The Gems of African Literature

Discover africa's celebrated literary voices.

By Book Buzz Foundation

Gems Of African Literature Book Buzz Foundation

The trailblazer

African literature offers a unique perspective on the human experience, celebrating resilience and spirit. African writers weave mesmerizing tales that transport readers to fantastical realms. Meet the most renowned African writers:

Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) Book Buzz Foundation

1. Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)

Achebe is one of the most important figures in African literature. His novel Things Fall Apart is one of the most widely read and influential African novels ever written. It tells the story of Okonkwo, a traditional Igbo man who struggles to maintain his way of life in the face of British colonialism.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Kenya) Book Buzz Foundation

2. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Kenya)

Thiong'o is another highly influential African writer. His works explore colonialism, neocolonialism, and social justice. His novel  A Grain of Wheat  is considered one of the most important African novels of the 20th century.

Flora Nwapa (Nigeria) Book Buzz Foundation

3. Flora Nwapa (Nigeria)

Nwapa is regarded as one of the pioneers of African literature. She was the first woman from sub-Saharan Africa to have a novel published. Her novel Efuru tells the story of a strong and independent Igbo woman.

Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana) Book Buzz Foundation

4. Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana)

Armah is known for his novels, which often feature complex and challenging characters. His novel  The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born  is a powerful critique of postcolonial Africa. It delves into the intricate socio-political landscape of Ghana in the aftermath of independence.

Wole Soyinka (Nigeria) Book Buzz Foundation

5. Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)

A Nobel Prize-winning playwright and poet, Soyinka’s work often explores themes of identity, culture, and power. His play  Death and the King's Horseman  is a classic of African theater.

These are just a few of the many African classic writers whose work has profoundly impacted African literature and culture. They have inspired and challenged readers and writers around the world.

Introducing Ake Arts and Book Festival

Book buzz foundation, daughters of pen: discover african women writers, weaving african magical worlds of wonders and adventure, ink trailblazers: male writers shaping african literature, africanfuturism and africanjujuism: discover the wonders of other worlds, véronique tadjo, wole soyinka, ama ata aidoo (1942 - 2023), wana udobang: take me back, esu: the misunderstood god of yoruba religion.

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AFRICAN LITERATURE IN THE MAKING: FROM PRE-COLONIALISM TO POST-COLONIALISM

Profile image of Issah Tikumah

This paper attempts to trace the various vicissitudes of the evolution and development of African Literature: from oral literature, through pre-colonial literature, colonial literature, to post-colonial literature. African literature is defined as ‘literature of and from Africa’. However, though cursory reference is made to non-English African literatures as well, the focus of this paper is literature of English ‘black Africa’. A special page is devoted to African-American literature because of its unique historical position in the development of African literature. The foundations of modern African literature as an intellectual ‘school’ are traced back to the middle of the 18th century. Modern African literature emerged as a resistance platform, an instrument of struggle against oppression and exploitation. Unfortunately, more than a couple of centuries on, African literature is still faced with formidable challenges, including lack of freedom of expression imposed by political authoritarianism and socio-cultural reactionarism. Even though a great deal of achievement has been recorded since its inception in the 18th century, African literature still has a long way to go in the struggle to fulfill its mission to foster socio-political justice and true liberty for the common people of Africa.

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the african literature

On the Complex Historical and Contemporary Terrain of African Literature

Jessica powers talks to kwasi konadu, trevor getz, lizzy attree, wendy urban-mead, holly y. mcgee, and siphiwe gloria ndlovu for #readingafrica.

For five years now, on the first full week of December, readers and writers and educators and librarians and publishers join together to celebrate the diversity of literature in Africa, using the hashtag #readingAfrica. This year, we asked a panel of historians to discuss some of the issues around history, politics, and literature in and of Africa, and this is the result.

It seemed like a simple task at first. I sent off a list of questions and everybody would be engaged in writing responses and responding to each other in a sort of asynchronous, virtual “discussion.” But quickly, Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, someone who is both a friend as well as an author that I publish at Catalyst Press, said she might need to decline participation, respectfully pointing out that my questions were absolutely framed from the standpoint of being an “outsider” looking in to Africa.

My questions, she wrote, were “for people positioned in the Global North. There is a framing of Africa and African Literature that is limited and full of certain assumptions and I understand that the reason for this is to “educate” or provide information to an audience that may not be at all familiar with the continent and its literatures. While I think that the Q&A will accomplish what you want for the audience you have in mind, I think that if I took part I would necessarily have to problematize and argue against a lot of the assumptions inherent in the questions, which ultimately may serve to confuse rather than elucidate the topic.”

I was instantly reminded of the time, a few years ago, when I wrote an essay about why I think Americans should read “global” literature. I argued that to gain a better perspective on our own cultural and political problems, Americans need to read books written by people who didn’t grow up here; don’t live here; have perhaps never lived here; have been shaped by cultural, social, economic, historical, linguistic and political forces entirely outside of the U.S.; and who are not writing about the U.S. The editor’s response was (and I’m paraphrasing), “Well, if people want to read diverse literature, and want a different perspective, they can just read Mexican-American writers; or African-Americans; or Chinese-Americans.”

She had missed my point entirely . I didn’t want to miss the point that Dr. Ndlovu was making. I wrote to all of the panelists: “Even though, as publisher of African writers, I am engaged with Africa and with ‘African literature,’ I am shaped by and informed by my location, which is very much in the U.S., and also shaped by and informed by my time in academia at Stanford.” I suggested we re-engage and problematize the questions and our responses to them, that I was open to it all, to a reframing. I may have been engaged with African culture, language, history and literature for half my lifetime—but that doesn’t mean I know anything at all, as Dr. Urban-Mead suggests below, that despite her 25 years of learning about and teaching about Africa, “I still don’t think I know very much about that part of the world, after all that.”

While I don’t think we transformed the conversation as much as I would have liked, or as Dr. Ndlovu rightfully insisted we should, I hope this conversation is a step forward.

–Jessica Powers, publisher, Catalyst Press

If we look at the history of literature in Africa, what are some of the trajectories that we can name and see to understand its path through to modern-day publishing?

Kwasi Konadu : One of the trajectories is the production of “African” literature outside of Africa through “Western” presses, large and small. In recent years, these publishing houses have independently or through agreements with Africa-based publishers taken striking notice of writers of African origins—whether they live in Nigeria, Ghana, England or the United States. I’m thinking of Chimamanda Adichie, Taiye Selasi, Teju Cole, Yaa Gyasi, among others.

The commercial success of these individuals, often writing as part of a diaspora, for an audience outside of a land of birth or parentage strikes me as a trend to watch with caution. Modern forms of publishing and achieving international success remain tethered to the global academy (for scholars) and multinational presses (for literary writers) housed in the United States and the UK. African literature, if we follow the logic of this trend, will remain dependent on English and on external circuits of knowledge production and valuation. Written literature requires reading publics and an infrastructure to sustain both—here lies the challenge and opportunity for Africa-based publishers and writers.

Of course, I’m not suggesting we try to ignore colonialism’s impact or legacies, but rather I’m interested in how African writers are affirming their sovereign selfhoods and communities.

What are common themes in African literature related to the historical time-period as we trace a path through the last century or two of literature by Africans and/or about Africa?

Trevor Getz: I think there’s a real question about how to deal with colonialism.  It is appropriately a central subject in the texts of those writing during the colonial era such as the poetry of Okot p’Bitek, the allegorical folktales of Haddis Alemayehu, the novels of Chinua Achebe. Its cultural and linguistic legacy is long, enduring, and deep, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and others would have us remember.

But I think contemporary writers push back a little bit on the centralizing of colonialism as entirely dislocative and as a dominant theme in histories of Africa.  For me, one of the most exciting trends has been the literary exploration of Africa before and without colonialism, whether Zakes Mda’s The Sculptors of Mapungubwe or Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga . Conversely, Afrofuturism’s promise of an African future, and not necessarily an idyllic one, that is not centrally colonial––I’m thinking here of writers like Suyi Davies Okungbowa or Nnedi Okorafor.  Of course, I’m not suggesting we try to ignore colonialism’s impact or legacies, but rather I’m interested in how African writers are affirming their sovereign selfhoods and communities.

Lizzy Attree : I agree, Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu is a brilliant example of a Ugandan novel that completely de-centers the colonial encounter.

The oral tradition is strong across the African diaspora, so what are the ways that tradition has been made visible in written form? Is there a particular way of writing that signals/honors its roots in the oral?

