The pace of modern African literature is faster, tone and style sexier and more defiant than the great generation of Independence writers. Hitherto taboo subjects are explored. The African basket that was the only source of idiom and metaphor still provides, but the new writers are not afraid of going farther afield for literary fodder.
These are exciting literary times for Africa. Ironically, most of the new African stories are by writers “discovered” by Western literary prizes for African writing – the Caine Prize, the Penguin Prize and the Commonwealth Prize, among others. Non-African publishers are increasingly picking up African stories. This has spawned a generation of free spirited new writers telling a story of an Africa unglimpsed by the white writers of yesteryear.
We have several factors to thank for this renaissance. Over the past decade, Africa’s growth rates have attracted global attention, as has the growing competition between China and the West for its markets and resources. It is only natural; if your mobile phone is going to be made from coltan from the Democratic Republic of Congo, if your bling is coming from Zimbabwe’s mines, and if your car is soon going to be running on African fossil fuel, then you need to comprehend Africa – its ways and peoples.
With little visual documentation to watch and poor archives, books seem to provide the information.From the writers’ end, there have been credible attempts to push their works beyond the Africana sections of the bookshelves. To speak the language of a global audience, the imagery in several of the new African writers’s books is heavily laced with McDonald’s and Starbucks imagery. There is almost a template in some cases. Some fall in the growing genre that attempts to sanitise Africa and present the so-called other side of the continent’s story. Instead of bruised fighters and malnourished children, you are presented with a continent of fast highways; a place that derives pleasure in making love, not war (like everyone else in the world); a continent teaching the world lessons even in new technology.
In other words, the narrative has been stretched a bit. We end up with the popular stuff as opposed to the stiffer, didactic line that earlier writers took, in the name of committed literature. Writers like Nigeria’s Chimamanda Adichie, winner of the Orange Prize, will occasionally borrow from history, spice it up with traditional wisdom and still present a very contemporary story.
All time greats
The beginning of the African novel was marked by icons such as Peter Abrahams, Camara Laye, Amos Tutuola of the memorable Palm Wine Drinkard, and Chinua Achebe. Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o and West African writer Mariama Ba with her So Long a Letter were in that class too, as was Senegal’s Sembene Ousmane before he chose the camera as his new medium.
Today, a different reality has emerged. So we have celebrated names like Chimamanda Adichie, Ugandan Doreen Baingana of the cheeky Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe and Petina Gappah of Zimbabwe who, living in Geneva, still manages to recreate the African world. On that list too are Brian Chikwava who ladles madness with a fair measure of thoughtfulness; and Nigerian Father Uwen Akpan who seems to think with his fingers. When Fr Uwen tells you to Say You’re One of Them, he has convincing reasons. The hypnotic stories in this collection take you through Kenya’s urban squalor and its ugly consequences; Rwanda’s disturbing memory of a war that left millions orphaned, and Nigeria’s extravagance and eye-popping cultural practices. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a chip off the old block but does his pen, like those of Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri and Chinua Achebe, still tell an engaging story? Dreams in a Time of War, the writer’s latest memoir, depicts the processes that have shaped Ngugi’s consistent reasoning around memory and independence of the mind.
Down South are two writers whose pens sing to me. Zakes Mda – once accused of plagiarism – and Zukiswa Wanner refresh with the colour of their words. Zakes, in The Heart of Redness, moves back and fourth. Intertwining fates, the writer explores Africa’s generation gap, with rare honesty and depth. On the other hand, the sassy Zukiswa goes into the tensions of a post-apartheid South Africa, bringing out the softer issues of men and women, sex and love. Her books include Men of the South, The Madams, and Behind Every Successful Man. These refreshing African writers are rebellious in the way they tell their story and the issues they explore and will not shy away from talking about the work of their imagination – whether on radio, online and in newspapers. This is the new breed of African writers that the old literary traditions have birthed.
My top 25
It is a difficult task, I have my list of the best of African writers today. Picking 25 names out of hundreds of possibilities was challenging. I stuck to some parameters. Three in fact: One, for a writer to be on my list, they must be visible both in their home country and across the continent. That kicked out some of my best writers who are still struggling to step outside their borders. Ability to engage imagination and offer a refreshing narrative was another parameter. It could be the same old story, differently told. Third, I did not list writers, however powerful, who have not released a novel or a collection of short stories. With the language barriers that the continent has retained, it has been very difficult, unless there are translations, for books to circulate freely around Africa. This will be evident from my list, as will be the fact that I haven’t exhaustively read all the books that the continent has released.
Below then are my top 25 African writers, old and new, in no particular order.
1. Brian Chikwava (Zimbabwe) 2. Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe) 3. Chimamanda Adichie- (Nigeria/US) 4. Chris Abani (Nigeria) 5. Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya/US) 6. Helon Habila (Nigeria/US) 7. Uwen Akpan (Nigeria) 8. Nuruddin Farah (Somalia/South Africa) 9. Doreen Baingana (Uganda/Kenya) 10. JM Coetzee (South Africa) 11. Niq Mhlongo (South Africa)12. Zukiswa Wanner (South Africa) 13. Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe/Switzerland) 14. Segun Afolabi (Nigeria) 15. Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)16. Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) 17. Unity Dow (Botswana) 18. Zakes Mda (South Africa) 19. Aher Arop Bol (Sudan) 20. Leila Abouzeid (Morocco)21. Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria/Britain) 22. M.G. Vassanji (Kenya/Canada/Tanzania) 23. Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali (South Africa) 24. Athol Fugard (South Africa) 25. Ben Okri (Nigeria)
By Mwenda Micheni, Nairobi (Kenya)
See online: Africa: The top 25 African writers (opinion)