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Dear Ms. Paper,

I got into a bad argument in class today. I’m so angry it’s a bit hard to type this right now. My literature professor said Achebe invented African literature. I didn’t think I heard right, so I raised my hand up and asked, “Excuse me sir, which Achebe do you have in mind? Is it the Achebe who was not not even in his mother’s womb when Islamic poets were writing epics in Swahili or are you referring to the Achebe whose debut novel came out after Cameroon’s Mongo Beti had already written three novels?” Everyone sided with the professor and accused me of tainting the legacy of a great man.  I’m trying really hard to understand the logic behind claims that Achebe invented or is the father of African literature. The more I think of it the more absurd it seems.  Hundred of years of writing had already been recorded on the continent before Achebe rolled up in 1958 with Things Fall Apart. Am I missing something here? Achebe wrote mainly fiction—a specific type of fiction, for that matter. How can a man who wrote novels be credited for inventing the literature of an entire continent?


Dear Angry Historian,

Take a deep breath. It’s okay. No need to lose your head over the silly, old question of Achebe’s literary fatherhood. You also didn’t have to go off on your professor. It’s not his fault that people think Achebe is the inventor of African literature. Blame Simon Gikandi, not your professor! In the late 1991, Gikandi, a Kenyan literary scholar who now teaches at Princeton University, wrote this book on Achebe, in which he said that Achebe invented African literature.

If it makes you feel better, your irritation places you in very good company. In the weeks following Achebe’s death, here is what Soyinka has to say about the claim that Achebe is the “father of African literature:”

Chinua himself repudiated such a tag—he did study literature after all, bagged a degree in the subject…Those who seriously believe or promote this must be asked: have you the sheerest acquaintance with the literatures of other African nations, in both indigenous and adopted colonial languages? What must the francophone, lusophone, Zulu, Xhosa, Ewe literary scholars and consumers think of those who persist in such a historic absurdity?

As convincing as this sounds, I would advise you to hold off on joining Soyinka in writing off the idea of Achebe as the “father” or inventor of African literature until you consider all the facts.

The first mistake that Soyinka makes and that you are making is taking the idea of “the father” or “the inventor” way too literally. Achebe is the father of African literature only in a metaphorical sense. No one is saying that Achebe was physically present when African literature came into being—like he was some kind of god who stood before the expanse of Africa’s literary nothingness and said “let there be African literature, and then there was African literature.”

Because you’re fixated on this literal interpretation of Achebe’s role as father, you miss a very key distinction.

Gikandi says that Achebe invented African literature. He did not say Achebe invented African writing. There is a huge difference between the two. There have been hundreds and hundreds of years of African writing circulating in the world before Achebe came on the scene. To claim otherwise would be pure stupidity. What people like Gikandi are simply saying is that it was not until Achebe and his generation came along that we could think of this vast body of African writing as literary works.

Before Achebe, if you were black and you were African, the world most likely did not see your work as literary. They would evaluate your work as folklore, myth, or things that should interest an anthropologist, but not literature. This affected the way African writing was circulated globally. Instead of African fiction to be reviewed by the New York Times or shelved alongside Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf,  it was published by religious presses and reviewed in anthropological journals.

Things began to change in a big way after the global success of Things Fall Apart.  It took a novel like Things Fall Apart for the global literary market, readership, and literary institution to see African writers the same way they saw Virginia Woolf or James Joyce or William Shakespeare—people writing things called literature and not myth, or folklore or historical documents or anthropological texts.

I will grant you this. It is confusing when people say Achebe invented African literature because most people are going to hear “literature” and confuse it with “writing.” But literature is not just writing, right? It is a unique way of looking at a body of writing. It is a way of situating a text in a literary tradition and valuing it for its aesthetic attributes. I suppose the more accurate way of putting it would be to say that Achebe invented a new way of seeing African writing as literary.

Next time you year someone say that Achebe is the father of African literature or that he invented African literature, think of it as a branding issue. He rebranded African writing as literary texts. African fiction and poetry came to be understood in relation to a global literary tradition and not as a set of specialized documents that stodgy professors studied in history and anthropology departments.

No one is saying that there wasn’t African writing before Achebe, but simply that the publication of Things Fall Apart marks the beginning of a global conversation around African writing as literary texts.

Did Achebe invent African literature? I would rather say that Achebe helped reinvent African writing as literature.



#DearMsPaper is a fictional agony-aunt series that parodies readers, critics, and writers in the African literary scene. If you have specific questions you’d like me to address, send to

To read more #DearMsPaper posts: click 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.

14 Responses to “Dear Ms. Paper: Did Achebe Really Invent African Literature?” Subscribe

  1. Farida 2016/05/09 at 02:51 #

    Quite informative.

  2. Chioma 2016/05/09 at 03:34 #

    Neat. I like your response. Very apt.

  3. Nnamdi 2016/05/09 at 04:33 #

    Balanced equation. You clarified both sides of the argument.

