Whose “new African writing”?

Finding more multilingual literary pathways will benefit all of African—and world—literatures.

Photo: Clem Onojeghuo, via Unsplash.

The latest issue of the Journal of Postcolonial and Commonwealth Studies takes on “African writing in the twenty-first century” and presents views on topics as varied as South African theater, queer Kenyan bloggers, digital publishing, and the Caine Prize for African Writing. An edited version of Lindsey Green-Simms’s introduction to the issue appeared here on AIAC mid-June. But as varied as the issue is, it’s hard not to read the Africa depicted in the journal—like most popular and scholarly Africas—as a shrunken, sub-Saharan continent. More than that, it’s hard not to read it as a primarily Anglophone Africa.

Looking first at English-language works is an accessible way to talk about African literature, and certainly it does provide an “embarrassment of riches,” as Green-Simms writes. Many African authors are doing beautiful, boundary-pushing things with the English language. If we were to paste North Africa back onto the map, we could find plenty of authors doing interesting things with English: Libyans like Khaled Mattawa or Egyptians like Youssef Rakha and Maged Zaher. Algerians (Rachid Boudjedra) and Moroccans (Abdellatif LaabiFouad LarouiRachida Madani) are meanwhile moving French in new directions, or sometimes Dutch (Abdelkader Benali). When there is an event like the impressive 2013 “Africa Writes,” it is usually the English-writing North Africans who are included, authors like Leila Aboulela and Jamal Mahjoub, although a July 5 event does foreground the importance of translations.

Green-Simms talks, in her introduction, about how the Internet has changed writing, making it about “shared interests and emotional attachments rather than shared physical spaces.” It does seem that the Internet has hooked Anglophone African writers more tightly with global Anglophone readers and publishers; an African writer can now submit to a New York literary magazine just as easily as anyone in Manhattan. But this is not “democratic” in any easy sense. It follows a path carved by the economics and politics of previous generations, one that usually runs through European and North American metropoles. As in the physical world, a flight from Cairo to Casablanca too often goes through Paris.

But, again, if we are to paste North Africa back onto the map—and I think we should—we need to grapple not just with English or French, but with other languages: Modern Standard Arabic, colloquial Arabics, and Tamazight. The most common reason I hear for keeping North Africa out of African literary discussions is that they “already have their own prizes/magazines/book fairs/venues.” That seems spurious. The question is: Does this shared map have meaning?

Recent anthologies like the Granta Book of the African Short Story (2011) have made an effort to bridge North and sub-Saharan Africas. The Granta anthology brings in a few translated works from Arabic, as well as a handful of stories from the French and Portuguese. But the translated stories read as afterthoughts. There is Alaa al-Aswany, who is popular in English translation, but no Yahya Taher Abdallah or Yusuf Idris. Moreover, there is a slighting not just of Arabic writing, but of Shona, Swahili, Hausa, or Gikuyu, or other non-colonial languages. Certainly it is difficult for any one editor to have a sense of various African literatures, but this is not just because of the different languages and lived histories; it is also because the tradition of bringing them together is too short.

In her introduction, Greens-Simms gives a slighting nod to the Caine Prize, of which she writes that it’s an “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.” Yet the two forces are often pushing in the same direction, treading the roads between Anglophone Africa and the UK. The Caine Prize, at least, has shortlisted one author translated from the Arabic: Tunisian writer Hassouna Mosbahi. Shortlisted author Charles Mungoshi writes in Shona and English, but I couldn’t find any Shona-only authors who have been shortlisted for the prize.

The Caine Prize isn’t alone in its emphasis on English, and has perhaps been unusual in trying to reach out to North African authors. The recently launched Brunel University African Poetry Prize accepts submissions only in English, although it welcomes translations. The Kwani? Manuscript prize cited Naguib Mahfouz as a founder of African fiction, but accepted manuscripts only in “English or ‘Englishes’.” The newest prize, the Nigeria-based Etisalat Prize for Literature, accepts only works that were written originally in English.

The “democratic” Internet has, perhaps even more than the hierarchical prizes, emphasized colonial language pathways over shared physical spaces, histories, and cultural identities.

In North Africa, language battles have also kept writers apart: Francophone apart from the Arabophone; writers who work in Modern Standard Arabic apart from authors who write in colloquial Arabics; Tamazight writers apart from everyone. But these language issues are felt not only in the rupture between Northern and sub-Saharan Africas. They are felt throughout the English-reading world. As M.A. Orthofer wrote over at the Literary Saloon, in complaining of the inaccessibility of Swahili novelist Shaaban Robert  translations: “It amazes me that the work of even such significant African authors who happen not have written in English (or French, Arabic, or Portuguese…) is not more readily accessible in English”.

Languages don’t always need to exist in separate literary spaces. A proliferation of languages can be cross-translated, and held together both in physical spaces and literary works. There are festivals, traditions, journals, and books that bring together languages and literatures. Dar al-Mamun—in Casablanca, Morocco—holds workshops and residencies where English, Arabic, colloquial Arabics, and French all play in one space. Perhaps, at a coming event, Tamazight writers will also be featured.

Ultimately, it’s possible that the idea of “African literature” is too large. Nonetheless, more cross-translation in these spaces is worth attempting. Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour, who put together Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of North African Literaturedidn’t know Punic, Greek, Latin, Tamazight, colloquial Arabics, Modern Standard Arabic, and French. The book has many “triangle translations,” and it’s ultimately weighted toward the French. But it also creates an open place where different North African literatures and traditions can speak to one another across boundaries.

What’s new in (North) African writing? As elsewhere, Facebook has a big footprint; there are blogs that cross over into books; there are ongoing discussions of the use of colloquial vs. Modern Standard Arabic and a growing use of Tamazight; there are changes in the role of publishers and disagreements over copyright; there are boundary-pushing young writers like Mohammed RabieTareq EmamYasser AbdellatifYoussef RakhaMiral al-TahawyKamel RiahiNael el-Toukhy, and Ahmad Yamani; and there are larger battles over the role and purpose of “national culture”, particularly in countries that have been attempting revolutions: Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Does this shared map have meaning? I would argue that the plethora of shared histories, cultural mores, and literary traditions give it salience. But even more than that, finding more multilingual literary pathways will benefit all of African—and world—literatures.

Further Reading

We are here

As the slaughter continues unabated in Gaza, it is abundantly clear that both the present and history are often written by the victors.