22.- 25.9

Writing a novel, or writing Africa? Recent fiction by writers from Africa and the challenge of addressing problems in African societies without reproducing hegemonic stereotypes about the continent

Dr. Anja Oed, Institut für Ethnologie und Afrikastudien, Johannes Gutenberg Universität-Mainz


25/09/20 9 - 10.30 am Room 457 (main building)


Short abstract:

This panel invites contributions exploring how recent fiction by writers from Africa negotiates, in many different ways, the challenge of addressing problems in African societies without “writing Africa” in negatively stereotypical ways.

In the 20th century, many (if by no means all) writers from Africa strove to challenge western (mis)representations of the continent in their works. Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is one of the most famous examples of this trend. The diverse counterdiscursive strategies employed by African (as well as other postcolonial) writers to oppose and subvert hegemonic stereotypes have been explored as “writing back”. In the 21st century, writers from Africa continue to deal with a vast number of old and new topics of both local and global concern in innovative and divergent ways. Those for whom counterdiscursivity remains an issue often point beyond “writing back” in one way or another, questioning or deconstructing customary dichotomies and renegotiating identity in transcultural contexts. Interestingly, a recent debate – especially among the global players of African literature – indicates a renewed interest in the image of the continent in literary works. However, this time, the concern is with what some of these critics read as negative and highly problematic representations of Africa in the work of their own peers. An example of this is Amatoritsero Ede’s (2015) critique of what he calls “self-anthropologizing discourse”, alleging that western-based writers from Africa write about Africa in ways deliberately satisfying the expectations of a western book market by confirming negative preconceptions about Africa. In response to this debate, Taiye Selasi (2015) has cogently clarified that “No one novelist can bear the burden of representing a continent and no one novel should have to”. Yet, the debate highlights a dilemma writers from Africa may experience when addressing experiences of human or political crisis, suffering and injustice in Africa. This panel invites contributions exploring how recent fiction by writers from Africa negotiates, in many different ways, the challenge of addressing problems in African societies without “writing Africa”, thus effectively counteracting the projection of Africa as “Other”.

The debate that Helon Habila instigated on behalf of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We need new names, a novel qualified as ‘poverty porn’ by the Nigerian writer, can easily be transferred to contemporary Congolese fiction. In particular, Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (2013), in spite of or maybe just because of being an indisputable international success translated into numerous languages and crowned by literary awards, has led to heated discussions on social media. Dismissed as a sexist sellout of the RDC’s miseries for some, lauded as a genuine critical deconstruction of global late-capitalist structures by others, the novel speaks loudly to the African writer’s dilemma of ‘How to write about Africa?’ (to quote Wainaina 2006) without reifying ‘the dark continent’. The novels by further diasporic Congolese writers such as In Koli Jean Bofane, Blaise Ndala or Joëlle Sambi can be questioned in the same way: they all conceive the Congo as a chaotic space, a battlefield of survival more often than not centered on women’s bodies as both targets and ammunition. In this paper, thus, I will try to analytically outweigh the part of ‘poverty porn’ and the part of the critical potential to deconstruct stereotyped images of the Congo/Africa inherent in the same texts.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names is at the heart of the current controversy concerning „adequate“ representations of the continent in contemporary African literature. On the one hand, the author has been blamed for „self-anthropologizing“, i.e. for deliberately reproducing negative stereotypes about Africa so as to appeal to western readers (compare Habila, Ede, or Sibanda, to name just a few); on the other hand, it has also been argued that Afropolitan novels such as hers actually seek to counteract negative images of Africa (Rippl and Neumann, Wasihun). Questioning the whole debate itself, Taiye Selasi rightly insists that „No one novelist can bear the burden of representing a whole continent“; yet, allegorical readings of novels are by no means limited to African and/or postcolonial literary studies and, in principle, retain their legitimacy. Yet, as I argue in my paper, while they take the liberty to deal with issues in ways that are, at least by some critics, mistaken for Afropessimism, Bulawayo but also other authors who critically engage with problematic aspects of African societies and nations frequently also problematize the production and reproduction of reductive and negative images of Africa at the same time. Whether strategically or intuitively, they thus, in effect, anticipate, challenge and counteract naive, simplistic readings of their novels by literary means. Critics‘ failure to recognize and appreciate this may, as I would like to suggest, be a function and indicator of continuing anxieties regarding the image of Africa in the west. However, rather than underestimating the ability of readers to, for instance, read between the lines, to recognize irony (and whatever else is required to decipher complex meanings and to appreciate nuances) I think one should put more trust in the ability of writers to negotiate the complexities, ambivalences and contradictions of life and experience by means of their respective repertoires of literary, i.e. narrative and stylistic devices. Focusing on We Need New Names and on Emanuel Dongalas novel Johnny Chien Méchant, I examine which strategies the two authors employ to address and counteract the reproduction of reductive and negatively stereotypical images of Africa that might otherwise be feared to emerge from their novels.

The birth of the African novel has been linked to a turning point in African history; the anti-colonial liberation struggles of the African nations that peaked in the 1960s with many African states gaining independence. Its main stated aim was to provide a much-needed counter-narrative of “powerful and enduring images of life in colonial Africa” while critically engaging the legacy of imperialism on the continent (Genova 2005, 266). The trend of postcolonial literary studies on novels from and about Africa or by African authors have also tended to accentuate the primacy of this historical moment in their analyses of the novel; tracing and mapping various narratives and narrative modes used in resituating the continent in the prevailing and emerging discursive constellations. Ogundele (2002: 125) notes that this preoccupation with history has remained at the centre of the postcolonial African novel to-date.

This paper argues that contemporary African literature has exhausted the impetus that the postcolonial condition gave it and that, recent iterations of African urban novels have set in motion a new form of poetics that is referred to here as post-historical poetics. By looking at two novels with strong leanings to fantasy and science fiction, the paper seeks to analyse those narrative modes and techniques that would make up the suggested post-historical poetics. 

Keywords: Postcolonial literature; African urban novel; science-fiction; post-historical poetic