© 2021 by M. Keith Booker
Due to the extensive presence of British colonial rule in Africa, a great deal of the postcolonial literature of Africa is written in English. That literature itself has been a rich component of global culture since the beginnings of decolonization in the 1950s. African writers have made important contributions to both drama and poetry. For example, Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka (1934– ), who became Africa’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, is known first and foremost as a dramatist. But Soyinka is also a respected novelist, and Africa’s most important contributions to global culture in English have been made in the realm of fiction. Indeed, beginning with the massive success of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), the African novel has been a particularly vital force in world literature, though there have also been lively debates in Africa about whether English is the most effective language for the expression of African themes, given that it is the language of the colonial conquerors who did so much damage to the natural evolution of African culture.
The areas along the northern coast of Africa were conquered by invading Muslim armies beginning in the seventh century, and most of the area was eventually incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century. Most of South Africa was colonized by Dutch settlers in the eighteenth century, though Cape Town came under the control of the British at the end of the eighteenth century. Egypt was invaded by French armies led by Napoleon at the end of the eighteenth century, though he was unable to secure full control of the region, which remained context territory throughout most of the nineteenth century as the French, British, and Ottomans all vied for control of an area that was of special importance both for its strategic location and for its rich cultural heritage, dating back to the time of the pharaohs.
Most of the rest of Africa remained little known to Europeans, though slave traders had penetrated much of the continent and several coastal cities had been established as key points for both European and Arab slave traders. Then, with most European capitalist economies in a state of crisis in the late nineteenth century, European colonial powers turned their sights on Africa as a possible target of colonial expansion and economic opportunity. In order to avoid conflict over this expansion into Africa, the major European colonial powers met at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 to devise a plan to divide up the continent among themselves. Much of this plan was developed with little knowledge of or concern for the needs and desires of the African people, and the resultant divisions often split traditional African communities into separate colonies or combined traditionally antagonistic communities into the same colonies, thus creating the seeds of problems that have plagued Africa until this day.
The British and French emerged from the conference with the largest share of African territories, though it took decades of brutal warfare for the British to secure their control over many of the territories that had been opened to them in the Berlin Conference. After colonization, the British pursued a number of policies to enforce their control, including the establishment of extensive educational systems operated in English. They also sought to suppress native cultures whenever they were perceived to be a threat to British hegemony and to instill in their colonial subjects a sense of the superiority of British culture, using modified versions that had earlier been developed in India, where the works of Shakespeare became the center of a massive cultural education project. Meanwhile, this project was furthered by the fact that most of Britain’s sub-Saharan colonies were established among cultures that were entirely oral in nature and had no written literature—or even written language—of their own.
As a result of this background, most former British colonies in Africa emerged into independence, after the decolonization process of the 1950s, with an educated class that had been trained mostly in English, exposed mostly to British literature, and bombarded with propagandistic declarations of the inferiority of their own native languages and cultures to their British counterparts. In addition, the new African nations had no indigenous cultural identities of their own, apart from what had been imposed on them by their British conquerors. There is no Nigerian ethnicity, no Nigerian language, no Nigerian culture or religion. The new nation of Nigeria was, in fact, composed of numerous ethnic groups who spoke many different languages and had a variety of different cultural backgrounds. Similar situations prevailed all over Africa, though the local situation was, of course, different in each case. One thing that the new postcolonial nations had in common was the need to establish a sense of postcolonial national cultural identity among their own people, as well as the need to present this new identity to a world that was accustomed to accepting stereotypes about African savagery and primitivity. Literature, especially the novel, came to play a key part in both of these projects. In the meantime, both projects were complicated by a legacy of Western literary works (such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) that represented Africa and Africans in inaccurate, offensive, and stereotypical ways.
