By AiW Guest Ranka Primorac.
In London, a three-day literary festival called Africa Writes took place recently at the British Library (BL). The festival is now in its fourth year, it hosts an ever-widening stream of writers, readers and publishers, and its combination of intellectual provocation, aesthetic pleasure and pure carnival gets better every year. (Last year, in answer to a lazy question, Ama Ata Aidoo told a hapless interviewer to ‘google it’; the year before, Ngugi wa Thiong’o took to the BL Conference Centre stage with not one – as billed – but two of his sons; this year, following an event involving Ben Okri’s ‘meditations on greatness’ via Twitter was as unforgettable as being there in person.)
For the third time running, the festival has hosted a conversation with authors short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Immediately after the Africa Writes weekend, the Caine short-listees were bussed to Oxford for the grand announcement dinner. This year, the dinner had been moved to a larger venue in order to accommodate a growing list of the great, the good and the media invited to attend. Even the tone of public conversations around the prize has been more interesting and unexpected than usual, for which we have mostly the current winner, Zambia’s Namwali Serpell, to thank.
Termed ‘the African Booker’ (it is named after a former Man Booker chairperson), the Caine Prize plays a key role in regulating not only how Africa’s writing is globally received, but also what passes for ‘African literature’. The prize is increasingly integrated with other UK literary institutions, which increases its visibility and influence: the incoming Caine chairperson, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, is one of the judges for the 2015 Booker Prize, for example. This year’s debates around the prize skirted several well-trodden areas of contestation (including the spectres of neo-colonial cultural attitude – why Oxford? – and of unwittingly exoticising Africa via an emergent ‘Caine aesthetic’). Serpell, though, led the way in choosing to publicly probe the institutional and media mechanisms that bolster both the prize and the mainstream idea of ‘African literature’. In doing so, she added to an ongoing public conversation about the place of Africa in what Pascale Casanova has called ‘the world republic of letters’.
As part of the media coverage of both the festival and the prize, some of the short-listed authors – South Africa’s F. T. Kola, Nigeria’s Segun Afolabi and Zambia’s Namwali Serpell – were asked by Britain’s Guardian newspaper to name their ‘hero of African literature’. Serpell named Bessie Head. As part of her answer, however, she wanted to probe the terms of the question. Before providing the reasons behind her choice, she wrote:
Putting aside the grotesque abstraction necessary to consider an entire continent and its literary output as whole entities, the premise of the question – that literature is a kind of arena in which gladiators wield words like weapons and fight for some kind of glory (the glory of Africa?) is quite odd. Even the notion of a ‘hero’ feels too loaded with connotations of masculinity and triumph even violence, to make sense to me. If one goes back to the origin of the word ‘hero’, however, one finds a grief-stricken woman. Hero was a priestess who lived in a tower; her lover, Leander, would swim every night to meet her, using the lamp at the top of the tower to guide him. One night, the wind tossed the waves and snuffled the light; he did not survive; the distraught Hero threw herself from the tower and drowned. If I rephrase the question for myself: ‘which writer who happened to be born on the continent of Africa most resembles the Greek priestess of Aphrodite, Hero?’ then I can answer it. Bessie Head.
In the published version of her answer, both in print and online, the Guardian omitted this entire section of the answer. Serpell took to her website and to social media in order to have her full answer reinstated online. In the ensuing Twitter mini-storm, one commentator asked: ‘How are we supposed to re-define the meaning of “African literature” if we cannot challenge the terms of questions that are put to us?’ That there needed to be such a re-definition was taken for granted.
Serpell went on to win the Caine prize – the first Zambian ever, and the only Zambian this year on a strong shortlist populated by representatives of literary superpowers Nigeria and South Africa. In a congratulatory speech at Oxford, the Chair of the judging panel, Zoe Wicomb, advised prospective readers to read the winning story, ‘The Sack’, very slowly. She had good reason to do so. ‘The Sack’ is an accomplished textual achievement: using a pared-down narrating style, the story sets out a complex interplay of emotions among its characters by deliberately delaying, suppressing and defamiliarising the information it provides about how they are all related to one another. At one point, one of the narrators says: ‘I wonder at the dwindling of our cares. We began with the widest compass, a society of the people, we said. But somehow we narrowed until it was just three. Jacob, Joseph, Naila.’ Readers who rush over these simple sentences will miss a key inflection: Zambia once aspired to be an African humanist society, and this political and ethical outlook arguably infuses every line of Serpell’s story.
On winning, Serpell made history by a further, more radical intervention. In her acceptance speech, she said she wanted to reconfigure the competitive structure of the prize (which, for her, had unwelcome resonances with American Idol), and that she would be sharing the prize money equally with the other four participants. She is the first prize winner to have done this. It was, for her, a long-overdue ‘act of mutiny’, she said.
