The African Postcolonial Novel in English


© 2019 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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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).[4]

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.

The South African Novel in English

Because of its history of earlier European colonization, South Africa has a somewhat different literary history than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa—though it is also the case that British colonization in South Africa occurred no earlier than in other sub-Saharan British colonies. Still, by the time British control was secured after the Second Boer War of 1899–1902, there was already an established system of education and written culture in southern Africa, which facilitated the development of an indigenous literature there. Indeed, On the other hand, the history of South African printed literature goes back to the early years of the twentieth century, during which there were a surprising number of works published in indigenous languages, especially Sotho and Zulu.  Many of these early works were produced by presses controlled by missionaries working in the area and are little more than religious tracts, though some have genuine literary merit. The most prominent of the latter is Thomas Mofolo’s Sotho-language novel Chaka (submitted for publication as early as 1910, but first published in 1925), which continues to receive extensive critical attention even today. Indeed, since the publication of Daniel Kunene’s new English translation of the book in 1981, Chaka has achieved an expanded readership and a growing presence in critical discussions of South African literature. Among other things, Mofolo’s book, based on the story of an early nineteenth-century Zulu king, can be taken as an early attempt to recover elements of the African past that have been suppressed in colonialist histories, thus initiating the project of cultural recovery that would become one of the major projects of later African literature.[5]

In 1931, the Statute of Westminster granted South Africa full independence from British colonial rule, though this act was hardly one of liberation for the nation’s majority black population, who remained in an essentially colonial condition relative to the ruling white minority. In the system known as “Apartheid,” the black minority was segregated from the white minority and denied all access to genuine political and economic power. Indeed, the early history of the new “republic” was blighted by this phenomenon, which also strongly affected the country’s literary history—as most leading South African writers (until the end of Apartheid with the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994 as the first president of post-apartheid South Africa in the first genuinely free elections in the country’s history) felt they had to use their writing to speak out against the brutality and injustice of this extreme system of prejudice.[6] Thus, while much African literature is dominated by the topic of colonialism and its aftermath, the literature of South Africa is more concerned with Apartheid.

One of the important founding figures of black South African literature in English wrote largely to oppose the system of Apartheid—though his politics forced him to leave South Africa in 1939 and to live his life abroad. Peter Abrahams (1919–2017) worked as a seaman for two years, then settled in London, where he married an English woman and became an editor of the Communist Party organ Daily Worker. Abrahams’s first two novels, Song of the City (1945) and Mine Boy (1946), are overtly Marxist in focus on class-based oppression under industrial capitalism (which, in South Africa as in the United States, is inseparable from racial oppression).  Abrahams’s third novel, The Path of Thunder (1948) examines the possibility of interracial love, and, taken together, his first three novels are ultimately hopeful in their sense that white South Africans might learn to overcome their traditional habit of racial hatred, leading to better conditions for all in South Africa. Wild Conquest (1950) is a historical novel that attempts to locate the roots of Apartheid in the early history of encounters with the indigenous Matabele people on the part of Afrikaner settlers during their “Great Trek” into the interior of South Africa in the 1830s and 1840s. One of Abrahams’s most important works is his 1954 autobiography, Tell Freedom, the first published autobiography by a black South African. The 1956 novel A Wreath for Udomo is also especially important in the way its treatment of the destructive effects of colonialism (even after decolonization) anticipates the works of later writers.  Abrahams settled in Jamaica in 1956 and lived there for the rest of his life. There, he wrote such works as This Island Now (1966), a critique of neocolonialism in an island nation modeled on Haiti and Jamaica; and A Night of Their Own (1965) and The View from Coyaba (1985), which employ South African and Jamaican settings, respectively, to explore the role of the writer in the liberation of the black race.

Abrahams adhered to a relatively conventional Western prose style, though some of the South African writers influenced by him have drawn upon indigenous oral traditions to move in new stylistic directions. Es’kia Mphahlele is another important early figure in the development of a black South African literature. Perhaps his most important single work is his autobiography, Down Second Avenue (1959), which joins Abrahams’s Tell Freedom as perhaps the two most important South African works in that genre. Mphahlele is also the author of two novels, The Wanderers (which was published in 1971 and which helped Mphahlele earn his doctorate at the University of Denver in the United States) and Chirundu (1979). But Mphahlele’s most important contributions to South African fiction may be in the genre of the short story, both for his own work in the genre and for his work with the important literary magazine Drum, which became one of the major forces in the development of South African literature. Mphalele’s short story collections include The Living and the Dead (1961), In Corner B (1967), The Unbroken Song (1981), and Renewal Time (1988). Mphalele is also an important critic, known for volumes of commentary such as The African Image (1962) and Voices in the Whirlwind (1972) and for his emphatic positions stands, as in his vigorous opposition to the ideology of the Négritude[7] movement and for his skepticism toward the ultimate ability of literature written in English to contribute to the development of a genuinely African cultural identity that goes beyond British cultural domination.

One of the direct heirs of Abrahams’ political tradition in South African literature was Alex La Guma (1924–1985), perhaps the most important of all nonwhite South African novelists during the Apartheid era.  As Abdul JanMohamed puts it, “The life and fiction of Alex La Guma perfectly illustrate the predicament of nonwhites in South Africa and the effects of apartheid on their lives” (225). La Guma was born and raised in the District Six, the notorious “colored”[8] ghetto of Cape Town, where he experienced first hand the tribulations of South Africa’s poor and oppressed. The son of Communist parents, La Guma was also exposed him to leftist politics at an early age, and by 1948 (at the age of 23) he had joined South Africa’s Communist Party, which would be outlawed two years later, forcing La Guma into a particularly marginal position in South African society. In the 1950s his active involvement in trade union politics led to his harassment and detention by the authorities on several occasions; he was eventually forced to leave the country for England in 1966. By this time he had established a considerable international reputation as a writer, both for his short stories and for the novels A Walk in the Night (1962) and And a Three-fold Cord (1964). The Stone Country (published in 1967) was also written while he was still in South Africa, though it was published after his departure. These novels combine an uncompromising description of the squalor of life in South Africa’s urban slums with a strong commitment to the possibility of radical political change.  La Guma’s novels written in exile, In the Fog of the Seasons’ End (1972) and Time of the Butcherbird (1979), continue this passionate political commitment and concern for the plight of those whom Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.”

