African Literature

Pius Adesanmi. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

African literature is best understood within the context of Ali Mazrui’s categorization of African historical experience as a “triple heritage”: Africa as a space produced by endogenous historical traditions, Arab/Islamic influences, and Western Judeo-Christian influences. This triple heritage has produced a literature characterized by a tripodal identity, based on its relationship to each element. Africa’s indigenous heritage is of its rich oral traditions. The Arab/Islamic heritage is associated with the written literatures of North Africa and parts of East and West Africa. The Arabic and Western aspects of Africa’s triple heritage reflect the continent’s experience with the historical trauma of conquest, evidenced by such events as the Arab invasion of North Africa and West Africa, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and colonialism. The Western/Judeo-Christian heritage has shaped the literature written in English, French, and Portuguese.

Oral Tradition

Oral tradition comprises the specialized verbal art forms—proverbs, riddles, chants, lyric poetry, tales, myths, legends, and epics—through which African societies have ensured cultural continuity. It is the repository of a community’s core values, philosophies, mysteries, rituals, and, most importantly, memory. It survives by virtue of transmission from one generation to another by word of mouth. Performance is its most important distinguishing feature. It exists only in its moment of actuation, when performer and audience come together in a quasi-spiritual engagement. The performer draws his or her materials from the collective ancestral lore familiar to the audience; distinctiveness comes with innovation and inventiveness, delivery, and command of language.

Ruth Finnegan sparked the most significant controversy on the status of oral tradition when she concluded, in her influential Oral Literature in Africa (1970), that Africa had no epic. Isidore Okepwho’s The Epic in Africa (1979) and Myth in Africa (1983) became crucial to the institutional and conceptual legitimization of those genres against the backdrop of the Finnegan controversy. Allied to the development of a robust critical apparatus on African oral tradition was the process of recording the various oral genres—folktales, proverbs, riddles, myths, praise poetry, epics, and sagas—for posterity. Birago Diop’s (1906-1989) Les contes d’Amadou Koumba (1947; Tales of Amadou Koumba) and Les nouveaux contes d’Amadou Koumba (1958; New tales of Amadou Koumba) and Bernard Dadié’s (b. 1916) Le pagne noir (1955; The black cloth) have become classics of the folktale genre. The Sundiata, Mwindo, Ibonia epics and the Ozzidi saga are also extant in significant textual versions.

Written Literature

Africa’s written literature could easily span close to five thousand years, depending on the persuasion of various commentators. Thinkers in the Afrocentric tradition trace the antecedents of African written literature to such touchstones as the scribal tradition of ancient Egypt, the Arabic poetic tradition, which began roughly with the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century C.E., the spread of that tradition to the Maghreb and West Africa from the ninth century C.E., which culminated in the development of Hausa Islamic/Arabic verse from the seventeenth century on.

The twentieth century witnessed the blossoming of a generation of North African writers whose craft combined centuries of Arab narratological conventions and Western influences. These writers either write in Arabic and have influential translations of their works in English and French, or they write directly in the two European languages. Of those whose works attained international recognition in English are the Egyptians Naguib Mahfouz and Nawal El Saadawi. Mahfouz’s deft handling of historical realism, his inimitable depiction of quotidian life in Cairo turned his fiction into an important opus of Arab imagination and earned him the Nobel prize for literature in 1988, while Saadawi’s transgressive novels have become some of the most important feminist works in the twentieth century.

The modern novel in French came much later in the Maghreb. The Algerian, Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma (1956), is usually considered the first significant work of the fiction from the Francophone Maghreb, even though the Moroccan, Driss Chraibi had published a novel, Le passé simple (The simple past), two years earlier. North Africa fiction in French soon blossomed with internationally acclaimed writers such as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Abdelhak Serhane, Abdelkébir Khatibi, and Assia Djebar. Djebar’s expansive fictional opus, which explores wide-ranging themes such as the trauma of French colonization of Algeria, the brutal war of liberation, and the condition of women in the context of religion and tradition, has become the quintessence of North African literature in French.

