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
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”.
01 Susanne Gehrmann: Sexist dystopia or genuine deconstruction? The question of ‘poverty porn’ in contemporary Congolese fiction
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.
Susanne Gehrmann is a professor of African literatures and cultures at the Department of Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University Berlin.
02 Ruth S. Wenske: Between Faith and Fraud: Christianity as (and Beyond Stereotype in Contemporary African Realism
In this paper I compare representations of Christianity in two recent novels by African authors, Abi Daré’s The Girl With the Louding Voice (2020) and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (2020). I ask how the two texts, that otherwise differ in their geographical and thematic frameworks, both combine two seemingly contradictory moral standpoints: on the one hand, both texts portray Christian faith as a source of values and comfort for the books’ coming-of-age protagonists, and at the same time, both texts show the negative stereotypes associated with Christianity – and particularly charismatic movements – by representing fraud and hypocrisy in institutional churches. In this regard, the two novels join a growing body of literary works critique the negative aspects of the exponential power churches and pastors have over people’s lives following the “unprecedented growth of Pentecostal Christianity among popular and elite urban sectors in Africa” (269), per Achille Mbembe.1 My focus is on the aesthetic devices that the two novels employ in representing Christianity to avoid collapsing its problematic aspects into a ‘single story’, arguing that both texts reconcile the contradiction between Christianity as faith and Christianity as fraud through a similar emphasis on unknowability. Thus, rather than approaching representations of Christianity as a mutually exclusive choice between exposing problems and perpetuating stereotypes, I ask how Christianity functions as a metanarrative that leverages its inherent ontological unknowability to reflect on ambiguous slippages between text and context. This, I argue, invites us to rethink stereotypes through the tension between known and unknown, between subjective and objective, and between scientized and experiential modes of knowing.
Ruth S. Wenske is a postdoctoral researcher at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows and head of the Africa Unit at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University, whose main research area is contemporary African realism.
03 James Orao: Beyond the postcolony: post-historical poetics in the contemporary African urban novel
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.
James Orao is a lecturer at the Department of Linguistics and Languages at the University of Nairobi.