Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 11.02.41 AM

The history of modern African fiction is essentially 100 years of branding disaster. In marketing African fiction, the conventional practice among publishers both in Africa and the west has been to simply tag a novel to a social issue. Such and such a novel explores colonialism. Done. So and so offers a searing representation of the scourge of misogyny.  Done. Corruption takes center stage in so and so’s novel. Done.

African fiction is packaged and circulated, bought and sold not on the basis of its aesthetic value but of its thematic preoccupation.

This perception of African literature has a history. It can be traced to what I’ve come to think of as the anthropological unconscious of the African novel. Academic institutions were the first to notice that there was such a thing as African fiction. Today, when Teju Cole publishes a novel, it is reviewed by the New York Times as a literary work, right? It wasn’t always like that. In 1925, the English translation of Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka was published. Chaka is a beautifully dark and twisted take on the true life story of the Zulu King. It is a cross between fantasy and psycho-drama. The story is built around one of the most enigmatic and memorable literary figures you’d ever encounter. A cross between Amos Tutuola’s Palmwine Drinkard and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mofolo’s Chaka is one of those lovely monsters that have captivated literature lovers since forever. In spite of all this, Chaka was featured in mostly history and anthropological journals published by university presses. In 1931, an academic reviewer describes Chaka as “a behavioristic study of Zulu Life under the despot Chaka” and then goes on to expound upon the “scientific value” of the novel. These scholars saw African fiction as a narrative documentation of African life that opened up access to the beliefs and values of African societies. But even when African fiction finally broke into the literary market, it never lost its anthropological allure. Publishers and critics became used to the idea that any fiction coming out of Africa must lay claim to some truth about Africa. It became the practice to market African fiction not around their literary attributes but around the social and political issues they address.

This practice has gone on for so long that we—readers, reviewers, publishers— have forgotten how to engage with African novels except from the standpoint of the social or political issues they address. African fiction is invisible except when it is reflected on a mirror of social ills, cultural themes and political concerns.

The reason we have to reevaluate how we encounter African fiction is exemplified in the descriptions of David Mitchell’s and Chimamanda Adichie’s novels on Amazon.

Here are the opening sentences of the Amazon blurb of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

“A postmodern visionary and one of the leading voices in twenty-first-century fiction, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokovian love of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending, philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction as profound as it is playful. In this groundbreaking novel, an influential favorite among a new generation of writers, Mitchell explores with daring artistry fundamental questions of reality and identity.”

Compare this to the only opening sentence of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah.

“A powerful, tender story of race and identity by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun.”

Did you notice how in the description of Mitchell’s novel, the emphasis is placed on the literary attributes of the story—adventurous, Nabokovian, character-driven, and so on? Mitchell is then situated within a literary tradition. His similarities to everyone from Eco to K. Dick is mentioned—just in case you missed the fact that Mitchell is a fancy, highbrow, totally literary author. We eventually get to the theme of the novel—“Mitchell explores…reality and identity”— but notice that is only after establishing that the novel is a fun, “playful,” and very literary text. Also notice that not just any kind of themes are highlighted. “Reality and identity” are a lot less heavy-handed than colonialism, totalitarianism, agism, homophobia—which, by the way, Mitchell’s novel does explore.

In Mitchell’s novel, any talk of themes comes at the very end. In Adichie’s novel, the theme is front and center. Mitchell’s novel is “playful” and character driven. Adichie’s novel is about race. Readers are invited to encounter Mitchell as a literary artist situated within a long tradition of literary artists and Adichie as an informant on race. To reduce all the flirty, humorous beauty of Adichie’s novel to “a tender story about race” is just wrong and borderline patronizing. But it also demonstrates the inherent bias in the way readers are invited to encounter African novels.