Reading Postcolonial African Literature
While the usefulness of studying African and other postcolonial literatures has been well established, it is important to recognize that that African novels arise from a cultural and historical perspective that differs substantially from that of British or other Western novels. We can learn a great deal about African culture and history by studying African literature, just as we can learn a great deal about British culture and history by studying British literature. But African literature is still literature, and we should not forget that it has an aesthetic dimension that goes well beyond the simple presentation of information. Meanwhile, having granted the African novel an aesthetic dimension, Western readers must avoid the temptation merely to judge African novels by our own aesthetic standards, thus valuing most the African novels that are most similar to the best European or American novels. Moreover, while this statement seems obvious, avoiding this pitfall is not easy for Western readers, who have been brought up in a culture that still reflects the universalizing tendencies of Enlightenment thought and of bourgeois ideology. Jameson notes the universalizing tendency of bourgeois aesthetics when he comments on the way the “restricted code” of bourgeois aesthetic values comes to be regarded as universal at the moment of the firm establishment of capitalism in Europe, when the bourgeoisie begins to feel that “its private experience is for a time that of the world itself” (Signatures 169).
One reason it is valuable for Western readers to study African literature is because a sensitive reading of that literature makes it quite obvious that the different social and historical background of African literature leads to artistic criteria and conventions that differ from those of Europe or America. African literature thus provides an important demonstration that art cannot be separated from the social world and that aesthetic criteria are not universal and timeless, but arise in response to specific historical conditions and developments. As Achebe angrily suggested in a lecture on the relationship between art and society in the postcolonial world, the close connection between literature and politics in that world makes it clear that “art for art’s sake is just another piece of deodorised dogshit” (Morning 29).
One of the most important tasks facing Western readers is to appreciate the inherent hybridity of the African novel, which derives both from the Western literary tradition and from African oral traditions, while at the same time being both aesthetically sophisticated and politically engaged. Moreover, it is one thing to acknowledge that the African novel incorporates both African and European literary traditions; it is quite another to resist the temptation to lean too far in one direction or another in appreciating this hybridity. It is crucial for Western readers to understand that the African novel differs from European and American ones both in its sociohistorical background and in the aesthetic conventions that it employs. At the same time, Western readers should resist the tendency to think of the African novel as an exotic alien artifact that has little or nothing in common with European or American novels. As Jameson points out in an influential (and controversial) essay on “Third-World” literature, Western critics who discuss such literature find themselves torn between a tendency toward “orientalism”—in which the critics emphasize the radical difference of the Third-World culture from his own First-World culture—and a tendency toward “universalism”—in which difference is effaced and the cultural values of Western Europe and North America are assumed to apply worldwide (Jameson, “Third-World” 77). Jameson further notes that any critical attempt to respect the otherness of Third-World culture is always in danger of descending into a negative orientalism that converts that culture into an alien and exotic curiosity, though Jameson himself opts to emphasize the difference between First- and Third-World literatures in order to call attention to the things we, as First-World readers, might learn from Third-World literature.
If Western critics of African literature must always attempt to negotiate a path between undesirable alternatives, it is also the case that similar alternatives have long been central to the cultural climate in Africa. As the Caribbean-African intellectual Frantz Fanon has emphasized, the colonial situation is fundamentally informed by a stark, Manichean opposition between the colonizer and the colonized (Fanon 41). This opposition inherently tends to lead to extremist attitudes. Drawing upon the ideas of both Jameson and Fanon, Abdul JanMohamed argues that a writer from colonial societies like those in Africa is caught in a double bind: if he rejects European culture and tries to draw upon indigenous cultural traditions in his work, he is seen as a primitive savage; if he attempts to emulate European culture he is seen as a “vacant imitator without a culture of his own” (Manichean 5).
Western readers of African literature should appreciate this predicament faced by the African writer. In addition, there are certain basic issues the careful consideration of which can do a great deal to help Western readers to read African literature effectively. These include an understanding of the fact that postcolonial African literature reacts not only against the decades of European political rule in Africa, but against a long legacy of negative representations of Africa and Africans in European and American writing. It is also important for Western readers to understand that many questions that seem to have simple answers in Western literature are not so simple in Africa. The very choice of a language in which to write can, for an African writer, be a highly political act. In addition, African writers have a problematic relationship to literary genres (like the novel) that are primarily European in their origin. Finally, the nature of African history requires that African writers have a fundamentally different relation to history than do European writers.
