Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 5,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."

Revolution 1

Adichie’s Americanah, Selasie’s Ghana Must Go, and Bulawayo’s We Need New Names are being hailed as the African novels that best capture the Africa of our time. It is around these novels that the question of the contemporary African novel is being asked and decided. On a flight to Johannesburg, I was reading the South African Airways in-flight magazine and saw an entire page celebrating Bulawayo and Selasi’s novels as the “great African tales” our of contemporary moment.

But it strikes me as odd that all three novels are about the African immigrant experience. Why are three African novels published within the last one year about the same subject? Is it coincidence? Is there is a scarcity of stories? Is someone telling them what to write? Are African writers getting too comfortable in the corporatized literary infrastructure that nurture and circulate their work?  I’m asking these questions to get us to appraise our literary moment and think about what our legacy will be in the history of the African novel.

These novels I have put on the spot—Americanah, Ghana Must Go, and We Need New Names— are brilliantly written. But, lets face it, they will probably not change the way we think of the African novel. They will effortlessly take their place in the cannon but will not disrupt it. African novelists these days are not keen on experimenting, taking risks with form, disrupting our assumptions about what storytelling is and what makes it pleasurable or political. They avoid the risk of exploring new types of audiences or markets. So they write stories that are prepackaged for a rented audience. They write stories that address issues, topics, social problems. Issues are safe. Big ideas are easy to sell. They have a ready-made audience. When you are African and you say your novel is about race, war, Niger Delta crisis, same-sex relationship, human trafficking, immigrant experience, you are guaranteed an audience, who buy your book only because it is familiar, because they’ve already read it even before they open it. This is my way of saying that the tendency to suspend stories on abstract ideas, topics, themes, subjects has prevented African writers from doing interesting things with form and story.

The unsettling thing is that African novels started out as a radically experimental form. Amos Tutuola never wrote a novel. He wrote a narrative that evoked the novel, anticipated the novel, resembled the novel but that rejected the form of the novel in its classic sense. Tutuola dreamed of writing a novel but through the sheer genius of his mind, he ended up writing something that corroded the form from the inside and exploded it. Tutuola’s commitment to the form of the story as opposed to the ideas the story could be made to explore is evident in the fact that we still do not know what to make of his stories. Attempts to make his work meaningful by saying it is about colonialism or some other big idea always seems forced and contrived. We always fail in our attempt to graft an abstract social issue on to Tutuola’s stories. Adichie can say that her book is about race, love, and hair. We can’t say the same about a story like The Palmwine Drinkard. For Tutuola, the idea did not come before the story. The story did not work in the service of the idea. The story was meant to overshadow the idea so that it did not prevent us from encountering the story and loving it for itself.

We need more writers to be inspired by Tutuola and others like him—Dambudzo Marechera, Ben Okri, Kojo Laing. These are writers who found their voice and their love for the novel by breaking away from the form and seeking out new ways of forcing the novel to imagine worlds it was not built to imagine. African novelists need to find their way back from big ideas to the beauty and power of the story.


Image Via

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

2 Responses to “Waiting For An African Literary Revolution” Subscribe

  1. Anna Julia Cooper July 14, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    Spot on article! I love any posts that mention the works of Ben Okri and Amos Tutuola. I believe that one of the questions of your article asked is that if only African stories could be told through the novel. To me, it is a stifling form and NONE of my preferred authors have adhered to this form at all. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” has not been called a novel. Ben Okri’s “Famished Road” is a form in it’s own right providing readers with a fantastic and wider reality. Ayi Kwei Armah’s “Two Thousand Seaons” and “The Healer” have been criticized because they do not fit the form either. But that does not take away from the stories that they tell either.

    I think that perhaps “the novel” is a bit too narrow to hold the beautiful weight of African realities, and I am glad that the writers above did not attempt to prune their the reality of the stories. I am thinking now how strained “Famished Road” would feel it would have to have conformed some format before it could be accepted.

  2. Ainehi Edoro July 15, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    “I am thinking now how strained “Famished Road” would feel it would have to have conformed some format before it could be accepted.”


Leave a Reply

Welcome to Brittle Paper, your go-to site for African writing and literary culture. We bring you all the latest news and juicy updates on publications, authors, events, prizes, and lifestyle. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@brittlepaper) and sign up for our "I love African Literature" newsletter.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."


Apply to Africa Is a Country’s $3,000 Fellowship Program for Intellectual & Cultural Producers of Africa-Related Knowledge


The political and intellectual culture platform Africa Is a Country (AIAC) has announced its inaugural Fellowship Program, “of up to […]

Oxford English Dictionary Recognizes West African English, Adds 29 Nigerian Words & Senses

danfo buses in Lagos - guardian nigeria

Oxford English Dictionary has recognized West African English, bringing its number of World Englishes to 15, including Australian, Canadian, Caribbean, Hong Kong, Irish, […]

100 Most Influential Young Nigerians: Otosirieze Obi-Young, Arit Okpo, Kiki Mordi, Richard Akuson & Olutimehin Adegbeye Make Avance Media’s List

otosirieze obi-young, arit okpo, olutimehin adegbeye, richard akuson, kiki mordi on Avance Media's list of 100 most influential young nigerians

Brittle Paper’s Deputy Editor Otosirieze Obi-Young has been named one of the “100 Most Influential Young Nigerians” in 2019 by […]

For Working Class Writers & Refugees, Sulaiman Addonia Is Giving Out 40 Free Tickets to the Asmara Addis Festival

Asmara Addis Literray Festival in Exile (13)

When writing is described as an elitist profession, critics mean that opportunities in the field are determined by access, which […]

Modern Sudanese Poetry | New Anthology Spans Six Decades of Sudanese History & Cultural Intersections

Modern Sudanese Poetry - graph

Modern Sudanese Poetry: An Anthology, translated and edited by the Sudanese poet Adil Babikir, was published in paperback in September […]

Chuma Nwokolo Compensated in Plagiarism Lawsuit Against High Definition Film Studio, Shares More Stories of Plagiarism of His Work

chuma nwokolo by Yusuf Dahir

In November 2019, the Nigerian author Chuma Nwokolo called out Nollywood filmmaker Bright Wonder Obasi for using sections of his […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.