With regard to subsaharan Africa, discussions of written literatures tend to take the late nineteenth century as a rough starting point. Indigenous language literatures evolved as a consequence of missionary activity during this period. Missionaries established churches and schools and introduced forms of orthography into local languages to facilitate translations of religious literature. As a result, indigenous language literatures blossomed in western, central, eastern, and southern Africa in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. The Yoruba fiction of Nigeria’s D. O. Fagunwa (1903-1963) and the Sotho fiction of Lesotho’s Thomas Mofolo (1876-1948) are notable examples.

European language literature, usually referred to as modern African literature, is the dominant African literature. Although the violence of colonialism and the attendant sociopolitical ruptures it occasioned in Africa constitute the background of modern African literature, texts have evolved over several decades and across numerous genres in a manner that allows for the identification of divergent thematic and ideological clusters, all of which underscore modern African literature’s investment in the representation of the African experience.

Negritude poetry was the medium through which modern African literature came to international attention in the twentieth century. The Negritude movement grew out of the encounter of young African intellectuals and their black Caribbean counterparts in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. The Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), the Martinican Aimé Césaire (b. 1913), and the Guyanese Léon-Gontran Damas (1912-1978) were the avant garde of the movement. Negritude philosophy involved a coming into consciousness of the condition of one’s blackness in the racist European context of the time and the validation of Africa as the matrix of a proud black race after centuries of European misrepresentation. Damas’s Pigments (1937) was the first volume of poetry to properly signal the birth of the Negritude movement, but Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939; Notebook of a return to the native land) became its bible. Senghor’s Chants d’ombre (1945; Shadow songs) and Hosties noires (1948; Black hosts) transformed the movement into a full-blown aesthetic phenomenon. However, the full dimensions of Negritude angst were not recorded until the publication of David Diop’s (1927-1960) Coups de pilon (1956; Pounding).

Poetry comparable in stature with Negritude poetry did not come out of Anglophone and Lusophone (Portguese-speaking) Africa until the period of the 1960s-1980s. Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967), Gabriel Okara (b. 1921), John Pepper Clark (b. 1935), Kofi Awoonor (b. 1935), Lenrie Peters (b. 1932), Taban Lo Liyong (b. 1938), Okot P’Bitek (1931-1982), Kwesi Brew (b. 1928), Dennis Brutus (b. 1924), Agostino Neto (d.1979), and Antonio Jacinto (1925-1991) were the leading lights of Anglophone and Lusophone African poetry. Okigbo’s collection, Limits (1964), is representative of this phase of African poetry.

The African novel also developed within the ambit of historical revaluation, cultural nationalism, political contestation, and anticolonial protest. Although modern African fiction started with the publication of the Ghanaian Joseph Casely-Hayford’s (1866-1930) Ethiopia Unbound (1911), it was not until Amos Tutuola’s (1920-1997) The Palm Wine Drunkard appeared in 1952 that Anglophone West African fiction attained international recognition. Francophone Africa’s first novel, René Maran’s (d. 1960) Batouala, was published to considerable acclaim in 1921 and went on to win the prestigious prix Goncourt. Batouala owed its fame to Maran’s vivid portrayal of the effects of French colonial rule in Africa as well as his evocative and humanizing descriptions of African life and its environment.

The novel came of age in Francophone Africa from the 1950s onward when writers such as Camara Laye (1928-1980), Seydou Badian (b. 1928), Mongo Beti (1932-2001), Ferdinand Oyono (b. 1929), Sembene Ousmane (b. 1923), Cheikh Hamidou Kane (b. 1928), Ahmadou Kourouma (1927-2003), Williams Sassine (b. 1944), Sony Labou Tansi (1947-1995), Henri Lopès (b. 1937), Alioum Fantouré (b. 1938), and Tierno Monenembo (b. 1947) arrived on the scene. The thematic spectrum of these writers is broad and their range reveals the shifts that occurred in the sociopolitical dynamics of their informing contexts, particularly the tragedy of one-party states and military dictatorships that became the rule in postcolonial Francophone Africa. For instance, Laye’s L’enfant noir (1953; The African child) is a powerful bildungsroman that explores the growing up of an African child who loses the values of his traditional society in a world permeated by European values. In Le pauvre Christ de Bomba (The poor Christ of Bomba) and Une vie de boy (Houseboy), both published in 1956, Beti and Oyono, respectively, deploy critical satire to expose the hypocrisies of the colonial situation. Ousmane brings class analysis to the crisis of colonialism in Les bouts de bois de dieu (1960; God’s bits of wood).