Language and the African Novel
JanMohamed appropriately observes that “the African writer’s very decision to use English as his medium is engulfed by ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions” (“Sophisticated” 20). Indeed, that African writers who continue to work in the languages of their former colonial rulers risk the perpetuation of colonialist ideas (especially ideas involving the cultural and linguistic superiority of Europe) should be clear. But the factors involved in the use of European languages by African writers are actually far more complicated than is immediately obvious. As a whole, fewer Africans are literate in any given African language than in English or French. African writers can thus reach a larger African reading audience in European languages and can meanwhile reach a Western audience as well. The economics of the publishing industry thus create great pressures for the use of European languages. At the same time, most Africans are not literate in Western languages either, so that the primary African audience for African novelists who write in European languages is precisely that educated elite which has been most thoroughly educated in the kinds of Western cultural traditions that the novelists are often seeking to challenge or overcome.
Further, JanMohamed notes in the essay just cited that European and African languages quite often operate on fundamentally different premises. In particular, European culture from the Renaissance forward is primarily of a written nature, and European languages reflect this fact. Most traditional African culture, however, is oral in nature, and most African languages did not have written forms before the arrival of colonialism. The very act of writing is to a certain extent a European activity, though it is certainly not the case that there are not traditions of written culture in Africa. Still, African writers from Tutuola onward have attempted to deal with the conflict between oral and written cultural forms in a number of ways, most obviously through the incorporation of materials from African oral culture into their written texts. JanMohamed, for example, argues that in novels such as Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God Achebe manages a “syncretic” combination of written and oral cultural energies (“Sophisticated” 36).
Achebe, like Tutuola, wrote his novels in English. Moreover, as he explains in the essay “The African Writer and the English Language,” Achebe felt that the English language had become a part of his African cultural heritage: “I have been given the English language,” he writes, “and I intend to use it” (Morning 102). At the same time, Achebe sees the necessity of developing a new kind of English that goes beyond the limitations of the imperial past: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings (103).
The “new English” cited by Achebe often involves, among other things, an attempt to express the “feel” of oral culture in written texts. In this sense, Achebe’s attitude resembles that expressed by the British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie in his influential article “The Empire Writes Back.” Rushdie is very clearly a great lover of the English language, noting in this article that “I don’t think there’s another language large or flexible enough to include so many different realities.” However, in this same article he also shows a profound appreciation for the historicity and political embeddedness of language, arguing that the vestiges of empire are still to be found in the “cadences” of the English language itself. On the other hand, he sees the political charge that inheres in language to be potentially energizing. Citing the great Irish writers Joyce, Beckett, and O’Brien as predecessors, Rushdie argues that much “vitality and excitement” can be derived from attempts to “decolonize” the English language. In this vein, Rushdie acknowledges the work of African writers such as Achebe and Kenya’s Ngũgĩ, who are resisting the history of imperialism that inheres within the language not only by “busily forging English into new shapes” but by placing politics at the very centre of their art” (“Empire” 8)
Many African writers have been less confident than Achebe or Rushdie that English can adequately express the realities of African life. Both Nigeria’s Soyinka and and Ghana’s Ayi Kwei Armah (1939– ), who themselves write in English, have suggested that African writers should begin to work toward the eventual development of a panAfrican literary language, perhaps Swahili. Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène (1923–2007), meanwhile, wrote his novels in French, but devoted much energy the making of films rather than novels, thus extending the accessibility of his work to a wider African audience, especially given that many of his films primarily employ his native Wolof language. Similarly, Ngũgĩ, having made a worldwide reputation as an English-language novelist, has written a number of plays in Gikuyu, thus making his work available to Gikuyu peasants and workers who do not know English or cannot read. Indeed, though identified by Rushdie as a leading “decolonizer” of English, Ngũgĩ has since eschewed the use of English in his writing, preferring to write his later original texts in his native Gikuyu. Ngũgĩ is quite adamant in texts like Decolonising the Mind about the responsibility of African writers to reject the languages inherited from their former imperial oppressors. Language, he argues, is central to one’s cultural identity, and Africans will never be able to establish a strong sense of self as long as they continue to express their deepest thoughts in European languages (4).
American readers are, by and large, limited to reading African novels in English. Thus, even Ngũgĩ’s Gikuyu-language novels are generally accessible to us only in English translation. We should, however, ask ourselves whether such translations do not, in fact, have a very different status than African novels written originally in English. In any case, we should strive not to take language for granted and to recognize the numerous important social and political issues that are at stake in the use of European language by African writers.
