/ 24 August 2006

The ‘new’ African writer

There was a time when the term ‘the African novel” made sense. In a chapter entitled ‘The Novel in Africa” in Elizabeth Costello (2003), JM Coetzee explores some of the issues and ideas usually associated with it; terms such as the ‘oral novel” and ‘exoticism” are discarded; reasons why a sizeable African readership of the novel has not yet emerged are suggested. Elizabeth Costello concludes: ‘African novelists may write about Africa, about African experiences, but they seem to me to be glancing over their shoulder … at foreigners who will read them. Whether they like it or not, they have accepted the role of interpreter, interpreting Africa to their readers.”

What Coetzee fails to point out is that these writers found it necessary to interpret Africa because Africa had been misinterpreted by foreign visitors: writers and adventurers and fugitives and missionaries and slavers and colonial civil servants who used its people and animals and mountains and rivers and languages as a springboard from which to launch their fantasies.

Almost from the moment the novel began to emerge in Africa, in the 1940s and 1950s, its duties were determined not by writers but by politicians. In some cases the African politician and the African writer were one and the same. An example is Leopold Sedar Senghor, poet and first president of Senegal. Politics and literature were driven by the same impulse: African nationalism and the desire for independence. At the first Congress of Negro Writers, held in Paris in 1956, such declarations as the following by the Nigerian artist, Ben Enwonmu, expressed a widely held view: ‘The present generation of African artists therefore have to face their political problems, and try to look at art through politics.”

To the critics, and to the new writers, being African often meant being ideologically anti-Western. This was a cornerstone of the Negritude idea, for instance. Novels such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958), Poor Christ of Bomba by Mongo Beti (1971), Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono (1990), and others in the now defunct Heinemann African Writers’ Series, were hugely successful not only because of their undoubted literary merits, but because of their politics: the new radical universities in the West loved them, the Marxists in the Eastern Bloc saw in them expressions of anti-capitalist sentiments.

A look at the textbooks will show just how much African fiction was, and still is, defined in political terms; the critics (mostly Western) have neatly labelled for us the phases of African fiction: the pre-colonial novels, the culture clash novels and the post-colonial disillusionment novels. The colonial experience is always the departure point.

African fiction did not get the chance to grow like most literatures grow, freely, organically, out of popular traditions, guided mainly by the love of narrative. Most African writers will be the first to confess to not having written for a mass domestic audience, because it wasn’t there. They wrote instead for the new African elites, and of course for European and American critics.

Any tradition that is out of touch with the people it sets out to represent is in danger of atrophying; new writers in the 1970s and 1980s continued to revisit the path trodden by older ones. I see the ending of the African Writers’ Series as a final consequence of this inbreeding. A new African writer who writes about the conflict between Western and African cultures after Things Fall Apart is working at a disadvantage.

Zakes Mda attempted this in his second novel, The Heart of Redness (2000); the story of the brutal clash between Europe and Africa, and how Africa loses out, this is a brilliant book, but it lacks the awesome power of Achebe’s book, because the theme is tired.

The seeds of change were planted by some African writers as far back as the 1960s and 1970s. Writers such as Gabriel Okara and Camara Laye were more concerned with understanding the form of the novel and its possibilities, but they did not attain the stature of the more overtly political writers.

Other writers sought ways to graft this alien, Western art form on to the indigenous storytelling traditions, giving rise to the so called ‘oral novels” of Elechi Amada and Flora Nwapa. The critics called such works ‘novels of local colour”, attempts to escape from the modern — meaning the colonial — experience.

The novel, more than any other art form, defines a people’s identity; the 19th-century novel did this for Europe. The 20th-century novel in Africa — I shall call it the classical African novel — tried to open a window into the African mind, but it did not entirely succeed because it was a trick window, rigged to show only one aspect of the view. Its authors were the first men in their villages to go to university, the first to travel abroad, the first to get government jobs. They were part of an elite, and this in many cases limited their contact with and understanding of the people. The conflicts they described were between man and the system, the new order and the old, not necessarily between man and man.

The new African writer is in many ways better placed to understand and represent Africa than his predecessor. The new African writer is part of the new, powerless middle class; he has no privileges; often the best job he can hope for is as a teacher or a journalist. He is also luckier than his predecessors because he has an emerging indigenous educated audience to address.

Ben Okri’s novels are good examples of this emerging African novel. The work of the Ugandan, Moses Isegewa, is another. His Abyssinian Chronicles (2000) is not a beautiful novel, but it is an honest one, about being young in a country that has been destroyed by politicians and Western hypocrisy and senseless tribal violence and disease and poverty. Rooted in its time and place, it is Ugandan, not vaguely ‘African”. South Africa’s Phaswane Mpe is another example. In Welcome to our Hillbrow (2002) he almost never refers to apartheid explicitly, but he shows that it is absolutely possible to talk about a thing without constantly referring to it by name. Nigerian author Okey Ndibe achieves a similar feat in his Arrows of Rain (2000), while Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose debut novel Purple Hibiscus was shortlisted for this year’s Orange prize, sets the story of a 15-year-old girl sent away from home against the background of a military coup.

There was a time when African novels were accused of shallowness in characterisation. There were even insinuations about the African’s incapacity to understand individual character. These new novelists have answered that criticism. Of course the politics is still there, as it should be, but reading these new writers one has the impression that their main concern is not with some vague ‘African personality”; they write stories about the places and people and subjects they know best. —