La Guma’s novels are all informed by a sophisticated Marxist understanding of the problems of South African society and of the steps that will be necessary for the ultimate solution of those problems.  They are also distinctive in their journalistic style, which is reminiscent of the works of American naturalist writers such as Frank Norris and Theodor Dreiser, but for which the closest American analog is probably the proletarian fiction produced by 1930s writers such as Mike Gold, Jack Conroy, and James T. Farrell. La Guma himself characterized his work as socialist realism, thus indicating the crucial influence of Soviet writers such as on his work.  La Guma’s dialogical relationship with a number of international literary movements parallels his extensive international reputation, though it is typical of conditions in the South Africa of the apartheid years that his works, banned in that country, were virtually unknown there until the 1980s.

While La Guma’s journalistic realism, directly influenced by the Soviet socialist realism of writers such as Maxim Gorky (1868–1936), Fyodor Gladkov (1883–1958), and Mikhail Sholokhov (1905–1984) is typical of the dominant mode of black South African fiction, poets such as Sipho Sepamla (1932–2007) and Mongane Wally Serote (1944– ) have also written novels the styles of which show the clear influence of their poetic backgrounds. Also of note among recent South African novels is Lewis Nkosi’s Mating Birds (1986), a blistering indictment of the crippling effects of apartheid on personal relationships in South Africa. This novel, in its focus on an aspiring writer who is in a South African prison awaiting execution, participates in a tradition of prison novels that has, not surprisingly, been a prominent aspect of South African literature.  Important earlier examples of the prison genre include D. M. Zwelonke’s Robben Island (1973) and Moses Dlamanini’s Robben Island, Hell-Hole (1983), while prison and jail experiences also figure prominently in many of La Guma’s works.  Nkosi’s novel shows a large degree of sophistication, which might be expected given that its author has taught African literature in universities around the world and is the author of numerous works of literary criticism, including the important Tasks and Masks: Themes and Styles of African Literature (1981).

Among black South African writers who have taken South African literature into the post-Apartheid period is Zakes Mda (1948– ), who first gained recognition with his initial novel Ways of Dying (1995), which deals with the difficulties facing South Africa in trying to build a democratic society in the wake of the trauma of Apartheid. Also notable is Heart of Redness (2000), which moves back and forth between the present time and a key moment in the tensions between white settlers and Xhosa tribesmen in the mid-nineteenth century. Mda has also written poetry and plays and has been active in the African Writers Trust, which seeks to bring together writers from the African diaspora around the world.

Black South African women writers have been more active in the short story than in the novel, though at least one nonwhite woman from South Africa, Bessie Head (1937–1986), became, in a career cut short by her premature death, one of Africa’s leading women novelists.  It is indicative of conditions in Apartheid South Africa that all of Head’s novels were written in exile, in Botswana, where most of her fiction is also set. Her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1969) is, like so many African novels, a story of conflict between modern and traditional societies. The book takes on special political force, however, by the fact that modern ideas are brought to the rural Botswanan village of Golema Mmidi not by white colonizers from Europe, but by political exiles fleeing from the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Indeed, the book’s major English character, Gilbert Balfour, is a positive figure, an agricultural expert who tries to help the poor villagers modernize their farming methods and thus decrease their poverty.

In Maru (1971), Head continues her focus on Botswanan village life, but considerably increases the sophistication of her fictional technique. The novel is a complex, multi-layered narrative that employs a basic love-story plot (revolving around the competition of two men, Maru and Moleka, for the affections of the same woman, Margaret) to explore the psychic consequences of African social phenomenon such as tribalism, racism (among different groups of blacks), and the oppression of women. The major characters all have allegorical significance as representatives of social, racial, and gender positions in the book’s exploration of traditional African prejudices in relation to these positions. The book makes some important positive points about Botswanan village society, though its final affirmation of individual desire as opposed to the demands of social conventions would appear to be more in line with European individualism than with African socialistic traditions, but the book nevertheless makes some important points about Botswanan village society.

A Question of Power (1974), Head’s best-known novel, is a frighteningly intense and partly autobiographical exploration of psychological instability in the context of Botswanan village life. The protagonist, Elizabeth (who seems directly modeled on Head herself) is a colored South African woman in exile in Botswana who must battle to find a stable sense of identity in the midst of a mental breakdown that is complicated by her social position as an exile and by her situation as a woman in a strongly male-dominated society.  Head’s style in the novel powerfully evokes Elizabeth’s simultaneous experience of mental illness and social marginalization, and it is clear in the book that Elizabeth’s nightmarish psychic pain and fragmentation represent both Head’s own personal experiences and the larger social damage wrought in South Africa by the insane policy of apartheid. The book ends, however, on a positive (if somewhat forced) note, with a suggestion of the healing power of individual love, though the book also indicates the positive potential of communal activities such as cooperative gardening for the production of food.

Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981) is a historical novel that relates the history of Botswana from 1880 to 1970 through a compilation of oral accounts supplied to her in interviews with the real inhabitants of the village of Serowe. The book is thus one of the more interesting among numerous African experiments in the blending of written and oral narrative.  Head’s last novel, A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (1984), also focuses on themes in Botswanan history, mingling fact and fiction in an ambitious attempt to tell the story of Botswana from a human perspective.  Head’s short stories, many of which are collected in the volumes The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Tales (1977) and Tales of Tenderness and Power (1987), are also important.

