How “African” is our modern-day storytelling?

Binyavanga Wainaina was not shy about criticising Western perception of African writing, even after winning the Caine Prize

African literature in its earliest stages (of recognition) was mostly “protest writing” with a tinge of history. Most of the books published by African authors at the time were, at the very least, reactions to the socio-political reality that pervaded the continent at the time.

Between the 1940s and 1960s, it was rare to stumble on texts that did not attempt to address the subject of colonialism. Peter Abrahams’ “Mine Boy” dwelt on South Africa’s pre-apartheid days, Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and “Arrow of God” were centred on narratives that focused on British incursion into Eastern Nigeria, and “West African Verse” (a poetry anthology edited by Donatus Nwoga) comprised poems from all corners of the continent that were large cries for freedom and calls for unity in the struggle to rid the continent of (direct) European subjugation. 

Photo credit: Poshmark

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The final two decades of the 20th century and the turn of the millennium ushered in what seemed to be new African narratives. Focus appears to have shifted from the themes of old, and African storytellers as well as poets have ventured into new terrain, unafraid to tackle the issues of gender fluidity, identity, mental health, sexuality and even Afro-futurism.

One art form that has majorly benefited from this paradigm shift is the short story. No longer seen as wholly inferior to the novel, short stories have slowly but surely assumed a pivotal role in influencing the direction of new African storytelling. They are compact, they are intricately woven, and they come with a huge sense of perspective. Short story collections like Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck”, Igoni Barrett’s “Love Is Power Or Something Like That”, Chinelo Okparanta’s “Happiness Like Water”, and more recently, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky” provide insight on the new flavour of African stories being told.

However, there has been the question of what (and who) influences the kind of stories being told by African writers. There have been accusations levelled against authors of this continent bordering on “pandering to the West”. Writers have been chided for dwelling too much on themes like poverty, war and all the other topics that the West perceives as “uniquely African”.

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The late Kenyan author and journalist, Binyavanga Wainaina, in his essay “How To Write About Africa”, satirised what Western observers usually expected from literary works authored by African. “Jumping Monkey Hill”, one of the stories in Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck”, is a fictional account of a writers’ conference wherein the protagonist’s manuscript submission is panned by a white facilitator for not being “African enough”.

There is also the matter of how African writing is being currently funded. It is telling that The Caine Prize for African Writing, one of the highest literary honours in the short story category, was created in the United Kingdom. The Prize has provided a springboard of sorts to many promising African writers, but it has also been criticised for subtly reinforcing Western stereotypes of what African literature should look like.

In the words of Nigerian literary critic Ikhide Ikheloa, “the creation of a prize for ‘African writing’ may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory. The mostly lazy, predictable stories that make the shortlist celebrate orthodoxy and mediocrity. The problem now is that many writers are skewing their written perspectives to fit what they imagine will sell to the West and the judges of the Caine Prize….”

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It has also been argued that most of the writers who earn critical acclaim are usually based abroad, and in discussions about African literature are rated a lot more highly when compared to their contemporaries who ply their trade indigenously.

Late Kenyan writer, journalist and author of “How To Write About Africa”. Photo credit: Africa Is A Country

It is hard to fault this argument, considering how modern-day literary darlings like Ayobami Adebayo, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Chika Unigwe and Akwaeke Emezi are all practising their craft in the diaspora. Again, this reawakens the debate as to whether African creatives have to go out of the country before they can earn some recognition.

These arguments go to show that African literature, to an extent, still draws some of its validation from the best. However, credit has to be given to platforms like Kwani, Chimurenga, Kalahari Review, Saraba Magazine, Brittlepaper and the Ake festival for promoting African writing as much as possible.

A lot of funding is needed to motivate and reward African storytellers, and while it is wished that there wasn’t so much Western financing, maybe the fact that stories are being told is some sort of consolation.

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