When we come to the round table of literary discourse and are asked questions about our identity as writers of African extraction, what do we say in response to the query that questions our identify as African writers?
Who is an African writer?
Many contemporary writers from Africa, particularly those in the Diaspora have debated over this.
So that we do not peel off the cicatrix and bring back injuries from edgy debates of the past on this subject matter, you would expect that I tread with caution. You would expect that I do not dig deep or say more than should be said.
As a writer whose focus consists primarily in telling stories of the human condition, I will be writing not only through the prism from which I observe as an insider, but also from that of fellow writers of African extraction.
Writers from Africa presently in the Diaspora form the chief part of this discourse.
Going back to the cicatrix metaphor, to say that this topic isn’t ideal for contemporary discourse, or that it has become stale, would mean missing the mark.
Questions of identity are always with us. The problem has always been that we sometimes fail or refuse to acknowledge them, especially when new discourses take centre stage. They are always here but they keep changing from one form to another.
Aaron Bady, in African Writers in a new World: An Introduction, offered insight. He sought for an answer to the question posed above by conducting a series of interviews with African writers on Post45, “a collective of scholars working on American literature and culture,” (as written on the Post45 website, http://www.post45.com).
According to Bady, some of the writers interviewed on Post45 dislike the categorisation, “African writer…some were indifferent to it, and some accept it without particular enthusiasm.” In his article, he made reference to Binyavanaga Wainanina’s satirical piece, How to Write About Africa, which brings a sense of urgency to the misplaced understanding of the African continent common amongst westerners. The article also refers to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedX talk, Danger of a Single Story, where Adichie pointed out the danger of telling a particular set of stories until it becomes a stereotype. In her popular talk, she says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”
A good example of this stereotypical craving in our stories is the set of stories in the early 2000’s in Africa that portrayed Africa as a poor continent, the practice of which unfortunately hasn’t phased off completely in the present. In fact, the term “poverty porn” was formulated to categorise such kind of stories that tend to disregard other aspects of the African continent. Binyavanga’s satirical piece, in its rib-cracking flow, illustrates this very well:“Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘realAfrica’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West.”
Many African writers have lambasted this overindulgence mentality, this unnecessary dwelling on poverty-related issues in our literatures even to the point of smearing the totality of a work with it in such ways that you find it hard to know whether the perpetrators of this are approbating, excoriating, or analysing.
It is important we put things in proper context. So, I go back to the business of questioning. Who is an African writer? Is there an “African writer”? Is he or she the one who lives in Africa and writes about Africa?
Is he or she the one who lives either in Africa or the Diaspora and writes mainly about Africa and African-related themes in total exclusion of other such themes in places other than Africa? Indeed, there are numerous questions. And while the questions look simple, this assumption may be quite misleading. Let me make recourse again to Bady’s article.
Bady referred to the 1962 Conference of African Writers of English Expression which had in attendance the likes of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Grace Ogot, Christopher Okigbo, Lewis Nkosi, Kofi Awoonor and several other reputable writers of the time.
The Conference examined the questions: “What constitutes African literature? Is it literature written by Africans, literature that depicts the African experience? Does African literature have to be written in African languages?”
This Conference was held in the 1960’s. Considering the varied phases of events in present times, we realise that the issue still lingers – the issue about who the African writer is. Should the Black writer born in Texas whose Nigerian parents migrated to the US and who has never been to Nigeria not see himself as an African writer?
I think it is one thing owning up to being an African writer; it is another choosing the dynamics of your thematic engagements over time.
Theme plays a very important role and can be an influencing factor in arriving at the issue of perceived identity. Predicated on theme is the environment where the writer finds himself.
British-Nigerian writer, Ben Okri, presently residing in the UK, explores themes relevant to Nigeria and his British environment where he has lived for more than three decades. In his 1991 Booker-Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road, he utilizes a plot that is influenced undoubtedly by African stories on spirits. Over the course of his writing career, Okri has written works informed either by his Nigerian heritage, or his British nationality.
I will proceed with few more examples, but not of a detailed nature, since this is a brief essay that seeks only to scratch the surface concerning who the African writer is. The example of Adichie, whose works have explored Nigerian and American settings as well as other places, is a well known one— a testament to the mutable nature of cosmopolitanism in a rapidly changing world.
American-based Nigerian novelist, Chigozie Obioma, explores a Nigerian and a Cyprian setting in his second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities. Beyond just exploration, these settings also serve as stimulus for writing that dives deep for true, cultural penetration of the setting referents.
The ambiguity surrounding the definition of who an African writer is still lingers. And while it does, the world keeps evolving, the language of culture and commerce amongst nations is bridging, and common grounds and divisions are taking place simultaneously.
The areas of focus on discussions of identity keep shifting from generation to generation.
Looking back at early-twentieth-century West Africa, we observe the efforts of Senghor, Cesaire, and a few other intellectuals of the time who created and popularised the Negritude movement in Africa and the Diaspora. While it was an intellectual movement that sought to popularise African values, features, and similar considerations, at their core these juxtapositions aimed at the concept of identity.
During this period, especially after the Second World War, there was a big wave of nationalism blowing across the African continent. Although, African nationalism, being more a political ideology, sought to liberate African nations from imperialist subjugation, it also served as a conduit for defining identity, whether at national or continental levels.
From the early twentieth century, when nationalist fervour began to gather momentum, to the middle of said century, when the wind of independence swept through much of Africa, writers pushed the identity debate constantly.