South Africa’s most internationally acclaimed novelist is the white woman Nadine Gordimer (1923–2014), who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. Gordimer follows in a long tradition of white South African women novelists that goes back to the late nineteenth century in the work of Olive Schreiner (1855–1920, whose Story of an African Farm, first published in 1883, is still read today. Gordimer herself is unquestionably the most important white South-African woman novelist of the past several decades, and her combination of deft literary technique with an uncompromising sense of social responsibility stands as a model for novelists worldwide.

Gordimer’s first few novels, including The Lying Days (1953), A World of Strangers (1958), and Occasion for Loving (1960)—described by JanMohamed as works of Gordimer’s “bourgeois phase” (88)—treat conditions in South Africa in a mode of relatively light satire.  For JanMohamed, however, novels such as The Late Bourgeois World (1966), A Guest of Honour (1970), and The Conservationist (1974) indicate transition into a “postbourgeois” phase in which Gordimer’s growing sense of outrage at social and political conditions in South Africa bring her to a more and more urgent criticism of those conditions. The Conservationist, which was the first novel by an African writer to win the prestigious Booker Prize. It can also be taken as beginning Gordimer’s recognition as a major novelist on the world scene, though it can also be regarded as the culmination of Gordimer’s early career, with its tendency toward a lyrical style and a focus on the subjective experiences of individual characters within the context of the racism and oppression that define the basic conditions of life in apartheid South Africa.

By the time of Burger’s Daughter (1979) and July’s People (1981), Gordimer’s work takes on a substantially more public and overtly political dimension. These works, which JanMohamed considers the beginning of the “revolutionary” phase in Gordimer’s writing, suggest that the intolerable conditions in South Africa are leading inevitably to an explosion and that individuals have an obligation to take political action amid the growing crisis. This same sense of an urgent need for political commitment can also be found in A Sport of Nature (1987) and My Son’s Story (1990). Gordimer’s first post-Apartheid novel, None to Accompany Me (1994) focuses on the chaotic attempts to establish a new South Africa in the wake of Apartheid. She would go on to write four more post-Apartheid novels, though much of her last work turns back to more personal stories—as in The Pickup (2001), which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best Book from Africa. She also published numerous influential volumes of short stories and essays.

The tradition of white men’s writing in South Africa goes back for some time as well, though there was a particularly rich growth in this tradition in the early years after the official establishment of Apartheid in 1948.  Works in English such as Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), Dan Jacobson’s Evidence of Love (1960), and Jack Cope’s The Dawn Came Twice (1969) typically mix a commitment to liberal values with a critique of Apartheid, though generally with a growing sense of pessimism. By far the most important white male novelist writing in English in South Africa in the past few decades was J. M. Coetzee (1940– ), the winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. who has combined a self-consciously postmodern and experimental literary style with an intense concern with the evils of Apartheid to produce an impressive body of novels marked both by technical sophistication (perhaps showing the influence of his doctorate in literature from the University of Texas and his long-time role as professor of literature at the University of Cape Town) and powerful and disturbing content (showing the impact of South African political and social reality). Coetzee’s novels begin with the 1974 Dusklands, a parody of colonialist discourse reminiscent of the work of postmodern European writers such as Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov, and In the Heart of the Country (1977), a stream-of-consciousness exploration of the master-slave mentality of South African society.

Coetzee’s best-known novel is probably the 1980 Waiting for the Barbarians, which combines starkly realistic descriptions of violence with almost surrealistic scenes of symbolic imagery to comment upon the phenomenon of imperialism in general and apartheid in particular. Meanwhile, he became the second African writer to win the Booker Prize with the 1983 novel The Life and Times of Michael K, which marks an increasing turn toward metafictional explorations of the nature of fiction and its role in the world. The Kafkaesque Michael K employs experimental modes of writing reminiscent of much twentieth-century European literature to explore themes of official oppression versus individual freedom that have distinctly South African (anticolonial, anti-Apartheid) resonances. Foe (1986) is even more self-consciously literary, drawing upon the plots of Daniel Defoe’s eighteenth-century novels Robinson Crusoe and Roxana to construct a profound philosophical fiction that explores both the nature of artistic creation and the impact on such creation of political oppression. Age of Iron (1990) similarly explores the impact of social marginalization on the writer, while The Master of Petersburg (1994), Coetzee’s first post-Apartheid novel, continues his engagement with the European literary tradition with a fictional recreation of the life of the nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace (1999) won him his second Booker Prize, making him the first author to win that award multiple times (though two other authors have done it since). Coetzee relocated to Australia in 2002 and became an Australian citizen in 2006. His last few novels have focused largely on Australian themes, beginning with Elizabeth Costello (2003), about an aging Australian novelist who once authored a retelling of Joyce’s Ulysses from the point of view of Molly Bloom, the wife of Joyce’s most prominent character. Costello, incidentally, is also the main character in The Lives of Animals (1999), a novella promoting animal rights. Costello also features prominently in the novel Slow Man (2005) As of this writing, Coetzee’s most recent novels are The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and The Schooldays of Jesus (2017), an unusual pair of abstractly allegorical novels about strangers seeking a home in a strange land.

The West African Novel in English

Writers from West African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana have been especially important in the development of the African novel, partly because the former is the most populous country in Africa, while the latter was the first African colony to achieve independence from British rule. The areas now occupied by Nigeria and Ghana also had particularly rich histories in the precolonial era and maintained a certain connection to their traditional cultural heritage through the years of colonization. For example, Nigerian novelists can draw upon an especially strong tradition of oral storytelling that had already led to the publication of certain traditional African narratives in the area even before the advent of what might properly be considered the beginnings of the Nigerian novel in English. Thus, Amos Tutuola (1920–1997), often considered the first African novelist in English, is preceded not only by the rich tradition of Yoruba oral folk tales but by the work of D. O. Fagunwa, whose Yoruba narratives were published as early as 1938.

Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, first published (by the well-known British publisher Faber and Faber) in 1952, is often considered the beginning of the West African Anglophone novel. This book, firmly rooted in the Yoruba folk tradition, relates the fantastic adventures of its narrator, an inveterate drinker of palm wine, who travels to the Land of the Dead in an attempt to retrieve his recent deceased palm-wine tapster, the only one capable of tapping palm wine to the drinkard’s satisfaction. Tutuola’s book was a major success upon its publication, though there is some disagreement over whether his works can properly be considered novels. In any case, Tutuola can be seen as a sort of bridge between traditional African oral narratives and the more conventionally literary African novels that began to be published soon after his work first appeared. Obiechina notes that Tutuola seems to have a unique ability to “assimilate elements peculiar to the oral tradition with elements peculiar to the literary tradition: in other words, to impose a literary organization upon essentially oral narrative material” (50).

If Tutuola is best considered a transitional writer, Chinua Achebe is typically considered to be the founding figure of the modern African novel and even of modern African literature as a whole. Simon Gikandi, in his excellent study of Achebe’s novels, discusses at some length the reasons why Achebe has been seen as such a seminal figure in the growth of African literature, even though he in fact had a number of important predecessors. Gikandi concludes that Achebe’s importance lies in the fact that his work was a genuine breakthrough in its direct confrontation with the cultural traditions of colonialism, in its ability

“to evolve narrative procedures through which the colonial language, which was previously intended to designate and reproduce the colonial ideology, now evokes new forms of expression, proffers new oppositional discourse” (Gikandi 4).

In particular, argues Gikandi, Achebe is able to use the colonial language of English and the Western genre of the novel to mount a powerful challenge to the myth of European cultural superiority, thereby recovering elements of African experience that have been effaced by colonialism and producing a viable sense of an alternative African cultural identity.  “I want to insist,” writes Gikandi, “that Achebe was possibly the first African writer to be self-conscious about his role as an African writer, to confront the linguistic and historical problems of African writing in a colonial situation, and to situate writing within a larger body of regional and global knowledge about Africa” (5-6).

Whatever the reasons, it is certainly the case that Achebe has been an inspirational figure for the generation of African writers who followed him, not only in West Africa, but in the entire continent. Things Fall Apart, first published in 1958, remains the best-known and most widely read African novel more than half a century after its initial publication, and all of Achebe’s novels have received considerable attention from readers and critics. Achebe’s status as a role model for other African writers thus arises both because the impressive quality of his novels provides important aesthetic models for an African writing practice and because his commercial and critical success have encouraged Africans to write for publication and publishers to publish the works of African writers. In addition, his numerous critical and theoretical statements on his own writing and on African literature as a whole have done a great deal to establish the standards and conventions within which African novelists work.

Achebe’s individual importance and influence may, in fact, be one of the reasons why West African novels (especially Nigerian ones) have been so prominent in the development of the genre in Africa. On the other hand, as Obiechina points out in his influential study of a number of early West African novels, there are also important social and historical reasons why the novel would develop in a particularly rich way in this area. Obiechina emphasizes throughout his study that the “peculiarities” of the West African novel are “clearly determined by the West African cultural tradition and environment” (Culture 3). He then illustrates this point with readings of a number of specific novels, focusing especially on the works of Achebe, but also providing significant discussions of other Nigerian novels, including Timothy Mofolorunso Aluko’s One Man One Wife (1959), Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana (1961), Nkem Nwankwo’s Danda (1964), Gabriel Okara’s The Voice (1964), Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters (1965), and Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine (1966).  The Ghanaian Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1969) is also an important text in Obiechina’s study. All of these novels can now rightfully be regarded as classics of African literature, and together they illustrate many of the important trends in the early development of the West African novel.

One early West African novel that illustrates the inadequacy of Western concepts for understanding African novels is the Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor’s poetic novel This Earth, My Brother (1971), though the leading work in this vein might be Soyinka’s The Interpreters, which employs an array of literary devices usually associated with Western modernism (or even postmodernism), but which draws in important ways on African sources as well.  Meanwhile, the complex, fragmented narrative structure of The Interpreters serves an important mimetic function, reinforcing the book’s content to create a vivid picture of the chaotic and confusing conditions that inform life in postcolonial Nigeria.  The book focuses on the educated elite of Soyinka’s generation, who attempt to use their Western education to provide links between Nigeria and the West, often only to find themselves caught in the middle and alienated from both cultures.  Soyinka employs a similar complexity in narrative form in his later novel Season of Anomy (1973), a dystopian fiction informed by graphic violence and abject imagery that grow directly out of the experience of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970).  Both books draw upon African oral traditions in important ways, but it is probably fair to say that Soyinka, more than most African writers, has absorbed the lessons of modern Western literature and put them to good use in his African work.  This is especially the case in his drama, which shows an intimate connection with the African tradition oral performances, but which also conducts extensive intertextual dialogues with Western dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett.  It is, in fact, his drama for which Soyinka is best known and which is most responsible for his winning of the Nobel Prize.

The West African writer whose satirical vision most closely resembles that of Soyinka may be Armah, whose first three novels—beginning with the now-classic The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born—together constitute one of the most scathing critiques of postcolonial African society ever produced.  Writing from a distinctive political perspective strongly influenced by the work of Frantz Fanon, Armah indicts postcolonial Ghanaian society for its failure to live up to the utopian dreams of the movement toward independence and its descent into corruption and moral decay under the impact of the dazzling lure of Western capital and commodities.  Armah’s sophisticated novels, which combine substantial influences from African oral culture with impressive technical mastery of Western novelistic forms and devices, represent one of the most important contributions to the development of the West African novel as a hybrid of African and European cultural forces. Moreover, if The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born can be taken as a paradigm of the satirical treatment of postcolonial society in African fiction, later Armah novels such as Two Thousand Seasons (1973) and The Healers (1979) represent important contributions to the development of the African historical novel and to the African attempt to generate, through literature, a positive vision of the African past that escapes the stereotypes of colonialist histories of Africa.

