On New African Writing

What precisely is new about new African writing and what makes it different from what we have seen before?

The Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Photo: Howard County Library System Follow, via Flickr Creative Commons License).

The twenty-first century is certainly, in many ways, an arbitrary marker, but, at the same time, there have been notable changes that have led to new directions in African literary production.

First, by the beginning of the twenty-first century the Internet had become widely available in many parts of Africa, especially in urban areas. While cyber cafes began springing up beginning in the mid- to late-1990s, the Internet has arguably been largely a twenty-first century phenomenon for those Africans who have been able to experience it. As Tsitsi Jaji, Keguro Macharia, and Nicole Cesare discuss in their contributions to our collection, the Internet creates both new avenues for various types of writing (from short stories, to blogs, to scam letters) as well as new modes of encountering others. And, just as importantly, it creates new forms of communities, bound together by shared interests and emotional attachments rather than shared physical spaces. Another important development in twenty-first century writing is the proliferation of prize competitions, including the Caine Prize for African Writing, a short story writing competition that began in 2000 and is discussed by Samantha Pinto in her contribution to the collection. On the one hand, we might note with a certain irony that the twenty-first century is characterized both by the democratization of African publishing via the Internet and the establishment of yet another hierarchical British prize. But, on the other hand, the presence of such opposing tugs, which sometimes produce surprisingly complementary results, is precisely what characterizes today’s African fiction. Furthermore, and just as importantly, the authors in this collection address how political changes that occurred in the mid- and late-1990s have affected the landscape of twenty-first century writing. Nigeria’s return to democracy after years of military rule, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the return to peace in Sierra Leone after a protracted civil war, and the internationalization of the LGBT movement are all events that have affected the types of writing we have seen in the first thirteen years of this century.

Rather than conceiving of the twenty-first century as a distinct or complete break from the past, we seek to understand it as part of a longue durée, a time whose overlapping multiplicities and complexities we are just beginning to discern. Achille Mbembe, in his monumental On the Postcolony, has famously described the postcolony itself as a longue durée, an “entanglement” of contradictory phenomena and temporalities that co-exist in a given age. For Mbembe the goal of theorizing the African postcolony is to “account for time as lived, not synchronically or diachronically, but in its multiplicity and simultaneities, its presences and absences, beyond the lazy categories of permanence and change.” Likewise, the essays we collected take twenty-first century writing to be about these many simultaneities.

Moreover, what becomes clear when reading these essays collectively is that new writing in Africa also transmits an entanglement of affects, affects that are not necessarily new but that do seem to take on particular forms and attachments in the twenty-first century. Pinto, for instance, mentions that Olufemi Terry’s short story “Stickfighting Days” won the Caine Prize in part because it exhibited an affect that the judges found to be new and refreshing: “it was void of sentimentality, nearly affectless.” And Kenneth Harrow, writing about Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, underscores the melodramatic affect of the post Sierra Leonean civil war novel, an affect that he argues is mirrored in the widely popular Nigerian video-films (a.k.a. Nollywood) that have dominated African modes of story telling in the twenty-first century. Thus, while Terry’s story earns praise because of the way it underperforms its urgency, Forna’s seduces its readers by “over-performing” the loss, betrayal, and moral aberrations of her post-war world. But the affective options are not limited to flatness or inflation. While Cesare’s contribution discusses the performance of affective bonds created between scam artist and victim in Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You By Chance, Esther de Bruijn’s essay describes an emerging Afro-Gothic genre whose blending of the satirical and the haunting operates on a uniquely disturbing affective register. What is important to note is that all of these affects are responses to the continued precariousness and uncertainty of daily life in the postcolony.

Harrow’s discussion of Forna’s The Memory of Love seems like an ideal piece to open our collection, in part because it engages directly with the concept of simultaneity that is so important to understanding twenty-first century African writing, and in part because it asks us to revise the notion of hybridity that characterized so much of postcolonial theory in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Using Forna as his primary example but also drawing on writers like Chimamanda Adichie and Fatou Diome, Harrow suggests that the notion of “in-betweenness” needs to be updated with one that accounts for the simultaneity of occupying two spaces at once. In other words, he urges us to think of the twenty-first century subject less in terms of mixing or of the creolized subject and more in terms of a doubleness that accounts for the ways that subjects often live in two worlds at once: “Whereas before the model was to be in-between, we now are living and travelling in ways that implant us in one world and then another, over and over.”

Like Harrow’s article, Marzia Milazzo’s essay examines a single novel, in this case Kgebetli Moele’s Room 207, to call for a new mode of understanding twenty-first century literature. Milazzo pushes back against critics who contend that contemporary black fiction from South Africa is colorblind, that it relegates blackness to, at best, a second-order explanation for the conditions of poverty and crime that plague black communities. Instead, she argues that race becomes an invisible, confusing category that is part of the “entanglement” and daily uncertainty that the characters experience as they try to make their way in a world that is full of both new obstacles and old power structures.