If we look kaleidoscopically at the concept of identity, perhaps we may be forced to consider overarching political interpretations of it. In this wise, history offers the millennials of today, me included, surprises and counter-surprises knowing that some of our Nigerian intellectuals in the 70’s and 80’s canvassed vehemently for a socialist state. Beyond that, they wore the socialist toga as part of their identity and revealed it consistently in much of their works during that period. Samuel Ikoku and Tunji Braithwaithe are two prominent intellectuals who come to mind in this regard.
The affinity shared between our findings from history on the one hand, and what Nigerian writers think about identity in contemporary times shows the protean nature of identity. There is also another set of writers who are not comfortable with the African writer descriptor because on the face of it, it appears limiting—as it connotes that they are restricted to writing about certain themes only. We keep seeing changes in the views of writers from both divides.
Many popular Nigerian authors writing today have at one time or the other been to Western nations like the USA or the UK, or were born and bred there, or born in their respective African nation but later relocated to these Western nations. The effect is that Western ideals rub off on them over time. Because some writers passed through the educational systems or publishing industries of these nations, it becomes difficult for them to separate themselves completely from such influences.
These writers embed in their work plot narratives or themes that include both their adopted Western nation and the African nation of their cultural heritage. This juxtaposition of plot or setting, involving both the Western and African nations, explains why the immigrant narrative has become a well pursued theme. This is a personal preference which I think every writer has the liberty of acting upon. I do not think it is an indulgence. It is a response to an ongoing synthesis of different worlds in the writer’s mind, or a response to the association or dissociation of various aspects of different worlds within the writer’s experience.
We see a quintessence in Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, whose work consistently portray themes of displacement, exile and colonialism in settings that are predominantly along the coasts of East Africa.
For the sake of clarity, I have not in any way tilted my opinion to any side of the divide– whether it is wrong for these writers to refuse to be tagged as “African writers” or for them to readily accept it. I should add another category, the set that are “indifferent.”
Some of these writers who refuse to accept the tag “African writer” may do so because they see it as a limiting description, something that boxes them into a fixed spot with little or no alternatives. To push this argument further, I assume that they look at the whole issue from this angle: If I am called an African writer, it probably means most of my readers will think I write only about Africa and nothing else. The radical effect of such thinking portends that these writers have nothing to say about literature from other parts of the world.
It is imperative for the 21st century writer to write about events happening in the world today, not just politics, but socio-economic matters as well, not just culture, but religious matters, too. To expect the Nigerian writer to write solely about African-related themes would be a sheer display of myopic tendencies in a global setting where boundaries are perpetually making way for commonalities and hybrid thinking.
For example, if there were another September 11 (not that we wish for another),Nigerian writers irrespective of their “Africanness,” should not dodge such issues. They must air their views. I believe what comes first is who we are as humans. Humanity is the basic unifying factor amongst us all. Another example to pursue the ongoing argument is the current COVID-19 pandemic in which virtually all nations of the world have been affected, African nations not excluded.
While we know that the global economy is spreading technology across continents at an astronomical rate, we know too that this sort of diffusion is also happening in politics, culture, and other vital indices within nations. The news in California announcing the release of a new Apple iphone arrives in all parts of the world at the same time.
We have witnessed the undeniable power of social media activism. The sheer power for social engagement through a simple hashtag underscores the capacity of social media in aggregating mass views. In 2014 when over 276 girls were abducted in Chibok, the #bringbackourgirls hashtag surfaced on Twitter. Although it was started in Nigeria, more Americans shared it online than did Nigerians.
Universities in the West are now including the study of literature written by African writers, whether resident on the Mother Continent or in the Diaspora. In addition to educational institutions, there are literary institutions that allow for collaboration amongst writers from different parts of the world. This allows for a gradual whittling down of polarities across national lines and racial focal points.
Linguistics, just like culture, has no rigid rules for the interpretation of the meaning of certain words or phrases. A word or phrase might have shades of meaning in several world languages. The same can be said of the phrase, “African writer.” That a writer is called an African writer doesn’t mean he or she writes only about the African Continent or issues pertinent to it; neither does it mean he or she is thoroughly or partially precluded from cosmopolitan literary discourse. One of the interpretations that can be drawn in an attempt to “deconstruct” that phrase could be this— that the writer was born in Africa or the writer has parents who were born in Africa or are Africans, or that the writer was not born in Africa but contributes significantly to African discourse through his writings. Another possibility is that the writer at some time in his or her life lived in an African nation and wrote about Africa. The possibilities listed here do not cover the field sufficiently.
This brief piece is meant to stoke the base of this often-ignored topic. What I will not agree with is the argument that there is no such thing as an African writer or African writing based simply on the pretext that Europeans do not use the term European writer. Neither do I think it is right to argue we have no need for the descriptive tag because we live in a globalised world where the dynamics of a person’s place of origin is gradually paling.
Living in a global world does not do away with our past or our histories. Western nations, home to some of our most popular and influential African writers, all place a premium on their cultural legacies, whether in art or literature. We, too, have a past from which we have walked into the present. To deny our identity will be too grave an act despite the fading of boundaries and the flourishing of hybridized thinking.
It is left to the writers who are the subject of this piece to speak for themselves at the round table and state whether they are comfortable being called an African writer or not.
Onis Sampson is an award-winning Nigerian writer, lawyer, and singer currently recovering from a singing hiatus. He was recently longlisted for the 2021 African Human Rights Playwriting Prize. He was a finalist in the 2019 Inspire Us Short Story Contest for his short story, An Unassuming Woman. His poems, short fiction, and nonfiction have been published in Ake Review, Lunaris Review, Vinyl Poetry, Erbacce, Praxis Mag, World Reader, Tuck Magazine, Authorpedia, African Eyeball Anthology, African Writer, Kalahari Review, and elsewhere. You can find him on twitter with the handle https://twitter.com/OnisSampson