The author of Ghana Must Go was asked to speak at a literary festival in Berlin. She gave a lecture in which she claimed that as far as categorizing literary forms go, “African literature” was meaningless and should be discarded.
I’ve excerpted the long lecture to highlight the main arguments.
But is the category of “African Literature” obsolete? In the name of a race-less, nation-less, identity-less literature, should “African Literature” be replaced by “Human Literature”? Curious to know what you think.
African Literature Doesn’t Exist. What do I mean, or not mean? By “African literature,” I refer not to the body of written and oral texts produced by storytellers on and from the continent—but rather, to the category. African Literature is an empty designation, as is Asian Literature, European Literature, Latin American Literature, South American Literature, North American Literature, and so forth. My very basic assertion is that the practice of categorizing literature by the continent from which its creators come is past its prime at best. Our dogged insistence upon doing so, in the case of the African continent foremost, betrays a disregard both for the complexities of African cultures and the creativity of African authors. If literature is, as its finest practitioners argue, universal—then 2 it deserves a taxonomy neither based on nor supportive of racial distinction, but reflective of the workings of the race-less human heart.
In order to believe in “African literature”—to employ the term as if it possessed some cogent, knowable meaning—we must believe that the word African possesses some cogent meaning as well. But what? The African continent consists of 55 states recognized by the UN. That’s roughly the same as Europe’s 50, though I’ve never heard of anyone placing authors from, say, Switzerland, Serbia, Spain and Sweden on a panel of “European writers.” One struggles to imagine anyone attempting to group Rushdie, Murakami, Yan and Roy under the banner “Asian Writers,” as if the term shed any light whatsoever on the fine works of the four. The trouble is obvious: continents are naturally formed landmasses comprised of numerous countries. If states make suspicious categories for art, continents are closer to useless. And yet, just the other day I had a cheerful altercation with the Danish presenter Martin Krasnik, who argued—very genuinely, I should say—that I am an African writer. When I asked him why, he said that I’d written a novel about an African family, that Kweku Sai, my protagonist, for example, is an African man. I asked him whether we’d call Anna Karenina a book about a European woman? “No,” he laughed a bit cautiously. “Obviously, she’s Russian.” Why then, I wondered, do we call Kweku Sai an African man rather than, at the very least, West African or Ghanaian? The audience clapped, Martin conceded, and the conversation continued—but I marveled, not for the first time, at the truth behind these terms. We speak of Russian writers and characters, French writers, Spanish writers, Italian writers, German writers, instead of European writers—and we do so because we take seriously the differences between countries. We speak of Japanese writers, Indian writers, Chinese writers, instead of Asian writers—and we do so because we take seriously the nuances of these cultures. What is implied by our use of “African” is that the nuances of the countries and the cultures of that continent are not worthy of our notice. We suggest that there are no meaningful distinctions between a predominantly Catholic, Portuguese-speaking country like Angola on the one hand and a predominantly Muslim, French- speaking country like Senegal on the other.
I consider myself West African, among other cultural identities, and a writer, among other creative ones. But I am not an African writer. At no point in my writing process—in the act of actually being a writer: seated at the laptop, wherever I may be—do I experience a nationality. Nor am I an Afropolitan writer, disappointing as the news may be. Afropolitan is a personal identity. Fiction has no need for such things.
Then how should we classify literature? you ask. We can’t very well expect bookstores to have two sections only: Good Writing and Bad Writing (though it would help). No. I would submit that, if needs must, we should classify literature as we do music, allowing that the identity of consequence is the writing’s, not the writer’s. We no longer speak of “contemporary Asian music,” “contemporary American music,” without specifying a type of sound. For instance, the singer Berry and the rapper Diam’s are both young, female, French, but nothing about their music is illumined by those facts. We know this. We speak of jazz, pop, rock, alternative, electronic, chamber music—irrespective of the demographic profile of the musician. It would be an insult to insist that Louis Stewart is an Irish jazz musician: a great jazz guitarist would be more to the point. If you were listen to the reggae of Tilmann Otto without seeing his photo,
you’d think he was Jamaican; that Gentleman is German has nothing to do with his sound. And so on: Adele sings soul music, as does Aretha Franklin; Bob Marley was half-white, his reggae wholly his own; as Saul Williams says, “When Jimi Hendrix was making rock music, he didn’t make black rock. He made rock.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we classified literature not by country but by content: the love story, the city novel, the novel of the nation-state, the war novel, the bildungsroman? Then, we might find Cole’s brilliant meditation on New York with Graceland, Abani’s on Lagos, but also with McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Under “Civil War,” we might find Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun with Drakulic’s S, but Adichie’s Americanah with Lahiri’s The Namesake and Bulawayo’s We Need New Names under “Immigration.” Under “Novels about the Novel,” we might find Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards with Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox, but her Icarus Girl under “Magical Realism,” with Marquez, where it belongs. My own Ghana Must Go—despite having the name of an African country in its title—might sit alongside Franzen’s The Corrections, Heller’s Something Happened, and Mann’s Buddenbrooks in the Seriously Dysfunctional Family section. Classifying texts in this way would restore our attention to the intention of authours, drawing connections between the human experiences that come to life in their words. We would, of course, watch the borders of French-ness and American-ness and mythical African-ness weaken—but surely, this is the long-term effect of literature anyhow?
Every time we pick up a book, we erase our personal borders. We trespass the boundaries of the self and enter the wilds of the Other. After those initial moments of disorientation, we find that we are home. As Scott Fitzgerald has it, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” Recently, a friend, apprised of my talk, said, “You live in a fantasy world, Taiye: a world without nations, without color, without borders. Not all of us are artists.” But all of us can be readers, I said. All of us can belong. And if it sounds like a utopia—a world without African literature, or need of it, a world with human literature—I would say: yes, it is. As Mr. Simic said of literature those twelve short years ago, “Its utopian hope is that one will recognize oneself in some stranger’s words. For a moment, one steps out of one’s cramped self and lives other unfamiliar lives. If literature is not utopia, then I don’t know what is.”
Read Full Lecture HERE.