Trevor Getz: Personally, I think that the oral lends itself to representation in comic form—a medium that allows for empathic engagement with the subjects of study, and that also allows for seamlessly moving between the past and the present visually and textually.  But I am deeply impressed by Dr. Kwasi Konadu’s deep and respectful engagement orality in  Our Way In This Part of the World . In his communography of Nana Kofi Dɔnkɔ. Working with orality is tough for historians, because while we have developed methods like the oral history interview to gather information, these are often quite far removed from oral culture as it is lived as an embedded practice.  Kwasi, and some other scholars, push for us to understand these practices on their own terms.

Kwasi Konadu : I do think there are ways to communicate the oral in written form. Look no further than codified or written versions of the Sunjata epic. But I wonder, whether in scribal or graphic form, if either escape the mere transcribing or translation of the oral into fixed forms. The oral is performed in a textured moment, in an ecology of living and immaterial beings; I’m not sure the best ways of writing can or should capture these experienced parcels of the oral.

In either case, authors such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in A Grain of Wheat and Amos Tutuola in The Palm-Wine Drunkard have been successful in using so-called oral traditions in crafting their stories. And historians of Africa have profited from the oral not only toward understanding the societies which they study but also in communicating their lifeways to readers living in different cultural and political contexts. An ongoing challenge for writers, historians included, revolves around oral literature produced in non-European languages in written form, and how these should figure into the global lore. While we can and should celebrate African writers whose written work in French or Portuguese finds an outlet in English translation, what about African writers working with oral materials and producing in African languages?

Wendy Urban-Mead : Thinking about orality and trying to render it in written form, a couple of things come to mind. When Joshua Nkomo died in July of 1999, his praises were sung by Pathisa Nyathi. Nyathi is imbongi— a praise singer. He is also a historian, educator, cultural heritage keeper, journalist, and more. One can read the printed praise poem for Nkomo. But listening to it with the ears was an entirely different matter—a different medium. The message enters consciousness not through the eyes. There is resonant nuance and power. It becomes possible to begin to perceive the enormity of the man being praised.

Then I think back in time and northward, to Malawi, and the recorded songs of men who were in the Carrier Corps (Kariakor) during the First World War. Melvin Page worked with several others to interview a host of veterans. In each interview, they asked, “Do you have a song from your time in the war that you remember?” Many of them did, and sang them for the recorder. One can read them in The Chiwaya War Stories , volumes 1 & 2. But what did those songs sound like ? I am tantalized and frustrated by reading those verses on a paper book page.

Bwerani ku Manda Nya Banda zanga uzindito Nya Mbewe zanga uzindito Ndabwera ku Manda Come to Manda Miss Banda come and get me Miss Mbewe come and get me I’ve come from Manda [1]

One of the sayings we tend to emphasize during #readingAfrica is “African literature is not a genre.” What are some of the problematic ways people around the globe understand “Africa” and what are the historical roots of that?

Holly Y. McGee: Africa is erroneously stigmatized in the global imaginary as a backward and benighted monolith, and the diverse and extensive histories of the Continent have been based on oversimplified, fixed assumptions justified with inequitable social systems that aid in the perpetuation of widespread, false information. The racist speculations, examinations, postulations and perceptions of English and Anglo-American explorers that influenced Western intellectual traditions regarding Africa from the moment of initial contact are detailed in Winthrop Jordan’s seminal work White Over Black , which was first published in 1968 and is still recognized as a “classic” in the field of colonial slavery.

Sadly, hyperbole and outright fiction supplanted the truths of the Continent and obscured its realities (i.e. thriving ancient empires, advanced weaponry, extensive trade networks and complex bureaucratic systems) from the trans-Atlantic world, paving the way for generations of subjugation and continued exploitation.  What is more important than the past roots of the polemic ways in which people understand Africa, however, are the ways in which we must commit to re-educating ourselves and future generations in an effort to make ignorance of Africa history.

Can you probe the use of “African” as a descriptor or adjective. The whole point of this event is to point out that African lit isn’t one thing, but as you all know, “Africa” and “African” often gets flattened into one thing. What are some of the ways that you’ve seen writers and illustrators push back against this?

Holly Y. McGee: Well-known children’s book authors like Margy Burns Knight, Margaret Musgrove, Page McBrier, and Muriel Feelings, have undertaken efforts to highlight the very regional and linguistic diversities which belie generalizations of “Africa,” displaying the myriad traditions, images, and cultural patterns unique to the locales about which they craft their stories. The incredible diversity of the 50+ independent nations of the Continent is unmistakable in their work and that of other authors and illustrators determined to encourage knowledgeable distinctions between that independent work and needs of African nations.

Beyond language, what does it mean to decolonize African Literature?

Wendy Urban-Mead . I have spent 25-plus years reading about, visiting, writing about, talking with people from, South Africa and Zimbabwe. I still don’t think I know very much about that part of the world, after all that. Why does the American academy think I am an Africanist , and can teach about Ghana or Nigeria? I’ve done it, of course. Because the “Modern Africa Survey” requires it. But every time, I feel irritable, and shoehorned into a category that did not come from “Africa” itself.

Some African writers (like Ngūgī wa Thiongo) choose to write only in an indigenous language. This may limit their audience worldwide but provide political and cultural satisfaction for the writer and perhaps their audience. Can you talk about the historical and cultural desire to decolonize literature? How about in the academy?

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: First of all, I would like to state that I will be answering most questions not as an erstwhile academic but as someone who lives and writes in the global South because I think that how we think about Africa and African Literature has everything to do with not only our personal positionality but also with where we are positioned in the world.

While I understand the multiple viewpoints expressed in the decades-old “the language of African Literature debate” between Ngugi wa Thiongo, Chinua Achebe et al., I often think there are nuances that go unexplored when people think through this issue. For instance, if, on some parts of the continent, people first encountered their languages in written form through translations of the Bible, that is, through a tool of colonization, does writing in an African indigenous language automatically mean that one is decolonizing literature? Beyond language, what does it mean to decolonize African Literature?

Lizzy Attree: I think the answer Siphiwe has given to the age old Ngugi language question is perfect. There are so many issues around languages that were not only learnt in written form through the bible, but also transcribed in written alphabets and phonemes through western interlocutors in the former colonies in the first place. This has been fruitful in many ways (I’m thinking of isi-xhosa newspapers which have since sadly disappeared in the Eastern Cape in the 1900s).

But what do we do then with orality, or as Charles Mungoshi said to me once (when a song in one of his short stories was transcribed in English as ‘nonsense song’), “These are songs my grandmother sang to me—I cannot explain to you what it means in English directly.” He then sang to me (he was a little drunk). I still have the recording and the transcription was published in the JRB recently, but I cannot explain or understand his words, only naively remember what I felt hearing him sing. As Mukoma wa Ngugi says of the Tizita, it contains an archive of 200,000 years of human emotion. Do we even need to access these things intellectually? Are there other ways in which we can share orality?

Do we even need to access these things intellectually? Are there other ways in which we can share orality?

At the Kiswahili Prize I can talk of how we are trying to re-center African languages as part of African literature and make Kiswahili a world language (UNESCO has just announced there will be a world Kiswahili day in July 2022), but decolonizing African literature is another exercise altogether.  A man I met at a literary event in London last week said he’d reviewed plenty of manuscripts by white writers writing about Kenya and considered Kiswahili a “lingua-franca” as he put it and was shocked when I said it has hundreds of years of history dating back to the Omani caliphates on the east coast of Africa and is akin to Arabic as well as of course Bantu languages in so many ways.  Why was this man even reviewing Kenyan manuscripts?!!? Of course I couldn’t say this directly to him, but I hope he went away and looked into what Kiswahili really is, the dialects, the kimvita poetry, etc. etc.

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Lizzy, I really love the Charles Mungoshi anecdote, there is so much personality that comes through in that story. I also like the idea of a “nonsense song” because for me it points towards Eduoard Glissant’s idea of opacity. While the word “nonsense” is derogative, the real question is for whom does this song not make sense? Obviously for Mungoshi, his grandmother and the ‘Shona’ language (Karanga, Zezuru, Korekore, Manyika or Ndau etc) group they belonged to, the song made plenty of sense.

For example, I know that within the isiNdebele oral tradition in which I grew up, some of the songs our grandmothers taught us were to give us a certain facility with the language, for instance, to teach us how to make q, x and c sounds. The songs were constructed in order to be memorable and fun and not necessarily to make “sense” beyond that point. Given the context within which these songs were created, I believe they have “the right to opacity” beyond that context. Let translations into English call them “nonsense” if they must, we (those of us who speak the language) know what those songs are, what they “mean” and what they are used for and that is ultimately what matters most and is important.

All this speaks to the point that Kwasi Konado made earlier when he said, “I’m not sure the best ways of writing can or should capture these experienced parcels of the oral.”