It is important to note that the difference between these two blurbs is a calculated choice made by the publisher. It says nothing about the objective characteristic of both novels. Mitchell’s novel is as much a novel about colonialism as Adichie’s novel is a delicious, Austenian cocktail of romance and satire. Like Mitchell, Adichie has a keen eye for character. Instead of saying Americanah explores race, the blurb could very easily have said that it explores with “daring artistry” the fundamental question of love. When you put social-political issue at the front and center of narrative, there are costs. More often that not, emphasizing the political themes in a story ends up asphyxiating the literary life of the work.

Recently on Aljazeera, a writer describes Hausa language romance novels like this: “The books tell everyday stories of the lives of northern women and address issues like rape, polygamy and domestic violence.”

Imagine someone describing Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch as a novel that depicts the everyday lives of American men and addresses the issue of drug addiction, child abandonment, and organized crime. Sounds absurd, right? It is even more absurd to say that the most significant observation worth making about a novel is that it addresses rape. I can see that as pertinent information if the book were an ethnographic work on rape culture. But to set the expectations that readers are going to learn—“learn” being the key word here—about rape culture and polygamy in northern Nigeria by reading a fictional work is to do a great disservice to the authors of these lovely novels, authors who irrespective of their intentions, have worked really hard to tell a good story.

This tendency to anthropologize African fiction is not some kind of conspiracy of a Western publishing market. African critics have played a huge role in promoting this idea of African fiction as necessarily issues-driven. Chinua Achebe’s essay “The Novelist as Teacher,” Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Decolonizing the Mind, Wole Soyinka’s writing on fiction and the “social vision,” and Nadine Gordimer’s many essays on African literature all lead readers to expect that African fiction exist for one thing only: to comment on the social condition of Africa.

In a recent interview, Helen Oyeyemi identifies what is really awful about burdening fiction with social issues:

I’m wary of—how do I put it—”getting tagged,” I guess, but I also understand the need to try and do that. When I try to think about my favorite books, I’m still not quite sure how I found them. There needs to be something you can say to people that lets them know that they might like this book, but I sometimes worry that the kinds of things that people say about what I write would not help my books find the readers I intend. I feel like most writers write for people who just read, who would open a book and jump in and see what’s there. But burdening a book with promises that once you’ve read this book, you’ll understand this issue or that issue—it’s not good. Read more

We should worry about the kinds of things being said by critics and publishers about African fiction. As Oyeyemi so beautifully articulated, if you say the wrong things about a book, if you make false promises to readers about what a book holds out for them, if you set the wrong expectations for what a book can or cannot do, you prevent these books from finding the readers they deserve. African fiction deserves readers who see its value as a literary object versus readers who are drawn to it because of some imagined anthropological value. We have to stop telling the single story about African stories.


Tags: , ,

I'm finishing up a phd at Duke University where I study African novels, which I believe are some of the loveliest things ever written. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

14 Responses to “The Anthropological Unconscious or How Not to Talk About African Fiction” Subscribe

  1. OA 2016/03/30 at 5:08 am #

    “Publishers and critics became used to the idea that any fiction coming out of Africa must lay claim to some truth about Africa. It became the practice to market African fiction not around their literary attributes but around the social and political issues they address.”

    I think that practice has now affected subsequent writers. So that now when we speak of the problem, our writers, consciously or not, are just as culpable as those critics and publishers of yore.

    I think pieces addressing these issues are stacking up. It would be great to find the pushback reflecting in the works themselves, be it essays, short stories or novels.

  2. moo 2016/03/30 at 5:48 am #

    This is so spot on and a bit of fanmail here:

    I feel that there is always a pressure that if you want to be taken “seriously” as an African writer you really have to bring in the grand political narrative or social commentary in a very obvious way or people impose that meaning onto your work or make it the only meaning-and it can sometimes feel like the characters just become objects, and the work itself and the author.

    But I really love reading stuff on your blog and your blog means a lot to me to have been published here because yes, there is some cool speculative and experimental stuff but even the stuff that is “realist” fiction is really just about telling the stories, desires, dreams and hopes and loves and quirks of these characters.Its just about showing human beings at their best and worst and the random or not so random stuff that happens to them and to many of us in real life.It’s not some mystyfing narrative about our lives, African lives.It doesn’t try too hard,it jumps straight into the nitty-gritty, and its sincere even if it does take a strong social position.