Genre and the African Novel
Many readers given little thought to a writer’s choice of literary genre. Still, it is clear that different genres tend to become popular in different societies and at different points in history. Thus, numerous writers in late-sixteenth-century England began to write sequences of sonnets at roughly the same time. Such phenomena are partly a matter of conscious fashion: writers naturally tend to work in forms that they themselves have enjoyed reading, and there is also a natural tendency to choose forms that are likely to be well received by readers. For example, we now know that even a writer such as Shakespeare, often regarded as a sort of universal genius whose work transcends such matters, made many of his artistic decisions in a conscious effort to produce plays that would draw a large and congenial audience in Elizabethan London. It has long been noticed that Shakespeare’s career moves through various phases in which he concentrates on romantic comedies in his early work, on dark tragedies in the middle of his career, and on seemingly whimsical fantasies as his career draws to a close. Critics have often attempted to relate these changes to developments in Shakespeare’s personal life, but a broader perspective shows that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries went through similar phases and that the evolution of Shakespeare’s writing to a large extent simply follows changing fashions on the Elizabethan stage.
One cannot, however, attribute changes in dominant literary modes simply to fashion. If nothing else, there must be reasons why certain things are fashionable at certain times. Many recent critics and theorists of literature have noted that this is especially the case with fundamental factors like choice of genre. Jameson notes the social function of genre, pointing out that “genres are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact” (Political Unconscious 106). In other words, when a writer chooses to work in a particular genre, he or she announces an intention to address certain specific expectations on the part of a specific audience of readers. Moreover, Jameson argues that generic expectations and conventions reflect social and political forces at work in the world at large. In short, genre is ultimately a political and historical phenomenon, and changing fashion in genre can be taken as indications of more fundamental changes in the social world. “Genre,” writes Jameson, “is essentially a socio-symbolic message” (141).
Because societies are complex and multiple phenomena, the question of genre is complex as well. In particular, Jameson notes that genre theory must always do more than merely account for the dominance of certain genres at certain times: it must account for the simultaneous availability of other generic forms as well. There may be certain specific historical reasons why the sonnet sequence would be popular in Elizabethan England, but Elizabethan writers worked in numerous other forms as well. In this sense, the novel for Jameson becomes a special genre because its “eclecticism” simultaneously shows the impact of a variety of different available social messages (Political Unconscious 143). Here Jameson’s work recalls that of the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, perhaps the most influential of all modern theorists of the novel. For Bakhtin, one of the most important characteristics of the novel is its generic multiplicity, its ability to incorporate and make use of the conventions normally associated with any number of other genres, even ones that are not usually considered literary. Thus, a novel can incorporate poems, songs, letters, sermons, diary entries, newspaper articles, and so on, and yet still be regarded as a novel.
Bakhtin’s vision of the novel is quite broad and includes forms dating back to ancient Greece in the tradition of the novel. Most historians of the novel, however, regard it as a relatively modern form that essentially came into being with the rise of the bourgeoisie to power in Europe. Indeed, it is by now quite conventional to regard the novel as the quintessential bourgeois genre, as the genre in which the European bourgeoisie most effectively express their particular view of the world. At the same time, it is also the case that this description probably holds true only for the great realist novels of the nineteenth century and that many modern European novels actually challenge the premises upon which such novels are based. It is also the case that the novel has been one of the most important genres in which postcolonial writers from Africa and elsewhere have attempted to assert their independence from European cultural domination. The very choice of the novel as a genre, like the choice to write in European languages such as English, is a complex and highly political one for African writers. For example, if African cultural traditions are primarily oral, it follows that African writers must to a certain extent draw upon European literary traditions in their own work. And this is especially the case given that most African writers themselves have had Western educations, either in colonial schools in Africa or in European and American schools and universities. As Appiah notes,
“Postcoloniality is the condition of what we might ungenerously call a comprador intelligentsia: of a relatively small, Western-style, Western-trained, group of writers and thinkers who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery. In the West they are known through the Africa they offer; their compatriots know them both through the West they present to Africa and through an Africa they have invented for the world, for each other, and for Africa” (149).
This phenomenon is closely involved in the question of genre. Timothy Brennan thus warns that, in the Third World, the novel has typically been the genre of a Western-educated elite:
“Almost inevitably it has been the form through which a thin, foreign-educated stratum (however sensitive or committed to domestic political interests) has communicated to metropolitan reading publics, often in translation” (56).