Esther de Bruijn’s article also deals with post-apartheid South African literature but from a very different angle. De Bruijn examines the nascent literary category of the Afro-Gothic and demonstrates how contemporary South African playwrights use the Afro-Gothic “as a mode of rewriting colonial history and its haunting aftermath.” De Bruijn’s essay is a self-proclaimed “testing of the term” and she aims to understand what Afro-Gothic means, what types of baggage it carries with it, and how it might be useful in understanding the legacies of racial oppression that continue to haunt contemporary South Africa.

Cesare’s article on Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You by Chance, a novel in which young people struggle against economic obstacles to self-realization, initiates an important discussion both about “new” responses to postcolonial precariousness and about the nature of writing and relationships in cyberspace. I Do Not Come to You by Chance is a novel that tackles an increasingly popular subject: 419 scams. 419 (pronounced 4-1-9), the penal code for financial fraud in Nigeria, has been the subject of a number of novels, short stories, and Nollywood films, but none offers up the richly layered set of emails embedded in the text of the novel that Chance does. Cesare’s reading of the novel – and the emails – opens up fascinating parallels between email scams and new African writing.

The contributions by Macharia and Jaji continue our discussion of cyberspace and focus explicitly on how it serves as a public sphere to circulate new forms of writing. Macharia’s focus is on the queer Kenyan blogging community of which he is a part. In his essay “Blogging Queer Kenya” he examines three of these blogs and argues that they intervene in the dominant narrative of homophobic Africa in important and meaningful ways. While many short stories, novels, and films often “detail loss, deprivation, homophobia, and exile to a more liberating space in Europe or North America,” blogs focus on the everyday and ordinary lives of queer Kenyans as they find love, get dressed for the day (in uncomfortably gender-normative clothes), and try to imagine what a queer future might look like in Kenya. While bloggers do document the homophobia they face, their stories differ significantly from those that are predominantly about struggles against homophobia.

Echoing some of Macharia’s comments on how to study the fleeting nature of online writing, Tsitsi Jaji chronicles the StoryTime website that began in 2007 and ended in the spring of 2012. As Jaji argues, StoryTime, one of the first of many websites to begin publishing African short fiction, had a transformative effect on the way African writing was produced and consumed across the continent and in the Diaspora. Like Macharia, Jaji argues that the democratic and interactive format of cyberspace and blogs (StoryTime is published in a blog format with a section for comments) circumvents both the traditional gate-keepers of African literature and post-colonial critics who often privilege certain types of stories over others. By establishing a platform in which anyone can publish and anyone can comment, StoryTime blurs the line between artist and audience and commentator.

Pinto’s discussion of the Caine Prize, takes a more measured view of the possibility of the new in African writing. Pinto, one of the prize’s judges, argues that even as the Caine Prize aims to promote new (and ostensibly “better”) forms of African writing, it is nevertheless entangled with and indebted to old representations and tried and true themes that figure Africa as “exotic” and “other.” If the Internet is canon-defying, the Caine Prize is canon-forming. But Pinto argues that, still, none of this prevents the prize from showcasing African stories that have fresh visions and push African writing to new frontiers.

Finally, our collection ends with four book review essays that take stock of new scholarly work and edited volumes. Annie Gagiano reviews several texts that add to the emerging “chorus of additional African women’s voices – in archived documents, testimonies, creative fiction, and academic literary criticism.” Lesley Marx’s discussion of new works of African film criticism shows that there is a tremendous amount of overlap between African filmmaking and African writing as filmmakers too grapple with new and old forms of violence while veering away from a more explicit politics of engagement. John Walsh, focusing specifically on the Francophone literature that was regrettably not covered in our main articles, glosses two important studies that demonstrate how “African and Caribbean Francophone literatures represent the transformation of boundaries that has occurred in processes of globalization.” And lastly, Neelika Jayawardane’s sweeping review of ten twenty-first century South African critical texts makes an important argument about why postcolonial critiques are still important to understanding the “new” South Africa. Although many scholars would argue that South Africa’s history is unique or exceptional and thus outside the purview of postcolonial studies, Jayawardane suggests that inequalities in literacy and education, instances of labor unrest, and endemic corruption complicate the “Rainbow nation’s” neoliberal present and can best be understood within the context of postcolonial theory. Furthermore, Jayawardane’s claim that there is an urgency in critical discussions of literature, art, and performance reminds us that writing is never an isolated event, that it shapes “debate, participation, and political action” in important and meaningful ways.

Collectively, the essays in this special issue ask what precisely is new about new African writing and examine what makes it different from what we have seen before. It is clear that African fiction has experienced a veritable boom in the twenty-first century with authors like Adichie, Teju Cole, Dinaw Mengestu, and Binyavanga Wainaina (to name just a few) taking center stage on the international literary scene. But is it also true, as Pinto suggests, that the new – she quotes J.M. Coetzee – “stubbornly fails to arrive,” that it is inevitably entangled with the old and tied to power structures that stubbornly refuse to die?

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.