    So i really hope your blog goes on to do even bigger things and who knows maybe you become one of those Big People who gets to choose what gets published, who gets awards and what young kids read in school.

  3. Nnamdi 2016/03/30 at 9:27 am #

    This is similar to a recent facebook post by Nnedi Okoroafor, which addresses the issue of readers reading a book with preconceived expectations and possibly “missing half of the story” because they feel there is something the story must be about.

    Hence there’s the possibility that the aesthetic appeal of a story is entirely missed because it has been erroneously reduced to what it is not even before a word from it is read.

  4. Brady 2016/03/30 at 9:55 am #

    This popped up on my feed just as I was finishing reading through evals from the African lit class I taught last quarter. I’m fascinated by how thoroughly what you’re calling the “anthropological unconscious” informs even my students expectations for a survey of African literature. So many of them expected to encounter some kind of radical difference and seemed upset to learn that “African literature” is, you know, literature. “The course was just an English class with African books.” Um, obviously? Of course I turn to history/anthropology on occasion as a way to contextualize what we’re doing for those who are interested, but a lot of them seemed so invested in the idea of “African literature” as completely saturated by history/politics/ethnography that the formal questions that I tended to foreground seemed out of place to them, and not in a good way. I suppose this is, in part, what one of them was getting at when he/she complained that my “whiteness was difficult to ignore.” Because African literature basically stands in, in his/her view, for an essentialist account of black history and politics, white professors have no place in teaching it. Yikes!

  5. Omotaye Omobosede 2016/03/30 at 1:27 pm #

    May I remind us all that bellyaching in this manner is part of the discourse and that nothing is more or less African in seeking the “anthropological unconscious” of texts.

  6. CM 2016/03/30 at 2:23 pm #

    You make an excellent point, especially as regards the marketing of African novels by Western publishers or journalists, and the treating of Western writers differently from nonWestern writers. I also agree that we shouldn’t teach African novels as anthropological texts. However, I don’t think we should dismiss the stated intentions of writers like Achebe, Ngugi, or Soyinka, who did see commentary on current society as an important part of their writing. Can not a certain social vision of the writers be an important part of their “aesthetic”? It doesn’t have to be universalized to ALL African writers, anymore than certain European aesthetics are universalized to all European novels, but I think it might be important to the writers who express those intentions.

    I agree entirely with your critique of the Al Jazeera simplification of Hausa literature to a series of “social issues.” I have vented my frustration about the simplification of Hausa literature, by people who have not even read it, here.

    In my interactions with Hausa writers and in my reading of these novels, the writers definitely seem interested in telling a good story that captivates readers. Thriller novelist and scriptwriter Nazir Adam Salih told me that his novels or screenplays might deal with certain issues but they would be 70% entertainment, because otherwise people wouldn’t buy them or enjoy them.

    At the same time, Hausa authors are also often very intentional about writing to “teach” a certain lesson or comment on a social issue, and I don’t think we should dismiss that either, just because it doesn’t fit with cosmopolitan aesthetic ideals about what literature is. Cannot social commentary also be a part of the aesthetic value of a literature–how it is judged as good by readers and writers? (I think of Victorian literature here too). In the preface of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home, translated from Hausa into English by Aliyu Kamal, for example, she writes (for her Hausa audience):

    “In this book, I tell a story about a type of man found commonly in Nigeria who regards a married woman with children as a sort of slave to be bought or sold at the marketplace […] Such men fail to heed the hadith of Prophet Muhammad: ‘ Allah will bless the efforts of those charged with the divine responsibility of caring for others.’ They are arrogant on account of being privileged […] Allah deals with each person as his or her own deeds warrant.

    In this story, He deals with the character I have named ‘Alhaji Abdu’ by demonstrating that whenever one person’s rights are infringed upon by another, He is a Witness.

