Art & LifeBooksLiterature: Artists of the floating world


Posted on Friday, 13 February 2015 16:31

Literature: Artists of the floating world

By Kate Thomas

Teju Cole pacing the streets of New York – but his mind could be anywhere on the planet. Photo©ERIC MARTIN/FIGAROPHOTO.COMA generation on from the first Caine Prize, African writers have brushed aside the expectations of the past and claimed the freedom of a global audience. Everyday acts and the feeling that what happens here can happen anywhere propel their storytelling. The Africa Report meets three writers on the move.


In his memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place Binyavanga Wainaina talks about 'kimay', a word he invented as a child to reflect a sort of linguistic missed beat, a perceived gap in cohesion between Kenya's many languages, perspectives and groups.

People always seem to want to know, as a writer, whether you are African enough

If harambee, the Kiswahili term that graces Kenya's coat of arms, is the act of pulling together despite differences, kimay is its solitary cousin: cut from the same cloth yet not afraid to flex its own voice.

A similar dichotomy is emerging in African literature.

When the Caine Prize for African Writing presented its first award in 2000, African literature was all about Harambee.

The first new voices to emerge carried the weight of shared expectations on their shoulders; the world, it seemed, saw them as Africa's spokespeople.

We wanted them to sing its praises, show its frayed corners, but still hold tight to tradition.

Works by writers such as Leila Aboulela and Helon Habila, the early winners of the prize, captured the unease of the tired Heart of Darkness trope but flirted with the Africa Rising narrative that was to come.

Then writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole took the scene by storm, and literary networks like Kwani? – The Kenyan collective that hosts the annual Storymoja literature festival in Nairobi – emerged.

As publishing houses like Farafina Books popped up on the continent, the world began to realise that not all African writers were on a mission to shape the world's perception of Africa.

Some, of course, wanted to forge a 21st-century narrative, but others just wanted to write.

"I don't write for a Western audience or a Nigerian audience," Habila said. "I write for whoever wants to read."

Recent work by a new generation of African writers – E.C. Osundu, A. Igoni Barrett, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and Taiye Selasi, for instance – embraces the everyday and the in-between.

Their stories take place on planes and trains, in bars and clubs, in gardens and department stores and traffic jams.

In his 2013 essay for The New Yorker, 'The Return', the Libyan writer Hisham Matar – who lives in London – wrote about his "bloody-minded commitment to rootlessness" and his "silent condemnation of those fellow exiles who wished to assimilate".

Embracing the in-between

As the Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana said, "People always seem to want to know, as a writer, whether you are African enough. But a foreign experience can be just as African as time spent on the continent."

Many of today's African writers have come to the forefront thanks to time spent in Europe or the US, where resources and residencies are more plentiful.

As a result, sometimes their work is laden with the influence of diaspora, and sometimes it draws on inspiration from a more bucolic ideal of African life.

But oftentimes, it's simply somewhere in-between.

"What I wanted to know," writes Kenya's Okwiri Oduor in her recent short story 'My Father's Head,' which won the Caine Prize in 2014, "was what type of person Father Ignatius thought he was, instructing others to distribute their love like this or like that, as though one could measure love on weights, pack it inside glass jars or place it on shelves for the neighbours to pick as they pleased."

As with love, so too with literature. African writing no longer has to be the well-behaved kid in the school playground, dressed in a starched school uniform and uncomfortably tasked with impressing his peers and shaking off tired expectations.

It no longer needs to veer wildly between the palava hut of the village and the ever-sweaty streets of Africa's megacities; of course it draws on those places, but from plenty of others too. ●

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