery and descriptive language.

European models

While we could excuse and understand these people, could we possibly say that their style, language and other appropriations did render them un-African?

When we consider the writings of Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe or even Okot p’Bitek, we do find an active attempt to move away from the ape culture of European models of writing to a style that, even if it appeared rather unconventional, formed blueprints upon which many succeeding writers would emulate.

Even if they used foreign languages, they boldly remodelled it and in the process created not only novel ways of telling the African story, but opened up conversations on what African Literature really meant.

In the global sphere today, the challenge of really defining what constitutes an African experience is exacerbated by the fact that immigration, refugee status, education, business and diplomacy have ensured that Africans integrate into metropolises far removed from the geographic African continent.

 As a result, writers who grow out of this reality face a duality: they are Africans but they are also having a global experience. Should we really take their literature, the kind that Iresen Okojie used to win the 2020 AKO Caine Prize, as African Literature?

I believe we should, for two reasons.

First, many are the times when the rest of the world has charged Africa with homogeneity. As Africans who live on this continent, we understand the plurality that characterises our experiences. The gains made have been slow in coming, with the first black superhero — Black Panther — cast only recently.

If this is the situation for black people collectively, then we have even a longer way to go in proving that the homogeneity lie can be debunked by the plurality of our stories.

African mainstream

Secondly, the fact that as Africans, there are many aspects of our culture that we have appropriated from the West and successfully integrated into the African mainstream. African democracy is not inherently an African concept, neither are some of the most popular music in the African mainstream today.

If these cultural aspects could be celebrated and be used to entertain people successfully and pass as African, then I find no reason why an African writer who experiments with style, even if it is borrowed, should be ostracised.

It is my opinion that the prescriptive definition of the scope of African literature does more harm than good. It fails to take into account the experiences of Africans who face new realities each day, but who still have to reconcile these realities with the fact that they were born African.

What the critics who attempt to define African Literature have to do is to provide definitions that will allow for an expansion of the canon so that the plurality of the African experience, whether at home or abroad, can be captured. 

The writer teaches English at Chambiti Secondary School in Vihiga County


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