To my mind there is something inherently, perhaps not “decolonial,” but definitely “uncolonial” and “uncolonizable” about this ability of the song to make itself untranslatable into English. When we think of how determined the colonial project was to order things, render everything knowable, and ascribe meaning to things then, perhaps, this opacity can also be used productively within a decolonization project.

Trevor Getz:   I may be wrong, but, to me, this question reflects the recognition of the necessary division between the decolonizing projects of global north and south (to be approximate). Decolonizing in the global north is a project wrapped up heavily in the specific racial supremacy problem we have created.  As such, we struggle to conscientize an audience that is broadly ignorant of Africa, aware of African livelihoods, perspectives, lived experiences, hopes and dreams, creativities, intellectualisms. We do so in part, we probably must admit, to hold a mirror up to our own society and push resolutions for our own problems. This project, however, would probably not be meaningful (in truth) to decolonization in Africa, where of course everyone is an expert in being African and does not need us to inform them.

Again, I offer this submission with humility, but I see the divide frequently in efforts to “decolonize the curriculum” in the US/UK, efforts that are only very loosely connected to African decolonization efforts that have in their focus the much more everyday presence of colonial legacies.

I’m not rejecting the commonalities, of course, and I recognize US settler colonialism.  But in the case of “African history and literature,” the north and south decolonizing projects are not really the same.

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Although I do not particularly like labels, to be honest, when I stepped away from academia a few years ago I did so as a postcolonialist invested in the histories (mostly cultural and social) of Africa and its diasporas and so I am responding to your response from that vantage point. I struggle to understand why there has to be a “necessary division” between the decolonizing projects from the global south and north and why in the always already globalized world in which we live these projects cannot be one project that speaks to a global audience about both “racial supremacy” and the “everyday presence of colonial legacies,” especially since these things are obviously linked.

I understand that you are saying that the specific racial supremacy problem has led to a lack of knowledge not only about other parts of the world and other communities within the zones of that racial supremacy and that it is then the work of the decolonizing project in the global north to educate the inheritors of that supremacy and those who have lived under it about what that supremacy has done beyond the pervasive narrative of its greatness and to begin to right some of the many wrongs of that idea of supremacy.

However, I don’t understand why this decolonizing project cannot be connected to the one that seeks to expose the “everyday presence of colonial legacies,” legacies which are very rooted in the idea of white supremacy. I don’t understand why in this decolonizing project, the world needs to continue to be divided along the very lines created by the very thing (white supremacy) that it is trying to move beyond.

I am not being intentionally obtuse, I am genuinely trying to understand how the “necessary division” leads us forward productively.

The trend away from postcolonial fiction to everything from Afropolitanism, historical fiction and African futurism has broadened the range of stories that are considered “African”—can you comment on this diversification and its benefits for African writers? Along those lines, many African writers are now frequently indulging in genre-specific fiction—crime, romance, etc. How can these genres allow for a greater and broader understanding of the continent’s history and culture and diversity?

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: I particularly like these two questions because they help illuminate one of the central issues within discussions about African literatures. The questions are posed as though African writers are doing things that they have not done before or moving into more global trends or moving away from more “traditional” forms of storytelling (usually the oral tradition) when really what is happening is that the people who categorize and label literatures (who are usually never the writers themselves) in order to publish/sell books and teach literatures are the ones who determine how they will label the literature. In other words, like most writers in the world, African writers write, and their work gets categorized by others.

Therefore, when looking at what is currently happening within the world of African literatures, I think we need to flip the focal point of the questions. Was this diversification not always there? Haven’t African writers been writing genre-specific fiction for decades now? If the answer to both questions is, yes, then the question is why did the people who publish/sell books and teach literatures not provide these categories or explore them more fully before? Why did they not see them and/or why were they not invested in showcasing these categories? What made some categories more difficult to sell and/or teach? Why was it necessary (at a certain moment in history) to not present the full diversity of African literatures? How can this help us think productively about ways to move beyond the power structures within these institutions (publishing and academia) that not only limit what African literatures are, but, all too often, also what they can do?

Wole Talabi et al have shown that African speculative fiction can be traced all the way back to the oral tradition. Some writers writing in colonial or indigenous languages were very much aware that they were writing genre-specific literature because they had been inspired by genre-specific writers. For instance, some crime writers were influenced by the works of Agatha Christie etc., and those who wrote thrillers, by the works of James Hadley Chase etc. Macmillan’s popular, pan-African Pacesetters series that began in the late 1970s exposed readers to all kinds of genres. All of this is to say that 21st-century African writers, although forging ahead into previously uncharted territory, are often traveling down familiar roads and all that is really changing now is how certain institutions are coming to understand and depict that journey.

In short, I think these questions and concerns tell us more about the industries and institutions in which African literatures circulate than they do about the writings and efforts of the African writers themselves, which is also very illuminating.

Literacy in Africa is always a challenge, though some organizations seek to solve it through book donations and/or use of digital technologies for book access. What are some of the inherent challenges to these approaches? What are ways we could improve current approaches?

Lizzy Attree: The inherent problem with donating books is the same as donating clothes. Outdated and unwanted books that flood the African market firstly means that people only get access to low quality materials that have been cast off by someone else. This is not always the case, but when the books are current, the donations also take the bottom out of the book market. How can booksellers and publishers afford to compete with free books? The altruistic intention is admirable but resources might better be spent elsewhere. Investing in African publishers and selling rights separately into African markets so that books can be produced competitively locally rather than imported.

Digital access is a slightly different issue, and Worldreader and others have made some good donations, I think, getting solar powered e-readers to school children. I do worry however that authors are not best served by cheap access to their work—royalties are small at the best of times—ensuring authors are paid for their creative work is another issue to be addressed, as is the production and translation of books in local languages so that mother tongue education can thrive. Otherwise donated books in English simply contribute to further colonization of minds.

What’s a book by an African writer that you regularly recommend people to read?

Trevor Getz:   I have recommended Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s David Mogo Godhunter to a dozen friends and colleagues. I don’t know what genre to place it in—fantasy? Science fiction? Afrofuturism? Crime?—thus proving the inappropriateness of genres. It is, however, a fantastic adventure in a well-conceived world built de novo by the author.  The characters, whether gods or mortals or in-between, are compelling, and it’s ridiculously unobtainable in the US in particular.

Lizzy Attree: I always recommend Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera but also now add Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift , as well as Marlene van Niekirk’s Agaat . Plus The Rosewater Trilogy by Tade Thompson.

Kwasi Konadu : I often recommend Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Healers and T he Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born . Set within newly independent Ghana, the latter is well-known and brings the sounds and smells of corruption and so-called postcolonial life into sharp view, while The Healers is an under-the-radar book and perhaps Armah’s best work, because of its intimacy of details and because its themes hinge on confronting the tyranny of empires—both local and global—as well as power people have within and in unity.

Wendy Urban-Mead : I have assigned Ngugi’s Dreams in a Time of War several times now. My positionality is in the U.S., in North America, teaching future secondary school history teachers, and undergraduates taking history classes. Nearly all are *not* majoring in Africana Studies. The lack of knowledge about anything from Africa is enormous. It’s an ocean of not-knowing. We have to start somewhere. I am thankful that there are texts in English, that let us get started. They read Dreams in a Time of War, alongside the letters of “Lily Moya,” which appear in Not Either an Experimental Doll . Students ask outstanding, penetrating, painful questions about language, text mediation, audience, colonialism, the impact of missions, and gender. They can’t emerge from reading these two texts with a unitary, uncomplicated tale of “colonial schooling” and “Africa.” They realize that “traditional” means a host of things. They cannot help but see that learning to read can be mind-closing, an extension of hegemonic suffocation—or mind-opening, world-opening, and somehow also all of a piece with the orally rendered stories heard around the fire at night from grandmothers, older siblings, and aunties.

_______________________________________

Dr. Lizzy Atree is the co-founder of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature. She has a PhD from SOAS, University of London and Blood on the Page , her collection of interviews with the first African writers to write about HIV and AIDS from Zimbabwe and South Africa, was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2010. She is a Director on the board of Short Story Day Africa and a trustee of Wasafiri magazine. She was the Director of the Caine Prize from 2014 to 2018. In 2015, she taught African literature at Kings College, London and has since taught at Goldsmiths College and now teaches World and Contemporary London Literature at Richmond, the American International University in London. She is the Producer of ‘Thinking Outside the Penalty Box’, an African Footballers project partnering with Chelsea and Arsenal, funded by Arts Council England and supported by the Poetry Society, and a freelance writer, reviewer and critic, recently featured in Africa Is A Country and The Conversation Africa.