Obiechina discusses no women writers in his survey of the West African novel through the 1960s, though there were in fact several important novels written by West African women by that time. And this omission is indicative of the lack of serious and sensitive critical attention from which African women writers suffered in the early years of independence. Most important among these early women novelists are the Nigerians Flora Nwapa (1931–1993) and Buchi Emecheta (1944–2017) and the Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo (1942– ), all of whom have produced works that are worthy of standing with those of Achebe, Ekwensi, Nwankwo, Soyinka, and Amadi as early classics of the West African novel.

Nwapa’s Efuru, published in 1966, was the first English-language novel to be published by a West African woman. If nothing else, the book constituted a breakthrough in the access of women writers to publication. It was, for example, the first work by a woman to be published in Heinemann’s African Writers Series, the major market for African novelists from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. The title character of Efuru (set in the late 1940s and early 1950s) is a strong, independent woman (modeled on the women of Nwapa’s own Oguta, an important trading town in eastern Nigeria) who triumphs over marital difficulties to establish a meaningful life of community service. Nwapa herself also triumphed over difficulties, overcoming the early rejection of her work by male critics to attain a reputation as the “mother” of West African women’s fiction. While her second novel, Idu (1970), resembles Efuru in its focus on traditional Igbo life, Nwapa’s later novels, Never Again (1975), One is Enough (1981), and Women Are Different (1986), concentrate on the experiences of women in modern Nigeria.  Nwapa’s work thus has a scope that rivals that of any African male writer, and her writing well deserves the increased critical attention it has received in recent years.

Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy was copyrighted in 1966—before the publication of Efuru—but was not published until 1977. In the intervening years, Aidoo established a significant reputation as a dramatist, poet, and short-story writer. Our Sister Killjoy, with its poetic treatment of neocolonialism from a feminine perspective, is an important addition to the African postcolonial tradition of satirical writing. Moreover, the novel—set primarily in Germany and England—marks an expansion in the scope of the West African novel, which had previously tended to be set in West Africa itself. Aidoo’s treatment of feminist concerns from a decidedly African perspective also indicates the substantial ways in which the problems and concerns of African women sometimes differ from those of Western women and thus serves as a warning against the uncritical application of Western feminist criteria to African literature and society.

The internationalism of Our Sister Killjoy is also a hallmark of the writing of Emecheta, perhaps the most successful of all West African women writers. Emecheta’s first two novels, In the Ditch (1972) and Second-Class Citizen (1974), are set in London and derive from the author’s own experiences as a member of the African immigrant community there. Later Emecheta novels such as The Bride Price (1976) and The Slave Girl (1977) focus on the lives of women in traditional Igbo society, while Emecheta’s best-known novel, The Joys of Motherhood (1979), features a female protagonist who is caught between the traditional values of her native village and the modern values of urban Lagos, where most of the novel’s action takes place. More recently, Emecheta has written novels on the Nigerian Civil War, on the special problems of the educated elite in postcolonial Nigeria, and on the plight of a poor Caribbean woman living in the immigrant community of London. Emecheta’s concern with the travails of postcolonial Nigeria and with the conflict between the traditional values of rural Nigeria and the modern values inherited from the European colonial intrusion into Nigeria parallels that of male writers such as Achebi and Ekwensi, but her distinctively feminine focus makes her work an important contribution to the West-African novel that provides insights unavailable in the works of such male writers.

While there is a certain continuity in all of these early works by West African writers, Jonathan Peters has suggested in a useful historical survey (1993) of West Africa English-language fiction that Tutuola, Achebe, Ekwensi, and Okara join other writers such as William Conton, Onuora Nzekwu, Timothy Aluko, and Obi Egbuna in what might be considered the “first wave” of West African fiction writing, a group of texts in which “a limited number of themes emphasized either colonialism and its clash with autochthonous cultures or village life” (Peters 23). For Peters, then, the second wave of West African fiction deals with the problems of postcolonial corruption and disillusionment. This wave was ushered in by Soyinka’s The Interpreters and includes texts such as Achebe’s A Man of the People (1966), Amadi’s The Concubine, Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Fragments (1970), and Why Are We So Blest? (1972), and Kole Omotoso’s The Combat (1972), as well as the works of women writers such as Nwapa, Aidoo, and Emecheta.

More recent West-African fiction, in Peters’s scheme, can then be considered a third wave of texts that deal with a wide variety of social, political, and historical issues, but that are tied together by a number of common themes, including a turn toward writing clearly for an African, rather than a Western audience. As with any contemporary literary movement, the most important texts of this wave have yet to be clearly established, especially as recent African writing in general is marked by a dramatic increase in the sheer number of texts that are being produced.  Of course, many of the major figures of the earlier decades of West-African writing continued to work in this third wave as well, and texts such as Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (1987), Amadi’s Estrangement, Nwapa’s Women Are Different, Emecheta’s The Family (1990), and Aidoo’s Changes (1992) are clearly among the most important novels to have been produced by West-African writers in the past decade.  But a number of important new voices have emerged in that decade as well.  Among these are numerous writers of popular fiction such as fantasies and detective thrillers, a development that indicates the rising readership for fiction among the West African population.  Moreover, an awareness of this readership has led writers such as the Ghanaian Amu Djoleto to pursue many of the same themes as other West African writers but in a more accessible style reminiscent of popular literature.  Also tending toward greater accessibility for a newly literate African audience (and toward rejection of the criteria of complexity and ambiguity often invoked by Western literary critics) are a number of new political novels by writers such as Kole Omotoso and Festus Iyayi, who write from an avowedly socialist perspective.  On the other hand, works such as The Man Who Came in From the Back of Beyond and The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams (both 1991) by the Ghanaian Biyi Bandele-Thomas tend toward fantasy and absurdism. Probably the leading figure in this vein, however, is the Nigerian Ben Okri (1959– ), whose extremely complex and difficult novels have received considerable praise among Western critics. Okri’s The Famished Road (1991), for example, became the first novel by a black African writer to win the Booker Prize, with Okri (at 32) becoming the youngest winner of the prize. This novel was followed by Songs of Enchantment (1993) and Infinite Riches (1998) to constitute a trilogy of novels narrated by the spirit-child Azaro in a complex mode that combines postmodernist literary play with magical realism and Yoruba folk traditions, taking place largely in the spirit world but also addressing conditions in an African nation that strongly resembles Nigeria. Azaro himself becomes very much what Fredric Jameson would call a “national allegory” as his childhood adventures closely parallel the tribulations encountered during the growth of the young Nigerian nation. The trilogy is uncompromising in its critique of the violence and corruption of modern Nigerian society, but it ends with a vision of a better future and with a call to “redream” the world. In his highly sophisticated literary style and in his rich intertextual relationship with the literature and culture of societies around the globe, Okri’s work indicates a new internationalism in West African fiction, even as his work draws heavily upon distinctively Nigerian narrative traditions and maintains a vivid contact with Nigerian reality.

