In the past two years, African literature has undergone a renaissance of attention. Articles in the New York Times and The Guardian have noted the growing number of African literary stars; new awards like the Etisalat Prize and the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship have cropped up to fete and foster talent, and blogs like James Murua’s Literature Blog, Brittle Paper, The Ehanom Review, Mary Okeke Reviews and AfriDiaspora.com are among several dedicated to keeping their audiences abreast of writers and writerly news from the Continent.
Contemporary African authors are earning global recognition for their work. Zimbabwean NoViolet Buluwayo’s debut We Need New Names has racked up a slew of awards including most recently the 2014 Hurston-Wright Foundation’s Legacy Award, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Nigerian-Ghanaian Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go, was named to Granta Magazine’s list of the Top 20 literary stars alongside Nigerian wunderkind Helen Oyeyemi whose lauded 2006 debut Icarus Girl arguably foreshadowed this renewed interest in new African voices. Nigerian Teju Cole, author of Open City and Everyday is for the Thief, regularly crops up on Best lists, and Nigerian Chinelo Okparanta is fast becoming a force on the literary scene with finalist and shortlist nods for some of the industry’s most prestigious awards.
And then there is Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The author of three novels — Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah – and the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck has earned a bevy of accolades including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Orange Prize. In September 2013, the film version of Half of a Yellow Sun debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival starring Thandie Newton, Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Anika Noni Rose. Two months later, a TEDxEuston talk she gave on feminism went beyond viral when Beyoncé sampled it for the “***Flawless” track on her surprise visual album Beyoncé. Adichie has since released an e-book of the speech. Most recently, Oscar winner Lupita Nyongo bought the rights to make an Americanah movie; Brad Pitt will produce.
But with all this attention has come questions about who has the right to call themselves an African writer. At two panels at the recent Port Harcourt Book Festival, Utah-born Nigerian Tope Folarin, winner of the 14th Caine Prize for African Literature for his short story “Miracle“, was queried about the authenticity of his African identity, even as some in the audience expressed frustration that African writers only get recognition when publishers, critics, and prizes based in the West deem them worthy.
Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani articulates this frustration in a piece titled “African Books for Western Eyes” published, ironically, in the New York Times‘ Sunday Review. Nwaubani points out a truth most writers aspiring to be published face — a truth often felt most acutely by writers who are not white, male, and privileged: “Publishers in New York and London decide which of us to offer contracts, which of our stories to present to the world. American and British judges decide which of us to award accolades, and subsequent sales and fame.”
To give you a real world example of how this cultural gatekeeping plays out, in 2007, an agent I pitched my debut novel Powder Necklace to, told me it sounded “a bit too similar in theme to a YA novel that [African author’s name redacted] (the author of that novel) might be working on herself in the future. I wouldn’t want to step on my own toes in that way, so I should step aside, but thank you very much for giving me a look.”
Amidst this interrogation of African identity, there is also hot debate about why fluency in English and other Western Languages remain barriers to entry to scribes from the Continent. Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o has been outspoken about how colonizers used language as “the means of the spiritual subjugation” of Africans. In a recent review of the Africa39 anthology, which features new writing from African writers aged 40 and younger, wa Thiong’o’s son Mukoma wa Ngugi devoted much of his reading to this issue.
We do not write in our own languages; we write in the language of the departed yet present colonizer. …This is how bad things are for writing in African languages: since its publication in 1958, Things Fall Apart has been translated into over 50 languages, but not Igbo, Achebe’s mother tongue. A close parallel would be if Conrad’s Heart of Darkness had never been translated into Polish — but even then not quite, since Conrad identified and was received as an English writer while Achebe identified and was received as an African writer.
And here is the irony: Things Fall Apart has been translated into Polish. Who will give African literature in African languages a second life, if not some of the 39 writers from this anthology?
wa Ngugi, an Assistant Professor in Cornell University’s English Department, has answered his own call. This month, he announced the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at Nigerian author Lola Shoneyin‘s Ake Art & Books Festival. “The prize recognizes excellent writing in African languages and encourages translation from, between and into African languages,” the press release says.
The beefs expressed are legitimate — but they are also disingenuous. On the surface, we are talking about the very real problem of Western gatekeepers deciding which Africans to publish and promote, and how to authentically express African life in letters — but beneath the dialogue is an older and unresolved debate about control and privilege. In other words, we are arguing about the fact that the Western world still controls the African narrative, even when it is written by Africans; and we are arguing about the fact that most Africans who are published usually have some tie to the West (born there, live there, work there) that gives them access to some of the privileges afforded to Westerners.
