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Bulawayo, Oduor, Huchu, Kahora and Chela Tackle the Tricky Subject of African Writing, and Hail the Rise of Afro-futurism

NoViolet Bulawayo, Okwiri Oduor, Tendai Huchu, Billy Kahora and Efemia Chela have all been in the news recently, contemplating the controversial topic of African writing.

Feast, Famine and PotluckThe Gonjon Pin and Other StoriesWe Need New NamesAmericanahGhana Must Go

Zimbabwean Bulawayo, whose debut novel We Need New Names won the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature, was a guest at the Writivism Festival in Kampala recently.

Bulawayo took part in an event hosted at the FEMRITE Readers and Writers club, alongside Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and 2014 Writivism regional winners, Kelechi Njoku and Ssekandi Ronald Sseguja. On the question of African literature, Bulawayo said that despite seeming reductive the classification still has an important place. Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, who chaired the event, describes the conversation:

Abubakar tells us that whether African Literature exists or not is not important. He thinks that the debate is exaggerated. He says that when he is writing, he never tells himself that he is writing an African story. He just writes. The rest is the business of the academics. Kelechi agrees with him. He is not bothered by the debate. Any position is fine. NoViolet takes a strong stand on the matter. African Literature exists to her. She is interested in where literature comes from. She notes that African literature was never recognized by gatekeepers of so-called ‘human’ literature. Its existence is thus in itself a protest against what was essentially ‘European’ literature masquerading as universal ‘human’ literature. She adds; “Literature does not become less of literature because it is African. I am Zimbabwean and so everything I produce is African”. Ssekandi agrees. I am pleased. How can literature, cultures of a whole continent disappear? I want to thank NoViolet for spelling out why African Literature will never disappear, but I restrain myself. I must remain a balanced moderator.

In a recent article by CNN, entitled “These are the African writers you should be reading right now”, the very African writers quoted emphasise the problems and pitfalls associated with the term.

Oduor, winner of the 2014 Caine Prize, said: “I don’t know what ‘African Literature’ means, but I think there are many ways of thinking about it. I would hope for it to diversify – I’d like to read more science fiction, multiculturalism.”

Zimbabwean Huchu, Kenyan Kahora and Zambian Chela, who were all shortlisted for the Caine Prize, agreed that there is a need for experimentation with genre fiction, and argued against the over-simpiflication of the idea of African literature.

“I would hope for more diverse literature – by this I’m saying a lot more stuff in different genres,” he explains. “There’s the pulpy, entertaining stuff that goes to the masses but at the moment, we have a situation in which you do a story and someone says: ‘What does this tell you about Africa?’ which is problematic.”

For Zambian writer Efemia Chela, also shortlisted nominee, just talking about African literature is “a bit of an absurd idea.” She explained: “You could say European literature is like talking from Russia all the way to the Hebrides – no one really does that and it’s a bit tricky with African literature. It’s 54 countries and so you know, there’s so much scope and range of voices.”

Meanwhile, Kahora, also shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize, said that this desire for different styles and genres was already on its way – and growing.

“A lot of people now are very interested in afro-futurism,” he said. “A lot of sci-fi, a lot of fantasy, a lot of erotica, and then a lot of cross genre — a kind of cross pollination of genre,” added Kahora. “You will also see [more] forms — you will see some straying to visual storytelling online that attempts to do what a book does.”

But despite these complications, most Africans would not deny feeling a twinge of pride when a writer from the continent bursts onto the world scene. In this spirit, we share Flavorwire’s recent list of “50 Excellent Novels by Female Writers Under 50 That Everyone Should Read”, which includes three African novelists:

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If you haven’t heard of Adichie, you haven’t been paying attention. Hell, Beyoncé sampled her TED Talk, so you really have no excuses. Americanah is a breathtaking and dare I say important novel about race, identity, and love, and I know I’m not the first to tell you to read it, so, you know, go read it.

We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

A powerful debut novel — shortlisted for the Booker, no less — that tells the story of a ten-year-old girl’s journey from Zimbabwe to America, and all the things she didn’t expect when she gets there. Fierce and sometimes terrifying in her prose, Bulawayo is one to watch.

Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi

An elegant novel about a splintered family painstakingly stitching itself back together.

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