However, it was Chinua Achebe’s (b. 1930) Things Fall Apart (1958) that placed African fiction in the ranks of twentieth-century greats. In Things Fall Apart, the epic dimension of Africa’s contact with the West, a preoccupation of much of modern African literature, reaches its philosophical and aesthetic peak. Much of Anglophone West African fiction explores versions of Achebe’s themes either as collective sociopolitical fissures in a changing world or as individual dramas of alienation. Cyprian Ekwensi (b. 1921), T. M. Aluko (b. 1918), Elechi Amadi (b. 1934), Onuora Nzekwu (b. 1928), John Munonye (b. 1929), Wole Soyinka, Kofi Awoonor, Ayi Kwei Armah (b. 1939), Ngugi wa Thiong’o (b. 1938), Kole Omotoso (b. 1943), and Festus Iyayi (b. 1947) all became major Anglophone West African novelists in the period from the 1960s through the 1980s. While Armah adds a humanist/universal dimension to the drama of man’s alienation from his environment in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), Ngugi offers a Marxist exploration of the African experience of colonialism and neo-colonialism in A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1977).

Apartheid and race relations are the background of Southern African fiction. Peter Abrahams (b. 1919), Richard Rive (1931-1989), Es’kia Mphahlele (b. 1919), Lewis Nkosi (b. 1936), Alex La Guma (1925-1985), and the Afrikaner novelists, J. M. Coetzee (b. 1940) and André Brink (b. 1935), all produced novels emblematic of the South African situation. Abraham’s Mine Boy (1946), Rive’s Emergency (1964), Alex la Guma’s A Walk in the Night (1962), and J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) document the scale of the human tragedy created by apartheid in South Africa.

African drama is perhaps the genre that has explored the resources of oral tradition most effectively as a result of the ontological linkages between the two: African religious ceremonies—rituals, sacrifices, festivals, funerals, christenings—are forms of drama and the roots of that modern African genre. Wole Soyinka, Wale Ogunyemi (1939-2001), Ola Rotimi (1938-2000), Femi Osofisan (b. 1946), Bode Sowande (b. 1948), and Olu Obafemi (b. 1950) have all written plays exploring the full range of human experience within the cosmic order and within the material contexts of colonialism, neocolonialism, and the self-imposed tragedies of the African post-colonial order. Soyinka’s plays, the most notable of which are A Dance of the Forest (1963) and Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), explore the entire range of these thematic preoccupations. In South Africa, drama proved to be one of the most versatile cultural instruments in the antiapartheid struggle because of its immediate accessibility to a large audience. The South African dramaturgy of Athol Fugard (b. 1932) comes closest to Soyinka’s in terms of artistic accomplishment and thematic range.

Women’s Writing

African women arrived on the literary scene much later than their male counterparts. Cultural impediments to the education of women, coupled with the Western sexism of the colonial system, kept girls out of the earliest missionary schools. Flora Nwapa’s (1931-1993) Efuru (1967) was Anglophone Africa’s first female novel. Other Anglophone female novelists include Buchi Emecheta (b. 1944), Ama Ata Aidoo (b. 1942), Ifeoma Okoye Zaynab Alkali (b. 1955), Nadine Gordimer (b. 1923), Maryam Tlali (b. 1933), Bessie Head (1937-1986), and Grace Ogot (b. 1930). Some women also became accomplished playwrights, Efua Sutherland (b. 1924), Zulu Sofola (b. 1938), and Tess Onwueme (b. 1955) being the most famous. Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury’s (b. 1938) Rencontres essentielles (2002; Essential encounters) is the first novel to be published by a Francophone woman. But women’s fiction from that part of Africa did not fully take off until the 1970s when two Senegalese women, Aminata Sow Fall (b. 1941) and Mariama Bâ (1929-1981), arrived on the scene.