In recent years, Nigerian women writers have also gained increasing international recognition. Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (1977– ) has established a strong reputation as a leader among a new generation of young African writers now attracting new readers to African literature, both in Africa and abroad. Her novels Purple Hibiscus (2003, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction and the basis of a 2103 film adaptation), and Americanah (2013, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction) have all been well received. She is also the author of the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck (2009, nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book from Africa), and the book-length essay We Should All Be Feminists (2014) She has spent much of her adult life in the United States, where she attended several different universities and received some prestigious grants, such as a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called Genius Grant) in 2008. She now splits her time between Nigeria and the U.S. and is active in feminist causes as well as continuing her writing career.

Adichie is indicative of increasing cultural exchanges between Africa and the U.S. (with Britain becoming less central to Anglophone Africa’s dialogue with the West). It has, for example, become increasingly common for African writers ti be educated in the U.S. in reent years (Zimbabwe’s promising NoViolet Bulawayo is another example). Nnedi Okorafor (1974– ), meanwhile, is an example of an African American writer who has maintained strong ties to African culture. Though Okorafor was born in the U.S., she is of Igbo descent, and both her parents are from Nigeria. Okorafor herself has spent considerable time in Nigeria, and much of her fiction deals with African cultural themes. She writes both for young adults and adults, mostly in fantasy and science fiction (and often merging the two). Her novel Who Fears Death (2011) won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and her young adult novel Akata Witch (2011) was also well received. Binti (2015) won both the Hugo[9] and the Nebula Awards for Best Novella; it was eventually joined by Binti: Home (2017) and Binti: The Night Masquerade (2018) to form a trilogy.

The East African Novel in English

Despite the dominance of West African writers in the development of the Anglophone African novel, some of the most important examples of the modern African novel have emerged from East Africa, especially in the works of the Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who stands with figures such as Achebe, Soyinka, and Sembène as the true giants of modern African literature. Ngũgĩ wrote his first novel, The River Between, in 1961, but he became particularly determined to pursue a career in writing after attending the African Writers’ Conference in Kampala in 1962 and realizing there that East African writers constituted an insignificant presence at this conference.

The River Between, a meditation on the conflict between traditional and modern values in the Gikuyu society of colonial Kenya, was not published until 1965. Ngũgĩ’s first published novel (and the first modern novel to be published by an East African writer) was thus Weep Not, Child, written in 1962 but published in 1964.  Both of these first two novels are set in colonial Kenya and detail the sometimes devastating impact of British colonial domination on the traditional societies of Kenya. Weep Not, Child focuses particularly on the so-called Mau Mau rebellion against British rule in Kenya from 1952 to 1956, thus becoming the first of a number of novels that would eventually focus on that crucial conflict, including Ngũgĩ’s own A Grain of Wheat (1967). Indeed, the Mau Mau period is a major concern of East African fiction, especially from Kenya, though the treatment of the Mau Mau movement varies considerably in the works of different writers. For example, Charles Mangua’s A Tail in the Mouth (1972), while it is highly critical of the “home guards” (the Kenyan troops who sided with the British to suppress the rebellion), can by and large be read as a satirical treatment of the Mau Mau freedom fighters.  The book might thus be seen as a parodic response to Ngũgĩ’s positive vision of those fighters as paradigms of anticolonial resistance, though it can also be argued that Ngũgĩ’s understanding of the Mau Mau in this way did not fully congeal until his turn toward a more radical vision in the later novels Petals of Blood (1977), Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (1980, Devil on the Cross, 1982), and Matigari ma Njiruugi (1986, Matigari 1987). Meja Mwangi’s (1948– ) novels Carcase for Hounds (1974) and Taste of Death (1975) are more ambivalent, depicting the suffering of both the freedom fighters and their opponents. Mwangi’s Mau Mau novels show a basic sympathy with the goals of the Mau Mau movement, but sometimes veer dangerously close to a repetition of colonialist myths of the Mau Mau as primitive savages driven by blood lust. The same might also be said for Godwin Wachira’s Ordeal in the Forest (1968), which combines a biting critique of colonialism (especially through its depiction of the racist British officer Major Cook) with a seeming acceptance of a number of colonialist stereotypes about Africans. Meanwhile, the story collection Potent Ash (1968), by Leonard Kibera and Sam Kahiga, and the novel Voices in the Dark (1970), by Kibera, are also sympathetic to the Mau Mau cause, but focus on the nightmarish conditions in Kenya brought about by the rebellion and on the deplorable social and political conditions in the postcolonial Kenya to which the rebellion indirectly led. Charity Waciuma’s Daughter of Mumbi (1969), on the other hand, is far more consistent in its support for the Mau Mau cause through a depiction of the justice of their opposition to conditions in colonial Kenya.