    I hope my story will serve as a lesson to the Muslim community. May the Lord God make the sinners change their ways, as he does not forgive a man’s crime against another.”

    Yakubu is very pointed about how she wants the novel to be read, although of course that does not mean that we cannot read it in other ways either.

    I just taught this novel to Nigerian students in Ilorin. Today in class, many of them said they felt like they knew exactly what would happen in the story, because it was similar to Yoruba or Hausa films they had seen. Their sense of valuing a film or a novel (which I have seen from the reaction papers they have written me all semester–even after I push them to think about aesthetics, irony, metaphor etc.) is often about the kind of moral lessons it teaches. This is the kind of impulse that Achebe also noted in “The Novelist as Teacher” and other essays about how his readers wanted him to write a certain thing because it would “teach society.” I would argue that this is also a kind of “literary value,” and a kind of “aesthetic” and shouldn’t just be dismissed as the ignorance of “untrained” students.

    By all means, let us read for pleasure and point out the literary aesthetics of novels, and by all means let us encourage publishers to treat African novels with the same respect that European or American novels have, but let us not homogenize all writers as writing for universal audiences of literary readers or dismiss the aesthetic sensibilities of readers or writers coming from certain traditions that do value certain moralizing aesthetic.

  7. OA 2016/03/31 at 4:36 am #

    “By all means, let us read for pleasure and point out the literary aesthetics of novels, and by all means let us encourage publishers to treat African novels with the same respect that European or American novels have, but let us not homogenize all writers as writing for universal audiences of literary readers or dismiss the aesthetic sensibilities of readers or writers coming from certain traditions that do value certain moralizing aesthetic.”

    Well CM, it is a push back and this is the nature of pushbacks. So far we don’t have reason to fear that anyone rates a morals-burdened tale as unimportant. So while you have made some good points, this last bit is preaching to the African choir.

    What AE has written here may have to be written a thousand times before literature as pleasure, in part or wholly, can be taken as a possibility in African literature.

    The bigger trouble, to my mind, is how much of what AE has written has affected later African writers so that now the problem is hardly critics or the west but scribblers themselves. I imagine a writer binning his humorous tale replete with wordplay for something serious–not seriously written, because there’s no greater protection for sloppy writing than a BIG theme, but seriously ‘engaged’ with these so-called African problems.

  8. CM 2016/03/31 at 5:21 pm #

    OA, I think what Ainehi has written is really important, and I agree with her to a large extent. I think her critique of Western publishers is spot on–the “anthropologizing” back cover blurbs are related to the “acacia-tree”/sunset covers that a lot of African novels published in the West get. I also get the critique of readers/writers being overburdened with the idea of the “serious” issue-laden African novel, and I think a focus on other things is a good for a change. What gave me pause, however, was the idea that Achebe or Ngugi’s political approaches are somehow wrongheaded or that people shouldn’t write about “issues” they are daily facing. But why wouldn’t people appreciate politics or write about “issues” in a context where people aren’t being paid salaries, there is no petrol anywhere, there has been no light in your compound for over two weeks, you are having to buy water, and the price of everything has doubled in the past few months, etc. (I speak from current and pressing experience on each example I’ve given.) I found that my students this semester at Kwara State University enjoyed those novels that dealt with “issues” more than a fantasy novel I had picked out for them.

    I’m also approaching this argument from the context of Hausa novels, where the reading culture is all about reading for pleasure: romance novels, detective novels, political thrillers, supernatural fantasy, family drama. There are often “morals” and “messages” in the novels, self-consciously presented by the authors, but the morals are consumed along with the entertainment. And there is a huge reading public for these novels, which are sold in markets and at used book stalls and rented out from reading clubs. Many Hausa novels sell more widely and quickly than English-language novels that are accessible only in expensive bookstores in large cosmopolitan centres like Lagos or Abuja. So, there is the possibility of the novels consciously dealing with “issues” while also being pleasurable and popular.

    Perhaps, at issue here is that most of this popular Hausa literature does not usually self-consciously situate itself in an “African literary tradition,” and thus does have to deal with some of these hangups.

