In Summary

  • The new writers brazenly storm where angels fear to tread, offering entertainment while at the same time commenting on profound issues touching on human nature
  • Unlike the classical African literature or works in indigenous languages, this new brand of writing will never criticise the West openly

The world needs good reads, and young African writers are at hand to provide riveting stories. Even the famous Nairobi pub called Simmers is now on the global literary map.

Due to my poor eyesight, I had always misread the name of this haunt of mine as “Sinners”, but now I stand corrected after a close reading of the Nigerian A. Igoni Barrett’s Love is Power, or Something Like That (2013). In this book of short stories, the writer tells the world that Simmers is “an oasis of Congolese rumba and modish prostitutes… Welcome to Nairobi, drunks and lovers.”

I go to Simmers almost every day when I’m in Nairobi, but I’ve never seen there the prostitutes Barrett talks about, but — well, well! — writers have a third eye. It is a pity that it takes a Nigerian to come all the way from West Africa to tell us about our watering holes as our artists write safe high-school compositions for possible adoption as set-books.

Since Meja Mwangi took us to the flea pits of the seedy parts of Nairobi in the 1970s with Going Down River Road and The Coackroach Dance, only F. M. Genga-Idowu has given us a really nice peek into what happens in Sabina Joy in Lady in Chain (1993).

Like Barrett’s work, several new African books are doing great in the global literary circuit because of their daring treatment of topical issues and their equally bold use of language.

Led by the Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — author of the beautiful Purple Hibiscus, the committed Half of a Yellow Sun and the dazzling Americanah — these writers tell stories that classical African literature couldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

The new writers brazenly storm where angels fear to tread, offering entertainment while at the same time commenting on profound issues touching on human nature.

The books may never be allowed in Kenyan schools because, to use an expression from one of them, their language is “so... sexy.”

In 2010, Chris Abani’s award-winning Grace Land was banned from a school district in Florida after a parent complained about its depiction of a same-sex scene.

We know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie well in Kenya because her books are part of the Kwani catalogue and she visits us once in a while. But there is a whole army of new African writers talking on behalf of the continent.

Most of these new books are the works of immigrant writers in the West.

Some of the books are not even set in Africa (e.g., Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas and Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man). A question that will come, then, is whether these works are African literature. And to answer that question, we may have to answer first a similar one from the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges: is Shakespeare’s Hamlet now Danish literature just because it is set in Denmark?

Some of the new-generation writers (e.g., Taiye Selasi and Mengestu Dinaw) have disavowed being African writers. But even Chris Okigbo, Ben Okri, and Buchi Emecheta have said similar things before about their works being “not really African.”

African American literature had a similar argument in the 1920s, with George S. Schuyler arguing that there is no such a thing as “Negro literature” while Langston Hughes demonstrated its existence, specificity, and special burdens.

AFRICAN EXPERIENCES

Between Schuyler and Hughes, it is clear whose legacy is still more alive than the other’s. Indeed, among the new generation of African writers, Adichie has higher chances of survival than the other artists because she anchors herself firmly in Africa or among African experiences abroad.

We know that, in claiming to be not African writers, African artists just mean that they shouldn’t be vacuum-packed as ethnic writers in the metropolitan academy, which has perfected these tendencies whenever it encounters any writing that is not white.

Through the new writing, Africa is roaring again as loud as it used to during the days of Leopold Sedar Senghor and Kwame Nkrumah.

However, there is a downside to this celebrity. It is the West that invented Africa. You can ask the philosopher Valentin Mudimbe to elaborate that argument if you doubt my authority.

The famous Congolese philosopher and professor of literature at Duke University in the US, explains in his 1988 scholarly masterpiece, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge how knowledge of Africa is produced from elsewhere usually in the form of distortions. The book is considered an African equivalent of Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Even the word “Africa” is not African, just as much as “Kenya” is not a Kenyan word. “Kenya” is a European mispronunciation of Kirinyaga, the pre-colonial Bantu name for Mt Kenya.

In a situation where Africa is defined from outside through the work of hegemonic institution, the Western academy is quickly redefining African literature in a way that would shock African institutions that take Euro-American universities and presses seriously the way we do.

When I landed in America to teach African literature fresh from Africa, the only African writers taught there that I could recognise were Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, J.M. Coetzee, and the author of Things Fall Apart, “Kinua Akibi” (sic).

In moves that may appear fraudulent to Africans, the publishing outlets in the West seem to be out to create their own version of African literature, which the academic institutions take up and canonise as “African literature” even if nobody in Africa reads these writers.

Unlike the classical African literature or works in indigenous languages, this new brand of writing will never criticise the West openly. You’re not likely to encounter negatively drawn white characters. White people are the saviours of the world, protecting Africans from fellow Africans. That is life, I guess. Even foundational African writers — Leopold Sedar Senghor, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Amos Tutuola — are all inventions of the West, published and canonised in European and American metropolises before being exported back to Africa as the quintessential of African writers.

Therefore, it would be advisable to read the new African writing in conversation with works produced in Africa, especially those in indigenous languages, to avoid a skewed image of the continent and its peoples.

Here are some of the works, apart from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s, I’ve really liked and would recommend to anybody trying to understand the new trends in African writing. Alongside Adichie’s, these books rock my world.

The Secret History of Las Vegas, by Chris Abani

This is a thriller about identity and the best book I’ve read in my life so far. It tells the story of Salazar, who is determined to solve the mystery of the spate of deaths among homeless people in Las Vagas. He encounters conjoined twins — named Fire and Water — who are members of a circus. One is handsome and the other deformed. When Fire and Water can’t explain a container of blood found near their car, Salazar seeks help from a South African-born Indian, Dr. Singh, who specialises in the study of psychopaths.

Some sections are told in the second narrative voice in a way reminiscent of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place and Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying. But references to maps also reminds us of Nuruddin Farah’s Maps, the first African novel to use the second narrative voice in a sustained way. Both use “you” as employed through a child’s narrative perspective.

Indeed, Farah’s Maps is the first African novel to argue, if we may use an expression from Abani’s novel in a different context, that “children can be cruel.”

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