Dr. Trevor Getz is a historian of Africa and the world whose interests include history education, comics in history, and other popular ways of thinking about the past. Most of Getz’s work revolves around issues surrounding gender and slavery in West Africa. He is the principle content manager for the World History Project, series editor for the Oxford University Press’s Uncovering History series, and collaborating on the history for the 21st Century Projec t.  Intensely interested in the possibilities of participatory research and the democratic classroom, he also collaborates on depicting West African pasts in video, Lego, and comics.

Dr. Kwasi Konadu is John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Endowed Chair and Professor at Colgate University, where he teaches courses in African history and on worldwide African histories and cultures. With extensive archival and field research in West Africa, Europe, Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America, his writings focus on African and African diasporic histories, as well as major themes in world history. He is the author of Our Own Way in This Part of the World: Biography of an African Community, Culture, and Nation (Duke University Press, 2019), (with Clifford Campbell) The Ghana Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University Press, 2016), Transatlantic Africa, 1440-1888 (Oxford University Press, 2014), The Akan Diaspora in the America s (Oxford University Press, 2010), among other books.A father and husband first and foremost, Konadu is also a healer (Tanɔ ɔbosomfoɔ) who studied with his grandfather in Jamaica and then in Takyiman (central Ghana) as well as a publisher of scholarly books about African world histories and cultures through Diasporic Africa Press.

Dr. Holly McGee specializes in U. S. History and African American History, with an emphasis on black women’s intellectual history, comparative political activism in the United States and South Africa, and popular culture in the twentieth century.  Her secondary specialties include local histories of the American South, South African women’s history, and oral histories.  Currently, Dr. McGee teaches at the University of Cincinnati. Dr. McGee’s first manuscript, Radical Antiapartheid Internationalism and Exile: The Life of Elizabeth Mafeking is a biographical oral history of Elizabeth Mafeking—a recognized South African women’s leader and trade union president identified by white civic and political leaders in 1959 as the head of “the most militant trade union in the country.” As a case study of radical, working-class consciousness in Apartheid politics, the manuscript demonstrates how Mafeking and others helped to craft a language of activist rights for black women in South Africa, and advances discussions regarding women, gender, and family in South Africa while exploring banning and exile as lost spaces of historical analysis and inquiry.  Dr. McGee’s most recent article, “Before the Window Closed: Internationalism, Crossing Borders, and Reaching Out to Sisters Across the Seas,”  reflects a return to and expansion of her earlier comparative work, which was focused on the radical social and political activism of black women in the United States and South Africa in the mid-twentieth century.  The article posits four women—two South African and two American—whose ideological and organizational connections extended far beyond their own national borders and helped to change contemporary ideas regarding the supposed place of black women in national and international protests.

Dr. Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu is a writer, filmmaker and academic who holds a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University, as well as master’s degrees in African Studies and Film from Ohio University. Her debut novel, The Theory of Flight, published in North America by Catalyst Press in 2021, won the 2019 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize in South Africa. She is also the author of The History of Man , which will be published in North America in January 2022.

Wendy Urban-Mead is an educator and a historian of southern Africa. After teaching high school history for five years, she acquired a PhD in African History from Columbia University. She teaches Global and African history for the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College, and with the Bard Prison Initiative. She is the author of several scholarly articles and of The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland Zimbabwe (Ohio University Press, 2015.) She is working on a curriculum on Africans and the First World War for use by advanced secondary and college teachers, to be published with 21st Century Project .

[1] Sam Kamanga, interview with Melvin page, translated by C. M. Manda, 4 August 1973, Chirungulu Village, Malawi, in Melvin Page, ed., Chiwaya War Voices: Malawian Oral Histories of the Great War in Africa , vol 2 (The Great War in Africa Association, 2021), p. 539.

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African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, ed.

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with Tejumola Olaniyan

This is the first anthology to bring together the key texts of African literary theory and criticism.

Brings together key texts that are otherwise hard to locate

Covers all genres and critical schools

Provides the intellectual context for understanding African literature

Facilitates the future development of African literary criticism

About the Author

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Ato Quayson

Ato Quayson is the Jean G. and Morris M. Doyle Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies and Professor of English. He studied for his undergraduate degree at the University of Ghana and took his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, after which he held a Junior Research Fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford before returning to Cambridge to become Reader in Commonwealth and Postcolonial Literature in the Faculty of English from 1995-2005. He was also Director of the Centre for African Studies (1998-2005) and a Fellow of Pembroke College while at Cambridge (1995-2005). Prior to Stanford he was Professor of African and Postcolonial Literature at New York University (2017-2019) and Professor of English and inaugural Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto (2005-2017). In 2016 he was appointed University Professor at the University of Toronto, the highest distinction that the university can bestow. 

Professor Quayson has published 6 monographs and 10 edited volumes. His monographs include  Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing  (1997),  Postcolonialism: Theory, Practice, or Process?  (2000),  Calibrations: Reading for the Social  (2003), and  Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation  (2007).  Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism  (2014) was co-winner of the Urban History Association's 2015 Best Book Prize (non-North America) and was named in The Guardian as one of the 10 Best Books on Cities in 2014. His most recent book is  Tragedy and Postcolonial Literature  (Cambridge University Press, 2021), winner of the Warren-Brooks Prize in Literary Criticism for 2022. Edited volumes include  Relocating Postcolonialism  (with David Goldberg, 2001),  African Literary Theory: An Anthology of Literary Criticism and Theory  (with Tejumola Olaniyan, 2007),  Fathers and Daughters: An Anthology of Exploration  (2008),  Labor Migration, Human Trafficking, and Multinational Corporations , (with Antonela Arhin, 2012),  The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature , 2 volumes (2012),  A Companion to Diaspora and Transnational Studies  (with Girish Daswani, 2013),  The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel  (2016), The Cambridge Companion to the City in World Literature (with Jini Kim Watson, 2023),  and Decolonizing the English Literary Curriculum (with Ankhi Mukherjee, 2023).  He also wrote a new Introduction and Notes to Nelson Mandela’s (2003). Works-in-progress include Accra Chic: A Locational History of Fashion in Accra (with Grace Tolequé; Intellect Books and Chicago University Press) and Exile and Diaspora in African Literature. 

He curates Critic.Reading.Writing, a YouTube channel on which he discusses various topics in literature, urban studies and the humanities in general: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjoidh_R_bJCnXyKBkytP_g  and is the host of Contours: The Cambridge Literary Studies Hour ( https://www.cambridge.org/core/browse-subjects/literature/contours-the-cambridge-literary-studies-hour ), where he holds dialogues with various scholars to address pressing issues, themes, and concepts in 21st century literary studies from medieval literature to the present day and from all areas of global literary studies from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Professor Quayson has served as President of the African Studies Association (2019-2020) and is an elected Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006), the Royal Society of Canada (2013), the British Academy (2019), and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2023).

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The eight must-read African novels to get you through lockdown

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Professor of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand

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Senior lecturer, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University

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Associate Professor in the Department of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand

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PhD candidate in Literature, University of the Witwatersrand

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Senior Lecturer, University of Pretoria

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Professor, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University

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Professor of Literature, University of the Witwatersrand

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Associate Professor of literature, Makerere University

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Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Nairobi

Disclosure statement

Isabel Hofmeyr receives funding from the National Research Foundation.

Aretha Phiri is a rated researcher and receives funding from the NRF. In addition, she's an Iso Lomso fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (2017-2019).

Grace Musila, Manosa Nthunya, Nedine Moonsamy, Sam Naidu, Sarah Nuttall, Susan Kiguli, and Tom Odhiambo do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of the Witwatersrand provides support as a hosting partner of The Conversation AFRICA.

University of Pretoria and Rhodes University provide funding as partners of The Conversation AFRICA.

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For those looking from the global North, African literature is often marketed in a narrow way, comprising worthy stories of resistance, written in an uplifting and sober realist mode. Seen from the continent itself, this view has long been brushed aside by the effervescence and animation of ongoing literary experimentation and creativity. I approached literary academic colleagues from South Africa, Kenya and Uganda to choose – and share their thoughts on – one of their favourite books of African fiction. The resulting finger-on-the-pulse list offers a bookshelf that speaks to the vibrancy of both contemporary and older African literature. – Isabel Hofmeyr

Waiting by Goretti Kyomuhendo

Susan Kiguli, Makerere University

The 2007 novel is set in the time of the war to get rid of the dictator Idi Amin. The main character, the adolescent Alinda, and her family have to hide from fleeing soldiers. It is an atmosphere of great angst and fear tinged with hope for the arrival of the liberators, who are a merged force of Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian soldiers. This short novel ingeniously handles the matter of the Lendu woman, the Indians and the Tanzanian soldiers with a blend of suspicion and optimism for the unknown and mystique suggested by foreigners.

