What Is African Literature?

Estimated read time 14 min read

The discussion surrounding African Literature has long provoked conflicting thoughts, with scholars and ordinary readers grappling to define its essence and failing to reach a unanimous agreement.

Does African Literature refer to stories written by Africans, or are they simply narratives about Africa?

What truly constitutes African Literature remains an ongoing exploration—a journey this article ventures into, aiming to uncover the intricate layers that define it. So stay with me as I delve into this intriguing experience. 

What Is the Concept of African Literature?

African Literature refers to works that capture the diversity of a continent comprising 54 distinct nations, each a rich reservoir of history, culture, tribes, and traditions, with the narratives spanning oral and written forms, expressed in African tongues, Afro-Asiatic languages, or European languages that left an indelible mark.

African Literature embraces inclusivity, harnessing words as a medium to impart wisdom, preserve truths, and honor ancestral struggles.

History of African Literature

Oral storytelling is ingrained in the very fabric of African Literature. It is the genesis of storytelling, tracing its roots to time-honed traditions where children would gather around evening fires, eagerly listening to tales spun by grandmothers, mothers, and elders within the community; a tradition that birthed iconic programs like Ghana’s By the Fireside from the early 2000s.

Oral storytelling has always been a part of an African’s story or growing up, a way to pass down tradition and culture. This tradition still thrives, breathing life into modern storytelling through its influence on narration, language, and the very essence of written works in African Literature.

Why Is African Literature Unique?

What makes African Literature unique is how the storytelling dynamically adjusts to the prevailing time and political tensions, often serving as a form of rebellion or activism.

For instance, classic works such as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Dangaremba’s Nervous Conditions intricately weave in elements of colonization and political upheavals. Achebe’s legendary work is an expose into the erosion of cultural traditions and values in favor of foreign ideals and how it has affected the African citizenry, while Dangaremba’s trilogy, centered around Tambu’s life, offers a vivid portrayal of Zimbabwe’s journey from its colonial past to becoming an independent nation.

Contemporary African Literature is equally compelling, with newer works vividly capturing the realities of the times and serving as a tool for tackling prevalent social issues.

Both classic and contemporary African Literature stand out for offering fresh perspectives, providing a lens through which to understand and engage with the evolving complexities of society.

Classic vs. Contemporary African Literature

African literature classics and contemporary African Literature each have their own vibes, like different beats in the same rhythm.

Classics are like the wise elders, stories that have stood the test of time. They often delve into Africa’s historical, cultural, and social aspects, offering deep insights into traditions and experiences. Think of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not Child, Flora Nwappa’s Efuru, and Buchi Emecheta’s Slave Girl.

These classics paved the way, setting the bar high for storytelling and addressing critical issues.

On the other hand, contemporary African Literature is a fresh breeze, reflecting modern life and the evolving African experience. These works tackle current themes, blending traditional storytelling with modern contexts. Works like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Ukamaka Olisakwe’s Ogadinma, Francesca Ekwuyesi’s Butter Honey Pig Bread, Eloghasa’s Vagabonds! among others, infuse their narratives with contemporary issues, reflecting on globalization, identity, immigration, and societal changes.

They capture the essence of today’s Africa, exploring diverse perspectives and realities.

Language in African Storytelling 

African Literature can never be discussed without discussing language, which stands tall as a defining trait of African Literature. The historic African Writers Conference of 1962, attended by icons like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, and Wole Soyinka, ignited a debate about language in African narratives.

Both Ngugi and Achebe’s perspectives resonate deeply, with Ngugi championing writing in native tongues, viewing it as a means to liberate the mind from colonial influences, while Achebe conversely advocates for a dual approach, fashioning English to preserve African experiences while appealing to a broader audience.

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Writing in indigenous languages is a form of bold resistance against colonization, regardless of translation issues. Still, Achebe’s vision of Africanizing colonial languages to share our stories is equally compelling.

How else could our struggles and voices be heard during times when writing itself was a form of activism, as political tensions ran high across Africa?

Wole Soyinka’s preference for writing in colonial languages, apparent in his works with their challenging English pronunciations, is another facet of this discourse. Nowadays, many writers adopt an Africanized version of English, blending it with indigenous languages. Abi Dare illustrates this fusion in The Girl with the Louding Voice.

Eloghosa Osunde’s powerful statement about words being magical, dictating their essence, profoundly resonates with me. It speaks volumes about storytelling’s power—how authors infuse personal meaning into words, shaping them beyond conventional definitions, even in a colonial language like English.

The English Language arguably lacks the depth and emotional richness found in African languages, which is why I admire writers like Makumbi, who fearlessly blend Luganda with English.

Onyi Nwabinelli’s Someday, Maybe vividly portrays English’s limitations in capturing the emotional depth of African storytelling. Exploring words like ‘Ndo,’ the author reveals how ‘Sorry’ falls short of encapsulating its true essence. Instead, ‘I am feeling with you’ resonates intuitively, underscoring the inadequacy of English in conveying the emotional wealth inherent in African narratives.

