Ahead of the Caine Prize for African Writing that was awarded on Monday, Maaza Mengiste pointed out that “on the shortlist of five, three writers live in the US and at least one has US citizenship” and responded to arguments that the prize should only be for “‘real’ African writers”.
Ethiopian-born Mengiste, who has made her home in the US, often gets asked whether she sees herself as an African writer, which she feels is a very problematic question. “It seems that every new writer with any remote connection to the continent of Africa, either willingly or unwillingly, has first to wrestle with this question of identity before talking about what should matter most: their book,” she says.
One cannot apply “a single identity to an entire racial or ethnic group, much less to an entire continent,” she points out. Underlying the question of “African-ness” is also a problematic assumption that for African writers “living in the west should be a constant negotiation between living where one must and where one really belongs”.
At a recent conference on African literature in Frankfurt, I sat on a panel with two other female writers. A question was asked almost immediately: do you consider yourself an African writer? We each needed to pause before answering; we had to wait for translators to repeat the inquiry in our respective languages.
None of us spoke the same language, and none of the languages being translated from German were indigenous to the countries where we were born. Yet the question didn’t take that into consideration. It was so broad as to be disconcertingly limiting, yet it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it and it wouldn’t be the last. It seems that every new writer with any remote connection to the continent of Africa, either willingly or unwillingly, has first to wrestle with this question of identity before talking about what should matter most: their book.
- Beneath the Lion\’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
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Image courtesy New York Magazine