For writers who are just starting out, winning a literary prize for ‘African writing’ can be a stepping stone towards global consecration. Yet Serpell chose to express her ambivalence about how this category of literary classification is being regulated by the media (on this occasion, the Guardian), and by the structure of the prize itself. Her remark about ‘the grotesque abstraction necessary to consider an entire continent and its literary output as whole entities’ has, among others, a vocal recent predecessor in the rising star Taiye Selasi, the author of the 2013 novel Ghana Must Go.
Selasi is no stranger to acts of mutiny. In an influential 2005 essay ‘Bye-Bye Babar’, she sought to define her own cultural identity as ‘Afropolitan’ – multiple and decentred, but with at least one Africa-related component. In a 2013 lecture provocatively titled ‘African Literature does not Exist’, she, too, gestures towards the wide variety of political, cultural and linguistic contexts that that the singular notion of ‘Africa’ may work to homogenise.
In the run-up to the Caine announcement this year, the same issue of the Guardian that featured Serpell’s thoughts on Bessie Head published a feature-length article by Selasi titled ‘We Need More Names’ (a pun on We Need New Names, the title of the 2013 novel by the 2011 Caine Prize winner, NoViolet Bulawayo). The article eloquently pinpoints another problem: the persistence of the nativist idea that an author can be ‘African’ in varying degrees, and that it is the proper job of ‘African writers’ to cover ‘African topics’. ‘The most scathing critique of an ‘African writer’, Selasi writes, ‘is not that she is insufficiently talented, but that she is insufficiently African. (…) Our art is subjected to a particular kind of scrutiny: it is forced to play the role of anthropology.’ Rather than link the notion of ‘African literature’ to a prescriptive attitude towards subject matter, critics and authors should – Selasi suggests – help facilitate processes through which a wider variety of African writing becomes internationally visible. ‘African books for global eyes must be written by a broader range of Africans. (…) We need more writers from more countries, representing more class backgrounds. We need more names’ – she writes.
This is, no doubt, true. And while Ghana Must Go is about both African and other locations, the Sierra-Leonean/British author Aminatta Forna left the terrain of writing about Africa and Africans altogether with her latest novel, the 2013 The Hired Man, which is set in Croatia and features no Africa-related characters. Confronted by questions from festival audiences, about why she – as ‘an African writer’ – had deserted Africa as the location of her fiction, Forna insisted that it is ‘the way of literature to seek universality’. ‘I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer. We hyphenated writers complain about the privilege accorded to the white male writer, he who dominates the western canon and is the only one called simply “writer”’, writes Forna in her own feature-length piece in the Guardian, published in February this year.
Zimbabwe’s Dambudzo Marechera rejected the label ‘African writer’ back in the 1970s. Today, such sentiments are entering the mainstream – and serve a different purpose. Despite her protestations, Forna is likely to have met many writers who wished to be classified as African writers, for at least the length of time it takes to be nominated for the Caine Prize. She herself has been so classified for purposes of public appearance. And yet, as Namwali Serpell’s actions this year make gloriously clear, even those authors who chose not to reject the category or to devalue the prize (as former short-listee Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has controversially done) may choose to relate to both on their own terms. The differently polemical words and actions of Serpell, Selasi and Forna are perhaps best understood as the signal of a slow but long-overdue dismantling of a literary ghetto – which is arguably what the category ‘African literature’ has, in some albeit not all senses, become. The dismantling may entail a re-signification, not necessarily an outright rejection. Either way, even those cultural practitioners who endorse the category ‘African literature’ and find it enabling are now increasingly in a position to do so in their own way and (just as importantly) in their own time. That can only be a good thing.
Looming over this debate is the foundational – and yes, male, and in many ways heroic – figure of Chinua Achebe. The insistence of the current generations of fiction writers that their writings should not to be read as national allegories may well be a welcome signal that the task of the older generations – to effect change in the world republic of letters – has been accomplished. In insisting on an Afropolitan right to choose the configuration of her own identity (and the global locations of her own stories) in which, nevertheless, African locations feature as key nodes of belonging, Selasi may be seen as maintaining that the need for ‘the African writer’ to function as an Achebean ‘teacher’ is, in many present-day contexts, becoming mercifully obsolete.
Meanwhile, Forna’s insistence on the universality of literature resonates movingly with Achebe’s own evocation of a literary cosmopolitanism yet to come, formulated in a famous essay on colonialist criticism in the 1975 essay collection Morning yet on Creation Day: ‘I should like to see the word universal banned altogether from discussions of African literature until such a time as people cease to use it as a synonym for the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe; until their horizon extends to include all the world.’ [emphasis in the original] The moment, it seems, may be arriving.
But textual cosmopolitanism can take many forms. The era of decolonization that produced traditions of writing in Africa that did not make it into the global literary mainstream. One such tradition is the Anglophone fictional tradition of Zambia – the country whose literary communities are now proudly celebrating Namwali Serpell’s Caine victory.
