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Mukoma wa Ngugi Adds to the African Writing Debate with Reference to Tope Folarin and NoViolet Bulawayo

Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ has added his voice to the current debate about what constitutes “African” writing and whether some African writers are pandering to Western ideas of the “Dark Continent”.

The debate, an ongoing one, resurfaced when American-based Nigerian writer Tope Folarin won the Caine Prize for African Writing this year. Folarin’s “Africanness” was questioned since he had spent most of his life in the US. Also, the fact that Nigerians have to an extent dominated the prize, led to critics asking whether it is because, in their eagerness to win the prize, Nigerian writers were portraying a negative stereotype of Africa that Western media and cultural institutions respond to.

Killing SaharaA Memory This Size and Other StoriesWe Need New NamesBlack GhostsOil on Water

Most recently, NoViolet Bulawayo’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel We Need New Names came under fire when it was suggested that she received acclaim because her book, with its contrasting of Zimbabwe and America, concurs with the West’s view of Africa.

In an article for The World Today, wa Ngũgĩ addresses the commotion about Folarin’s identity, saying “being an African should not come at the expense of one’s multiple identities in the same way an African novel should be allowed to convey multiple cultures”. He also mentions Black Ghosts, a novel set in China by Ken Kamoche, a Zimbabwean who lives in Hong Kong. “Is Kamoche to be declared a Chinese writer?” wa Ngũgĩ asks.

He also remarks on author Helon Habila’s review of We Need New Names in which he criticised its so-called “African aesthetic of suffering for Western consumption”. Wa Ngũgĩ says: “The most dangerous trend in African literature is not the denial of its multiple identities, it is the labelling of African writing dealing with the contradictions of poverty amid wealth, or freedom alongside sexual violence, or the irony of exchanging American dollars for Chinese yuan, as ‘poverty porn’”.

An African literary canon is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because standing on the shoulders of writers such as Chinua Achebe, author of the archetypal African novel Things Fall Apart, and my father, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, I do not have to prove to myself or to the world that Africans can produce culture and philosophy. This is the blessing – the gift of taking so many things for granted.

This blessing is also a curse. The African literary canon has started to feel like a prison for writers who want to experiment with form and content, to challenge and expand the very definition of African literature.

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Image courtesy AfriCulture


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