In Defence of African literature!

By Henry Brefo

Credit: Pexels

Commemorate the dead but do not trash the living.

Every so often the debate on African literature redraws the discursive boundaries in attempt to either redefine or reinforce what African literature is or should be? The drama often commence with a celebrated writer exhorting common and emerging textual trends as transgressive. Ben Okri, the eminent African writer, instigated a virtual brawl with his brushed criticism that “African writers are largely read for their stories about slavery, colonialism, poverty, civil wars, imprisonment, female circumcision – in short, for subjects that reflect the troubles of Africa and black people as perceived by the rest of the world”. Thus, deeming their work to be a “literature of suffering and heaviness”, instead of an artistic expression.

However, for those who have been attentive to the development of African literature – from the post colonial era to present- will notice that African literature has undergone a shift in its narrative structure and aesthetics. The homogeneous village scene and imagery that once pervaded post-colonial narratives has slowly given way to an urbanized cosmopolitan drama with the diaspora at its core. The militant tone of the ‘Africa writes back’ generation to a large extent has been moderated by a modish blend of narratives from the diaspora and the African continent. This is not to say that canonical narratives that reflect ‘the troubles of Africa and black people as perceived by the rest of the world’ are still not fashionably penned by some writers, as clearly noted in Okri’s critique. Instead, this trend of writing about the ‘human theatres of adversities’ is being balanced with accounts of everyday struggle as oppose to long lasting historic suffering.

An ensemble of young writers has been fine tuning their instruments of expression to the vibrations of contemporary experiences. Their work whether set in the diaspora or on the African continent evokes gripping scenes of everyday experiences. Black Sister’s Street written by Chika Unigwe is set in Brussels and speaks of the horrors of migration.  Tendai Huchu’s Hairdresser of Harare takes us back to the continent to confront the tragedy of bigotry. Whereas Violet Bulawayo and Pede Hollist poses perennial questions on the metaphysics of belonging and identity.

Not only are we seeing works that present universal themes, but also with distinctive aesthetic appeal. In Harare North, the author’s take on language is remarkably adventurous and existentially playful, endowing his characters with an authentic simplicity. Chimamanda Adichie (yes Chimamanda Adichie again) may be largely celebrated for her elegant command of narrative, yet it is her ingenious lyrical flow that finally conquers our appreciation for her work. And not to forget Teju Cole, the young man with the clairvoyance of a painter, and a magician touch that conjures words into colourful portraits.

African Literature has reached a very interesting juncture in its development, especially judging by its relation to art and beauty as well as society as a whole. It is not just a mouthpiece or lens to explore African experiences but constitutes an article of art. The richness and expansive diversity of subjects and how they are written almost give the impression that African literature is on a verge of a rebirth. This view may hold true, as new technology allows for voices from the continent to be heard, as opposed to a coterie of exiled and diaspora African writers. The emergence of online publishing platforms such as Cassava Republic and Digital Back Book has made works by African writers on the continent available to global readers. These works in my view are bound to enrich our understanding of African literature and help us move away from singular interpretations. Therefore one only hopes that given time such initiatives would be granted the desired attention.

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