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Monday, May 26, 2014

Where Are Our African Writers?

The day after I finished reading Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi, I realised it was 5th or 6th in a row of novels by contemporary African writers that I had read that year. It led me to reflect on the state of literary fiction in Southern Africa especially, and of modern writers who live right here on the continent. 

Source - Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Taiye Selasi is mentioned in the same company as other distinguished African writers such as Teju Cole; Aminatta Forna; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Leila Aboulela; NoViolet Bulawayo; Chika Unigwe; Olufemi Terry; Mukoma wa Ngugi and our very own Ellen Banda-Aaku. These are among the names that will come up in a Google search on contemporary African writers born in the last 45 years or so. They have something else in common too. This long list of male and female writers who were either born and raised in Africa and educated in the ‘the west’; or, born in ‘the west’ to African parents, raised back home and then educated in their country of ‘birth’ all live and work in their adopted countries.

I even asked Wikipedia, just to see if there was anything there. The article admits to not being exhaustive (its Wikipedia, so obviously it can’t be) and says it is a repository of ‘prominent and notable writers from Africa, including poets, novelists, children's writers, essayists, and scholars, listed by country’. Under Zambia, it lists Dr Kenneth Kaunda (fair enough, he wrote a lot of books), Charles Mwewa, Dominic Mulaisho (who passed away very recently), Binwell Sinyangwe and curiously, Chibamba Kanyama. Yes, really. But no Ellen Banda-Aaku or even Dambisa Moyo. Anyway, since they put their disclaimer up front, I can only attribute this anomaly to no one in Dr Moyo's and Ms Banda-Aaku’s office informing them. And clearly, there is no interested party in Zambia keen on PR for arts and culture. Looking at the entire continent, of those writers whose year of birth was listed, I counted less than twenty writers of note born after 1970.

Source - Chinua Achebe

An article, published in June 2013 entitled, ‘The 10 best African writers (who aren’t Chinua Achebe)’, lists Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as one of the best contemporary African writers. She is the only one born after 1975. Shockingly all the writers listed were born from as far back as 1923 (Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene), while only two writers on the list were born after 1945; Zimbabwe’s Yvonne Vera (1964) and Chimamanda (1977). 

Another article entitled, ‘10 Young African Writers You Should Know’ pointed me in the direction of some great sounding books by African born writers. I would love to review some of the works I read about, but how to get hold of them? Many of the writers can credit the Caine Prize for African Writing (awarded to English language short story writers) as their starting point. So perhaps this is the list that best points to the notable writers of the future. Zambian Namwali Serpell appears on the site as one of those formerly shortlisted.

A 2011 article of 50 younger African writers listed 15 out of 50 as residing in Africa. Of those, Kenya had four; South Africa five; Nigeria three; Uganda, Togo and Mozambique one each.

Source - Nadine Gordimer, elder stateswoman of African writers

What does this mean? Does an author need to be based in Europe or America in order to be published and recognised on the world stage?


The Heinemann African Writers Series (although still in existence), doesn’t have the same impact as in the 1960s-1980s. Its decline is definitely a contributing factor to our literary woes as this was the platform through which schools could access African content for our education system. Granted, East and West Africa do appear to have a longer tradition of literary penmanship, but the woeful lack of published authors from Southern Africa especially is worrying. If this trend continues, it reduces the likelihood of continuing our African storytelling culture. In this modern world, stories must be written down if they are to stand the test of time. Whether born here, raised here or living ‘there’, we need to do more to get these books, poems, plays etc into the hands of Africans, especially young people. Wouldn’t it be great if these celebrated books by our celebrated African writers could be published affordably for the African market, schools etc? But it would be even better if one didn’t have to go away in order to be heard. Without a credible local or regionally based publisher to promote and distribute works by African writers, our voices as Africans risk being drowned out.

Source - Baba Wole Soyinka. One of these days I should
tell the story of my encounter with Wole Soyinka
in Abuja in 2005

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