Is there such a thing as African writing?

What is African Writing?

We Africans must tell our story, or more importantly our stories, and yet when people try they are castigated, or chided as not African enough. Seeing that Africa is a continent of 54 countries and 1 billion people, we will never be able to agree on what is African. However, we can agree on what is true to the writer and whether it conveyed a truth to you. Chimimanda Adichie is a popular African writer who described when she first started writing all her characters were White English people abroad, because those were books she grew up reading. An African writer can then go to the other extreme to prove their “Negritude” or Blackness, Wole Soyinka said “A tiger doesn’t show off it’s tigertude, it just acts.” So if you are a true African it will show in your writing even if you write about Eskimos. There is never a formula for good African writing. I am writing a book on Rwandan history, sweeping some 120 years told through a fictional family. For inspiration I read all the great African writers, and some bad ones too, to see what is it that transcends across from Adichie, to Ngugi, to Okri. What is the essence of their Africanness? It is wrong to copy but certain writing tools and devices set them apart, and make them transcend borders. If we Africans are to tell our story, we must do so in a context that acknowledges certain realities.

Oral history
Most of us writers in Sub-Saharan Africa are only of the 3rd or 4th generation that was literate in the Western sense. So we call on the long history we have of oral literature, we must accept oral sources as equal to written sources. Writing helps you preserve something, but the paper can be destroyed, oral history is a living thing and can be cross-checked against other versions. A lie can be written down just as a lie is spoken.This background of oral history is always reflected in our work, we often follow the formulaic structure of an oral recital. The main structure of the story stays the same, but the teller is allowed gaps to fill in his details. When we used to tell stories they were very interactive. “They went in a blue car.” Then they ask “I thought you said it was a red car.” Then you finish “it doesn’t matter, they just got in a car, I think it was his mother’s.” So when you write you engage the reader and leave the spaces for them like in oral stories “eh, then what happened?” Tabloids in Africa have mastered this style of sensationalism; which is not a bad thing, it is just meant to keep you hooked. Nollywood movies have provided this as well, films based on oral history.

Vocal style

Modern African literature is divided into three eras or schools, the first wave of the post-independence writers of the early 60’s with their testimonials, written in first person and often a justification of their culture often misunderstood by Europeans. Ngugi wa Thiongo ‘A Grain of Wheat’ and Wole Soyinkas ‘The interpreters’ and ‘Things fall apart’ by Chinua Achebe, are perfect examples of this wave of writers. All these books had a strong writer’s voice narrating a sweeping epic saga of a corruption of a culture. Rule number one with African writing; it cannot sound like writing, it has to sound spoken. That means redefining grammatical and spelling rules, when people talk they stutter, they misspeak, or lisp and it is accepted. Western literature has a canon going back to ancient Greece, so the written word has inspired literature, our literature comes from spoken word and should always be good to read out loud. We cannot replicate the likes of Achebe, that time is gone, but we can come up with a new style that can inspire people to write. Before you are a good writer, you must be a good speaker, even if you are shy. You have to be able to speak and listen, to inform your writing, writing is speaking, good writing jumps off the page and gets you first time. Having a vocal style makes you jump off the page, only then do you become a true African story teller, shouting to be heard over the chatter.

Grounded in nature and landscape

What differentiates African, American, European and Asian literature, is the land that forms a backdrop to it. The terrain of Africa is dominant in every aspect of life here, it is untameable, unforgiving, and barely hospitable. These might be clichés but they are apt, you can add to that; nourishing, inspiring, and welcoming. The landscape unites us, the flora and fauna feed our metaphors, similes, and proverbs. I remember reading a book as a young man which stuck with me, I can’t remember the title or author but he said “her skin was the colour of an anthill.” Every time I see an anthill, I ponder how wonderful her texture was, the reddish brown, the smooth finish. That line can transcend across any border, we all have anthills in our backyards, yet we cease to notice them. Africa is entering its Romantic age of literature, as we move to cities and lose touch with our native environment, we start to idealise and romanticise it. Romantic poets of the early industrial age felt this disconnect as their natural environments were decimated by the “Dark Satanic Mills” of industry as Coleridge put it. The attention to detail that you can bring lends more authenticity to the story, the mental picture you can draw with as many gaps filled in. All our historical stories used animals in their allegories, each to symbolise a certain trait of human behaviour, then parallels with human nature are reflected in landscape and animals.