Ngũgĩ, focusing on the neocolonial exploitation of Kenya by international capitalism and on the complicity of the postcolonial Kenyan regime in this exploitation, has continued to this writing to be East Africa’s most important writer. Petals of Blood is perhaps the Ngũgĩ novel that makes the most extensive and sophisticated use of narrative techniques learned from European models. Caitaani Mutharaba-ini, on the other hand, marked a major change in direction for Ngũgĩ, being written not only in Gikuyu rather than English, but drawing extensively upon the traditions of Gikuyu oral narrative in its style and structure. It also shows an intensified concern with the plight of women in postcolonial Kenyan society. Matigari continues in this vein, drawing upon folk traditions and supernatural imagery to make Ngũgĩ’s most radical statement in favor of revolutionary change in postcolonial Kenya.

Many of Ngũgĩ’s efforts after the publication of Matigari were devoted to encouraging younger African writers to write in Gikuyu or other African languages. He would not, in fact, publish another novel for nearly two decades, until the appearance of the massive Mũrogi wa Kagogo in 2004 (translated into English by the author as Wizard of the Crow in 2006). A dystopian satire that is both riotously funny and bitterly polemical in its indictment of postcolonial African corruption and oppression. Using motifs derived from a variety of storytelling traditions, both African and Western, Ngũgĩ constructs here what some critics have considered to be his masterpiece.

Ngũgĩ’s debut as a published writer was soon followed by that of Kenya’s Grace Ogot (1930–2015), whose The Promised Land (1966) became the first East African novel by a woman writer and the first novel to be published by Nairobi’s East Africa Publishing House, which would become a major force in the development of East African literature. The Promised Land, like The River Between, focuses on the impact on traditional village society of modern values derived from the colonial presence in Kenya. Writing in both Luo and English, Ogot would go on to develop a strong reputation as a short-story writer, particularly for the stories published in the collections Land Without Thunder (1968), The Other Woman (1976), and The Island of Tears (1980). All of Ogot’s work shows a passionate concern for the plight of women in East African society. She has continued to be a popular writer in Kenya, despite the fact that her work has received relatively little critical attention in the West. In 1980, she published a second novel in English, The Graduate, which focuses on the political disempowerment of women in postcolonial Kenya. Perhaps more significantly, Ogot produced a number of works in the Luo language in the 1980s, perhaps following the lead of Ngũgĩ. These works, including Ber Wat (1981), Aloo Kod Apul-Apul (1981), and Miaha (1983, The Strange Bride, 1989) have found a substantial readership in Kenya and have done a great deal to advance the notion of writing in African, as opposed to European, languages. In 2018, her widower (a prominent Kenyan historian) spearheaded the posthumous publication of three additional novels by her: Simbi Nyaima: The Lake that Sank, The Royal Bead, and Princess Nyilaak.

Among other women writers who have been important in East Africa is Waciuma, who (in addition to writing Daughter of Mumbi) has been a leader in the production of children’s literature in Kenya.  Another noteworthy Kenyan woman writer is Rebeka Njau, whose Ripples in the Pool (1978) contrasts the nature-oriented wisdom of a traditional medicine man with the coldly scientific approach to medicine (and the world) imported from the West. Njau employs poetic language and supernatural imagery to evoke the traumatic effect on the Kenyan peasantry of the dispossession of their land in the colonial period, an effect that continues to have ramifications well into the postcolonial era. A second novel, The Scared Seed (2003), deals more directly with the plight of abused women in Kenya but also adds magical elements. Njau has also written short stories and a play, showing an ability (typical among African women writers) to work in multiple genres.

If Njau’s approach in Ripples in the Pool anticipates the turn toward fantastic imagery in Ngũgĩ’s Matigari (or even the rise of magical realism in the works of African writers such as Ben Okri), writers such as Mwangi moved toward more and more direct descriptions of reality.  Indeed, Neil Lazarus has identified the naturalistic style developed by Mwangi, his fellow Kenyan Thomas Akare, and the Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera in the last part of the twentieth century as one of the most important developments in politically-engaged African literature since 1970 (209). In addition to his two Mau Mau novels in the mid-1970s, Mwangi has published a number of novels that focus on the plight of the urban poor in postcolonial Nairobi, including Kill Me Quick! (1973), Going Down River Road (1976), and The Cockroach Dance (1979). Mwangi’s work is particularly distinctive for its description of the poor in their own idiom. His latest novel, Weapon of Hunger (1989) continues his social concern in its vivid treatment of civil war as an emblem of the moral and political chaos that have marked much of postcolonial African history.

Mwangi’s novels, partly because of their use of vernacular language, have been extremely popular in Kenya, which developed a lively tradition of commercially-successful popular literature in the latter part of the twentieth century. Mangua’s Son of Woman (1971) is generally acknowledged as the founding text of this trend, in which crime stories and spy thrillers—both heavily influenced by Western models—have been particularly popular. But it is David Maillu (1939– ) who is the undisputed king of Kenyan popular literature, both because of his own writings and because of his founding of Comb Books (and later of Maillu Publishing House), one of the major publishers of popular novels in East Africa. Maillu’s numerous works have often been judged inferior in quality by critics, either because of his overt didacticism or because of his lack of mastery of literary technique. On the other hand, Emmanuel Ngara has argued that Maillu’s work deserves more serious critical attention and that the social vision embodied in his works constitutes a profound literary expression of the social problems facing postcolonial Africa (Ngara 1985, 55).  Focusing on My Dear Bottle (1973) and After 4:30 (1974), Ngara demonstrates Maillu’s intense concern with the plight of women and of the working class in Kenya, though Ngara acknowledges Maillu’s stylistic limitations and grants that Maillu’s success as a political writer is compromised by his lack of a fully articulated socialist vision.  Ngara concludes that Maillu “may with some justification be condemned as a `pornographic jester,’ but his style should not obscure the fact that he raises questions capable of pricking the consciences of those in positions of power and authority” (58).

