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.