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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. 

source: globeandmaildotcom

source: globeandmaildotcom

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.

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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.

9 Responses to “Selasi Says There’s No African Literature in Her Literary Utopia” Subscribe

  1. Alex 2013/11/25 at 12:09 #

    Hmmm. What’s it that that guy with a gleaming pate used to say about the logic of things which are distinct from and not reducible to the logic of literary texts?

    Literature may very well be a utopia, but the world in which literature is read and in which the category “African Literature” is used is one of unequal exchange, i.e. politics, a world which subsumes literature and which is not reducible to the literary corpus.

    Classifications based on the intentions of authors are no less arbitrary or problematic than classifications based on continental rubric. I’m willing to accept that they pose different set of problems and that the continental rubric is entangled in a network of historical and economic relations that will not yield to wishful thinking.

    In my own dreams, too, we’ll have a global civilization founded on the myth that we all are scientifically Africans, never mind the paradoxical occurrence of myth and science in the same breath. This may be another way to empty the category “African Literature” of meaning (I guess Ms. Selasi sees the tumbler as half-empty), to make the obvious point that all writing is African writing, as all humans are African; human consisting of those on the continent and those in her diaspora.

    But these kinds of noble views shouldn’t become opiates that deaden consciousness. They are prolegomena to future, possible civilizations.

    They shouldn’t keep us from admitting that the sort of generic classification Ms. Selasi suggests already co-exists with the continental classification. I therefore am led to conclude that for some reason Ms. Selasi is mainly interested in those discourses in which greater weight is assigned to the continental classifications. I wonder what that reason is.

    I might have to wait till the power relations and disciplinary establishments within which her politics and mine can be validated exist. The question for me is whether to wait passively or actively.

  2. Tayo 2013/11/26 at 07:00 #

    I do agree with Taiye. If we classify writing as a literary work of arts, then classification by continent has gone totally out of date. African writers is a bandwagon classification that evolved from African colonialism. Thankfully, all of Africa has gone their separate ways. Venturing to the world of fashion, we have French couture, not European; in acting; Amhtabh Bachchan is an Indian actor, not Asian; Pierce Brosnan is an Irish author (not even described as English, least of all European). We need more postulations like these to show the world that Africa is not a country, but a continent of a mixed race of people, not entirely all black. After all, Egypt is not black, neither is Libya. And Ainehi, if we do agree on this, you might have to present a paper to the Duke University that you are no longer studying African novels, because African novels simply stopped existing since European novels disappeared. I’m a Nigerian author of contemporary fiction.

  3. No Brainer 2013/11/28 at 00:12 #

    you guys school drop all this continental-noncontinental jibberish. It is wearing out my Amygdala. Alex sounds more like a confused oyibo man saying he doesn’t know Racism still exists, while Tayo is more like an African in denial. Don’t tell me that you really cannot understand what the author is talking about.

  4. Samuel Okopi 2013/11/28 at 02:59 #

    As romantic as the term “African Literature” sounds, it still constrains the art of writing in some way. The global village we now live in necessitates and allows for interactions between people and places in hitherto impossible ways. There is now immediate access to information and experience, online and offline, and this frees the storyteller from writing what he or she only knows or has experienced within the limits of the physical space inhabited.

    I do agree, though, that the approach to categorizations Selasi presents is fraught with it’s own problems. Or maybe we do not need classifications at all?

  5. Manney 2014/02/05 at 21:27 #

    I tend to agree with the general point of view that Taiye has. Literature is simply, literature. But…but when we examine literary pieces penned by European authors, or American authors, or Asian authors, the context of their pieces are innately European or American, or Asian, respectively.

    Like most art forms do, literary pieces provide a window into the perspectives, experiences, and lives of a certain individual or a group of people. Although we can all categorize all experiences and perspectives as part of the human experience, each has a context unique to a particular person’s or group of people’s culture, beliefs, experiences – Life!

    From this understanding, I am then inclined to say that the specification “African Literature” is just fine, and should not be done away with. I’ve recently been watching a new series on youtube produced by “The Palm Print” that discusses African literary pieces and use that platform as an insight into its people and culture.

    The videos make a point that I am soo attached to. Our culture is ours. As an African man, I’m much too proud of and eager to distinguish as unique. It is something to own. And although our (African) experiences could be compared to any other group’s around the world, our nuances remain unique and distinct and that is ultimately what makes us “Africans.”

    This could continue but at this point, I digress.

    P.S: For context purposes, check out “The Palm Print” series I alluded to here:

  6. Adebiyi Segun J. 2014/12/20 at 11:07 #

    I believe Africa literature exists, although it is base on individual idea. Africa lit exists, we are conscious of its existence, this is why no one will call Flora Nwapa or Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’ o, and co. a non-african writer, just the way we know God is in existence without any instrument to prove it.
    I believe african literature can be define as a literature that has its origin, content, form, nature, language and writer probably from African.

  7. res 2015/02/15 at 15:18 #

    African literature exists and while we are at it, the AU is reviving pan-Americanism with agenda 2063. Even Europe has now seen that individual nations is not the way to go but continental blocs hence strengthening of the EU. Let’s embrace African unity and one way of doing that is thorough literature.

  8. res 2015/02/15 at 15:20 #

    I meant to say pan-africanism but my supposedly smart gadget put in Americanism


  1. Unique – Just Like Everybody Else : Michael - 2013/12/02

    […] This some to me as I think about how quick we are to run away from categories. We do not want to be called “feminist” or “African” or anything else for that matter. Taye Selasie said that African literature does not exist. […]

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