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Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s The Rise of the African Novel could be a game-changer in African literary criticism. Image from Cornell Chronicle.

Kenyan novelist and Professor of English at Cornell University, Mukoma wa Ngugi, has a new book out, which tackles essential questions of African literary traditions and generations. The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity and Ownershippublished in the US by University of Michigan Press in March and forthcoming in Southern, Western and Eastern African markets later this year and early 2019—explores foundational developments on the African literary scene: Why did Achebe’s generation privilege African literature in English despite the early South African example of writing in African languages and then getting translated? What are the costs of locating the start of Africa’s literary tradition in the wrong literary and historical period? And what does it mean for the current generation of writers and scholars of African literature not to have an imaginative consciousness of their literary past?

In an email to Brittle Paper, Mukoma wa Ngugi states that “while recognizing the importance of the Makerere writers and critics,” his is a “call for an African literary criticism and tradition that embraces its history of writing in African languages and for a broader African identity that is historically diasporic and presently transnational.” Mukoma calls the present gap “a major crisis in African literary criticism” and intends for his book to correct “the misreading of African literature.”

The Rise of the African Novel is the first book to situate South African and African-language literature of the late 1880s through the early 1940s in relation to the literature of decolonization, and the contemporary generation of established and emerging continental and diaspora African writers. Its publishers describe it as an effort to “restore South African and diaspora writing to the African literary tradition.” Here is a description on Amazon:

While acknowledging the importance of Achebe’s generation in the African literary tradition, Mukoma Wa Ngugi challenges that narrowing of the identities and languages of the African novel and writer. In restoring the missing foundational literary period to the African literary tradition, he shows how early South African literature, in both aesthetics and politics, is in conversation with the literature of the African independence era and contemporary rooted transnational literatures.

This book will become a foundational text in African literary studies, as it raises questions about the very nature of African literature and criticism. It will be essential reading for scholars of African literary studies as well as general readers seeking a greater understanding of African literary history and the ways in which critical consensus can be manufactured and rewarded at the expense of a larger and historical literary tradition.

Evan Mwangi, professor of 20th Century Anglophone African Literature at Northwestern University, has called the book “a lucid history of the African novel” which “brings to the foreground texts that are rarely discussed, demonstrating that the history of the African novel goes beyond the well-known works in the African super-canon.” He praises Mukoma’s research: “His archive is wide ranging, and he reads both old and new materials with rare clarity.”

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of three novels: Mrs. Shaw (2015), Black Star Nairobi (2013), and Nairobi Heat (2011); and of two books of poetry: Hurling Words at Consciousness (2006) and Logotherapy (2016).

Here is an insightful excerpt from the book, published on Literary Hub and titled “On the Rise—and Cost—of the African Novel in English.”

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CHINUA ACHEBE’s Things Fall Apart has been translated into over 50 languages, making it the most translated African novel. But almost 60 years after it was first published, there is no authoritative translation into Igbo, Achebe’s mother tongue. An equivalent instance would be if Conrad’s Heart of Darkness had not been translated into Polish. But even then, the comparison would not work.

As the late Obi Wali noted, “Conrad’s works, as we know, are considered part of English literature, not Polish literature, and the sole criterion for this is that his works are in English, not in Polish.” Achebe, on the other hand, understood himself as, and is read as, part of the African literary tradition. Indeed, Things Fall Apart has been translated into Polish at least two times while there are three competing translations in German. To be sure, it has been translated into ten or so African languages, but considering there are over 2,000 languages in Africa that is still an infinitesimal number. And more generally, other novels considered seminal in the African literary tradition, such as Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, Bessie Head’s A Question of Power, and Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters, fare much worse on this criteria of translation into the author’s mother tongue and wider African languages. Translating African novels into African languages is the exception, rather than the norm.

To answer the question of why there is no authoritative Igbo translation of what is known and accepted as Africa’s most famous novel, one has to go back to the 1962 “African Writers of English Expression” conference convened at Makerere University, Uganda. In 1962, Africa was in the throes of decolonization and for the group of young writers attending the conference anything was possible. Their goal was to define, or at least agree upon, the parameters of an African literary aesthetic that would also be in the service of political and cultural decolonization. In reading their post-conference write ups in the journal Transition, the excitement with which they greeted their role as the instigators and vanguards of an emerging literary tradition is palpable.

The writers in attendance, Chinua Achebe (age 32), Christopher Okigbo (age 32), Wole Soyinka (age 28), James Ngugi (age 28), Bloke Modisane (age 39), and Ezekiel Mphahlele (age 43), set in motion, within a few years, a literary tradition that would engulf subsequent generations in debates around the definition and category of African literature. They helped shape future debates about the languages of African literature, the role of writers in political change, the writer in continental Africa versus the diaspora, and the relationship of African aesthetics to European aesthetics. That only two women writers, Grace Ogot and Rebecca Njau, were present at the 1962 conference pointed to the question of gender in terms of literary production and representation. This question would later be addressed through the theoretical and literary works of writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Micere Mugo, Bessie Head, Buchi Emecheta, Mariama Ba, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and others; they demonstrated, as Carole Boyce Davies puts it, “the interconnectedness of race, class and sex oppression.”

