University of Leeds professor Brendon Nicholls made a list of the “Five African Novels to Read Before You Die” yesterday, and it’s a fine list, if your best-case scenario is that literate first-world types manage to read a handful of creative works from Africa in their lifetime. And let’s be real, most Westerners are not even going to do that. So his list is fine, albeit extremely predictable: Achebe and Ngugi, of course, and let’s add Ayi Kwei Armah’s most canonical novel—because we need more than one West African male novelist from the 60’s—and, hmm, oh, shoot, we need some women, so, okay, Tsitsi Dangerembga, obviously, and Bessie Head, I guess. But not the really hard Bessie Head novel, let’s try the one that won’t confuse people. DONE.
I’m giving Nicholls some good-natured sass, here (sorry dude), because, as someone who studies, reads, and teaches contemporary African literature, I’m just very bored with this list, which is a fine list, but it’s a bit, I do’t know, “Five White Writers You Should Read Before You Die: Shakespeare, Milton, Dostoyevsky, Austen, Woolf.” Does the world need another suggestion that you read Things Fall Apart? It’s a great novel, but everybody knows that, or if they don’t, there’s no hope for them anyway. Therefore:
- Henceforth, by the authority vested in me by me, I BAN ALL LISTS OF “HERE’S SOME AFRICAN LITERATURE BOOKS TO READ” FROM SUGGESTING THAT YOU READ CHINUA ACHEBE’S THINGS FALL APART.
- Henceforth, it is implied.
- Violators will be tweeted at, grumpily.
- YOU ARE WARNED.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I want to scratch another itch that this list brought to life: why don’t people who work on contemporary African literature actually seem to read or work on contemporary African literature? The ones Nicholls listed are important novels, and you should read them, if you’re into that whole “being a better person by reading things” thing (though you should read Arrow of God instead of Things Fall Apart, and if you want “post-independence existentialist malaise, ” maybe read Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence, and for Christ’s sake, read A Question of Power, not Maru. Oh, and read Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning instead of Nervous Conditions). But four of these authors were born in the 1930’s, and although Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in the 1950’s, Nervous Conditions was published 28 years ago. This is canonical, important stuff. But it’s old.
It’s only relatively recently that “Contemporary African Literature” has come to mean a different set of writers than “African Literature.” This is because, before Chinua Achebe and the rest of the born-in-the-1930’s writers, “literature” was not one of the forms of creative expression that most of the continent practiced, for all sorts of historically obvious and intuitive reasons ot worth going into right now. In the 50’s and 60’s, this changed: a generation of writers, educated in missionary or colonial schools, began writing books that could be called “literature, ” and thus, “African literature” was born. A few years later, literary critics realized that there was such a thing as African women writers, and so they re-discovered people like Bessie Head and also new writers like Tsitsi Dengerembga. This, basically, was African literature in the 1990’s: a core of West African male Anglophone novelists, plus Ngugi, plus some women, preferably from southern Africa, because we almost forgot about southern Africa. (and um, not Nadine Gordimer, though, because, you know).