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African writers find a new voice

REVERED: Acclaimed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe

You won't need to have read his book Things Fall Apart to know that the late Chinua Achebe was a giant of African literature.

His first book, published in 1958, unleashed a whirlwind of literary creativity whose force is still felt today. But now the winds have changed and a new generation of writers has taken the mantle of African literature in an altogether different direction.

Set in Igboland in pre-colonial Nigeria during the 1890s, Things Fall Apart follows the life of local wrestling champion Okonkwo as he strives to preserve his Igbo culture and customs amid the growing influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on Igbo society.

The book was to achieve global acclaim and was the first in Heinemann's African Writers Series which, with Achebe as a driving force, went on to publish a wide array of authors including Steve Biko (South Africa), Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana) and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer (South Africa).

Many among this generation of writers saw their work as expressing a cultural voice that had been hitherto suppressed under colonialism. It is therefore unsurprising that they chose to grapple with social and racial issues.

Though the legacy of colonialism will be felt for many more years to come, a new generation of writers is grappling with different, contemporary issues. Yet old stereotypes and preconceptions still persist.


AFRICAN WRITING: Achebe's Things Fall Apart is
regarded as a classic of African literature

While “there has been an evolution in African literature” says Frances Mensah Williams, a Ghanian author living in London, she believes that “there is still an assumption on the part of readers and authors that there is one way to write African literature: in the shadows of the greats”.

ROOTS

Launched next month at the Royal African Society's African Writes festival, Williams' first novel From Pasta to Pigfoot explores themes of identity and belonging through Faye, a Ghana-born north London-based professional who returns to Africa to rediscover her roots and find love after a stormy relationship leaves her spinning.

Like Achebe's book, Williams attempts to also bring her own culture to life and so we accompany Faye on a journey, taking in Elmina Castle, Accra, and some heady social gatherings as we do.

The festival held over a summer weekend has become a fixture on the literary calendar, providing a launch pad for new writing and the starting of conversations according to Royal African Society's spokesperson Dele Fatunla. “We provide a platform for African writers, something that didn't really exist before” he says.
As well as the new kids on the block, it is also the presence of revered 'old masters' that has set this event apart in recent years.


NEW VOICES: Frances Mensah Williams, author of From Pasta to Pigfoot

This year's keynote speaker is none other than Nigerian Ben Okri, whilst last year Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was the headliner. Two years ago the contrast between the changing face of African literature was brought into sharp relief when Ngugi wa Thiongo - a major Kenyan writer widely tipped for the Nobel Prize and who sits firmly within the post-colonial tradition - was joined on stage by his son, Mukoma who writes crime thrillers.

Author and publisher Margaret Busby says that new publishers and prizes are essential if each new generation of writers are to find their voice and free themselves from what she calls the groups “who tell them what is and what isn't African”.
Not content to just wring her hands in dismay, Margaret decided to set up her own publishing house in 1967.

Alison and Busby continues today (though she is no longer at the helm) and is widely considered a pioneer of black British publishing.

But she blames a lack of diversity in the publishing industry as one reason why “people still see Africa as something to do with the village and don't even think there can be cars and planes”. She says relatively recent publishers such as Cassava Republic and Jacaranda Books (the publisher of Frances Williams' book) play an important role in offering fresh perspectives as “they don't come from the typical white male middle-class Oxbridge background” seen throughout the industry.

ROLE

Busby has sat on a number of award panels, including that of the Caine Prize which offers £10,000 to a short story by an African published in English. It has played a significant role in launching the careers of many writers, including Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo, who won the prize in 2011 and whose short story went on to form the opening chapter of We Need New Names, her coming-of-age debut novel, which in turn was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. “This was a huge achievement and it was wonderful to be part of the early stage of her career,” says director of the Caine prize, Liz Attree.

Part of the Caine's prize success has been its accessibility: a short story is a much less daunting task to write than a novel. This year's prize received some 153 qualifying short stories from 17 African countries, a record number of entries.

But with so many in Africa unable to speak, let alone write in English, I ask whether such prizes and the notion of African English language literature as a whole are holding back writing in indigenous African languages. “The development of writing in indigenous languages can only be encouraged by those on the ground and local government and education initiatives which should publish and educate more widely in local languages,” she says.

Margaret Busby points to the burgeoning number of prizes that award writing in indigenous languages such as the Independent Foreign Fiction prize, which awards both the writer and translator. “Let’s encourage more prizes,” she adds.

Yet it is father and son, Ngugi and Mukoma, who have taken this one step further by inaugurating the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize, which awards authors who choose to publish their books in or translate from, between and into African languages.


TWO WRITERS, TWO GENERATIONS: Leading Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo (left), whose work tackles a range of social and political issues and his son Mukoma, who writes crime thrillers

At the time of its launch in the US last year, Ngugi said the prize was “a major intervention in the struggle for writing in African languages, for their places and visibility in the global sun of literary imagination”. He added that “prizes have generally been used to drown African Literature in African languages under a Europhone flood”.

There is truth to this. Though contemporary African authors might have moved away from writing about revolution and toward crime and sci-fi, the enduring legacy of colonialism in many countries remains the English language.

How writers use it, or whether they use it at all, it appears, is still a matter of hot debate.

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