It is hardly news that literature exposes readers to the culture and history of a people. Most of my life, I have read and respected English literature and only came to know African Literature in my late teens. Not surprisingly Chinua Achebe, while discussing the danger of not having your own stories, says, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
It is sad that as I write this, some might not even have had this privilege. That is why, this week, I will highlight the value of African Literature with relation to African Britishness.
I was 10 when I first read The Famous Five by Enid Blyton in Nigeria and did not think about race; I liked George (Georgina) and felt protective of Ann.
Reading, for me, was a form of escape.
One time at school, I secretly sneaked read from a novel that I placed on my lap during a particularly dull music class, but the head teacher caught me.
And in Nigeria, punishment is instant – kneel for a couple of hours under the scorching sun, or get a few lashes of the cane. As I served my penalty, all I could think about was finishing my book.
I read Asterix and Obelisks by Devika Panicker, Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, classic Greek tales, and everything else I could lay my hands on in the library.
Affection for Nigerian Indigenous Literature
As I grew up, some Nigerian literature trickled in, and I remembered reading D O Fagunwa’s adventurous tales written in Yoruba language. I used to fantasise that I would one day make them into graphic novels. They were tales of hunters on adventures in vast forests and their encounter with demons and spirits.
Interestingly, Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, translated one of his books to English titled ‘The Forest of a Thousand Daemons’ . His books could also be compared with those of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson, only with a different set of lead characters for each book. However, Fagunwa died mysteriously in a river when a bridge collapsed under his car.
Historical Exploration in African Literature
Likewise, I read mostly trashy romance like Mills and Boon and big Hollywood books by Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins and so on in secondary school. I had a whole gang of friends that eagerly waited for the latest offerings from these authors.
However, we do not read African literature for pleasure. I came across one or two African books at age 15 when I spent my summer holiday at an uncle’s house whose library was stocked full of books. I read Jagua Nana by Cyprian Ekwensi, and scared myself silly with Dillibie Oyeama’s mysterious book, Juju.
Aside from those books by Fagunwa and other writers, and excerpts in local magazines, I learnt more about Africa through history lessons. When we started the scramble and partition of Africa, I was heartbroken as I read about how Africa was divided up among the Belgians, French, Portuguese, English, and everyone else, I suppose.
With little supervision, I started on adult-themed books from my mother’s library. One of the first I read was the slavery fiction Drum by Kyle Onstott. I could not believe that people could be hunted and sold as slaves, and pretty much treated like cattle. The book exploited slavery and was full of violence and everything else — a brutal eye-opener.
Consequently, I started on African literature in my first year of university when I took this as an option. I read The Beautiful Ones are not yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah, Things Fall Apart and A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe, Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi, Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams, The African Child by Camara Laye and so on.
Position of Female Authors in the then African Literature
I could not remember us reading female African authors, and we did not ask why. We just accepted that that was the case.
When I came to settle in England, I continued to read European and African American work but slowly started reading a few African women after I discovered a sizeable African collection in Commonwealth library. I read Bessie Head, Flora Nwapa, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Condition, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Buchi Emecheta who became a good friend and mentor.
I also delved into black American literature where I read books from authors like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Terry McMillan.
The Perception of African Writing
Afterwards, I decided I wanted to write and succeeded in writing a literary novel that I would consider publishing one day. By the time I finished it, I was told by various agents and publishers that African writing was no longer in fashion!
I was appalled. Fashion? Are we now trinket to be bought and sold at the whim of western readers? Chick Lits and gritty crime by Patricia Cornwell were now in fashion. Or how about Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – clean pristine and well written that you could weep? I gave up.
The Legacy of Female African Writers
But the writing bug never went away. I was ecstatic to see many do well over the years. Writers like Ayobami Adebayo, Novolet Bulawayo, Chimamanda, Irenosen Okojie, Chibundu Onuzo and so many others have done Africa proud.
They have created a legacy of work for generations to come. We have a tapestry of literature to use as a reference point for their lives. It is going to be difficult for anyone to try and lie about our history. To me, the format is not essential, only the message.