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The narrative thinks through the gaps and anxiety created by war, where ordinary citizens do not know what to expect. It describes the violence, victims and loss that come with lying in the path of fleeing soldiers and pursuing liberators. The setting is a village near Lake Albert at the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This is a novel depicting a situation of post-independence internal and cross-border conflict. It is a worthy read particularly because it resonates with this time when the world is tense under the weight of a marauding pandemic.

I used to think war meant violent clashes between human beings, but since the arrival of the coronavirus I think it includes human beings confronting disease.

The Wormwood Trilogy by Tade Thompson

Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria

Tade Thompson’s The Wormwood Trilogy (Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection, The Rosewater Redemption) has been widely acclaimed. It was recently nominated for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Series. For African readers, it is a watershed moment, marking the arrival of an African science fiction trilogy that we so needed and deserve. Set in the near future, these novels capture the interaction between an invading alien population, the Homians, and the citizens of Nigeria.

All three books hit the sweet spot between exploring what science fiction means to us – who, as the characters often point out, have been historically subjected to alien invasions – and the pleasure of simply imbibing well-written and pacy genre fiction.

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Teeming with alien life, Wormwood is an extra-terrestrial biodome that embeds itself in Nigerian soil. Its sprawling tentacles provide organic power and, contrary to what one might imagine, people flock to the surrounding community of Rosewood because Wormwood also performs ritualistic acts of healing on sick human bodies.

In contrast to greater Nigeria, where power outages are still frequent and homosexuality illegal, Rosewood has all the makings of an African techno-utopia. Yet at the heart of the trilogy is the niggling question about whether it is ever possible for humans and aliens to co-exist with symbiotic ease.

The novels make use of sharp-witted, hard-boiled detectives to probe further into alien motives; Thompson’s female characters, in particular, are a testament to his talent as they bristle with an unsentimental brand of Nigerian humour. Getting to know these characters makes reading the trilogy rewarding in itself, but Thompson’s world building is a force to be reckoned with. The interweaving of chaotic Nigerian streets, alongside organic extra-terrestrialism and imagined human technologies, is handled skilfully, allowing readers to delve into a seamless African biopunk universe that makes us marvel at the potential of what is to come.

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

Grace A Musila, University of the Witwatersrand

On the eve of Angola’s independence in 1975, Portuguese expatriate Ludovica Fernandes Mano goes into isolation in her penthouse apartment in the city of Luanda, out of fear of the post-independence future. She seals off her apartment with bricks, withdrawing into a new life with her dog and her garden on the terrace, which keeps her fed. Her only connection to the outside world – which soon descends to a 27-year civil war – is her radio.

Angolan novelist Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion is a riveting tapestry of history, detective fiction and poetic interludes, interwoven with poignant turns of phrase and absurdities delivered with a straight-faced candour. It is a perfect lockdown read, not because it is about isolation, but because Ludo’s self-isolation is filled with hilariously narrated encounters and adventures, including a trained messenger pigeon that keeps two young lovers in contact. Ludo uses small pieces of diamond to trap pigeons for food; but when her trap delivers a messenger pigeon with a note attached to its leg, Ludo decides to set it free so the lovers might receive their message – and with it, her swallowed diamonds.

Ludo spends her time writing out her reflections initially in notebooks, and later the walls of her apartment, using charcoal. We get to read excerpts of her poetic reflections; from whose philosophical musings the novel draws its title.

the african literature

Her encounter with the messenger pigeon draws an intricate network of the world she has withdrawn from, into her sanctuary, eventually ending her 30-year isolation when a young burglar accidentally discovers her and forms a bond with the now elderly lady.

The novel is a patchwork of short, interconnected stories. They weave a web of connected lives which lend it an expansive and colourful range, through short, pacy, thriller-style chapters, interspersed with Ludo’s poetic reflections. This is a book you read when you want to be surprised, and to have your imagination stretched by startling turns of phrase, odd logic and lyrical philosophical observations about life.

Warm, occasionally absurd, humour renders the inevitable tropes of war-time – torture, executions and profiteering – bearable. Part of the novel’s charm lies in its eccentric characters, like the self-fashioned “collector of disappearances” who tracks disappearances of planes off air spaces, as well as more ordinary disappearances, such as the journalist who apparently vanished right before people’s eyes.

This 2015 novel is a stunning canvas of the historical devastation of the Angolan civil war and richly imagined textures of ordinary people’s everyday worlds told with great warmth and inventiveness.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Sam Naidu, Rhodes University

At a time when the world is experiencing unprecedented restrictions to mobility, Freshwater offers a searing and illuminating narrative about various kinds of border-crossing and about being multiply-located. In this unusual, at times shocking, bildungsroman , Emezi’s protagonist, Ada, is the child of a Nigerian father and a Malaysian mother. From early childhood, and then increasingly as she approaches adulthood, it is clear that Ada exists in a liminal zone: between spirit and human worlds; between cultures and nations; and between sexualities and genders. In retrospect, the novel’s dedication, to

… those of us with one foot on the other side,

that is, to those who do not claim one single affiliation, but both or many, is economically apposite. This liminality is portrayed with astonishing vividness and through varying perspectives, often drawing on traditional Igbo mythology and cosmology to create imagery which is unsettling and challenging.

the african literature

As an “African” novel, 2018’s Freshwater is innovative and irreverent in the way it marries African religious and cultural beliefs with “Western” geography, religious iconography and cultural symbols, ultimately defying literary categorisation, just as its protagonist repudiates predetermined categories of identity. (The novel is set in Nigeria and the US, and it deliberately presents Ada as a hybrid, transnational character.)

It also contains a rare combination of sensuous, brute physicality with the spiritual. By the end, it is clear that Ada cannot be claimed by her homeland or her diasporic home as she transcends even the human-spirit border to become something which is indefinable, “as liminal as is possible – spirit and human, both and neither”. This bold, contemporary novel captures the porousness of borders, which may prove disquieting for the reader, but also very liberating. In these times of lockdown, Freshwater transports the reader boldly to unexplored, uncanny territory.

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Sarah Nuttall, University of the Witwatersrand

I recommend Namwali Serpell’s 2019 Zambian tour de force The Old Drift . This is a long book – all 563 pages of it – by a writer whose prose and outsize imagination will hold you spellbound throughout. It’s a postcolonial family saga across three families and three generations. It is also the story of the great Zambezi river, and its capaciousness, capriciousness and capacity for revenge in the face of human-centred attempts to control it.

the african literature

Serpell unfolds her canvas along two trace-lines of Zambian modernity: the building of the Kariba Dam, the biggest man-made dam in the world at the time of its construction; and Edward Nkoloso’s Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy and his attempts to send the first Afronauts to the moon. The novel is grounded in precisely rendered historical events but also has a partially speculative sweep. Its final scenes take place in 2023, with a smart techno-twist. The story is narrated not just from a human perspective but from that of a mosquito swarm, a “bare ruinous choir, a chorus of gossipy mites”.

This is a book that asks for your time – and now you’ve got it. Read. And be riotously rewarded.

Hunger Eats a Man by Nkosinathi Sithole

Manosa Nthunya, University of Pretoria

It may as well be the case that at this very trying historical time, it may be difficult to appreciate the offerings of fiction. After all, on a daily basis, we are being asked to read and reread the world, asking ourselves if the catastrophe that has befallen us will pass. What comfort, then, can fiction offer when the very future is at stake? But read on we must – and we do – because it remains an activity that allows us to see how large the world is, despite seeming very small at the moment.

the african literature

A book that could be worthy of consideration is Nkosinathi Sithole’s Hunger Eats a Man (2014), a novel that examines the devastating effects of poverty in the rural areas of South Africa.

Much of the literature that is being produced in contemporary South Africa has a bias towards the city, with often very little reflection on the experiences of people who live in rural communities.

In this award-winning novel, Sithole opens a world that is marked by deep adversities, exploitation and an increasing disillusionment with a nation still learning how to crawl. It is a book worth reading, and reflecting upon, as we start counting down the inevitable costs of this catastrophic moment.

Broken Glass, by Alain Mabanckou

Tom Odhiambo, University of Nairobi

Alain Mabanckou’s fiction may not be known in much of Anglophone Africa but translation is making it easily available. Mabanckou’s 2005 Broken Glass , set in a bar, Credit Gone West, is a good read for times likes these – easy enough for someone interested in light reading; deep enough for someone looking for a nuanced depiction of African modernity. For those who can no longer access their beloved pub, it will remind you of the sounds, smells, sights, that only a bar can produce, from the beginning to the end.

the african literature

The tragic life of Broken Glass, the narrator, who appears “self-quarantined” in the bar, mirrors those of the different characters in the society, whose stories we hear in the many anecdotes he tells. The dark humour, satirical tone, endless allusions, and lack of conventional punctuation (sometimes making it tedious to follow the tale), all build up to a dystopic story. But, in the end, the bizarre story in Broken Glass should surely lead you to search for more of Mabanckou’s novels.

Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee

Aretha Phiri , Rhodes University

The oldie on the list, from 1983. An award-winning novel by JM Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K evokes a desperately depressing sense of subjective fragility and existential nothingness – concerns for which the author is well known.

the african literature

Set during a period analogous to civil war, it’s a story about a seemingly insipid and largely enigmatic character whose journeys across and encounters with inhospitable landscapes and unwelcoming communities from the Western Cape province to the Karoo see him, at the novel’s end, gathering water from a well with “a teaspoon and a long roll of string”.

And yet Michael K’s vacuous itinerancy also suggests something pathetically hopeful about the existential journey and signals something ironically prescient about the will to endure. Michael K is a sobering read for these testing times.

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Literary Theory and Criticism

Home › African Literary Theory and Criticism

African Literary Theory and Criticism

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on December 15, 2020 • ( 0 )

African literary theory and criticism has emerged out of a discourse of nationalism/continentalism constituted in a political and cultural act of resistance. Ironically the components of African nationalist ideology are often derived from the colonial-imperial discourse against which this nationalism struggles. Thus the language and representational framework within which African literary creation and criticism have evolved, to say nothing of the control of the book market, tends to be determined by the still largely dominant structures of colonial power.

The establishment of Présence Africaine as a literary journal and publishing house in Dakar and Paris under the patronage of Western intellectuals epitomizes the paradoxical relationship of African literature to Western influences. Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya) asserts that

the root cause of the African writer’s predicament [is] historically explainable in terms of the colonial/racist encirclement and brutal suppression of African languages and cultures; that the African writer [is] himself part of the petty bourgeois class which has completely imbibed … western bourgeois education and cultures and the world outlook these carried. ( Writers 57-58)

Since the writing and critical reception of the European- language African texts in the years preceding i960 occurred under the tutelage of European and U.S. “promoters,” indigenous African literary practice since then has vacillated between the rejection of and the fascination with Western structures. Critical apparatus and modes of reading and interpretation of African literatures continue to issue out of the Euro-American bloc. In “Out of Africa: Typologies of Nativism” (1988) Kwame Anthony Appiah (Ghana) postulates that “the language of empire—of center and periphery, identity and difference, the sovereign subject and her colonies— continues to structure the criticism and reception of African literature in Africa as elsewhere.” Two opposing currents impede critical balance: “the emphasis on the démonisation of a dominant Europe producing and perpetuating a cultural margin called the Other”; and resistance, “the multiform varieties of individual and collective agency available to the African subject. .. the achievements and the possibilities of African writing” (175).

Given the multiplicity of linguistic, historical, cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, and national differentiations on the African continent, is it not perhaps more meaningful to speak of African literatures rather than African literature ? Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) once wrote that “you cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition…. 1 do not see African literature as one unit but as a group of associated units—in fact the sum total of all the national and ethnic literatures of Africa” ( Morning Yet on Creation Day , 1975,56).

Issues of national autonomy, language, ideology, and cultural politics are framed within external and internal hegemonies with considerable implication for African daily existence. There is consensus that the forging of a theory or theories of African literatures has to be generated by African textual practice and texts rather than by external hegemonic interest. In Writers in Politics (1981) Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues pointedly that cultural imperialism under colonialism was “part and parcel of the thorough system of economic exploitation and political oppression of the colonized peoples and [colonial] literature was an integral part of that system of oppression and genocide” (15). A dissident literature of struggle and cultural assertion that predates colonial invasion was consolidated under empire and continues, in the postindependence epoch, to combat neocolonial hegemony exercising itself through an indigenous elite groomed through colonial apprenticeship.

The development of a broadly African (or individual national) literary theory and practice is inseparable from the project of total decolonization. The Cultural Charter for Africa (1976), drawn up by the General Secretariat of the Organization of African Unity, articulates the conviction that “cultural domination led to the depersonalization of part of the African peoples, falsified their history, systematically disparaged and combated African values, and tried to replace progressively and officially, their languages by that of the colonizer.” The Charter notes that

culture constitutes for our people the surest means of overcoming our technological backwardness and the most efficient force of our victorious resistance to imperialist blackmail [, that] African culture is meaningless unless it plays a full part in the political and social liberation struggle, and in the rehabilitation and unification efforts and that there is no limit to the cultural development of a people. (2-4)

The intransigence of apartheid in South Africa bears out this pronouncement; it also contributes to the existence in one country of two literatures that do not speak to each other.

Colonization resulted in the linguistic and political division of Africa into zones based on European languages. For African writers and critics to insist on an identity based on colonial languages is to subscribe to the will to self-fragmentation. In L’idéologie dans la litterature negro-africaine d’expression française (1986) Guy Ossito Midiohouan (Benin) suggests that behind the appellation “Francophone” lies the continued cooperation between African countries and France that is but a not-so-subtle cover for French imperialist ideology. “La Francophonie” is a purely ideological space, an immense mythic territory encompassing all the comers of the world where the French language is used (22). Even later (and probably well-intentioned) critical works such as Jonathan Ngaté’s Francophone African Fiction: Reading a Literary Tradition (1988) and Christopher Miller’s Theories of Africans (1990) pander to the supposed logic of a cultural- linguistic cartography.

In their controversial Toward the Decolonization of African Literature (1980), Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Ihechukwu Madubuik e raise the issue of defining the “Africanness” of a literary text, an issue already tackled in a 1962 conference of “African Writers of English Expression” at Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda, with the theme “What Is African Literature?” Ngugi wa Thiong’o recalls that “the whole area of literature and audience, and hence of language as a determinant of both the national and class audience, did not really figure: the debate was more about the subject matter and the racial origins and geographical habitation of the writer” ( Decolonising 6).

The language debate was first foregrounded by a Nigerian critic, Obiajunwa Wali , who in 1963 published a controversial article, “The Dead End of African Literature?” in which he observed that “African literature as now understood and practised is merely a minor appendage in the main stream of European literature. … The w’hole uncritical acceptance of English and French as the inevitable medium for educated African writing … has no chance of advancing African literature and culture” ( Transition 10 [1963] 14). The elitist association of literature with academic education in European languages led Kwame Anthony Appiah to lament that “modem African writing” usually denotes what is taught in high schools all around the continent:

The role of the colonial [and postcolonial] school in the reproduction of Western cultural hegemony is crucial to .African criticism because of the intimate connection between the idea of criticism and the growth of literary pedagogy…. the role of literature, indeed, the formation of the concept, the institution of “literature,” is indissoluble from pedagogy. (“Out of Africa” 156)

Albert Memmi (Tunisia) argues that even where bilingualism obtains, the mother tongue of the colonized gets “crushed” in the conflict of power with the colonizer:

Colonial bilingualism is neither a purely bilingual situation in which an indigenous tongue coexists with a purist’s language … nor a simple polyglot richness benefiting from an extra but relatively neuter alphabet. … [The colonized writer] incarnates a magnified vision of all the ambiguities and impossibilities of the colonized. ( The Colonizer and the Colonized , 1967,107-8)

Interestingly, the West and its adherents continue largely to ignore traditional oral literatures and written literatures in African languages.

the african literature

Ngugi wa Thiong’o/Steve Zylius University of California, Irvine

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has been the foremost champion of writing in African languages as an extension of the historical cultural struggle between the national and the foreign. In language that echoes Amilcar Cabral’s theme of “return to the source,” Ngugi has submitted that “only by a return to the roots of our being in the languages and cultures and heroic histories of the Kenyan people can we rise up to the challenge of helping in the creation of a Kenyan patriotic national literature and culture” ( Writers 65). “Orature,” a term coined by Pius Zirimu (Uganda) to denote oral texts, constitutes the primary source of literary creativity in Africa. The privileging of (written) literature over orature is increasingly discredited in view of the continual flux between orality and literacy. In most of Africa orature already provides exemplary texts of resistance and discursive contest. Ngugi and Kwame Appiah concur in characterizing as Afro-European (Europhone) literature that literature written by Africans in European languages. Ngugi insists that “African literature can only be written in African languages . .. the languages of the African peasantry and working class, the major alliance of classes in each of our nationalities and the agency for the coming inevitable revolutionary break with neo-colonialism” ( Decolonising 27). The intertextuality between orature and the printed text is a recurrent theme in literary debate and practice in African letters; witness, for instance, Mahamadou Kane’s Roman africain et tradition (1982) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind (1986). This intertextuality becomes the nexus of resistance and self-empowerment: the appropriation of a certain specific Western set of tools— language, theories, textual practice—affords African literary practice a means by which to counter the alienating effects of Western assault.