A very hard word to say but it is the oldest language in the world. It is things sounding like the sound they make; bang, click, squirt, squash, smash, boom. All human babies speak the same baby language regardless of background because the human brain understands sounds better than words. However, onomatopoeia doesn’t always travel. We did a seminar once on a subject called Semiotics, the question was this. A Frenchman hears a dog bark as “Waah waah” and English people describe a dog bark as “Woof woof” – how is that possible? Even with the same breed and sound they hear it differently. Same with Africans, some say “mbu mbu” others say “Mho mho” and others “Awoo awoo.” In the physical art of storytelling onomatopoeia plays a crucial role in adding detail, nuance and flair. Picture boys on a street corner “Then the police came with guns dudududududududududu! Shooting, then sirens waaaaaaaaawaaaaaaaa!!! Then helicopters came Wukuwukuwukuwuku!!! We just ran!” You have to evoke sounds in your environment to heighten the senses, to give a sense of space and danger. In seeking a language that is authentically African, it has to connect with 5 senses to the environment around you. So evocation of smell, touch, taste, touch and sound makes it a fuller experience.

Direct translations and corruptions

Quite often when we speak we have idiomatic expressions from our mother tongues, or just simple direct translations. This is how black patois and pidgin English came about, using English words but the grammatical structure of our African languages, so African-American ebonics can say “I don’t be’s wanting no fries” and even 300 years later it is the same mindset. I remember school in the canteen line when you got a small portion of food “Ehhhh si you more it?” More it, add more, that was a direct translation of a tribal language. Teachers beat us daily to get the African out of us, until we were little Englishmen who drank with our little fingers turned up. However, it could have been a great study in linguistics, with children speaking one language at home, and English at school. The cultural confusion that brought about is evident in our culture today, we have a dual-identity; as tribal beings and modern beings. We adjust our brain according to the world we are in, be it at work or play, or home. Sometimes even the most educated Africans can make the simplest error that makes them look stupid, because they were switching between languages. This linguistic diversity is reflected in the rich, colourful expressions and hyperbole.

Syncopation and crescendo

In history our oral literature was never separate from our music, they went hand in hand, a poet was a musician, who was also a historian and diviner or prophet. When the written form came along, it settled on the cold dry sheets of the book, without the sounds of drums, harps, xylophones and chants that accompanied it. So it is not patronising to say African literature is rhythmic, syncopated, interactive and melodic. That was the way oral literature was passed down in songs, African words are wonderfully rhythmic; they pound, they bounce, they swing. When writing in a modern context, one has to maintain that link to rhythm, even on a dry page. I am criticised for my grammar, too many long sentences, too many commas, no structure. My English teacher told me never to change, that is “how it makes sense in your country” she said. So I often sacrifice grammar for drama, building up a rhythm, building up tension, working to a crescendo and resolving. These are old tricks from oratory; like rhetorical questions, alliteration, substitution, extended metaphors. They are not unique to Africa but they define the passionate essence of us. I don’t mind grammar as long as I’m understood, when I read typos my brain auto-corrects them, but I can leave a typo if it was the heat of the moment and it has a deeper Freudian meaning. I am often against editing, it was a moment, on to the next. Great Black writers from the West like Angelou, Walcott, Andrea Levy, and poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson started to flourish when they abandoned the grammatical rules and made their own. It is the only way we can adapt these foreign languages for ourselves.

