When Chinua Achebe, often referred to as ‘the father of African literature’, died earlier this year it seemed a good, if sad, opportunity to reflect on where the continent’s literature is today. Whilst it is difficult, or perhaps even meaningless, to compare authors from radically different eras, in terms of output if nothing else, writers of African origin are more prominent than ever before.
The Royal African Society’s annual festival of African writing, Africa Writes, will be held at the British Library from 5 to 7 July 2013. The event recognizes and celebrates the great variety of African writing and is being run in partnership with organizations including the Caine Prize, Kwani Literary Trust, Yardstick Festival and the Centre of African Studies.
If there is anyone who could be said to have taken over the mantle of continental man of letters from Achebe then it is probably Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiongo. A novelist and long-time political dissident, Ngugi’s work spans nearly 50 years including plays, novels, his prison diaries and influential critical essays. Whilst Ngugi fills the role of literary alpha male at Africa Writes, it is perhaps the younger generation that most clearly characterize where African literature is today.
Whilst Ngugi and Achebe’s literary preoccupations could broadly be described as being the varied corruptions of the postcolonial state, writers such as the British-Kenyan-Somali trio of Diriye Osman, Warsan Shire and Nadifa Mohamend, all appearing at Africa Writes, seem more concerned with their own sense of identity, and those of their literary and poetic creations as 21st century Africans.
Osman’s recently published collection of short stories, Fairytales for Lost Children, explores the lives of young gay and lesbian Somalis living in Kenya, Somalia and South London. His work exhibits a startlingly original voice that will surely challenge many within the Somali community, not noted for its openness about sexual identity, whilst surprising readers most familiar with the East African country for reports on Islamic militants and piracy.
Warsan Shire, the inaugural winner of Britain’s African Poetry Prize, writes poems characterized by themes of displacement and references to a ‘home’ that she has never lived in and the bodies and minds of people damaged in a war she has never experienced. This is not to suggest inauthenticity in Shire’s work, but rather to underline the fundamental role complex issues of identity plays in her art.
Completing the trio is Oxford-educated Nadifa Mohamed, who made her name with her first book Black Mamba Boy – the extraordinary story of her father’s life from Somaliland to street boy in colonial Aden and to London. Nadifa left Somaliland in 1986, but her ties to the country, as with Shire, remain intimate and her task, as she sees it, is to ‘memorialize the lives of people like my father.’
Africa Writes 2013 may be a demonstration that ‘African writing’ has become bigger and more obviously at ease with itself, moving out of the shadow of its Big Men. During the festival, writers, critics, publishers and commentators will interrogate many of the big questions surrounding African writing.
The showcased authors do not seem overly concerned with writing the next ‘great African novel’, a tag that seems to remain thankfully unused with reference to the continent’s literature. They do, however, do something more subtly novelistic – presenting small lives from which the reader may make inferences about the societies from which they originate. First and foremost these are stories and poems are about people, they just happen to be from the African continent.
You may wonder why we do not abandon the term ‘African writing’ at all, given the vast geographical space and countries incorporated within the description. A valid question, to be sure, but as with all genres and origins, African writing has developed its own history, echoing the increasing political integration of the continent.