We Need New Names Who is the African Writer?

The story of Michael Derrick Hudson is a story with familiar themes of cultural appropriation and affirmative action. It begins with Michael submitting (under his real name) his poem, ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve’, 40 times to be greeted with repeated rejections. Michael then switched his identity to a Chinese-American woman named Yi-fen Chou. As Yi-fen, the poem was rejected nine times before Prairie Schooner accepted it. The poem later got published in The Best American Poetry 2015 anthology. In reflection, Michael said, in light-hearted praise for himself, ‘I’m nothing if not persistent’.

What Michael had done was not unprecedented. In fact, it had a long history among white male writers who thought it was towards their choice of what identity should be read and heard that literature should move. John Howard Griffin had dyed his skin black and lived as a ‘black man’. After spending a considerable period of time passing as a black man, he wrote Black Like Me, a 1961 book aimed at white Americans and portraying the unflinching hardship of the Jim Crow South. The book was critically acclaimed, with Pulitzer prize-winner, Studs Terkel, describing Howard as, ‘… just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.’

The relevance of these twin stories is the scandalization of the term ‘African Writer’. Established African authors, especially those living in the West, are often asked if they’re truly an ‘African Writer’. This is prompted by the knowledge that, because a person is African, their literary success is tied to their identity. That to be Yi-Fen Chou gives you a better chance to be published, as it does for Tochukwu. Or that your writing only qualifies as African Writing when a publisher in the West deems it the authentic African writing just as Hudson did for the struggles of black people. Both cases raise the question: Who is the African Writer? And What is African Writing?

As early as 1962, writers of African descent sat down at the Makerere University, Uganda to address this question. In attendance were some of Africa’s most prominent writers: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark, Obi Wali, Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, Bernard Fonlo, Frances Ademola, Cameron Duodu, Kofi Awoonor, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Dennis Brutus, Arthur Maimane, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (then known as James Ngugi), Robert Serumaga, Rajat Neogy, Okot p’Bitek, Pio Zirimu, Grace Ogot, Rebecca Njau, David Rubadiri, Jonathan Kariara and other writers from the African Diaspora such as Langston Hughes.

The conference failed to gain any real traction, for several reasons. First, the conference paid little or no attention to Africans writing in non-European African languages. Second, virtually only writers from Anglophone Africa were present. There was, also, no one from North Africa and Francophone Africa. Chinua Achebe believed that the conference failed to sufficiently define ‘African Literature’, though he did note that the conference proved useful for setting up other attendants and it established the terms—and the players—of how the debate over African literature would proceed for decades.

What this showed was the inability of a conference to fully deal with the questions about the identity of the African writer. Subsequently, many other writers of African descent had offered their own definition of what an African writer is.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in his own reasoning, had insisted that an African writer is that person who writes in an African language. In his words, ‘How did we, as African writers, come to be so feeble towards the claims of our languages on us and be so aggressive in our claims on languages, particularly the language of our colonisation?’

In his 1965 essay, The Novelist As A Teacher, Achebe attempted to define what the role of the writer should be. He noted that ‘The writer cannot be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done’. Drawing from this, Achebe seemed to have placed the writer in a position of authority, which meant the writer was a historian, analyst, and visionary wrapped in one. Three years later, in another essay, ‘The Duty and Involvement of the African Writer’, Achebe explained what he had previously referred to in relation to the African writer.

In that article, Achebe had written that ‘if an artist is anything, he is a human being with heightened sensitivities; he must be aware of the faintest nuances of injustice in human relations. The African writer cannot, therefore, be unaware of, or indifferent to, the monumental injustice which his people suffer’. Achebe had attempted to define the African writer by the role he played. The African writer had to be aware of his own people as a historian. He then seeks to analyse the problems and issues he finds while offering solutions as a visionary. This is the reason Achebe’s quote ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’ is a famous one.

However, when Shaun Randol sat to listen to writers of African descent in 2013 at the PEN World Voices Festival panel ‘Perspectives from African Writers,’ he was disillusioned about the definition of an African writer. Many of the writers on the panel gave opposing answers. While some thought that the question of ‘who is an African writer’ launched a probe into content, style, intention, and form, others on the panel disagreed upon the name. For example, NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) claimed she is an African writer, with a capital ‘A,’ while Mũkoma wa Ngugi (Kenya) insisted he is a writer who just happens to be from Africa. Randol had concluded that Africa was simply ‘As a place, the centrefold from which a world view is crafted’.

