What makes an African Writer?

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By Pinky Khoabane

23ACHEBE2-jumboChinua Achebe and Nelson Mandela

In the course of doing the African literature project in which she had to look at how modern African writers had modified traditional praise poetry, my daughter then gave me a list of writers who could not be considered as African.

She said the lecturer had given them guidelines on determining the poetry they could analyse. For starters, the writers had to be born and have lived in Africa. The reason, as has been debated over the years by African writers, was whether their work authentically African given Western influence. The conference of Fourah Bay to discuss African literature defined African literature as follows: “Creative writing in which an African setting is authentically handled or to which experiences originating in Africa are integral”.

I immediately thought about the many Africans in the diaspora and the many Africans who live in Africa and whose view of life is through a Western and capitalist prism. Are the former being denied their African roots because of geographical boundaries?

This was an issue that was debated at the 1962 conference of African Writers in English at the Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. The issue was whether the term African Literature ought to include works from Africans in the diaspora. Then there’s the use of English. As the decolonisation process unfolded, African authors were hounded about the use of English. One of Africa’s literary giants, Chinua Achebe, chose to write in English. In his essay, “The African Writer and the English Language” he says:

“Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me there’s no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend using it.”

For all its ills, he says, the English language has given colonised people of varied languages a “language with which to talk to one another”. http://wrightinglanguage.weebly.com/uploads/2/4/0/5/24059962/achebe_englishandafricanwriter.pdf

ngugiNgugi Wa Thiongo

Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiongo urged the use of indigenous languages castigating the use of the English language:

“How did we, as African writers, come to be so feeble towards the claims of our languages on us and be so aggressive in our claims on languages, particularly the language of our colonisation?”

david_diopDavid Diop

The poet, David Diop, born to a Senagelese father and Cameroonian mother, spent most of his life in France but his heart was in Africa. His poetry highlighted the plight of Africa foisted upon her by colonialism. Was he less African than writers who lived on the continent?  http://www.africansuccess.org/visuFiche.php?lang=en&id=87. Here’s his poem, Africa my Africa:

Africa, my Africa
Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs
Africa of whom my grandmother sings
On the banks of the distant river
I have never known you
But your blood flows in my veins
Your beautiful black blood that irrigates the fields
The blood of your sweat
The sweat of your work
The work of your slavery
Africa, tell me Africa
Is this you, this back that is bent
This back that breaks
Under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun
But a grave voice answers me
Impetuous child that tree, young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
Springing up patiently, obstinately
Whose fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.

African Americans in Africa

We cannot forget the shocking stories of resentment of Africa by some of the African-Americans who returned to Africa to find a better life in their ancestral land. Keith Richburg, in his book,  Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, writes of his personal anguish in Africa leading to the question of what it meant to be African American in the Africa that he confronted as a Washington Post correspondent in Africa.

With the democratic dispensation, many African Americans travelled to South Africa but it wasn’t long before the brothers and sisters discovered that their skin colour was the only thing they had in common. There were major divisions on culture, language and lifestyles.

 

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