When it is used to designate the Pan-African canon whose foundations were laid in the 1960s and 70s by the African Writers series, the term ‘African literature’ may evoke Africa as a location that is radically different from the rest of the world. Such usage can work to occlude not only the cultural, political and linguistic multiplicity of Africa, the shifting and multiple identities of a certain group of diaspora writers and their entitlement to write about universal topic and a range of places (as Serpell, Selasi and Forna point out), but also the seldom-spoken of hierarchies of the literary nation-states in the Pan-African literary system.
It is not only authors, but entire African national canons that can be designated as, in effect, not being ‘African enough’, while others – privileged among them are Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa – are often allowed to stand in metonymically for the transnational concept of ‘African literature’ itself. As part of its current terminological overhaul led by creative writers, the use of the term ‘African literature’ should be expanded, even as it is altered. In addition to needing ‘more names’, as Selasi says, we also need more cultural locations and textual forms to be recognised as both African and literary. Currently-canonical authors such as Bessie Head, Dambudzo Marechera or Chinua Achebe are not the only kinds of African textual precursors that up-and-coming writers may be proud of and inspired by. Namwali Serpell’s unprecedented and mutinous victory can effect yet another welcome about-turn if it helps more readers to realise that local writers such as Dominic Mulaisho, Norah Mumba, Monde Sifuniso – and many others have also made a contribution to contemporary notions of literariness, patriotism, cosmopolitanism and modernity. In terms of cultural aspiration and imagination, they were (and are) both proudly African and proud citizens of the world. There are many other such writers across the continent of Africa – some currently relegated to non-literary status via the inadvertently patronising use of categories such as ‘popular culture’ or ‘ephemeral print publication’. Some of them have pioneered alternative notions of both writing and belonging. They, too, deserve to be recognised, celebrated and made more widely available. Because of its willingness to mediate between local and global literary and reading cultures via its annual writing workshops and co-produced short story anthologies, the Caine Prize is well positioned to contribute in this regard.
Ranka Primorac teaches at the Department of English, University of Southampton.
Lusaka Punk and Other Stories is now available from The New Internationalist. The Caine Prize 2015 anthology contains the 5 short-listed stories and those from the two week Caine Prize African Writers’ Workshop which took place in Elmina, Ghana this year, with Leila Aboulela and Zukiswa Wanner.
The Folded Leaf by Segun Afolabi (Nigeria)
Flying by Elnathan John (Nigeria)
A Party for the Colonel by FT Kola (South Africa)
Space by Masande Ntshanga (South Africa)
The Sack by Namwali Serpell (Zambia)
The Caine Prize African Writers’ Workshop Stories 2015:
#Yennenga by Jemila Abdulai (Ghana)
The Road Workers of Chalbi by Dalle Abraham (Kenya)
Wahala Lizard by Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Cameroon)
Nehushtan by Diane Awerbuck (South Africa)
Swallowing Ice by Nana Nyarko Boateng (Ghana)
Lusaka Punk by Efemia Chela (Ghana/Zambia)
The Writing in the Stars by Jonathan Dotse (Ghana)
Burial by Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria)
The Song of a Goat by Pede Hollist (Sierra Leone)
Princess Sailendra of Malindi by Kiprop Kimutai (Kenya)
Blood Match by Jonathan Mbuna (Malawi)
Coloured Rendition by Aisha Nelson (Ghana)
Ranka Primorac’s ‘Acts of Mutiny’ article forms part of Africa in Words’ 2015 series of review or comment pieces on the Caine Prize stories, posted in the run up to our review of Lusaka Punk. We have, again, been part of the Caine Prize blogathon this year and, as Kate Haines wrote in Africa in Words’ very first piece about the Caine Prize in 2013, we acknowledge, with Binyavanga Wainaina in his early discussions of the Prize, that “it is a ‘good thing, but it isn’t the thing’, and yet conversation about whether it is or is claiming to be ‘the thing’ is important and will still continue.”
Read our previous pieces on this year’s shortlisted stories as part of the Caine Prize blogathon:
John Uwa’s AiW review of Segun Afolabi’s “The Folded Leaf” (Nigeria) | Read “The Folded Leaf” in Wasafiri .
Madhu Krishnan’s AiW review of Elnathan John’s “Flying” (Nigeria) | Read “Flying” in Per Contra.
Doseline Kiguru’s AiW review of F. T. Kola’s “A Party for the Colonel” (South Africa) | Read “A Party for the Colonel” in One Story.
Nomonde Ntsepo’s AiW review of Masande Ntshanga’s “Space” (South Africa) | Read “Space” in Twenty in 20.
Lilly Kroll’s AiW review of Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack” (Zambia) | Read “The Sack” in Africa39.