After a series of interviews with writers of African descent for ‘African Writers in a New World’ on Post45, Aaron Bady reached the same conclusion as Shaun Randol. In the introduction to the interview series, Bady had hinted that the term ‘African writer’ was one that many writers were not sufficiently invested in. It was clear that it was for the fear of the undertones of the term, bringing to mind the single story that saw Africa has the place of the ills of the world.

It appears that, individually, the ‘African writer’ can either be an African writer or a writer from Africa. One may conflate these terms but the two are distinct. While the former refers to a writer who affirms their Africanness as the source of their art, the latter refers to origin, a writer from Africa.

The irony of the term ‘African writer’ is laid bare when it’s considered that most of the widely-read Africans today are not based in Africa. Many have relocated to the United States and Europe. Some divide their time between multiple countries, while others are permanently based abroad. This opens up further discussions about how those who live outside of the continent have sufficient claim to the term.

In her 2019 New Statesman article, ‘Shut Up and Write’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie narrates how, after she had lost the Orange Prize for her novel, Purple Hibiscus, a woman in Nigeria came up to her at the airport and told her, ‘Congratulations. We will win next time’. She also recalled that, a few years later, when she won the same prize for her book, Half of a Yellow Sun, she received warm hugs from Nigerians telling her she had represented Nigeria well. In the article, Adichie called this sense of camaraderie, ‘we-ness’. Collective ownership of the work, which inferred that she alone didn’t own the achievement for her works, it was Nigeria’s too.

Considering the label, ‘African writer’, it appears there may be another form of ‘we-ness’. This time, however, it involves trying to collectively do away with the word ‘African’. For ‘African’ is a construct steeped in histories of racism, colonialism, poverty, poor health, low-quality education, religious fanaticism. Histories that make writers of African descent, wherever they may be located, fight the same battles. Albeit with different voices and point of views.

It stands to reason that even though [some of] these writers might live outside of the continent, their writing is essentially a reflection of their Africanness. It’s like a consensus on we-ness, an invisible ubuntu that everyone who has a link to the continent sees as important whether they live in Uganda or Germany. And when these writers carry out their tasks, we see ourselves in them, we hug them for their achievements and thank them for writing our stories.

The other side of the question on the African-ness of a piece of literature or poetry is that writers of African descent in the diaspora are typically restricted to the continent. Despite the settings of their works being non-African, or how long they might have lived abroad. Aminatta Forna, a Scottish-born novelist has questioned why her novel, The Hired Man, set in Croatia, is sometimes found in the ‘Africa’ section of bookshops.

The upshot of the construct of the question ‘Who an African Writer?’ is that the definition is constantly expanding, broad, and limitless. Being an African writer is no longer a question of origin; neither is it a question of what passport(s) you carry. When, in 2013, American-born writer, Tope Folarin, won the Caine Prize for ‘African Writing’, it suggested that Africans in the diaspora now qualified for the tag ‘African writer’. Tope, in fact, was not aware of this earlier. He had entered for the Prize after he was encouraged to do so by the novelist and poet Helon Habila. On the shortlist that year, three out of all five writers lived in the United States with at least one of them being an American citizen.

That year, critics argued that the Caine Prize should only be won by ‘real’ African writers. But who defines who or what a ‘real’ African writer is? A real African writer cannot be pigeon-holed or packed into a single definition. Because, while Noviolet Bulawayo holds strongly to the term African writer, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ discards it. Does this mean that Noviolet is more qualified for a prize for ‘African writers’ than Mũkoma? Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo, considers himself as simply a writer, and not an African one.

It appears that those who relinquish the term, ‘African writer’, do so on the basis of decolonization. They feel the term is the reckoning of colonialism. To wit, if Americans don’t waste their literary discussions and conferences discussing who an American writer is or isn’t, why should a writer from Africa waste time on such conversations? A writer is a writer and that’s the end of it.

