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When Nelson Mandela was serving 27 years in jail, he discovered a writer in whose presence “the prison walls fell down”. The books he found so liberating were neither history nor politics as such, but the novels of Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian founding figure of modern fiction from the African continent, who died in 2013.
As editor during the publication of the first 100 titles of the Heinemann African Writers Series, launched in 1962, Achebe also helped shape and define an emerging canon. Its contributors included Wole Soyinka — the Nigerian who became Africa’s first Nobel literature laureate in 1986 — the Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Somali author Nuruddin Farah, all of whom enjoy classic status today. As I heard Mandela say in 2000, in a videoed tribute at Achebe’s 70th birthday, he recognised the author as a fellow “freedom fighter”.
The power of literature to liberate minds, and to break the shackles of others’ preconceptions, has driven the rise of Africans telling their own stories — and reading them. For Soyinka, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was “the first novel in English that spoke from the interior of an African character, rather than portraying the African as exotic, as the white man would see him”. Ever since that 1958 debut, Africa’s writers have asserted the freedom of the imagination in the teeth not only of colonial representations, but dictators’ prisons, cold-war ideological fiats, economic catastrophes and publishers’ presumptions.
As the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina satirised expectations in How to Write About Africa, “always use the word Africa or Darkness or Safari in your title”, and “be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention . . . Africa is doomed”.
Since Wainaina delivered that mordant and mischievous advice in 2006, writing from Africa has flowered, and many of those clichés have been dispelled. Thanks in part to the Caine Prize for African writing, founded in 2000, and the success of winners and shortlistees such as Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Brian Chikwava, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Wainaina himself, US and UK publishers are chasing fresh and compelling stories from the continent as eagerly as they did those from India in the 1980s and 1990s. At Port Harcourt in Nigeria, the city designated as Unesco World Book Capital in 2014, Africa 39 was unveiled by the Hay festival — a list of 39 writers aged under 40 from 16 countries south of the Sahara — from Cape Verde to Zimbabwe. Their winning stories were published in a collection by Bloomsbury last year.
This is a fertile moment when young writers are emerging as some of the elders they grew up reading are still at their peak. Moreover, they are finding international publishers — the key to earning a living as a writer. Just as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange-prizewinning novel Half of a Yellow Sun was a new-generation take on the Biafran war to which Chinua Achebe bore painful witness, Nadifa Mohamed in The Orchard of Lost Souls reimagines the Somalia of its former dictator Siad Barre that Nuruddin Farah defied and fled. Yet Farah, perhaps Africa’s greatest living novelist, has recently completed his third trilogy, Past Imperfect, published by Penguin USA. Its final volume, Crossbones, is a subtle and searing exploration of piracy and terrorism in the Horn of Africa. This cross-generational richness enhances a literature that today ranges from dirty realism and crime thrillers to science fiction, digital serials and graphic novels.
But if today’s African writers are freer in genre and subject matter, they still face economic barriers and a scarcity of publishers at home. Helon Habila, whose debut novel, Waiting For An Angel, reflected the predicament of writers in Nigeria, had a run of luck when he self-published. After a chapter won the Caine prize for short fiction, the book was bought for Penguin by Simon Prosser, editor of Zadie Smith. Heartening though such fairytales are, the question remains what other diamonds might be left behind in the dust.
Maya Jaggi is an award-winning cultural journalist and critic who has profiled many African and global writers. She wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Chinua Achebe’s “Anthills of the Savannah”.