Literary Trends in Written African Literature

Although Africa boasted prominent literary centres of ancient civilisation (attested by the Great Library of Alexandria and the University of Timbuktu), and translation was widely practised in precolonial times through indigenous writing systems (Bandia 2009a:3), there are few extant written African literary works prior to the twentieth century.

Ethiopia was a major literary centre from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, the literature consisting mainly of religious writings and royal chronicles (fuelled by translation) written in the ancient literary language Ge’ez (Wright 2019). Cheikh Anta Diop was particularly instrumental in deciphering and translating works from Ancient Egypt and Ethiopia, “establishing the link between African history, language and culture and the rich civilisation of Ancient Egypt” (Bandia 2009a:5), while Patricia and Frederick McKissack (1993) researched the literature of the royal medieval kingdoms of West Africa.

From the sixteenth century, Amharic literature began to flourish, also mainly religious in content and generally in translations from European and Arabic literature. While research is still needed, it seems that the great city state of Benin (Edo) that existed from ancient times until 1897 (when it was plundered and burnt by British forces) was also literate (Koutonin 2016). Wright (2019) and Diakaté and Eyoh (2017) ascribe the suppression of African literature (particularly African theatre and Ethiopian Christian translation) to Arab and later European colonialism.

The burgeoning slave trade following early colonisation initiated the publication of African literature outside Africa, beginning with an anthology of poems published in Latin in Granada by Juan Latino in 1573, a former slave from West Africa who integrated into Spanish nobility and became a university professor (Traore 2010). Other notable former-slave African authors include Anton Wilhelm Amo, a German philosopher with doctorates from the Universities of Halle and Wittenberg (ca. 1703-59) and Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein (ca. 1717-47) originally from Ghana, who studied theology in the Netherlands and became a Christian minister. The first African-American poet was also a slave—Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-84), from Senegal or Gambia (Traore 2010)—while Olaudah Equiano, alias Gustavus Vassa (1745-97), believed to have been born in what is now southern Nigeria, published a popular two-volume autobiography in 1789 which went through nine editions. The achievements of these authors highlight the long-standing practice of writing in a European language rather than in the mother tongue, and underline the inevitable multilingualism present in their works.

During colonial occupation, missionaries and ethnographers played a major role in translating, publishing and disseminating (initially for religious and pedagogic purposes) world literatures into African languages, as well as local literatures into European languages (Hofmeyr 2004). Organisations such as SIL and the Wycliffe Foundation still make a contribution to this day (Gilmour 2007). By the end of the nineteenth century, novels and plays were published fairly widely in Africa, both in printed books and newspapers. Nigerian newspapers such as the ïwé ïrôhln Èko and Akéde Èko published early Yoruba novels, such as those by Isaac Thomas (Thomas 2012; Tübôsün 2019). Like Thomas, many writers in the early twentieth century were also newspaper editors, interpreters, and translators of their own and others’ works. Sol Plaatje, after whom the university in Kimberley is named, was fluent in eight languages, including German and Dutch, and was at different stages an interpreter, editor, journalist, politician, novelist and translator. His works and translations were retrieved from relative oblivion only after 1970, by scholars such as Tim Couzens and Stephen Gray (Schalkwyk and Lapula 2000:9-10). Renowned for being the first person to translate Shakespeare into an African language, Plaatje translated five and a half plays into Setswana, of which only two were published—A comedy of errors ( 1930) and Julius Caesar (1937) (Schalkwyk and Lapula 2000:24).

Modern African literature is generally considered to have started with the publication of an anthology of French African poetry in 1946 and the establishment of (Parisian) literary journals La voix du congolais (1946), Jeune afrique (1947) and in particular Présence africaine (1947), which was supported by André Gide, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and which subsequently developed into a publishing house (Traore 2010). Although most contributions were in French, these journals occasionally published literary pieces in Yoruba, Fulaar and Hausa (Williams 2020). They also supported emerging Négritude literature, a literary offshoot of the North American Negro Renaissance movement, also known as the Harlem Renaissance, which emerged in the 1920s and promoted African-American culture (Achode 1986; Huggins 1976). The Négritude movement was divided into two groups, one led by Aimé Césaire (Martinique), Léon Damas (Guyana) and David Diop (Senegal), and the other by Léopold Sédar Senghor, Birago Diop (both from Senegal) and Camara Laye (Guinea). The first group were more aggressively anticolonial than the second, who believed in a form of cultural symbiosis (Ayeleru 2011:167). Other notable Négritude writers include: Alioune Diop, Joseph Miezan Bognini, Kumassi Brouand, Denise Massida, Bernard Dadié, Amos Tutuola and Mohammed Dib. Chinua Achebe’s (1958) Things fall apart, which deals with the devastating impact of colonisation on indigenous African society, falls into the late, aggressively critical period. Typical of many Négritude novels, it is addressed primarily to readers in the (European) colonial metropolitan centres, and not to African readers (Keszthelyi 1981). From the 1940s onwards, theatrical performances became powerful local vehicles of criticism aimed primarily at African audiences, as demonstrated in the plays of Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Ama Ata Aidoo and Ngûgî wa Thiong’o (Amkpa 2004). However, the Négritude movement did not make a major impact on the Anglophone world (Traore 2010). Indeed, South Africa’s Es’kia Mphahlele (1962) criticised its focus on “black-being”, and Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka mocked it in his well-known quotation: “a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude, it pounces”.