Africa is a continent of 1.2 billion people with different cultures, languages, and traditions. The continent covers six per cent of Earth’s surface area and 20 per cent of the total land area. There are 54 countries, with Sudan possessing the largest country size and Nigeria the highest population. 25 per cent of all languages spoken in the world are African languages. So how do you categorize all African writers as monolithic? Fluidity rather than rigidity is advised. A similar argument to which is evinced in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s exhortation that, ‘The person who’s the citizen, is not quite the same person who’s the artist.’ Art, in other words, does not own a passport.

What, then, is African Writing?

At the PEN World Voices Conference in 2013, Nigerian novelist, Igoni Barrett, asked: does the audience influence the writer? And while Barrett met responses relating to defining who or what an African writer is, the significance of the question he posed has, arguably, never been more apparent than it is now.

When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was searching for a publisher for Purple Hibiscus, her first novel, an agent said to her, ‘If only you were Indian!’ Consider that this was in the early years of the 21st century, at a time when Indian writers were considered trendy. Another agent suggested she change her setting from Nigeria to America. Explaining to the New York Times in 2014, Adichie believes this to be an example of the timidity of the Western publishing world, and its reluctance to take on cultures and people that were unknown to the West.

The audience Barrett was referring to at the 2013 PEN conference largely consists of non-Africans—white Westerners, in particular. When Ugandan novelist, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, wrote Kintu, publishers turned down the manuscript because it was too African for white, British readers. And yet, Makumbi had won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2014. Kintu was eventually published in 2017 by Transit Books; and, in the introduction, Aaron Bady explained the expectations of the publishers that had previously turned it down:

If you must write about Africa, then you write about dictators, ethnography, and war; these are the sorts of stories that confirm what people already ‘know’ about Africa. And if you must write about Uganda, then you place a white character in the middle of the action. You write about Africans who have left Africa and migrated to the United States or Europe. You write about the legacies of colonialism. If you can’t make Europe the hero of the story—and these days, you can’t—then you can at least make Europe the villain.

What Bady implies is that for an audience that tends to be largely white, African writing is simply a study in ethnography and anthropology. If the anthropology doesn’t fit, then it’s not African writing. I mean, how would you expect an Edinburgh native to know how to pronounce Kintu’s name with a soft ch sound, instead of a hard k?

Another problem is the problem of an outsider.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is always subject to dissection in most places where the African writer or writing is discussed. The novella is narrated from the point of view of Charles Marlow and his voyage from the Congo River to the Congo Free State. While the book has been praised by some, it has come to be regarded as the poster child for colonialism buried in elevated metaphors. While the top Goodreads review of the book considers it as ‘a good tenth level of hell,’ Achebe accused the Polish-British writer of racism. In an essay ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’ (1975), Achebe said that Conrad calls Africa the ‘other world’ as an antithesis to Europe. Achebe concluded that ‘Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts. Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting …’

Even though this novella propagated the racism that Europe was already known for, it is regarded as a classic in the modern Western canon.

In 2013, Bill Cheng, a Chinese-American writer, published Southern Cross The Dog, a critically acclaimed novel set in Mississippi, the United States. However, a question kept rearing its head: Can a Chinese-American writer from Queens, who had never visited Mississippi, write a novel about the American South? This was a question that repressed the aesthetic values of the novel and framed its author as an outsider. Dwight Garner, a writer and editor for The New York Times weighed in on the question, writing, ‘Mr. Cheng is a 29-year-old Chinese-American from Queens. Until this month he’d never set foot in Mississippi. This is not the audacity of hope. This is the hope of audacity.’  For some critics, it was clear that the issue wasn’t about a  Chinese-American man writing a novel about the American South, but a Chinese person writing a novel about the American South with no ‘Chineseness’. The similarities between the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the forced migration of Asian immigrants during the California Gold Rush were left untouched. Cheng was an outsider.

There are some similarities underlying the discrimination that brown and black people face. And one such way is on the subject of the ‘accepted outsider’. Where a white writer can be an accepted outsider in the literary pursuit (Adam Johnson, for instance, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction—he wrote his novel about North Korea, but he grew up in Arizona), a black or brown outsider must be cautioned. In particular, the non-white writer must follow certain guidelines in writing about white subjects to get published by white mainstream publishers.