Quite predictably, nativism, the idea that “true African independence requires a literature of one’s own,” that is, a literature or literatures in indigenous African languages, has been contested. The multiplicity7 of African languages, the limitation of the audience, and questions of orthography have been cited as impediments to the generation and continuity of literatures in African languages. Nevertheless, the identification of indigenous African languages with programs of effective decolonization has held sway, given that European languages were (and are) the synecdochical instrumentality for cultural hegemony. Howe\rer, such a projection may sometimes assign a fetishlike character to a common language and a common ethnic or national provenance. In “Ideology or Pedagogy: The Linguistic Indigenization of African Literature,” Al-Amin M. Mazrui posits that the equation of indigenous language(s) with national identity has no validity “without a concomitant struggle for the nation to determine its own politico-economic destiny” ( Race & Class 28 [1986] 66). For Mazrui, the linguistic indigenization of African literature becomes meaningful and attains its greatest importance only in relation to the revolutionary function of literature.

“Négritude” has been a recurrent motif in the criticism of African literature, both internal and external. Paulin Hountondji (Benin), Stanislas Adotevi (Senegal), Félix Eboussi Boulaga (Cameroon), and Marcien Towa (Cameroon) are among those who have undertaken a serious critique of the movement and concepts of Négritude. The dividing line between French-speaking and English-speaking practitioners and critics of Négritude is more apparent than real: South African Ezekiel (Es’kia) Mphahlele in “The African Personality” sees no distinction between “the African personality” and Négritude, because “each concept involves the other. They merely began at different times in different historical circumstances. … Négritude claims the whole of the black world, the African Personality refers only to Africa” ( The African Image , 1962, 67).

Négritude has been recognized broadly as a strategic moment and movement that had to be surpassed before the political kingdom could be reached. At a 1965 writers’ conference, Sembène Ousmane (Senegal) acknowledged the historical strategic necessity of Négritude but disparaged the “African” essentialism inherent in certain definitions of Négritude, seeing no future in it “because négritude neither feeds the hungry7 nor builds roads” (Killam 149). Cheikh Hamidou Kane (Senegal) argued for the utility of Négritude as anti-imperialist discourse: “We had, at some point, to make ourseh’es felt, if we were ever to make ourselses known and refuse cultural or political assimilation, especially at a time when, politically speaking, we had no prospects of an early liberation” (Killam 152). But Négritude has been faulted for often being complicit with the ethnocentric discourse of the West concerning Africa, confirming the West’s stereotyping of Africa. Léopold Séder Senghor’s typical opposition of “the negro” to “the European” constantly commits this blunder: “Classical European reason is analytical and makes use of the object. African reason is intuitive and participates in the object” ( Prose and Poetry , 1965, 34).

Despite its limitations, Négritude construed itself, at least in part, as constructing a bridge betyveen Africa and the black diaspora. In “Négritude,” Senghor slews Négritude as constituting “a weapon of defence and attack and inspiration” that, “instead of diyiding and sterilizing, unified and made fertile” ( Prose 99). In his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal [Notebook of a return to the native land], first published in 1938 and considered by many to be the pan-Negritude text par excellence, the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire projects the poet’s role as that of a spokesperson for the inhabitants of

this impossibly delicate tenuity separating one America from another; and these loins which secrete for Europe the hearty7 liquor of a Gulf Stream, and … Guadeloupe, split in two down its dorsal line and equal in poverty to us, Haiti where négritude rose for the first time and stated it believed in its humanity, and … Florida where the strangulation of a nigger is being completed, and Africa gigantically caterpillaring up to the Hispanic foot of Europe. (47)

In Les Fondements de L’Africanité, ou Négritude et Arabité, Senghor sees “Négritude” and “Arabness” as overlapping in the African context, rejecting the facile separation of the “Arab” from the “African”: “I ha\’e often defined Africanity as the ‘complementary7 symbiosis of the [cultural] values of Arabism and the \7alues of Négritude.’ ” Senghor endeavors to demonstrate that “this symbiosis is achieved through métissage (mixing of races and ethnics) and through the cony’ergences of Arab and Negro-African cultures” (10). Concerning the founding of the Organization of African Unity, for instance, Senghor points to the danger of an African identity conferred by the European imperial imagination. Writes Senghor: “To found a common organisation whose sole motiye force is anti-colonialism is thus to build on shaky ground. The colonial past has characterised us only as Africans. We have much in common with all the other peoples of Asia and America” (9-10).

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, among others, has advocated the study of the global dimensions of the African diaspora, in particular “our essentially colonial situation, our struggle [to achieve] a kind of homecoming.” In Homecoming (1972), Ngugi laments the utter neglect of Caribbean studies in African departments of literature. “We forget, or have been made to forget. .. that the West Indies has been very formative in Africa’s political and literary consciousness: Marcus Garvey, C. L. R. James, George Padmore, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon: these are some of the most familiar names in Africa. Yet we ignore their work” (81). In addition, the ideological-cultural links between the peoples of Africa and Asia find their literary expression in Lotus: Journal of Afro-Asian Literature . The links binding the common political-cultural histories of Africa, Asia, and Latin America find common expression in terms such as “resistance,” “commitment” (or “engagement”), and “solidarity.” Within Africa itself, a literature of solidarity takes sides in the struggle against neocolonialism. As Guy Ossito Midiohouan writes,

The fact remains that on our continent neo-colonialism knows no borders—nor do hunger, poverty, totalitarianism. … Our role, today, should not be to cultivate our difference and legitimize borders but rather, as the writers themselves have done, it must be to assume responsibilities to confront our common reality and our common destiny. (“The Nation-Specific Approach to African Literature,” in Harrow 3-4)

Marxist/socialist theoretical approaches, while broadly popular as anti-imperialist praxis, have been found unfit for articulating an African reality. For Chidi Amuta, the historical determination and theoretical orientation of Marxism renders it “impotent when it comes to the elaboration of societies, cultural manifestations and historical developments that did not form part of the cognitive universe of Marx and Engels” ( The Theory of African Literature: Implications for Practical Criticism, 1975, 73-74).

If male writers and critics dominate the arena of writing, patriarchal attitudes also often influence the literary representation of women and the reception of women’s writing and criticism (especially feminist). In the preface to Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves’s Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature (1986), Graves states the book’s objective as an attempt “to redress the relative inattention to women in African literary scholarship.” The essays in the text aspire to address “the absence of a feminine perspective or the stunted characterization of women,” issues that are “as demanding of critical attention as is the more complete presentation of feminine presence” (vii). Molara Ogundipe- Leslie (Nigeria) shares these sentiments in “The Female Writer and Her Commitment,” in which she posits the woman writer’s major responsibilities as being “first to tell about being a woman; secondly to describe reality from a woman’s view, a woman’s perspective.” Ogundipe-Leslie attributes some women writers’ and/or critics’ lack of “[commitment] to their womanhood” to the successful intimidation of African women by men over the issue of women’s liberation and feminism and to male ridicule, aggression, and backlash, which assign a stigma to the term “feminist” ( African Literature Today 15 [1987] 5,10-11).

Susan Z. Andrade also notes that “the [literary] history of African women has gone unnamed, its absence unnoticed.” According to Andrade, African feminist criticism must build beyond “its historical links to white feminist and male cultural critics,” with which it intersects (“Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women’s Literary Tradition,” Research in African Literatures 21 [1990] 91). Andrade, like an increasing number of women writers and critics, insists on an intertextual reading of women’s narratives and on the intersection between race and gender, which is often elided in much Western feminist writing on Africa.