But just as we decry a single story about Africa e.g. impoverished, war torn, ravaged by disease, corrupt, we have to accept that time and circumstance have expanded the definition of an African too, and by extension, the African story. With 12 million souls kidnapped from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade, and millions more in the diaspora due to conflict and economic free fall in their home countries, several generations of Africans have been born outside the Continent or lived abroad for so many years their accents and tastes may be unrecognizable to those that stayed.
The largest population of African people outside of Africa live in Brazil because of slavery. When I visited in 2012 as a BID Fellow, I was pleasantly shocked to find street vendors dressed in African attire selling acaraje (twin to Ghana’s kose) and cornmeal wrapped in corn husks that looked like Ghanaian staple kenkey. Practitioners of Candomble in Brazil have maintained the traditional African religion so faithfully, many Nigerians go and study it there. Who am I, or anyone else, to tell them their stories are not authentically African? Caribbean culture also retains many traditional African religions and foods. Are they no longer African because they practice and eat outside of Africa?
African Americans are reminded daily they are not American as race-based violence, economic oppression, and other forms of institutionalized prejudice prevent them, en masse, from achieving equality in the US. Perhaps for this reason, companies like AncestryDNA and other such DNA services have found a target market in American blacks seeking to identify their African origins. But even when they find out they are X% Senegalese or Y% Sierra Leonean, they are often held at arms’ length as foreigners in the home countries they reclaim.
African-American poet Malaika Beckford performed a piece at the 2008 UpSouth Festival founded by veteran editor and Homeslice Magazine founder Malaika Adero called “Ghetto Names” that ascribes the monikers many African-Americans give their children to a longing for identity. She says:
“Searching for the Bantu word for ‘beauty’, the Akan word for ‘strength’, the Yoruba word for ‘power’; looking for ‘Oya’ found ‘Latoya’ and ‘Shatoya’. In search of ‘Yemaya’, found ‘Shadaya’. Separation from the Mawu-Lisa called for ‘Tanesha’, ‘Keisha’, and ‘Jameisha’. These are ghetto names. Misplaced, Retraced. African slogans. Reworked goddesses that rollback the syllables of time…” This poem partially inspired my allegorical selection in the Africa39 anthology “Mama’s Future”.
I am only one generation removed. Both my parents were born in Ghana, and were among the three million that left the country between 1966 and 1996 due to a failing economy, unstable government (four military dictators in two decades), and constricted opportunity. Despite their physical distance from Ghana, they raised us with strict Ghanaian mores and even sent us to school in Ghana. (My experience at Mfantsiman Girls’ Secondary School is the basis of Powder Necklace.) Yet, whenever I go to Ghana (at least once a year, to the purists that demand to know the last time I was there every time I tell them (in Twi or Ewe) that I am Ghanaian.) I am called a “broni” (“white person” or “foreigner”) and harangued about what “we” (real Ghanaians) don’t do/wear/etc.
Ironically, because I visit Ghana so much, I recently went to the Ghanaian consulate to apply for a passport. When I presented my American passport, my parents’ Ghanaian ones, and a completed application form, they told me, “You are already a Ghanaian by heritage. You don’t need to fill this out.” When I asked what I did need to do to get a Ghanaian passport, they said they would investigate and call me back.
The way I see it, Ghana — and Africa — is my birthright, and I will not give it up no matter how many born in Ghana tell me it isn’t. If the country were in a better situation, my parents would not have had to leave, and I would not have had to endure “African booty scratcher” slurs or other identity issues related to my Africanness growing up in the States. I have a vested interest in Ghana (my country) and my continent emerging from the morass of corruption, vulnerability to extremism, and exploitation of resources, and I would like to conscript Africans born in the diaspora too.
What would Africa be if we did not let external forces continue to subdivide us? If African-Americans, Afro-Latinos, Afro-Europeans, Afro-Asians, etc. looked to Africa as a home they felt responsible for improving?
The colonizers were so effective in chopping Africa up, even making sure Francophone colonies neighbored Anglophone so citizens of countries like Ghana and Togo, for example, could not easily communicate with one another in their “official” languages and unite against a common enemy, but in 2014 we can begin to reverse the damage by coming together. Africans can’t afford to focus on where other Africans were born or live, or what languages they choose to speak. Slavery, colonialism, and our own inept governments have displaced too many. If we say those who were born abroad or only speak English, French, or Spanish have no stake, we only do ourselves a disservice.
Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of Powder Necklace, which Publishers Weekly called “a winning debut”. Named among 39 of the most promising African writers under 39, her short fiction was included in the anthology Africa39. Most recently, she was shortlisted for a 2014 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship.