We need more names – the limitations of African Literature

68.Noviolet-Bulawayo-We-Need-New-NamesThe increasing interest in African Literature and the recognition of African authors globally is a cause for celebration. Yet the increase in visibility is not without its problems. “This newfound visibility has prompted a renewed sense of contestation around the term, a renewed sense of debate and conversation about what exactly we mean, what are the intellectual and institutional implications of using that phrase, African Literature,” said Ranka Primorac, an English lecturer at the University of Southampton. Using a variety of African texts and authors as a starting point, Primorac interrogated the issues surrounding the term African Literature.

ghana-must-goWhile many awards and prizes appear to celebrate African literature, they are also problematic in that they place limitations on what it means to be African, and what kinds of writing counts as African enough. “African Literature is being institutionally regulated,” she said. There is the idea that an author can be African to varying degrees, and that African writers must cover African topics. Their work is expected to play the role of anthropology. What author Taiye Selasi suggested, and Primorac agreed with, is that “African books for global eyes must be written by a broader range of Africans. We need more writers from more countries representing more class backgrounds. We need more names”.

Another problem with the term African Literature is that equal recognition does not seem to be given to all African countries. “When you say African Literature, it very often happens that metonymically speaking, South African literature gets to stand for that,” said Primorac.

chimamandangoziadichie1With all these problems surrounding the term, what then is African Literature good for? According to Primorac:

“African literature is a useful signifier for a set of shifting and layered network of authors, texts and readers that spans several geographies of scale and works to keep alive the memory of decolonisation and of global solidarity of the oppressed”.

“It is unfortunately still necessary as a category with which to try to facilitate access to the global literary marketplace for a certain group of disadvantaged authors, via institutional mechanisms such as the Caine prize

“It is an excellent starting point for begging to apprehend those textually created worlds in which African characters are able to regard a wide variety of global locations and spaces that they own, spaces that are theirs and as spaces in which Africa is no longer invisible”.

RankaPrimoracIn discussing the matter, Primorac suggests various African authors and their writing which contribute to the conversation. To hear her reading suggestions, you can listen to her full talk below.


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