10 things anyone “writing Africa” needs to know

The African writing industry has been incessantly gaining ground for the past few decades, and more and more the question of how to go about writing Africa has been pondered further and further. One of the notable successes of postcolonial African writing has been Nigerian author Helon Habila.

The Caine Prize winning author’s novels include Oil on Water and Waiting for an Angel, and he also compiled an co-edited a collection of fiction from around Africa entitled Dreams, Miracles, and Jazz: An Anthology of New Africa Fiction that has received much acclaim, and has grounded him as one of the leading literary minds on the continent.

Habila visited Grahamstown recently, and on Wednesday evening he was the guest of honour at a colloquium put on by the Department of Arts and Culture called “Writing Africa”. Habila sat on a panel alongside ex-Vice Chancellor of the University of Venda, Prof. Muxe Nkondo, and renowned author, literary critic, Arabic scholar and Vodacom “Yebo Gogo” actor, Kobe Omotoso.

The interest in African writing today was evident in the excited buzz and exuberant participation of a crowd so capacitating that some had to sit on the floor, there not being enough seats at the Eastern Star Gallery. Here are the top ten things to have been taken out of what was truly an incredibly illuminating thought session for anyone interested in writing, in Africa, and certainly in African writing (warning: academic jargon to follow):

1. “African literature” is meaningless

When the first generation of great African writers came about, most notable of all being the much-discussed Chinua Achebe, the genre of “African fiction” was easily discernible, Habila explained. It was often said in the past that only one who fully understands African proverbs, folklore, idioms, etc could think, and therefore write, in an African way.

However, “The writer is no longer obliged to treat these things,” Habila reminded the crowd, because the extensive amount and variance of writing emerging from the continent has forced an extensive broadening of the idea of what is “African”, to the point that it is no longer quantifiable as a single genre (despite the fact that all of the continent’s rich produce is crammed onto one small shelf near the back corner of your closest Exclusive Books). Habila himself is a good example of this, being a third generation, and therefore very modernised and modified, author.

2. We cannot desert our precolonial literary traditions

The above point does not mean Africans should be deserting the precolonial traditions of African literature that Achebe and co. have worked so hard to resurrect after the attempted abolition of African history and culture by colonial thinking. Prof Nkondo impressed the point that these origins should be important to the way we create our literature, because they are important in the creation of our identity.

However, “Proverbs are not just old sayings,” Omotoso alerted the audience. “Proverbs are invented every day.” He gave the example of one he heard recently about a lightbulb that has stopped working but will not come out of its socket, said of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, against whom a military coup was declared earlier in the day.


3. There is no obliged agenda in African fiction

In response to a question regarding Chinese neo-colonialism of Africa, and how writers should be responding, Habila responded by saying that the writer “should avoid being obliged to write so as to push certain agendas.” Every individual, and so every writer, has her own agenda, and so no one should feel indebted to some grandly agreed upon agenda, but rather to let their own voice flow, since what truly matters to them will surely come out of this.


4. Literature trumps political rhetoric

One of the agendas that has been pushed commonly by African writers is the retort to what Prof Nkondo called “the incorporation of Africa” or “the industrialisation of Africa”. While lots has been said addressing the political implications of this, explained Nkondo, little has been said on changing attitudes, behavioural patterns, outlooks and social pathologies. The greatest insights into these factors have come from the African novel, exemplifying the place of import that the art form holds.

5. “Our Africa” vs “colonial Africa”

Omotoso appealed to those gathered to always be asking the question of which Africa writing come out of our continent represented. “Are we writing our Africa,” he asked, “or are we writing the colonial Africa forced upon us?” The influx of American and European culture that is constantly impinging on ours, evident in the majority of books at your local bookstore being written by overseas authors rather than our African neighbours, makes it necessary for us to always be considering where we are writing from, and about.


6. An African English

The most heated debate in African literature has probably been as to whether or not Africans should be writing in English, French, and other colonial languages. Habila explained the most common answer to this, the repurposing of colonial languages to serve African means. “When you read Achebe you are reading Igbo in English,” he said.

Prof Nkondo extended on this line of thought, explaining the formation of phonetic patters in the brain during early development. “You will not write English like the native English,” he argued, not because it is undesirable, but because your development has made you write it according to the phonetics of your own nativity. Omotoso elaborated by telling humorously of his daughter’s Caribbean-influenced vernacular in her novels being completely different to the centrally Nigerian one he writes in, despite the fact that she grew up under his roof.


7. The novel is best

The most hotly contested point made the whole evening was Prof Nkondo’s that the novel is the supreme literary form for the purposes of African writers. “The lyric captures feeling, but isolates it,” he explained. So too does the essay isolate thought, the biography (in all its forms) isolate character, and the play isolate action. “The novel has enough narrative space to capture the magnitude in all four.”

Habila supported, explaining the value of the novel as a democratic art form because of the way it gives its central characters import and agency, no matter their importance according to social structures and civic layering.


8. Putting emphasis on pan-Africanism

Dreams, Miracles, and Jazz: An Anthology of New Africa Fiction saw such commendation because of its incorporation of a multiplicity of African cultures, localities and languages (all translated into English though), explained its compiler. Omotoso built on this by highlighting the fact that the success experienced by South African and Nigerian authors has not extended to other African countries as emphatically, and that a concerted effort should be made to extend cultural education in Africa across the borders of all African countries. These borders were, after all, so arbitrarily laid out by European colonisers in Berlin in 1885, that the border between Nigeria and Dominique cuts straight through the middle of a house. “If you want to take your meal from the kitchen to the table, you need a VISA, or else you will be smuggling!” he laughed.

9. Art is an economic asset

Hollywood is a prime example of how booming an industry of art can be. For this to be realised for the industry of African literature, one crowd member argues, Africa needs to be establishing its own publishing houses and book stores, to escape the foreign institutions that have reduced this rich field of art to a solitary shelf at Exclusive Books. Another appealed to all those present to buy African books in order to increase the demand for them in stores, and thereby increase the industry.

10. The African identity is, quite simply, human

Prof Nkondo appealed that, in a time when the idea of an African identity is so complex, we reduce our identities simply to the way we relate to each other. “That, to me, should be the source of art and the source of politics.” “I have a permanent ethical responsibility to the next person,” he reminded us. This slice of Ubuntu should inform our literature, our livelihoods, and our lives themselves.


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