This week I am currently reading outside of my comfort zone. For the last couple of years I have been solely focusing on African Literature and literature by Writers of Colour. This, I’d like to call my own political act of defiance - an attempt to right the wrongs of my socialization and conditioning, having only read Western-centric books for the first two decades of my life.
Like most people, I grew up on fairy tales and stories of white picket fences and girls with blonde hair. These books shaped so much of my childhood; how I saw myself and perceived the world and those around me, how I spoke even. Almost everything I saw and experienced as a child and young adult were from a white gaze – I wanted to be a white child in America and that’s exactly how I behaved.
When I re-discovered African Literature in my early twenties thanks to Chimamanda and Americanah, something in me shifted. Here was a girl, Ifemelu, growing up in Africa in a middle class family – strong willed, highly opinionated, observant, trying to figure out where she fits in this grand scheme of things called life and I could see so much of myself in her. This book birthed in me a hunger to read and rediscover, to learn and re-learn so much of my earlier conditioning. My reading habits also shifted tremendously and became more intentional, not merely as a passive hobby.
I recently picked up Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout because I wanted to challenge myself. It was also a gift from a friend and I had promised I would give it a go. I wanted to wean myself from having a one-track mind when it comes to reading and to diversify my literary palate. Now, whilst Olive Kitteridge is an interesting story about an older lady struggling to make sense of the challenges in her life, in her small coastal town in Maine, I cannot help but arch my eyebrows in surprise that the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
It got me thinking about what I’d like to call ‘hypocrisy in reviewing and marketing of literature by Africans and Writers of Colour’ vis a vis their White counterparts. African books are more often than not marketed almost exclusively for their thematic structure and the socio-political issues they address and seldom for their literary attributes. Take a book like Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi for instance, it was initially rejected as being ‘too African’ and when it was eventually published in the UK and US, it was dubbed ‘The Great Ugandan Novel’ by The Guardian. In similar fashion, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell was dubbed ‘The Great Zambian Novel We Didn’t Know We Needed’ by Electric Literature and House of Stone by Novuyo Tshuma was again described by The Guardian as ‘Zimbabwe’s Story Extraordinarily Told.’ There seems to be this trend by early reviewers and marketers of these books to sell them with an over focus on themes and this has contributed to the growing idea that all African writers are political.
What I feel this does, is implant the idea in the reader and any potential writer of colour, that they are limited in what they can write and/or what is viewed as marketable by publishers. African authors are then boxed into being political - the moral conscience and spokespersons for the continent which can stifle their creativity and story-telling abilities.
Think about it, for a book by an Author of colour to be nominated for literary awards, let alone win, it has to be seen to be groundbreaking in some way. In most cases, it must be seen to address some pertinent socio-political issue or social injustice such as slavery or colonialism, history, feminism, sexual identity, immigration etc. The same standards or expectations are not imposed on white authors.
White authors are given wide berth to write whatever mundane topic they so wish, and the books are on the converse marketed solely for their literary attributes. There is no expectation on White authors to write stories that are heavy on socio-political themes or to address social injustice. Their stories are never considered representative of all Caucasians. They are simply allowed to let their literary creative juices flow and write what speaks to them.
When Bernardine Evaristo in Girl, Woman, Other, wrote a free flowing prose devoid of punctuation and no adherence to the rules of Grammar, and Maaza Mengiste used a similar style in The Shadow King, some reviewers termed these books as pretentious and accused the writers of trying to sound ‘literary’ and flaunting their MFA training (as in the case of Mengiste) – meaning, stop trying too hard, get on with it and write the damn story! What most fail to recognize, is that these books are first and foremost literary objects and authors should have free reign to play with all literary devices at their disposal.
Black authors are seldom lauded for their literary prowess and while there is nothing wrong with highlighting socio-political issues, the publishing industry should take caution in pushing the idea that it is the only thing African writers can or should write. It shouldn’t be the only thing. The ways in which publishers, marketers and early reviewers invite readers to engage with these books affect the way they are received by readers which in turn affects public perception of literature from Africa, sales and ultimately, recognition of writers as just that, writers not politicians.
I am definitely keen on seeing more diverse stories coming out of Africa - love stories and YA fiction, more Afro-futuristic and Sci-fi books, more thrillers and stories about the elderly; and I would love for them to be reviewed for their poetry and prose, for their command of language and captivating story telling and not solely for their conscientious thematic structure.