The two faces of African literature

The positive. The negative. The upbeat. The downbeat. The optimistic. The pessimistic. The African view. The Western view. The good. The bad. The “half full”. The “half empty”.

The two faces of African literature?

62 thoughts on “The two faces of African literature

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  4. Andrea Bohnstedt says:

    Chinua Achebe certainly knows way more about African literature than I do. But even I suspect that you can’t boil an entire continent’s literary voice down into ‘two faces’ – none of which is actually written by an African.

  5. kiwanja says:

    @Andrea – Do you have to be African to write about Africa (however you define African)? Maybe more to the point, if you are African would you likely write about it any differently than, say, an Indian? Quite a few of the books I’ve read tend to fall on one side or the other – Africa as a disaster or Africa as a place of beauty and opportunity. The two books I found in that photo seemed to highlight this contrast quite sharply

  6. Andrea Bohnstedt says:

    No, I don’t think you have to – I love Michela Wrong’s books, for example, and she captured Kenya very well, in great nuance.

    But I find such a sweeping statement as ‘two faces of African literature’ problematic for starters since African literature is vast, and there are a great many voices on the continent. And no, I don’t think that most books fall on either side – Aminatta Forna, Sefi Atta, Petina Gappah, Jane Bussmann, Michela Wrong, Anthony Sampson, Chinua Achebe and a great many others tell a distinctly nuanced story. I find it important to move on from the grand ‘Africa this’ and ‘Africa that’ simplictiy. It’s a continent. It’s 50+ countries.

    But if you’re looking for symbolic value (‘two faces’), then again, it’d be good to include an African writer (however you define that. Dambisa Moyo perhaps?).

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  10. kiwanja says:

    @Andrea – The post/statement was meant to be provocative, more than anything. I totally agree with everything you say – thanks for taking the time to respond. Many of my Nigerian friends, or Zambian friends, tend to speak about “Africa” in the same sweeping terms, so my use of it is in the same context. 100% problematic, yes – but that’s all part of the problem, as you say. “The Trouble with Africa”, as a book title, makes no distinction either.

  11. Marc Maxson says:

    I think Chinua Achebe’s -THINGS FALL APART- is a better read than either of those two. And at the same time, captures both viewpoints. and yes- it’s got a full Nigerian perspective. I’m going to re-read it this month.

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  13. Wayan says:

    I found Africa Rising to be a very poorly written book. While V. S. Naipaul captured Africa better that both of these books. They key is to be a good writer – not your parents linage or birth location.

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  15. michela wrong says:

    i get really, really bored of this obsession with africa’s “image”. do we ever talk about “euro-pessimism”? or “euro-optimism”? (ditto latin america, the US, Soviet Union, Asia) no one in europe makes those sweeping generalisation or cares to examine whether generally images of europe are “positive” or “negative”. isn’t a continent more than the eye of the beholder? doesn’t reality matter more than image? it baffles me.

  16. Adam Cullingham says:

    You need to read ‘when things fall apart’ not sure who by. Have also read Dark Heart by Joseph Conran, I think… But anyway the first is very good.

  17. Silvia Elaluf-Calderwood says:

    For me Joseph Conrad is amazing. A Polish native, that lived in France and published first in French, considered a master of the English novel with a theme of Africa 🙂

  18. kiwanja says:

    @Michela – For some, perhaps it’s in their interests to paint “Africa” in these terms. You’re right that you rarely see books called “The Trouble with Europe”. I’m not sure what the obsession is, either. Just thought it was worth highlighting

    @Adam – Read that book! Chinua Achebe. Also have it on Video Disc (bought in Nigeria), but it’s on about 8 discs and I haven’t found something to play it on yet. 🙂

    @Silvia – Have read some of his stuff. Very good, as you say…

    @Andrea – Well, the first paragraph of a book on the ‘history’ of Africa I read recently asked that very question. The first chapter was titled “The Idea of Africa”, and centred on it being a construct. Interesting discussion.

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  21. Paul C says:

    “do we ever talk about “euro-pessimism”? or “euro-optimism”?… no one in europe makes those sweeping generalisation or cares to examine whether generally images of europe are “positive” or “negative”.”

    Actually, yes they do. There’s a huge amount of discourse – both academic and in the media – about what europe means as a concept, and I regularly have discussions with people in the Balkans about what it means. There are frequent generalisations about “Europe” everywhere else, and people in Europe (although mainly those with a vested interest in the EU) are definitely concerned with how Europe is seen.

    Bottom line is: a lot of Africans do self-identify “Africa” as a concept, and so it’s entirely valid to discuss Africa, whether you’re African or not. The real problem is that – unlike in Europe – popular discourse rarely gets beyond this wider concept to discuss the particulars.

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  25. Yvonne says:

    I think Africans bring a different perspective. It is helpful when we tell our own story. Especially since our story has been tainted by others.

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  30. Ethnicsupplies says:

    I think part of the issue here is one of presentation. If you were born and raised in Africa your personal experiences of the continent will be presented differetly to those of someone that has merely studied African affairs. The question then becomes which Africa the writer would like to present. Personally I am fed up of literature that only tells of disease, war and famine, yes all these exist but they do not necessarily define Africa

  31. fimbo says:

    There is a common thread to the black (african) existence. You see bits and pieces of it in hip hop, rap (east coast west coast) or dancehall reggea (gully vs Gaza).
    I am talking about the miltant dissaffection and protest about the state of affairs that the youth have to contend with day in day out.

    Only an african (or more succinctly a person living that existance) can capture it and yes it is a very different animal from the AID/Donor/Development/anti-corruption agenda.

    I just published this book

    I think it is “african”

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  33. sokari says:

    @Andrea – I have to agree with Andrea’s comment on this grand narrative called “Africa”. I think when Nigerians or Kenyans speak of Africa what they are speaking of is “their’ Africa rather than a continent of such massive diversity. This kind of narrative perpetuates ignorance and why we are seen as a country speaking a language called “African”. I met someone on the train in DC last January who worked in the World Bank on languages. He claimed Africa only had three languages – guess which ones – and the rest were dialects – again no prize for guessing.

    Let me write about my “country” that little part of what has come to be known as the Niger Delta, made up of three towns and a few scattered villages along the creeks!

    Well you said it Ken 🙂

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  35. Joel says:

    Leaving the discussion of “Africa” and (self-) representation aside, just want to add the observation that the book on the left is about the economic potential with African consumers, while the negative one is about foreign aid. They are not contradictory, but could even be telling the same story from different angles. I’m saying this just from looking at the picture, have no idea about the content.

  36. Nic Bidwell says:

    Africa is the only part of the world whose history(ries) is “dominated” and even “defined” by non-“Africans.” – post by Kwabena Akurang-Parry on the H-Net Africa List. How can we let this practice continue since there are many well-qualified African commentators?

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  39. Kweku says:

    An interesting point. Do you have to American to write about the US? If an African wrote about the US, would it be considered as credible as an American? That’s what comes to mind…

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