Furthermore, despite writing in English, African writers think in their indigenous languages, which may lead to elaborate explanations and intricate sentences. Some meticulously explain native terms, while others italicize them unnecessarily.

Yet, the champions are those unapologetic about leaving terms untranslated, fostering authenticity even if it requires seeking explanations outside the text. This pursuit of authenticity, like when Makumbi sent me on a Twitter hunt for Luganda explanations from First Woman, is something I deeply cherish in Literature.

What Are the Themes in African Literature?

African Literature is rich in themes of tradition, feminism, mythology, gender, and sexuality.

Culture and Tradition

African stories resonate deeply with the essence of indigenous culture and tradition. For me, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s A Girl is a Body of Water and Bolu Babalola’s Love in Color beautifully interweave African culture and mythology, painting fantastical narratives against an African backdrop.

African Literature shows vibrant traditions like marriages, naming ceremonies, and funerals across diverse African tribes.

One thing is clear in Africa: we value communalism and family as an extended unit rather than nuclear. If one person makes it out of poverty, the onus is on them to lead the rest out. We see how this is displayed in the various African cultures, evident in our books and storytelling. 

Mythology and Spirituality

African Literature delves deeply into the themes of mythology and spirituality and how these elements take form in various traditions.

Classic works like Fangunwa’s Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmọlẹ̀ (Forest of a Thousand Daemons) and Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard touch on the metaphysical world and its elevated place in African mythology and society.

One aspect of African culture close to my heart is the significance of names. In Africa, names transcend mere labels. Names are stories that carry the weight of an incident or experience from the past. It could also be a form of thanksgiving or hope for the future.

In African Literature, most of the names are from indigenous languages, which bear stories and meanings beyond mere names. Names like Ada, Ama, Warimiya, Wuriche, Tambu, and Miiro, among others, exemplify this narrative depth. An example is Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come, where the main character decided to name her child Yimika instead of Yetunde, which means “Mother has returned” after her mother, according to Yoruba tradition. Her reason for diverting was because she believed that everyone must walk their own path unencumbered. 

Feminism 

African Literature is woven with diverse themes that enrich storytelling through a multitude of narratives and perspectives. Themes like feminism have ingrained themselves within African narratives, dating back to classics such as Ama Ata Aidoo’s plays like Anowa, Changes: A Love Story, and No Sweetness Here.

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Ama Ata Aidoo, notably during the mid-1960s, redefined women’s writing within a predominantly male-dominated African literary canon. She shattered stereotypes about women commonly depicted in male-authored African texts by crafting strong, intelligent, and outspoken female protagonists. Her approach served as a powerful form of activism, reclaiming African women’s voices from the literary margins.

Other classics like Buchi Emecheta’s The Slave Girl, Flora Nwapa’s Efuru, and Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter are pivotal examples that heavily featured feminist themes, disrupting the male-dominated literary landscape. These iconic works portrayed the struggles of women, depicting protagonists burdened by familial responsibilities and enduring societal injustices.

Even contemporary stories like Ukamaka Olisakwe’s Ogadinma and Aiwanose Odafen’s Tomorrow I Become a Woman, among other stories, have feminism centered in them, which, in these contemporary times, are a stark reflection of persistent gender disparities prevalent in society.

The theme of feminism remains prevalent in African Literature, often subtly woven into narratives, reflecting the unchanged plight of women over time.

Gender and Sexuality 

In recent years, discussions around gender and sexuality have gained prominence due to culture shifts and many other reasons, prompting authors to illuminate the experiences of queer individuals.

Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Tree powerfully portrays the challenges faced by queer individuals amidst the backdrop of the Biafran war, delving into themes of conversion therapy and the intricate intersection between sexuality and religion.

Arinze Ifeakandu’s God’s Children Are Little Broken Things prominently focuses on gay men in Nigeria, exploring the complexities of hiding one’s true identity in Nigeria.

Authors like Eloghosa Osunde with Vagabonds! and Akwaeke Emezi with The Death of Vivek Oji continue to delve into LGBTQI narratives, amplifying voices often marginalized in society. Literature, as always, serves as a tool for freedom and liberation, setting the stage for these crucial conversations. These stories offer nuanced perspectives on the spectrum of sexuality.

Discussing sexuality inevitably brings attention to the work of Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, who openly addressed his sexuality in his memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place. His candidness about realizing his sexual orientation at a young age, despite not having engaged in sexual relations with a man by 29, challenges the common perception that sexuality revolves solely around sexual activity. This adds a crucial dimension to the discourse on sexuality.

It’s essential to acknowledge works such as She Called Me Woman, a bold compilation of narratives from queer women in Nigeria edited by Azeenarh Mohammed. This collection boldly highlights the struggles faced by queer women in Nigeria, providing a platform for their narratives.