Maillu’s work continued to be popular in the 1990s, and his novel Broken Drum (1991) won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. However, by the 1990s he had turned more and more to the production of children’s books. Of course, the turn to crime thrillers and other forms of “entertainment” literature in the 1970s can also be attributed to the fact that increasingly oppressive political conditions in Kenya made it unsafe for writers to treat contemporary reality in more profound ways. Ngũgĩ himself, because of the uncompromising political engagement of his writing, was detained in prison for nearly a year in the late 1970s and then forced into exile in the late 1980s. As of this writing, he still lives in the United States. Meanwhile, there was a notable decline in the political engagement of Kenyan fiction after Ngũgĩ’s exile.

The work of the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah (1945– ), considered by many a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, is also worthy of note in any account of East African Anglophone literature, even if Farah’s Somali culture draws upon a number of traditions (especially Islamic ones) that are outside those that are central to most Anglophone African writers. Farah’s complex and sophisticated novels combine important influences from the strong tradition of Somali oral poetry with an impressive mastery of the literary techniques of Western modernism to produce some of the most noteworthy works of modern East African literature. Among other things, Farah’s consistent focus on gender issues has gained him a reputation as one of the most “feminist” of all African male writers. Farah’s first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970) is set in the colonial Somalia of the 1950s and focuses on the tribulations of its protagonist Ebla, an illiterate Somali woman who attempts to escape her treatment as the property of men. However, most of Farah’s work concentrates on the postcolonial period. A Naked Needle (1976) focuses in an impressionistic fashion on the experiences of the young man Koschin, a scholar of the work of James Joyce and an inhabitant of Mogasdishu in the confusing years following the 1969 military coup that placed Somalia under the rule of General Muhammed Siyad Barre.

Farah’s most substantial work to date is the trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, which consists of the volumes Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983). These volumes are extremely literary, including allusions to a wide range of other texts from a variety of disciplines and employing an extensive array of experimental techniques of narration reminiscent of Western modernism.  But the political engagement of Farah’s fiction is unquestionable. All three volumes are set in a fictional dystopian Somalia of the 1970s ruled by a fictional “General” who is quite obviously based on the real Siyad Barre. Farah’s critical commentary on oppressive conditions in his native Somalia (from which he was forced into exile and in which his works were banned) is thus quite direct.  All in all, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship is one of the most sophisticated literary works in the global dystopian tradition.

One of the themes of Farah’s trilogy is the impact of Soviet support for Siyad Barre on oppressive conditions in Somalia in the 1970s. In Maps (1986), however, Farah demonstrates that Siyad Barre’s later switch to the American side in the Cold War did little to alleviate conditions in Somalia. Maps also employs an even more inventive narrative style than its predecessors, moving from the realm of modernism into that of postmodernism. Its protagonist Askar, meanwhile, is another example of “national allegory” in African fiction, and it is clear that his experiences are in a sense representative of those of postcolonial Somalia as a whole. Farah’s literary production continued unabated (though in exile) amid the tumultuous conditions in Somalia in the 1990s. Maps was followed by Gifts (1993) and Secrets (1998) to constitute the “Blood in the Sun” trilogy. Still another trilogy, “Past Imperfect,” comprises the novels Links (2004), Knots (2007), and Crossbones (2011).


[1] On this strategy of installing Shakespeare at the center of the British educational project in India, see Viswanathan.

[2] Egypt, of course, was a very different case, with a rich cultural tradition (including written culture) dating back thousands of years and with a rich modern literature (in Arabic) dating back to the second half of the nineteenth century. For that reason, the Egyptian novel will not be discussed in this chapter, though it might be noted that the twentieth century Arabic novel has flourished in Egypt, especially in the work of Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006), winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature.

[3] Much study has been done of the relationship between the African novel and African oral culture.  See, for example, the book by Eileen Julien (1992).

[4] To a certain extent, the confrontation between oral and written culture that is often enacted in the African novel is a confrontation between indigenous African culture and the culture of Africa’s European colonizers. However, it is also important to recognize that in postcolonial Africa this confrontation is a matter of class, as well. Most upper-class Africans can now read and write; most lower-class Africans still cannot. Thus, as Christopher Miller notes, “the border between literate and illiterate is the most accurate indicator of class in Africa” (255).

[5] See my discussion of this novel in “Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka.” For a spirited argument that the early novels produced in South Africa are far more important than literary historians (including myself, though his description of my comments on the matter is misleading and unfair) have generally acknowledged, see Mukoma.

[6] In practice, Apartheid was in force even before independence, though it was the official policy of the South African government only from 1948 to 1990, when it began to be dismantled.

[7] The Négritude movement was animportant phenomenon in Francophone African literature, led by figures such as the Martinican poet, playwright, and critic Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) and Leopold Senghor (1906–2001), an important poet who became the first president of Senegal in 1960, holding that post for twenty years. Négritude drew upon techniques similar to those used by the French surrealists to try to develop a distinctively African mode of literary expression that would allow them to contribute to the development of a positive cultural identity for black Africans—and black people as a whole. Controversial and often-criticized, the Négritude movement nevertheless made major contributions to the development of African (especially French African) literature, though these contributions were more directly important in poetry than in fiction.

[8] The racist regime of apartheid South Africa categorized citizens according to strict racial designations. “Colored” South Africans are those of mixed race, generally part white and part black, though potentially part Asian.

[9] First given in 1953, the Hugo Awards are the most coveted awards given for science fiction writing. Named for pioneering sf editor Hugo Gernsback and administered by the World Science Fiction Society, the Hugo Awards are given at the annual World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). Voted on by registrants at that convention, the Hugos thus are essentially a fan-based award, though many attendees at the convention are themselves science fiction professionals.