African literature is experiencing a paradigm shift from the old ideals to new ones. It is in a stage of rediscovery as it sheds off old notions of humanity and adorns fresh garments of new shades of colours.
It was at a round table discussion—a tête-à-tête, I could describe it—with Temi Etomi, the MD of RedWire Media Consulting and another lady who I assumed was her PA. I had been invited for an interview with them. In a twist during the questioning, Temi, her face screwed up in the manner of many job interviewers around here, asked me: what fascinates you most in the world today?
At that moment, I didn’t think this question to be so important, but I’d learn its importance soon enough. My answer, admittedly, was one that stemmed from the place of a cornered animal, but an answer, too, that had lain fallow but well-tended somewhere in a part of my mind. I replied: African literature and the growth of the African writer. I explained that the growth of the twenty-first-century African writer has been outstanding. As a reader, I felt as though, increasingly, I plunged into a refreshing vista of African writing, in particular, prose fiction—which, though many may dispute, I believe is the most common and read literary genre in Africa today, asides poetry, of course. African literature has grown, is growing.
Africa is the birthplace of timeless stories. From the hieroglyphic writings in Egyptian monuments to the stories passed down from word of mouth by sages long gone, Africa has always told stories. We certainly can’t ignore the masquerade dances, rituals and festivals where beautiful stories were also told in performances and songs. The Eyo, Ojude-Oba, Iwa Ji festivals in Nigeria; Kundum, Ohum, Danyiba festivals in Ghana and numerous others are only few examples.
THE UNIFORMITY OF AFRICAN LITERATURE
Africa, one could also argue, is the birthplace of music, art and literature. And while many stories have passed down successfully into the canons of world literature, many others were stifled by the various politics of colonialism, which had at its core, the mission to bedevil the literatures of Africa, our mysticism, our culture, traditions, values and our language. We are immediately drawn to the fact that Chinua Achebe’s 1958-published Things Fall Apart then served not only as a counter-narrative to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but more importantly also as our collective battering ram against colonial injustice. Our stories have gotten better, more forceful and bolder since then.
James Baldwin could not have been more right in his assertion in Notes of a Native Son that there is no dearth of books that tackle the Negro problem. ‘The problem,’ he said, ‘is that they are written about so badly.’ But we still tell our stories, however different. Only the black author is truly qualified to write the black story. Anything else from this would most likely result in an unpremeditated lie, an inadvertent and usually costly misplacement of the truth. East African, North, South or West African, the African story remains similar, each at least sharing a history of colonial subjugation and repression. We share experiences sealed as it were in one ever-moving cultural vortex. The true beauty of reading African writings, however, does not merely lie in an understanding of the realities of one culture, but in grasping the truths inherent in other cultures of other places. The intersection of these separate realities is what creates the pure, organic, wholesome feel experienced only from a balanced literary diet.
AFRICAN LITERATURE IN A STATE OF REDISCOVERY
African literature is experiencing a paradigm shift from the old ideals to new ones. And so our stories are changing, too. African literature, thus, is in a stage of discovery, or might I say, re-discovery. We are shedding off the old, monochromatic notions of our humanity. From the diachronic exposure of Africans to other cultures outside here, African writing is now adorned in fresh garments of new shades of colours. Literature is never static, and so it moves along the tides of time. And while many have argued that the African story has lost its purity and is now being diluted by the cultures and ideas of strangers, this revolution is a necessary, inevitable one, however unpleasant it seems. In this movement, it is however important that—like Achebe offers in his defense of African English—we speak the stranger’s language using our own tongue.
The African writer must, however, be weary of overexposure and watch against the over reliance on the West as a backdrop for telling the African story. This has become an easier trap to fall into since there now seems to be a bias towards telling African stories in exclusive or partial cultural backdrop to that of the West. Also, because many of the biggest African literary prizes today are sponsored by the West, there is a need, however unsaid, for African writers to tell the ‘white story’ or the idealistically white ‘black story’. While we go so far, then, there will always be the need to remember the soil in which we were planted and from which we grew. But move we must!
‘Travelers’, Habila’s chosen title for his latest novel, predicts the nomadic temperament of the book, its predilection on mirroring the lives of people stuck in the middle, thorny line between being and not being. We find a ready anchor in Homi Bhabha’s concept of unhomeliness which explains the psychology behind the reason people feel ‘unhomed’, displaced even in their own homes. And we see that the characters in Helon Habila’s work are, even when homed, plagued with the desire or forced to be homeless. To be or not to be, they choose neither. As such, the criticism by a 2019 Kirkus-published review that Travelers ‘suffered from flat characters and prose’ doesn’t hold much weight, going by what the work was able to achieve in its exhuming of the minds of the prominent characters to the pages of the book for us to feel.