No matter how important it may be to understand and appreciate that African novels are African, it is also important to recognize that they are still novels, which means that they have certain relationships to the Western novelistic tradition, even if African novels draw upon a number of African cultural traditions that are outside the Western novelistic tradition. But if the novel is the generic embodiment of the process through which written culture replaced oral culture as the dominant form in Europe, then the use of the novel is obviously problematic for African writers who seek to preserve, rather than supplant African oral cultural traditions. Not only is the novel as a genre generally considered European in origin, but this origin is closely associated with the rise of capitalism in Europe, an historical process that also led eventually to the European colonization of Africa, making the novel in many ways the central literary expression not only of European bourgeois ideology, but of European colonialist ideology as well.
Postcolonial African novelists are thus to some extent working in a genre that is foreign—and even hostile—to their cultural context. On the other hand, one should also consider here Bakhtin’s influential vision of the novel as a genre that has an almost infinite flexibility and that, because of its ability to establish a close and direct contact with the contemporary world around it, can change shape and adapt to almost any conditions. According to Bakhtin, rather than functioning according to rigidly defined principles, the novel by its very nature challenges its own principles and thereby remains ever new, ever in touch with contemporary reality. In order to maintain this dynamic adaptive ability, the novel must continually challenge predefined notions of what it should be. It is therefore an inherently antiauthoritarian genre, “a genre that is ever questing, ever examining itself and subjecting its established forms to review. Such, indeed, is the only possibility open to a genre that structures itself in a zone of direct contact with developing reality” (39). The novel as a genre is “both critical and self-critical, one fated to revise the fundamental concepts of literariness and poeticalness dominant at the time” (10).
In short, the novel for Bakhtin is an ever-evolving genre because the best novels, drawing energies derived from their historical context, always challenge and go beyond the conventions established by previous novels. From this point of view, the novel is the ideal genre for postcolonial literature, which, in its engagement with the European literary tradition, represents not the smooth continuation of European conventions, but instead entails a direct challenge to a tradition that often worked in direct complicity with the European colonial domination of Africa. Moreover, drawing upon the work of Bakhtin, Brennan has argued that the novel is especially important as a postcolonial genre not only because of its inherently “composite” nature, but also because of the close historical involvement of the novel in the rise of nationalism in Europe. The nationalist orientation of the novel thus potentially makes it the ideal genre for postcolonial writers who are seeking to contribute to the development of new national cultural identities.
Sometimes African novels mount quite direct and explicit challenges not only to the Western novelistic tradition, but to specific novels. For example, Achebe’s first two novels (Things Fall Apart, first published in 1958, and No Longer at Ease, first published in 1960) were both written at least partially as responses to British novels about Africa (especially Joyce Cary’s Mr. Johnson), which were often ostensibly sympathetic to Africans, but which nevertheless continued colonialist stereotypes of Africans as lazy, irresponsible, irrational, and excessively emotional. More generally, African novels as a whole are faced with the task of overcoming a general complex of negative stereotypes about the social and cultural inferiority of Africa and Africans that were promulgated through a variety of European texts (both literary and “scientific”) during the colonial period.
In any case, if theorists such as Jameson and Bakhtin argue that the European novel is an inherently complex, hybrid genre, then it is clear that an African novel is even more so. Moreover, the hybridity of the African novel is a complex phenomenon that involves more than a simple additive combination of cultural perspectives. This hybridity often involves complex dialogues—and sometimes violent confrontations—between African and European cultures. To understand these dialogues, we need to understand certain aspects of the historical relationship between Africa and the West that have important consequences for the relationship between African novelists and their Western predecessors (and contemporaries). At the same time, studies of the African novel can potentially add a great deal to our understanding of African history, especially with regard to the relationship between Africa and Europe.
Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann, 1975.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Jameson, Fredric. Signatures of the Visible. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.
JanMohamed, Abdul. “Sophisticated Primitivism: The Syncretism of Oral and Literate Modes in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” Ariel 15.4 (1984): 19-39.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1992.
Rushdie, Salman. “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance.” London Times (July 3, 1982): 8.