Moral allegory

Modern Western literature has become more morally vague, no one is who they really seem to be, it’s all a big grey area. Western readers don’t want to be lectured to, so the moral questions are avoided. At the heart of any story is a moral or ethical question, look at ‘Things fall apart’ and the terrible dilemma at the heart of it. All the great moral questions of the West have been answered by the liberal consensus; in Africa we still face serious moral questions. Can a man be corrupt and good at the same time? This is the kind of question we should be asking in our novels. After independence in most African countries, the euphoria gave way to disappointment. Writers rebelled against the venal governments in Africa and by the 70’s many of our best writers were in jail, Achebe, Soyinka, even Ngugi, were all in jail. Now writing was a dangerous thing, the governments clamped down. Makerere University had one of the best literary scenes in Africa but Amin killed or jailed many of the best writers. This is what happens when you challenge people with hard questions, if African literature is dying then it is because we are not asking the right questions. This is when the use of allegories can help in a tight-lipped society. The arrest and death of these politically aware writers discouraged many young scribes, the next generation of African writers would owe their wealth to the regimes in their country, so irony and satire became order of the day.

Spiritual resonance

We are still a deeply spiritual people, I must qualify that; we believe in the presence of spirits, both evil and good, we explain many phenomena by this. We will say a man was taken over by a spirit of theft, rape, murder, anything and accept it as mitigation. Our spirit world is linked to the natural world, our spirits live in nature, our biggest fear is to upset the spirits of the dead ancestors. We might be Christians and Muslims now, but we still understand the ancient concept of spirits that should be left alone or they wreck havoc. In an African story, it is often fluid between if a person is living, dead, or a figment of the imagination. The dead are part of us, they live among us, watch over us, and are reborn in our children. Death is not the final end but it is a mere transition, so the biggest moral question/fear – mortality is only starting to affect Africans in the modern sense. So this soul-tie to the spiritual world allows a much wider exploration of moral questions, both in this dimension and the next. This why Nollywood movies have a lot of juju is them. So we see our environment as a spirit realm, a conduit to our ancestors and food source. The spirits become raw manifestations of the human psyche, greed, lust, envy, fortitude and these exist because we are still fatalistic societies. In fatalistic societies, the individual has not yet discovered the power to determine their own life, and they believe life is pre-ordained or altered by spirits.

The only story in the world

Joseph Campbell, a man who studies myths, called himself a mythologist, he describes only one story in human history. ‘The hero’s journey’ in which a world is settled and our hero is living in a utopia, a violent shock occurs and his world is turned upside-down, then the hero has to travel to world to find a treasure or amulet. Finally the hero returns to save his people from the disaster about to destroy them. This is the story of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and countless other figures, as well as movies and books. That narrative is the dream that took every African to the West, you hope to come back and save your country. What if your country doesn’t want to be saved? What if they look at you like you’re crazy? That is where literature comes in, and many good stories can come out of it. Most stories by African writers seem to be about disconnection, disconnection from your roots, your culture, and your environment. This is perhaps because many writers have studied in the West, or more importantly, they write for western audiences. I have written 3 books, two of which I deleted and burnt, they were written for a western audience and they had no authenticity at all. Write for yourself, for your audience and people that can identify with you. In Africa there is a small market, few literary agents, few writer’s workshops or editors. So the temptation is to aim for the New York Times Bestseller List, but they can spot fake stuff a mile away. Books rarely make big money, the reward should be appreciation alone, and knowing you did your best. Our stories have to be told, we need a framework to tell them that is authentic and adaptable. We can’t blame our governments for us not telling our story when we have the internet.

Reading list
Boyce Davies, Carole and Elaine Savory Fido. “African Women Writers: Toward a Literary History.” A History of Twentieth-Century African Literatures. Oyekan Owomoyela, ed. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Gerard, Albert. Contexts of African Literature. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1990.
Harrow, Kenneth. Thresholds of Change in African Literature: The Emergence of a Tradition. Portsmouth and London: Heinemann and James Curry, 1994.
Owomoyela, Oyekan. African Literatures: An Introduction. Waltham, Mass, African Studies Association, 1979.
Zell, Hans, M. “Publishing in Africa: The Crises and the Challenge.” A History of Twentieth-Century African Literatures. Oyekan Owomoyela, ed. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.


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3 Responses to Is there such a thing as African writing?

  1. This is a cute dish for African budding authors and wordy entrepreneurs like me. Be blessed.

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