African Novels and Novelists
Postcolonial (Cultural) Studies
African American and Post-colonial Studies
Black Feminisms
Postcolonialism

Bibiliography Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Out of Africa: Typologies of Nativism,” Yale Journal of Criticism 2 (1988); Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la terre (1961, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, 1976); Kimani Gecau, “Do Ethnic Languages Divide a Nation?” African Perspectives 2 (1978); Kenneth Harrow, Jonathan Ngaté, and Clarissa Zimra, eds., Crisscrossing Boundaries in African Literatures (1991); G. D. Killam, ed., African Writers on African Writing (1973); Locha Mateso, La Littérature africaine et sa critique (1986); Emmanuel Ngara, Art and Ideology in the African Novel: A Study of the Influence of Marxism on African Writing (1985), “The Role of the African Writer in National Liberation and Social Reconstruction,” Criticism and Ideology (ed. K. Petersen, 1988); Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), Writers in Politics (1981); Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976). Chinua Achebe, “African Literature as Celebration,” African Commentary: A Journal of People of African Descent 1 (1989); Ayi Kwei Armah, “Masks and Marx: The Marxist Ethos vis-à-vis African Revolutionary Theory and Praxis,” Présence Africaine 131 (1984); Albert Gérard, African Language Literatures: An Introduction to the Literary History of Sub-Saharan Africa (1981); Georg M. Gugelberger, Marxism and African Literature (1985); Russel G. Hamilton, “Lusophone Literature in Africa: Lusofonia, Africa, and Matters of Language and Letters,” Callaloo 14 (1991)/ Voices from an Empire: A History of Afro-Portuguese Literature (1975); Janheinz Jahn, Bibliography of Creative African Writing (1971); Adeola James, ed., In Their Own Voices: African Women Writers Talk (1990); Eldred D. Jones, ed., African Literature Today 15 (1987, special issue on women); Penina Muhando Mlama, “Creating in the Mother-Tongue: The Challenges to the African Writer Today,” Research in African Literatures 21 (1990); V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (1988); Emmanuel Ngara and Andrew Morrison, ed., Literature, Language, and the Nation (1989); Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (1972); Lewis Nkosi, Tasks and Masks: Themes and Styles in African Literature (1982); Emmanuel Obiechina, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel (1975); Isidore Okpewho, “Comparatism and Separatism in African Literature,” World Literature Today 55 (1981); Sembfene Ousmane, Man Is Culture / L’Homme est culture (Sixth Annual Hans Wolff Memorial Lecture, 1979); Wole Soyinka, “The Critic and Society: Barthes, Leftocracy, and Other Mythologies,” Black Literature and Literary Theory (ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1984), “The Writer in a Modern African State,” The Writer in Modem Africa (ed. Per Wastberg, 1968); Peter Sultzer, Schwarze Intelligens: Ein literarisch-politischer Streifzug durch Snd-Afrika (1955). Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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How two sisters in Fort Worth turned a passion for books into a haven for healing

Our Uniquely Fort Worth stories celebrate what we love most about Cowtown, its history & culture. Story suggestion? [email protected].

It all started when the Craddock sisters, Donya and Donna, discovered a story about their great grandparents. They were slaves owned by the Marmaduke family in the late 1800s . They lived in the Governor’s mansion in Marshall, Texas — then home to the Missouri state government in exile..

Above the slave quarters was a library full of books, except their great ancestors had no chance of reading them. They could only dust the covers. Anti-literacy laws were established for slaves at the time so getting caught with a book was considered a crime.

“Our ancestors were living under a library (with books they could not read) and now we own a bookstore. We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” Donna told the Star-Telegram.

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Their bookstore was where many in Texas found comfort through Black literature shortly after the shooting death of Michael Brown , a Black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited fiery riots and the demand for answers ran hot . The Craddock’s bookstore, T he Dock Bookshop at 6637 Meadowbrook Dr. in east Fort Worth, is one of the largest full-service Black-owned bookstores in Texas and the Southwest. Adding to the shop’s allure is its draw of celebrity authors such as Deion Sanders , Omar Epps , and Cornel West .

So out of all the places the sisters could have built their literary empire, why Fort Worth?

“There was a book desert for Black literature,” according to the sisters.

From Nebraska to Texas: Sisters labor in love of books

A new job in mortgage banking sent Donya Craddock to North Texas in 1997. She packed her love of reading with her. On the side, she began selling real estate books at local trade shows.

Recognizing she needed help in getting settled in a new town, Donya convinced her sister Donna to relocate to Fort Worth with her. Their reunion led to a routine of visiting local bookstores to bond and find new literature. It was a happy time.

Then something changed.

“The bookstores we went to, Black Bookworm and Black Images, closed so there were no (Black) bookstores in Fort Worth,” said Donya. “We love libraries but you couldn’t find books like ‘Destruction of A Black Civilization’ there. Bookstores had a more curated selection.”

The sisters felt they had to do something. They came up with a plan. They pooled their life savings and opened The Dock in 2008, even as financial institutions cratered ushering in the Great Recession . That year racial tensions flared as America inaugurated its first Black president in Barack Obama.

Shortly after the bookshop opened their mother, Deborah Gregory, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was also widowed so they persuaded her to relocate to Fort Worth to be closer to her daughters. But also so the sisters could take care of their mom. Gregory began helping out with the bookstore, keeping an eye on the store and giving the decor her creative vision. The sisters call their mom’s contribution as enhancing “The Dock Experience.”

Enduring racial animus: ’We were right here in the middle of it all’

The timing of their nascent venture was not exactly idyllic.

“We had BB gun bullets shot at our door, feces put in front of it, and one time we were standing outside as a truck drove up and a man got out, spit in front of us, then drove off,” the sisters recalled. “We were building up knowledge of self, history, and culture so people get nervous whenever Black folks start building themselves up.”

It was a rough time to start their business. The sisters felt the resistance to their store — from racial asides to the lingering hangover of an economic malaise. Despite it all the sisters persevered. Their shop was becoming a safe harbor for many Black North Texans as racial animus roiled the nation shortly after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and Fort Worth’s own Atatiana Jefferson .

“They came here to share their concerns and just cry,” Donya said.

Eventually people from all over flocked to the store as racial injustice movements grew in size and volume across America.

“Every time it was a major national tragedy we had town halls and forums, it almost became a way for people to release and deal with the hurt and pain,” Donya said. “Books speak about all of these movements and we were right here in the middle of it all.”

Be ‘edutained’ at this Fort Worth shop of books, conversations

As patrons walk through the glass double doors of the store in Meadowbrook Crossing, they step into a room with high ceilings festooned with faces of historical figures many can recognize. To one side of the 4,000-square-foot room are neat rows of shelves full of books on Western history, graphic novels, children’s topics and even self help volumes.

In the back is an open space for a stage for poetry readings and gatherings. Cushioned chairs in neat lines sit in front like an attentive audience. Patrons can also buy paintings, pottery, and other cultural trinkets.

“A lot of our ancestors wrote books and did serious work so we want to lift their voices up to make sure they’re always heard,” Donna said.

On open mic nights and town halls, the conversations easily rise in laughter or fall to serious banter — exactly how the sisters want it.

No topic is taboo. Lately, as groups intent on banning books grow in strength across the nation, the sisters wish for meaningful discussions. If not to stem its spread, at least to educate folks in its history.

“Book banning has been happening since ‘Uncle Toms Cabin ,’ its becoming more of an issue now because they have groups who are really trying to hinder the education of history,” Donya said. “American history is not pretty and they don’t want their kids to see what happened because it makes them uncomfortable. But books stand the test of time.”

The sisters hope their Fort Worth shop is only the beginning

“We want to be remembered as a bookstore that loved community, culture, and as a space where people can get inspired or as we like to say ‘edutained’,” Donna said.

This story was originally published May 8, 2024, 5:00 AM.

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    African literature is the body of traditional oral and written literatures in Afro-Asiatic and African languages together with works written by Africans in European languages. Traditional written literature is most characteristic of those sub-Saharan cultures that have participated in the cultures of the Mediterranean.

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    African literature is literature from Africa, either oral ("orature") or written in African and Afro-Asiatic languages. Examples of pre-colonial African literature can be traced back to at least the fourth century AD. The best-known is the Kebra Negast, or "Book of Kings" from the 14th century AD.

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    African writers create works "which are peculiarly African and yet set in the modern world" (Mbiti 1969, 228). It is this cultural distinctiveness that I intend to tackle in discussing modern African literature in English. Ethical and Moral Nature of African Civilization Traditionally, African literature is an informal evening fire-side

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  15. African Lit

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    Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee. Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University. The oldie on the list, from 1983. An award-winning novel by JM Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K evokes a desperately ...

  17. Journal of the African Literature Association

    Writing On the Soil: land and Landscape in Literature from Eastern and Southern Africa. By Wahu-Muchiri, Ng'ang'a. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, May, 2023. 218 pages. ISBN-978--472-05620-0: Paperback. USD 29.95.

  18. Phases of African Postcolonial Literature

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  20. African Literary Theory and Criticism

    In the preface to Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves's Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature (1986), Graves states the book's objective as an attempt "to redress the relative inattention to women in African literary scholarship." The essays in the text aspire to address "the absence of a feminine perspective or the ...

  21. TIL that from 1742 to 1752 the city of Tallin, Estonia, was ...

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  22. African American literature

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  23. Grandchildren of slaves now own Fort Worth bookstore. Why?

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