There’s more to homegrown African literature than what Western publishers favor – Quartz
African literature is the object of immense international interest across both academic and popular registers. Far from the fieldâ€™s earlier, post-colonial association with marginality, a handful of star â€œAfropolitanâ€ names are at the forefront of global trade publishing.
Books like Chimamanda Adichieâ€™s â€œAmericanahâ€ and â€œHalf of a Yellow Sunâ€, Teju Coleâ€™s â€œOpen Cityâ€, Taiye Selasiâ€™s â€œGhana Must Goâ€ and Yaa Gyasiâ€™s â€œHomegoingâ€ have confounded neat divisions between Western and African literary traditions. The Cameroonian novelist Imbolo Mbue captured a million-dollar contract for her first book, â€œBehold the Dreamersâ€. Thatâ€™s even before it joined the Oprahâ€™s Book Club pantheon this year.
Such commercial prominence, though, has attracted considerable and unsurprising push back from Western and Africa-based critics alike. Far from advancing narratives with deep roots in local African realities, such critics fear, many of Africaâ€™s most â€œsuccessfulâ€ writers hawk a superficial, overly diasporic, or even Western-focused vision of the continent.
Â Who gets to document African realities? Who are the â€œgatekeepersâ€ of African publishing traditions?Â Such debates about African writing could, and likely will, go on forever. Questions about Africaâ€™s place in the current global literary marketplace broaden some of the most urgent queries of the postcolonial era. Who gets to document African realities? Who are the â€œgatekeepersâ€ of African publishing traditions?
The most visible of these critiques has been directed at the Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayoâ€™s â€œWe Need New Namesâ€ (2013). The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila worried in a review in the London Guardian that it was â€œpoverty-pornâ€. The popular Nigerian critic Ikhide Ikheloa (â€œPa Ikhideâ€) frequently makes a similar point. Fellow Nigerian writer Adaobi Nwaubani critiqued the Westâ€™s hold on Africaâ€™s book industry in a much-circulated New York Times piece called â€œAfrican Books for Western Eyesâ€.
It goes on: To what sort of audience does African writing cater? What is the role â€“ and what should it be, if anyâ€”of Western institutions in brokering cultural prestige?
All these issues merit concern.
Between the default poles
Too often, though, African writing ends up volleyed between two default poles of â€œcorporate globalâ€ and â€œactivist localâ€. Some onlookers, as in a recent essay by the Canadian scholar Sarah Brouillette, go as far as to name the biases of even Africa-based print outlets. Kenyaâ€™s Kwani Trust is exposed as â€œWestern-facingâ€ due to a web of donor relations. â€œWestâ€ here is code for neoliberal. â€œWestern-facingâ€ is for complicity with a market that skews toward British and American interests.
Faced with a â€œworld systemâ€ argument like Brouilletteâ€™s, African literature would seem trapped between a rock and a hard place.
Â Too often, African writing ends up volleyed between two default poles of â€œcorporate globalâ€ and â€œactivist localâ€.Â But, in fact, this tells only a small part of the story of how African writing now makes its way through the world. It is incomplete to the point of being outdated, given the boom over the past five years in new, globally conscious small US literary presses collaborating with African writers.
A â€œWest subsuming Africaâ€ brand of critique works fine for scholars with no real skin in the game of literary publishing. It also denies real agency to a lot of African writers and other literary professionals. On the ground the literary field is far more forward-thinking and diverse.
There is an entire new body of African writing that escapes this closed circuit of damning truisms. A wave of new or recently galvanised independent literary presses in the US and the UK are working in tandem with some of Africaâ€™s most generative outlets. Together they are publishing and promoting work by young and adventurous African writers.
Labors of love
Books published originally by presses like Umuzi (South Africa), amaBooks (Zimbabwe) and Kwani (Kenya) find second lives with international publishers working to defy the constraints of profitability. Theyâ€™re mostly labours of love with skeleton staffs that speak to a transcontinental commitment to innovative African writing.
Here are a few key examples of African texts published by independent American outlets â€“ â€œindependentâ€ here refers to presses beyond the â€œBig Fiveâ€ US trade publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.
These include Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbiâ€™s Ugandan epic â€œKintuâ€ which was originally launched by Kwani. It was the first Anglophone novel put out by the brand-new Transit Books based in Oakland, California. The press seeks maximum visibility for translated fiction alongside texts originally written in English. They advocate for more ethical legal and financial dealings with translators, as well as international writers.
A number of similarly tiny, ambitious ventures have published some of the most acclaimed recent African writing in translation. Deep Vellum Publishing was behind the English translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujilaâ€™s Etisalat Prize-winning â€œTram 83â€.
Also dedicated exclusively to works in translation, LA-based Phoneme Media in 2016 published the first ever Burundian novel in English, Roland Rugeroâ€™s deeply contemplative â€œBaho!â€. Phonemeâ€™s tagline, fittingly, is â€œcurious books for curious peopleâ€.
In a similar vein, Brooklynâ€™s Restless Books was founded to combat â€œparochial, inward-looking, and homogenised trends in American publishingâ€. Among their forthcoming titles, translated from the French is Naivoâ€™s â€œBeyond the Rice Fieldsâ€. Itâ€™s the first novel from Madagascar to see its way to English.
Veteran nonprofit press Archipelago Books is also in Brooklyn. In 2015, it published the translation from the Portuguese of Angolan writer Jose Eduardo Agualusaâ€™s â€œA General Theory of Oblivionâ€.
Every one of these throws a wrench in a clear, cynical sense of what kind of novel Western presses prize. That is not to mention the many African writers, publishers, and editors working in concert to promote these same texts.
Small, focused channels
It applies to the Anglosphere too. Books that offer a decidedly more locally textured experience than those of the â€œAfropolitanâ€ rock stars have made their way abroad through small, focused channels.
These works might include Tendai Huchuâ€™s â€œThe Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematicianâ€ (published originally by amaBooks, and in the US by Ohio University Press); Imraan Coovadiaâ€™s â€œTales of the Metric Systemâ€ (from Umuzi, and again by Ohio University Press); and Masande Ntshangaâ€™s â€œThe Reactiveâ€ (also Umuzi; in the US by family-run Two Dollar Radio.
Clearly, this collection just scratches the surface. But what these works have in common is an investment in stylistic and structural experimentation that confounds rather than caters to an international taste for â€œdigestibleâ€ fiction, or to mostly Western points of cultural and institutional reference.
This counter-current of transnational African literary life complicates the equation of culture, geopolitics and economics in more useful ways than stale materialist critiques.
As such titles and presses continue to gain acclaim and recognition by an international readership that is aware of and hostile to shallow representations of Africa â€“ and who crave engagement with challenging fiction, regardless of its origin â€“ critics will need to rethink some of their orthodoxies.
There is more to both African literature and Western publishing than meets an eye too practised in its suspicion. If literature is doomed only to echo the failings of globalisation, then why bother? On the contrary, a new generation of writers and publishers deserve our awareness of the â€œglobal literary marketplaceâ€ as a meaningfully multidimensional space.
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