Additionally, Nana Darkoa Sekyiama’s The Sex Lives of African Women fearlessly captures the often silenced topic of African women’s sexual experiences, challenging societal taboos. These literary endeavors contribute to breaking the silence and fostering open discussions about sexuality and gender.

My Theories on African Literature Writing

In exploring the writings of some diasporan African writers and a perceived penchant for poor research, I have come to craft two theories:

Theory of No Identity

My “Theory of No Identity” proposes that some African Literature writers grapple with identity crises. These ones always attempt to center themselves in their stories due to feeling disconnected from their roots.

Mass Market Audience Theory

My second theory tagged the “Mass Market Audience Theory,” is that Africa has become a mere marketing ploy—a superficial inclusion of African elements to label a narrative as African without genuine depth or understanding.

These oversights often stem from a lack of thorough research and a disregard for the authenticity of African experiences.

Problems of African Literature 

Defining African Literature poses numerous layers, often sparking complications within the discourse.

Is Literature merely about Africa or inclusive of works by Africans, including diasporan authors?

Such inquiries shed light on the misrepresentations of Africa prevalent in Literature.

Who Writes African Literature?

African writers fall into various categories. Some are deeply rooted in Africa, shaped by firsthand experiences living within its cultures and traditions, such as Chimeka Garricks, Ukamaka Olisakwe, Ama Asantewa Diaka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Binyavanga among others.

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Others, like Yaa Gyasi, were born in Africa but left early, while some, like Chimamanda Adichie, departed later. Furthermore, there are those born abroad but connected to Africa, like Caleb Azumah and Kwei Quartey, and those rooted outside Africa, relying on narratives, media, or imagination to understand Africa.

These varied backgrounds define their writing styles, exposing whether they truly comprehend Africa and have conducted their research diligently.

Inaccuracies and Misrepresentation in African Storytelling

Some diasporan writers are complicit regarding challenges in African Literature. Many often overlook thorough research about the countries or people they portray, influencing how readers perceive cultures and societies through their work.

Diasporan writers need to dive deeper into research compared to writers born and raised in Africa, whose stories are primarily shaped by their experiences, places, and the elements they depict. That’s not to undermine the need for local African authors to conduct research, but for diasporan writers, that extra layer of understanding and context often requires more effort.

Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, while a commercial success, is far from flattering for native African Yoruba readers, many of whom feel that the book contains a lot of cultural misrepresentation. While it could be argued that the book was directed toward a Fantasy YA audience, Children of Blood and Bone is primarily based on African myths, which are far from accurately depicted in the plot and setting.

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is an example of a book criticized for its inaccuracies, with instances like the misinterpretation of the term “obroni” reflecting cultural misrepresentations.

Instances of cultural inaccuracies and misrepresentations, notably in Nikki May’s Wahala and Jessica George’s Maame, mar the authenticity of African narratives. Sometimes, it’s surprising how a quick Google search can set things straight.

These inaccuracies, often easily fixable, highlight a certain indifference from these authors toward researching the cultures and people they write about. 

Another challenge is the lack of a strong sense of place in specific works, particularly with contemporary writers like Krystle Zara Appiah’s Rootless. Despite a captivating plot, the narrative fails to establish a precise setting, leaving readers disoriented amidst shifts between London, Accra, Aburi, and Osu.

Yet, writers like Caleb Azumah Nelson, despite being born and bred in the UK, excel in providing a vivid sense of place. His intimate descriptions of Ghana in his novels illustrate a commendable dedication to authenticity, grounded in meticulous research and genuine regard for Ghana.  

Prospects of African Literature

African Literature is more popular than it was only a few decades ago. While Achebe’s works remain arguably the genre’s finest exponents, Wole Soyinka’s Nobel Laureate exploits played no small part in placing African Literature at the fore of the world’s literary audiences.

In modern times, the successes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nnedi Okoroafor, and Chika Unigwe, among others, have proved to be the springboard propelling the new breed of Chigozie Obioma, Bolu Babalola, Ayobami Adebayo and co., to bigger successes.

In a literary and entertainment industry awash with calls for inclusivity and freshness, African stories stand out for their unique subject matter, consequently growing in demand in the global audience.

Given the increasing dearth of originality of stories adapted for the big screens, African Literature is a new trove of both material and inspiration for screenwriters and movie producers. While such adaptions will continue to be plagued by inaccuracies and misrepresentation for the foreseeable future, there is no doubt that the global approach to Africa will gradually change for the better, even as its cultural treasures and societal dynamics gain center stage in literary discourses worldwide.

Final Thoughts

Despite its many challenges, African Literature stands as a testament to resilience, capturing the multifaceted nature of African experiences while navigating complex themes with grace and depth.

As contemporary writers continue to shape narratives with boldness and authenticity, the evolution of African storytelling remains a captivating journey, continually expanding its horizons.

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