Because women’s writing arose out of the desire to introduce a female perspective to the sociopolitical vision of Africa portrayed by male writers and to address issues relative to female subjectivity in order to expose the cultural impediments to female agency, African women writers have treated a wide range of themes. The position and role of women as mothers and daughters within the institution of marriage, especially polygamy, the encumbrances attendant on societal/traditional role prescriptions for women, female circumcision, and gender inequality are all themes explored in such classics as Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy (1966), and Bâ’s two novels, Une si longue lettre (1979; So long a letter) and Un chant écarlate (1981; Scarlet song).

Children of the Postcolony

A new generation of writers attained international recognition beginning in the mid-1980s. The most important factor that distinguishes them from earlier generations is that most of them, but for a few born in the late 1950s, were born after 1960, the year that African nations began to achieve independence. The political reality of these writers is that of the failed African postcolony, something that prompted the Francophone novelist, Abdourahman Waberi (b. 1965), himself a new writer, to describe them as “les enfants de la postcolonie” (children of the postcolony). Difficult socioeconomic conditions in the continent have forced most of the new writers to relocate to the West. Exile, migration, deracination, home, and diasporic identity issues are the major themes of the displaced. Female writers have been very visible in this group: Tsitsi Dangarembga (b. 1959), Yvonne Vera (b. 1964), Ammah Darko (b. 1956), and Chimamanda Adichie (b. 1977) have all achieved international recognition. Their male counterparts, Helon Habila (b. 1967), Chris Abani (b. 1967), Moses Isegawa (b. 1963), Ike Oguine, and Okey Ndibe (b. 1960) have all published internationally acclaimed novels as well. The Cameroonian, Calixthe Beyala (b. 1961), is the most successful of the Francophone authors in this generation. Other notable Francophone writers include Sami Tchak (b. 1960), Daniel Biyaoula (b. 1957), Alain Patrice Nganang (b. 1970), Alain Mabanckou (b. 1966), and Fatou Diome (b. 1968).

Debates and Critical Engagements

A rich critical tradition developed early around modern African writing. Francophone Africa had journals such asPrésence Africaine (African presence), Peuples noirs, peuples africains (Black peoples, African peoples), Abbia, and L’Afrique littéraire et artistique (Literary and artistic Africa). Anglophone Africa had a wider array of early journals: Black Orpheus, The Conch, The Horn, The Muse, Drum, Okike, Transition, Ba Shiru, and African Literature Today.While most of these journals no longer publish, Notre Librairie (Our bookstore) and Research in African Literaturesremain the most important. Furthermore, writers became implicated in the early process of elaborating a critical tradition by engaging critics or one another in debates ranging from the question of critical standards to the role of the writer in society. Chinua Achebe’s Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), Wole Soyinka’s Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind (1986) are some of the most important contributions to African literary criticism.

One of the earliest debates concerned the definition of African literature. The writers and critics who gathered in Uganda in 1963 faced the fundamental question of determining who qualified as an African writer and what qualified as African writing. The high point of the ensuing debate was the famous essay by Obi Wali, “The Dead End of African Literature” (1963), in which he declared that the literature written in European languages did not qualify as African literature. This was the beginning of the ongoing atavistic language debate. Although Achebe countered Wali’s position, Ngugi embraced it, transforming the call for a return to African languages into a critical crusade that has lasted for more than three decades.

Another important debate concerned the issue of who was better qualified to critique African literature: the Western or the African critic. The high point of this debate occurred in African Literature Today between the American, Bernth Lindfors, and the Nigerian, Ernest Emenyonu. Lindfors had written an unflattering essay on the fiction of the Cyprian Ekwensi. Emenyonu wrote a fiery rejoinder, questioning the aptitude of Lindfors as a Western critic. The next big debate occurred in 1980, when the troika of Chinweizu, Onwucheka Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike published their famous book, Toward the Decolonisation of African Literature, condemning the overwhelming recourse to Western literary models and forms by writers such as Soyinka and urging a return to African traditions. With the explosion of postcolonial and postmodernist theories in the West at the end of the twentieth century, African critics became engaged in debating the appropriateness of applying those theories to African literature.