Saturday, 24 March 2018

The problem with referring to African literature as a genre
“You are not a country, Africa
You are a concept,
Fashioned in our minds, each to Each,
To hide our separate fears,
To dream our separate dreams”
- Abioseh Nicol

My greatest fear, I finally admitted to myself recently, is erasure. The thought that my footprint on the earth and the people in it will one day be erased by time, loss and the constant birth of newness terrifies me. So much so that every day since this realisation, I have looked for ways and means to allow myself to live a little longer than my body is destined to.

Ways for the memory of me to survive what I have come to call the tragedy of the century - the fact that time stops and mourns for no one, it just keeps going on and on until people and events become rapid passing thoughts and eventually nothing. The solution, for me, was in writing. It was in painting memorable portraits using simple words that struck the chords of people’s hearts.

Writing is much an act of protest as it is a saving grace- it’s my insurance to having the memory of me survive my inevitable departure from this planet. However this insurance, only means something if we know for certain that it is archived in a storage unit that will be cared for. Not one that finds itself drowning in an identity crisis because it is burdened with carrying much of what it shouldn’t.
If something spends a bulk of its existence believing that it is one thing, it is bound to live forever as that thing- even though it was not destined to. Let me be less cryptic, if the writings of Africans are always thrown into the ‘African Literature’ section and no attempt is made to identify the author’s area of focus in the context of African literature then we run the danger of treating a broad body of work as a sub-specie when in reality it is an entire canon.

African authors have a variation of writing styles much like they have diverse narratives, yet all their work is always reduced unsophisticatedly in bookstores to just one thing - African literature. This ultimately means that there is a loss of valuable expertise simply because their work gathers dust in the African literature section when it should have been in the economics, politics or medical section of what should actually be Afro-centric bookstores and archives.

Africa is no stranger to being a victim of reductionism. Our languages, cultures, histories and entire existences have always been reduced to just one thing. At first we were just savages, barbarians then we became objects for sale, somewhere along the line we weren’t for direct sale anymore but we remained objects for use and disuse. Thereafter came the season where we became foreigners and terrorists in our own land and eventually human but not human enough to live like Caucasian humans do.

It is most unfortunate that African literature faces the same demise; it is treated as a genre even though it is a whole canon of work that works to represent African narratives. Like other literary collections i.e. the Western Canon (representing the culture of Europe and North America) it seeks to paint a broad picture of the continent through housing multiple disciplines such as political philosophy, fiction, non-fiction, religion, etc.

However, because it is ‘African’ it is being reduced and simplified to just one thing - a genre (i.e. a sub-specie) instead of being rightfully treated as the mother body. This means that if anyone seeks to enquire about, for instance, a romantic African novel they will be directed to the African literature section, just as the person looking for a history of sport in Zambia, or the political philosophy of C.L.R James will be.

Why is this a problem? Well, it means that our world as Africans will never truly be African because we will walk into libraries, bookstores and archives looking for ourselves and we will be told that we are somewhere in the back, or in a single bookshelf, or on a couple of rows but never ever the whole store or building.

Because the store and building still belong to the ones who erased us from history and reduced us to just one thing. We need to get to a point where we walk into an Exclusive Books and are able to ask the shop assistant where we can find an African mystery novel, biography or children’s book and be confident in the fact that these three different things won’t be located on a one bookshelf at the back of the store.

African literature is not a genre, it is a whole collection of work that houses various genres within it. African writers will of course always have a home in African literature, I am merely saying that that home should not be treated as one room where everyone squeezes in uncomfortably. It should be treated like the large mansion that it is. A large mansion with many rooms, each suited for every writer and their different style and narrative.

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