The literary vanguard would in just a few short years run up against the repression and violence of post-independence African states. Disillusioned with the promises of decolonization, they turned their pens against their neocolonial governments and paid the price of death, detention, and exile. Chinua Achebe became a spokesperson for Biafran independence from Nigeria, doing ambassadorial work in both Africa and the West. Christopher Okigbo was shot dead fighting for Biafra’s independence in 1967, five years after the conference. The Nigerian military government of General Yakubu Gowon detained Wole Soyinka for his peace activism in 1966. In 1977, the Kenyan government of Jomo Kenyatta detained Ngugi for his political writing and theater work in Gikuyu, his mother tongue. Both Ezekiel Mphahlele and Bloke Modisane, coming from apartheid South Africa, were already living in exile at the time of the Makerere Conference, Mphahlele in France and Modisane in Britain. Achebe, Soyinka, and Ngugi each wound up in political exile, ultimately joined by writers like Micere Mugo from Kenya and Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt. The Makerere generation of African writers would suffer death, exile, and detention for not separating their literary aesthetics from the material work of politics, for not separating the author from the citizen.

Ugandan writer Rajat Neogy started Transition magazine a year before the conference. By the time it folded in 1976, it had become the most influential African literary journal. Neogy was also not spared the fate of the writers he was publishing and was detained by Milton Obote’s government in 1968. But in 1962, his journal was well on its way to becoming the single most important intellectual meeting ground for African intellectuals and writers and it provided a natural home for the Makerere Conference proceedings.

In a reminder that literature and politics in Africa have never been separate, it turned out that the CIA cultural front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CFF), had also in part financed both the Mbari Club and Black Orpheus. In fact, the CFF had also sponsored the Makerere Conference, but back then the connection to the CIA was not known. Transition almost buckled under the weight of revelations in 1967 that it was in part being funded by the CFF. But the journal survived; what mattered was the urgent task at hand—decolonization, and how to account for, define, and grow an African literary tradition.

Yet, even as the participants were heralding the new society, the conference had declared boldly in its title that this was a gathering of “African Writers of English Expression.” As Nigerian literary scholar Obi Wali asked in an essay published the same year as the Makerere Conference, “The Dead End of African Literature?,” why was it so important to signal to the attendees that African writers using African languages were not welcome? One cannot conceive of English writers today writing English national literature in French, or the Chinese writing in Japanese, or the French in German. But for African writers writing in an imperially enforced foreign language was taken as the starting point. The question for the Makerere writers was not how to write, translate, and market books written in African languages. Rather, it was how best to make English work for the African literary imagination.

It was not for the lack of example. In the early 1900s, South African writers were writing in Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, and other African languages, with translations into English: Thomas Mofolo’s Moeti oa Bochabela (published in 1907, later translated into English as Traveller to the East in 1934) and Chaka, written in 1909 but published in 1931; R.R.R. Dhlomo’s An African Tragedy (1928) and UNomalanga kaNdengezi (1934); Samuel Mqhayi’s Ityala Lamawele (The Lawsuit of the Twins) (1912); and A. C Jordan’s Ingqumbo yeminyanya (1940), translated as The Wrath of the Ancestors in 1964. Sol Plaatje’s novel, Mhudi (1930) was the first full-length novel in English by a black South African writer.

Continue reading the excerpt on Literary Hub.

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Buy The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity and Ownership.

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About Otosirieze Obi-Young

View all posts by Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, an academic, and Deputy Editor of Brittle Paper. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review ("Mulumba," 2016), Transition ("A Tenderer Blessing," 2015), and in an anthology of the Gerald Kraak Award for which he was shortlisted ("You Sing of a Longing," 2017). His work has further been shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship in 2016 and a Pushcart Prize in 2015. He attended the 2018 Miles Morland Foundation Creative Writing Workshop. He is the curator of the ART NAIJA SERIES, a sequence of themed e-anthologies of writing and visual art exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. The first, ENTER NAIJA: THE BOOK OF PLACES (October, 2016), focuses on cities in Nigeria. The second, WORK NAIJA: THE BOOK OF VOCATIONS (June, 2017), focuses on professions in Nigeria. He studied History and Literature at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is currently completing a postgraduate programme in African Studies and Pop Culture, and teaches English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. He has completed a collection of short stories, You Sing of a Longing, and is working on a novel. He is represented by David Godwin Associates literary agency. When bored, he just Googles Rihanna.

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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.

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