  9. Manuel 2016/04/01 at 1:31 am #

    This I think is the structuralist method of critiquing a work- with preconceived structures and reading the work becomes a tedious and conscious effort to identify the perceived structures in the work….leading to a blatant gliding over or ignoring of certain variables, which are not inherit in a structure this led to the theory of deconstruction and I think the formalist rails against this bias, in reading a work. They believe in “arts for art sake”

  10. Eddie Hewitt 2016/04/02 at 12:43 pm #

    Dear Ainehi, I’ve been struggling for a few days to formulate my reply, mostly since I’ve realised that I think I don’t totally agree with you after all. I am shocked at that! Seeing a work of African fiction as a literary object seems fine, but I wonder how far we can go in praising literariness for its own sake. There is a risk that literariness can be used as a cover for e.g. magical realism, or some more general form of art for art’s sake, or even something quite woolly.

    Now, I have to cautiously admit that I sometimes like a bit of sign-posting. There are some books (including African books) that I simply never would have read if the big themes had not been spelt out for me. So, I see some value there, though as I read more I like to think I can find my own way a bit more.

    Re Americanah, I’m not sure you’ve picked the best example to make your case. I love Adichie’s writing, but for me, this one is a great book but not a great story. It is essentially a love story, which is fine, and a tale of exploration and disconnection and, rather unsatisfactorily at the end, about reconciliation too, but, I really don’t think it’s a brilliant literary work. I think much of its strength comes from its big themes, i.e. love, race and hair. Adichie has also allowed herself in interviews to be drawn into talking about the big themes. I don’t know if she is disappointed by how her book has been presented.

    What would bother me, though, would be a racist or imperialist approach to authors by marketers and even by their own publishers in treating African works differently. You have made quite a strong case for this, so I can see there is a problem more widely, and a challenge for the book industry to overcome.

    Shifting the focus a little, to end with…for me, here, in terms of my appreciation of African Literature, the best thing that has come out of your argument is that it has made me question more deeply why I read, what I look for, and why it matters. You are brilliant at stimulating debates and raising awareness, and I love to read what you say about books, as well as the books themselves. Best wishes, Eddie

  11. Masimba Musodza 2016/04/02 at 5:50 pm #

    Thank you so much for this candid observation. I think also that us African writers are complicit in this scenario. Acknowledging this is the first step towards changing the situation.


  1. Tuesday Links! Too Many of Them! Send Help! | Gerry Canavan - 2016/04/05

    […] * The Anthropological Unconscious, or How Not to Talk About African Fiction. […]

  2. African Elements Week In Review For March 27 – April 2, 2016 | African Elements: Black Studies - 2016/05/29

    […] The Anthropological Unconscious or How Not to Talk About African Fiction […]

  3. Movie Recommendation: Queen of Katwe | Nicole Cesare - 2016/10/13

    […] would be negligent (and demonstrate the tendencies of “the anthropological unconscious” when it comes to art that represents the continent) to talk about this movie only as it […]

Leave a Reply

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


What to Listen to After Reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers


Imbolo Imbue’s Behold the Dreamers is one of the most talked about African novels. The novel tells the story of Jende […]

13 ways Nigeria’s Literati Greeted Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Win | by Olaoluwa Oni


By Swedish consensus, Bob Dylan has “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” and a literature prize […]

A Little Judgement | by Michael E. Umoh | An African Story


HOW DO YOU SAVE A LIFE? You go out and buy puff-puff. It began like this: I was walking towards […]

Uniben Boy in Berlin | By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo


  I Beset by love, lust, and other forms of collegial companionship at the University of Benin, my friends and […]

A Book About Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds


Congrats to Yemisi Aribisala! Her essay collection on Nigerian food and culinary culture is set for an October 31 release. […]

Chimamanda Adichie Had a Christian Dior Moment


Head of Dior Maria Grazia Chiuri made a bold statement at her catwalk show in the beautiful gardens of the […]