Listen to this article
Every month, someone somewhere is awarded a literary prize. Cue the celebrations and commiserations. Some observers will applaud the results, while others will question the judges’ sanity.
There is something about arts prizes that particularly exercises book lovers. We all know art is subjective — one reader’s page-turner is another reader’s sleeping aid — and when money and prestige are attached to such discretionary judgments, we are flummoxed when the “wrong” horse wins.
This angst is amplified in the world of African literature, where there is concern that the most prestigious prizes are awarded by western organisations and that this, coupled with the dominance of the west in publishing and readership, skews African writing. African literature bends and adjusts to the tastes and expectations of non-Africans.
Many disagree. The author Taiye Selasi believes writers enjoy far more agency than is led to believe. Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu shares the sentiment, saying he writes about whatever matters to him.
Unless one can read the mind of every writer, literary agent and publishing house, no one is in a position to assess the situation accurately. I believe most African novelists write from their heart. I am suspicious of the assumption that westerners demand “misery narratives”. Although such readers certainly exist (one online reviewer was disappointed that Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, the Emerging Voices award winner, depicted an urban, middle-class family rather than “real” Nigerians), many non-African readers simply want a good yarn that doesn’t necessarily involve characters fetching water in a village or communing with spirits in the forest.
But this doesn’t worry the African author who wants to write from the heart, who knows that literature from the so-called “emerging” world occupies an exciting space. Sub-Saharan novelists are fortunate to be able to write about societies which straddle so many worlds, from the high-tech to the medieval. Young writers in particular have rich, real-life material to draw on, unlike some of their western counterparts who, having lived in relatively frictionless environments, must grasp for intrigue or fantasy — and avoid big political themes.
This lack of political engagement among western authors is something the writer Aminatta Forna laments in a recent essay. She cites the US poet and former human rights activist Carolyn Forché as someone whose poetry (influenced by her experiences in war-torn places) was met with opposition from her US contemporaries, who objected to the political bent of her work. By Forché’s reckoning, concerns about aesthetics take priority over subject matter in American literature. Meanwhile, Booker-winner Ben Okri suggests African writers tend to suffer the reverse: fixating on subject matter at the expense of aesthetics at the behest of their publishing “gatekeepers” in the west.
In any discussion about African writing and western influence, it is hard to unpick the boundaries between agency and imitation. The line between compromise and independence is a tightrope for any writer — it takes another pair of eyes to inject clarity, coherence and viability to a manuscript. The author has to decide whether to accept or reject advice from an editor who has their own (usually western) cultural biases and ideas about how to unfold a narrative. Art is subject to rules and formulas, yet those can be broken when done judiciously. Does obeying a rule mean one is following the “colonialist’s” aesthetics? Can African literature enjoy a distinct aesthetic in an art form that is European in origin?
Time will tell. Now that a few African-run publishers are beginning to publish and distribute books (such as Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu, published by Kwani? in Kenya), it will be fascinating to see whether the same aesthetic disagreements and issues of “gatekeeping” persist in African publishing. Perhaps some of the aesthetic differences attributed to cultural heritage are more a matter of individual taste.
The FT and OppenheimerFunds are the latest western organisations to judge African literature. Though many bemoan this situation, I am glad the craft is getting support, especially when African literature is not a funding priority among our homegrown philanthropists. In a world glutted with anti-literary distractions and terabytes of self-published books, awards allow stories from Africa to grab the spotlight momentarily and inspire future writers on the continent.