Literary gatekeepers go a long way in determining what kind of writing is worthwhile.

These factors: the outsider effect and what the West wants are now the clear determinants of what may be considered to be ‘African writing’. In a 2014 article for the UK’s Guardian, Nigerian author, Ben Okri, lamented that African writers are not writing great works because they were allowing the West to define what they should write. He argued that literature that comes from Africa overwhelmingly reads like a testament for pity. African writers have constantly been read for issues like colonialism, racism, poverty, civil wars, maltreatment of women and polygamy. These themes have come to define what ‘African writing’ is.

However, it is reductionist to say that most or all African writing is produced primarily for white, Western audiences. While Ben Okri might lament about writing along these themes, he is also culpable in his own way. While it may be true that these novels are about a sad Africa deserving of pity, they also reflect certain realities. We cannot withhold our stories for the fear of being criticized for writing our truth.

In 2013, Zimbabwean novelist, Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In We Need New Names, Bulawayo created a searing and heartbreaking portrait of a Zimbabwean girl, Darling. The book was on many bestseller lists and was well received. Helon Habila, upon reviewing the book, called it, in summary, ‘performing Africa’. It was true that the book had all the hallmarks of typical ‘African writing’ including street children, HIV, poverty and political unrest. These critiques sidestep the important question of whether (or not) the themes Bulawayo had highlighted depicted uncomfortable truths about life in Zimbabwe. Just years later, Zimbabwe deposed Robert Mugabe.

The point Habila and Okri were trying to make was clear: write on more flowery subjects. Be that as it may, Habila and Okri perpetuate the need to construct roles for a person writing about Africa. Writers of African descent should not be given roles and functions. To do that is to limit the writer. Writers should have the freedom to tackle subjects as diverse and separate as love and the Biafran War.

At the same time, we do authors a disservice in trying to define what makes writing particularly African. Especially when what follows is imposing that ‘African’ writing must portray the African experience. Not only does the imposition raise the question, ‘what is the African experience?’, one could also argue that much of the African experience is both local and universal. Colonialism is universal and can be written as such. After all, virtually all the continents of the world have experienced colonialism in one form or the other. Poverty, too, is no more African than it is European or American. Homelessness exists in the United States just as it does in Nigeria. To argue otherwise is to insist that there are purities in literature.

In ‘What Africa Does the African Writer Write About?’, Mozambican author, Mia Couto, notes that Africans have inherited the obsession of classifying things as ‘African’ or ‘European’, which began in Europe. According to Couto:

Instead of valuing the diversity of such production and seeing the book as a cultural product, literary appreciation is often substituted by a more or less ethnographic set of values. The question posed is the extent to which the author is ‘authentically African.’ No one knows exactly what it is to be ‘authentically African.’ But the book and its author still need to undergo this test of identity. Or a certain idea of identity.

Indeed, this test of identity exists; and the need to ask if someone is an African writer or if their writing is ‘African’ is an expression of this test. When an African asks the question, it carries a sense of protection of literature deeply rooted in origin. But when non-Africans ask the question, it appears to propagate the need to constantly define yourself to a Western literary audience.

What’s important, ultimately, is to move past the identity politics, and to focus on the aesthetics, form, style, metaphors, themes—storytelling concepts that will better help the writer—than to focus on the ownership of the story. The story is more than the writer.

In Tradition and the African Writer’, an article on the Caine Prize of the same year, Helon Habila argued that what matters most is that there’s a tradition growing from what has been written and what is currently being written. It doesn’t matter from whom or about what. Habila makes a metaphor of a building built over generations with each generation adding its own part. It is that building, which keeps enlarging, that makes up the tradition.

In We Need New Names, Noviolet Bulawayo opens with the following passage,

We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going.

Their names, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, Stina, are immediately suspicious. Strange. And soon the reader will learn that the narrator herself is called Darling. The passage shows that, despite the strangeness of their names, these characters are heading somewhere forbidden. But, regardless, they keep going. This is what tradition does to writing: it opens ways to places that haven’t been touched before. To take from Bulawayo’s passage only questions about why a character is named Bastard or Godknows, would be a disservice to where this story might be headed. Much like focusing on just how African the author of the story is.

Is the writer of African descent writing? Yes, of course. Let them be

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