Among the fundamental strengths of Habila’s Travelers is the voice it lent to contemporary fiction and the temper of African literature in the twenty-first century which is something close to radical, assertive, even wide-mouthed. We detect that new African literature is far from taciturn, contrasting sharply with the works we grew up reading as part of the famous African canons; works that were, however important and significant, only victims to the whip of time.
But on second thought, we could decide to blame the temper of such canons on most of the authors of old who were exposed to the culture and norm of the West. On their ideology and consequently decision (might we call it that?) to stick to the old ways and shut the eyes of the unexposed to the truth. The status of African literature is changing, and new authors who are willing to enlighten us are emerging. But alas we cannot leave that responsibility to the literary artist anymore, can we? Everyone seems to have now dipped their hands in the cake of enlightenment, and so we’d be damned to think it is only the literary artist that is saddled with that noble responsibility of bringing us to our Renaissance.
We could forgive Habila’s seemingly light handling of some characters in Travelers on the grounds that he uses them to open our eyes to the Africans of the now. Travelers is almost autobiographical, and we are even forced—I was, initially—to believe that Habila hides behind his unnamed protagonist. From this man’s eyes and legs, we see fresh characters, bold, resistant and free-spirited. With his legs, we traverse lands, spaces and places. With Travelers, we walk in new shoes.
Habila sets the tripod of religion, race, and sexuality with its varying biological, physiognomical or psychological derivatives. With Travelers, we understand what it means to be African and more so what it means to be African in the diaspora where there are biting racial and cultural misrepresentations, justifiable and unjustifiable angst against the foreigner. I use ‘justifiable’ because in some sense, I understand the place of the struggling German who feels the little that accrues to him in his own land has to be shared with a stranger who in the first place he dislikes. And so, they—civilian, citizens and military alike—wish and take concrete steps to send the strangers away from even the slums they manage to live in.
It is in these housing facilities that our unnamed protagonist goes in search of the transgender Malawian film student, Mark Chinomba, who meets a tragic end. There’s also Manu, a former medical doctor from Libya, who is in search of his long-estranged wife and earns money by bouncing intruders from clubs in Berlin. Portia, too, a young Zambian girl, goes in search of truth: her brother’s ghost and killer. We would hate to forget Juma, the Nigerian migrant who by sheer will garnered forces in protesting his deportation to Nigeria and starved himself to bones. Neither should we forget Karim, who was chased by the powers that be from his land in Somalia to the streets of strange places around the globe. Through such characters, Habila concocts masterfully a hot-pot-meal of stories, people and experiences.
Another novel that equally moved my interest—and I must admit I read it very close to the time I read Habila’s Travelers—was Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street. The novel told the story of four sex workers finding their way to eke out a life in Belgium. For one, On Black Sisters’ Street reflected the reality of the times we are in as Africans. It said, rather too boldly, that Africans and African writers must dump outdated ideals regarding sex, race and politics, and take up new ones that are timelier and more reflective of our current situation as Africans.
In many ways and for more reasons than we can imagine, more young people are finding their way out of their countries in Africa to seek the golden fleece in Europe and America where, unbeknownst to them, little or nothing of such exists. But we still move. Our hopes and love notwithstanding, we must drop all naïvety and face reality. Its greatness notwithstanding, Africa is a tough, underdeveloped place, lacking the will—although not wherewithal—to accommodate and provide for its people.
And so usually young people leave the continent to find such provisions in other places that present better opportunities, even if on face value. There, they face different realities and become strangers to unwilling hosts. Thus, the need arises to embrace our identities in far-flung lands away from home. And so, we follow Taiye Selasie’s tilt towards Afropolitanism, an ideal that declares the African as citizen of the world. We are also called to Chidiebube onye Okohia’s Pushcart-nominated short story, No City for Young Bloods in which the protagonist, a serving Corps member in Ibadan, Nigeria, is torn between where he is and where he comes from—Lagos. We no longer have the need to feel estranged from the world but feel open to evolving with new cultures and blending in while recognizing where we come from as Africans.
AFRICAN LITERATURE AND THE GLOBAL LITERARY NARRATIVE
In his very recent essay titled, ‘The Future is African Literature,’ published in Brittle Paper, Ben Okri theorizes as follows:
African literature is taking over the world. It has sprouted from Africa, but it has grown in all the corners of the globe. It is a literature of sensibility, of exile, of migration, of travel, of home-leaving, home-staying, homecoming.
It is no news that the literature of Africa is long taking over global literary narrative. And while we can conjecture the natural pitfalls of this seeming globalization of African literature, which would include our desire to cast off our local garments, we must be ready to hold fast to what is true and tell it without fear. Indeed, African writers must be ready to tell Africa’s stories as well as those of the diaspora, to tell their truths and reality; to wear new garments, for they have no reason to be shy⎈
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