  4. Adefemi Adejola 2016/05/09 at 04:42 #

    Illuminating piece. Thanks Ms. Paper.

  5. Joseph Kelly 2016/05/09 at 08:19 #

    Dear Ms. Paper Your response is clear but not convincing. In particular, your distinction between writing and literature is kind of like old colonialist distinctions between art (European) and craft (colonial), or the distinction that has been made between poetry and folkloric rhymes as it comes to the deep past in African poetry. It’s the sort of distinction that marginalizes and obscures in otherness, literary achievements beyond the Eurocentric frame. Long before Achebe, there was Sol Plaatjie, Mhudi (1930), or the works of poet/playwright H. I .E Dhlomo and the novelist Peter Abrahams who had been productive since 1942. Please — it doesn’t help to make facile distinctions that only continue to place out of scope and recognition African literary developments that possibly have deeper histories than we know.

  6. Obinna Udenwe 2016/05/09 at 09:54 #

    Welcome back, our dear Ms. Paper. This is strong and intelligent.

  7. Ikhide 2016/05/09 at 10:39 #

    Brilliant response, Ainehi. Well done! I wish I had your temperament. I said just as much here:

  8. Hungry Man 2016/05/09 at 15:17 #

    How can you say an Igbo man reinvented Afro-writing, What about Soyinka? Yorubas may not like your conclusion.

  9. Jude Bame 2016/05/09 at 20:16 #

    I agree with the response to the question here. The contributions of Achebe to the development of African Literature are invaluable and it will be unfortunate to underestimate this. My view is that Achebe’s first novel set a new dimension or way in which the so called literary canons of the West perceived African Literature. this new dimension inevitably galvanized literary production in Africans who now believed their works would also be classified along side those of Western writers like Shakespeare, Pope, Bronte, Hardy, Blake etc. Here, therefore, to say Achebe is the father of African Literature wouldn’t be overstating the point though it does not necessarily mean he invented it.

  10. Alex 2016/05/09 at 23:28 #

    Odiegwu! This is what happens when you try to base your ontology on a racialist epistemology that has aged very badly. To what purpose? Ultimately, to demean all those who came before, ‘Achebe and his generation’, and all those who have come since.

    Was Présence Africaine, or Black Orpheus even, an anthropological journal? Or was Faber a religious press? How many contradictory facts will suffice to reveal the true nature of the ‘most likely’ in ‘the world most likely did not see your work as literary’, or indeed the specious nature of your entire argument?

    Let’s pretend this amusing narrative was ‘all the facts’ it claims to be and not interpretative ‘washing’, are we to take it that African literature, and within that glorious tradition Things Fall Apart, has no significance without the acknowledgment of a ‘globe’, which unwittingly is an euphemism for and unfortunately an elevation of a very Anglophone brand(ing) of parochialism, not to be taken as referring to any globe in a literal or figurative sense?

    And global success, what does it mean? Does it mean, for instance, that 58 years hence the global success of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone should be held as signalling the invention of European literature? The Story of Tambuka, which within its own context enjoyed great success just as did Robinson Crusoe within its own context, does not derive its literary status from the global success of a book published hundreds of years later.

  11. nomsainc 2016/05/10 at 10:41 #

    Joseph Kelly – agree..

  12. Yiro Abari High 2016/05/11 at 09:47 #

    i think that “the father” or “inventor’ actually means “re-inventor.”

  13. Chiziterem 2016/05/11 at 12:15 #

    Firstly, Ainehi, I see it’s still ‘Ms.’ Paper, not ‘Dr.’ Has that dilemma been resolved? Hope so.

    ’bout the issue at hand: My input is simple. Achebe’s things fall apart did a rebranding job on African writing in the sense that it simply made the everyday reader who wasn’t African begin to appreciate stuff from the continent as they would any other. Perhaps work before his had a certain level of literary appreciation, but it was only for those who took to studying literature from Africa only as something to be studied for a PhD thesis. It all changed in ’58, owing to the success of Things Fall Apart, and might I add, even to the African.

    Truthfully, casual reading of African literature by Africans has its origins traced to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. This doesn’t negate the fact that the stories shared and read by Africans before then stands in their own right, and was considered African Literature by Africans. The westerners only benefited from these academically alone. Little or no esthetic value.

  14. Nonye 2016/05/13 at 09:22 #

    Life would have been much easier if the professor had clarified his statement, replacing “inventor” with “re-nventor”. In a class where you teach young minds, it’s important to clarify fact and not only emphasize praise. The child of a lot of praise for Achebe’s invaluable work is what has brought about repetition of the statement “… invented African literature”. It’s a class, so what is wrong with making sure that your students left at the end of the day understanding that literature even includes folklore, poetry, dance drama, etc. that has existed in many many cultures, many many years before Achebe? Achebe was – is – amazing. But didn’t invent literature. It’s just like how annoying it is when you really think of the statement “Columbus discovered America”. America that people had lived and died in since morning?

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