I am worried that it is too late to do away with African Literature, as Taiye Selasi has proposed. It is not a question of how long the term has existed. To my mind it is the fact that it is as complicated as the identity it embodies, as nebulous in its construct and usage as the word “Africa.” Few paragraphs into her Talk Selasi might not realize that she contradicted herself. It is a slippery slope created in plain light:
“What do I mean, or not mean? By ‘African Literature,’ I refer not to the body of written and oral texts produced by storytellers on and from the continent – but rather, to the category.”
It is strange that a category called African Literature can be distinguished from the body of written and oral texts produced by storytellers on and from the continent. What may we call the body of work produced by these storytellers? We see that Selasi identifies that there are storytellers who are on and from the continent, but she is skeptical about what to call them. I wonder how her Talk would have read if she admitted this difficulty in naming instead of an outright rejection of a category. Skepticism is certainly preferable to negativity, at least in this case.
I like skepticism because it becomes potent in my attempt to outpace the complexities packed into a word. The fact of Africanness, whether manifest in literature or in personal identity, begins from a scheme of naming perpetuated by thinkers outside the physical entity called Africa. To accept the term should be to be skeptical about it, and to infuse it with the sort of meaning it must embody today. If Africa is an idea, it is petty and nonsensical to imagine it out of existence. It’s rather helpful to ask: what might it mean today, and in what ways can this meaning be deployed in literature?
If you know anything about Selasi, you will recall that she is famous for brandishing her mish-mashed identity – at once a Ghanaian, Nigerian, British and American, and now living in Rome. She made this clear in 2005 with her essay about her Afropolitan identity (in recent weeks there have been renewed skepticism about the term, so it is unnecessary for now to share my antithesis). But she reinforces her commingled identity again:
“…I was writing about personal identity, about the challenge faced by a certain demographic of Africans, both in and outside of Africa, in declaring their own identities.”
It became clear to me at a second reading that Selasi’s Talk is addressed to a group I do not belong to. The “we” she uses throughout her essay specifies an audience for whom “African Literature” is a label that can be discarded at will. I do not know who this group is or where they are located; are they “Afropolitan?” In my understanding African Literature is a parenthetical term within which I can stumble. I call myself an African writer because I am constantly trying to avoid a generalization. Within the category is a suggestion that it cannot mean just one thing. The audience Selasi is conversing with would likely imagine African Literature as just-one-thing, and they would see reason with any call for declassification. But I do not. My friends who write in Ibadan or Asmara do not engage in the fanciful performance of declassification, or the illusion that when African Literature ceases to exist their stories would begin to engage a global audience.
She quotes from Achebe’s “The African Writer and the English Language” to make the point that overlooking the complexities of the African scene is the “only” way to define African literature. Achebe’s vision was clearer than what she might have recalled. He wanted to define African literature in a way that did not overlook complexities, but embraced them as such. She wants us to embrace the complexities but she amputates the arms we should use. African Literature as a category is how we can embrace the complexities of our vast Africanness. It has become as simple as that to me.
I agree with her: “Of all the continents, Africa is the least eligible for generalization.” What worries me, however, is that if we discard the category in order to make room for its specificities and variations, there would be no endpoint to our degeneralization. Supposing we apply the same theory to the term “Nigerian Literature,” it would soon become clear that it does not account for “Igbo Literature” or the “Literature of the Nsukka People.” One specificity would lead to its underlying specificity, until we would be unable to call up the unspecified specificities.
Selasi says Ben Okri’s answer to the question “do you consider yourself an African writer” in a panel justifies her proposition. Okri had responded: “There are only two kinds of writers. Good writers and bad ones.” Well, I would answer in a different way. I would say, yes I am an African writer and I hope to be a good one. Why? I am African writer because I am Nigerian and Nigeria is in a continent called Africa and Africa is a word I am coming to terms with. In doing this I do not “unhook” a smaller story from a larger one; there is no danger of a single story in my admittance. I know there are multiple, even dispersive stories, but I need a term to account for that multiplicity. “African” is my term of choice.
When Selasi asks, “Why does it matter where a writer comes from? Does it change the way he writes?” I am wont to answer, yes it certainly does. For one the material and functional differences in the world needs to be dealt with. Literature helps with that – or I hope that the literature I write accounts for the material conditions under which I work. The more I consider my experience, my doubts and fears, my consciousness and biases, the more I realize that they enable me to offer imaginaries to the world.
For Selasi, though:
“To write fiction, one must remove oneself — one’s consciousness, one’s experiences, one’s biases, one’s doubts and fears–as completely as one can. To write powerful fiction, one disappears altogether. All writers know this moment.”
Such a moment eludes me. I wish I knew how to enable an act of disappearance in my fiction. This proposition is made with such blatancy that we might have to conclude that Selasi’s vision exaggerates its importance, or undermines the scope it should consider. The question has shifted from that of African Literature to one of the writer’s handling of material. A dangerous proposal is made: to write fiction with as much absence you can master. But when you disappear, what is left of the work? Which part of yourself would be left to complete it? What will bear the marks of your suffering?
I hope I can embody the material I am working with. It has to break me, bring me to my knees and then promise redemption, all at once. Even if I wanted to disappear when I write fiction the material wouldn’t allow me to. In fact, “powerful fiction” would mean being so present you wish you could disappear.
How do we begin to make sense of Selasi’s declaration?
“Afropolitan is a personal identity. Fiction has no need for such things.”
A piece of writing, like any godlike creative ability, takes its breath of life from its creator. The creation should be ipso facto identified by the creator. Accordingly, a category such as African Literature invokes the identity of an African – or an Afropolitan, or an Afrofuturist. That my writing is termed “African” has something to do with the fact of my being and of my belonging. Selasi may want us to belong to “a world with human literature” or to “classify literature as we do music, allowing that the identity of consequence is the writing’s, not the writer’s,” but I remain convinced that you cannot fully imagine my writing if you do not imagine me. Besides, whether or not I write a story set in Nigeria, I necessarily offer imaginaries out of my personhood and my understanding of my place in the world.
Agreed, novels aspire to “global engagement.” Certainly in a good novel the map of a nation might turn out to be the map of the world. Yet I realize that the idea of global engagement is incomplete without one of a center; the point where a compass begins to draw a circle. By all means African Literature has to stand side by side with the rest of world literature. But the departure point matters. It must be named, termed, categorized.