The outpouring of African postcolonial literature was triggered by the UN resolution to abolish colonialism in 1960, resulting in the successive independence (and in some cases, formation) of African states, and fuelled by the establishment of three noteworthy vehicles of African intellectual thought: the Society for Culture (1956), the First World Congress of African and African-American Authors (1959) at the University of the Sorbonne, Paris, and the First World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar in 1966 (Traore 2010). Aggressively anticolonial, postcolonial writers such as Ousmane Sembène, Ben Okri, Ayikwei Armah, Bai Tamia Moore, Mohammed Moulessehoul, Shabaan Robert bin Selemani, Ngflgl wa Thiong’o, Nuruddin Farah and Ferdinand Oyono focused on rewriting history in order to establish new African identities, and also dealt, often autobiographically, with the negative social and political aspects of colonialism and postcolonial society (Gikandi 2003; Huddart 2014). In particular, novelists such as Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee and André Brink attacked the apartheid system prevailing in South Africa after the end of British rule. Common themes include tensions between conflicting value systems, e.g. traditional versus modern values, indigenous versus foreign customs, individualism versus community, socialism versus capitalism, and social/national collaboration versus self-reliance (Mazrui et al. 1993; Gikandi 2003). This period also witnessed the rise of African authors, such as Mariama Bâ and Assia Djebar, who portrayed the modern African woman’s confrontation with traditional patriarchal norms.

The historic Conférence nationale held in Benin in 1990 to discuss sociopolitical issues of démocratisation triggered strong democratic movements in African countries and is taken as the starting point for contemporary African literature. Egypt’s ‘Arab Spring’ was only one manifestation of an ‘African Spring’ in which Africans forged and asserted a new, vibrant African identity, and concomitantly, a new economic strength. Often marked by autographical overtones, contemporary writers (predominantly novelists) such as Tendai Huchu, José Agualusa, Aminattha Forna, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Zanemvula (Zakes) Mda satirically criticise post-independence social ills such as nepotism, corruption and moral decay, and address sociopolitical issues arising during the démocratisation process such as the role of women, distribution of wealth, urbanisation, and confrontation between traditional and modern or capitalist values. There is also a strong move towards decolonising the African world view, as expressed in the novels and academic publications of Francis Nyamnjoh and the poems of Kofi Awoonor. The role of the modern African woman in society is explored in the novels of Noviolet Bulawayo (aka Elizabeth Tshele), Chimamanda Adichie and Calixthe Beyala. Another major theme is the experiences of rhe African diaspora abroad (Toivanen 2019), e.g. as portrayed in the novels of Alain Mabanckou, Sefi Atta, Dinaw Mengetsu and Fatou Diome. More recent post-national themes include sexuality and queerness in works such as those by Chris Abani, Chimamanda Adichie and Jude Dibia (Green-Simms 2016; Mwangi 2017).

Notwithstanding the above, it is not always possible to link an author to a distinct literary trend. Writers such as Okwiri Oduor argue against such categorisation, viewing themselves as expressing universal and not specifically African human experiences (Nyambura 2017). Others such as Naguib Mafouz began with semi-autobiographical accounts of the turmoil happening in their countries, but over the years experimented with other genres, including science fiction. Furthermore, timeframes are not as neatly packaged as the above suggests: writers such as Es’kia Mphahlele and Peter Abrahams were already recording the experience of the African diaspora (arising as a result of voluntary or forced exile from repressive governments at home) as early as the 1940s, without focusing on Negritude themes typical of that period.

Nowadays, the cream of modern African literature has been translated into major world languages, enabling African culture and history to be distributed around the globe (Bandia 2009b: 14). In terms of publication output, novels predominate over poetry and drama, possibly because of the urgency of the message to be conveyed, the often autobiographical content, or simply the limited international recognition of African literature.

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