No Selasi, African Literature Exists

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.


6 thoughts on “No Selasi, African Literature Exists”

  1. I agree Emmanuel. The term “African Literature” does not in any way disqualify African writers from the global literary scene, it only helps define where we are coming from. Yes, there are stereotypes automatically conjured when the term is mentioned but this is only because a lot of the writings from Africa have substantiated these stereotypes. What perhaps should change are the stories within the classification. They should be as diverse and inclusive as the goings-on within Africa. The category is necessary. We relate with the world from it.

  2. This entire post is, to be honest, silly, as it’s very foundations are born in clear and palpable feelings of inferiority to the author. The first sign of this is in your calling to the fore “afropolitanism,” as though that is what her talk was about. The second is in your blatant missing of the point she made.
    The long and short of her talk was that classifying literature by geography (ironic in itself as secondary school students are made to choose between those very 2 subjects) is limited, and limiting – in terms of expressing and capturing what the authors intend. She did not state, or even imply that it excludes anyone from a “global market,” as you have so graciously implied.

    As a reader, I wholeheartedly agree with her.

    But if you actually want to “take her down,” as you have so desperately tried to do here, ask yourself these questions; what exactly is “African Literature?” Literature about Africans? literature by Africans? Literature in Africa?

    If I, an African teenager, living in Africa, wrote a novel entirely about a Caucasian family, in, say, France, with no connections to Africa at all, would that be “African literature?”

    If I were a Caucasian male and I wrote a novel about Africans in Africa, doing African things, would that be “African literature” bearing in mind in this situation I would have not the slightest hint of Africa in my blood?

    The “category” does not exist. To anybody with a brain, at least.

  3. “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.” That statement evinces some kind of “ressentiment” of the pureblood. Perhaps, it is evidence of something much worse. It certainly is in bad taste.

    To be sure, and in spite of her disavowal, there is a fundamental connection to be made between Selasi’s inept deconstruction of African literature and her Afropolitanism, and I think Iduma, in his penultimate paragraph, goes beyond animus to grappling with substantive issues.

    Nonetheless, I’d say the likes of Lekan are monists, far more simpleminded than the Selasi they claim to agree with. Lekan asks,”But if you actually want to ‘take her down,’ as you have so desperately tried to do here, ask yourself these questions; what exactly is ‘African Literature?’ Literature about Africans? literature by Africans? Literature in Africa?”

    I say, African literature is all that and more—for the sake of conversation, I’ll pretend that Lekan’s loaded questions should be answered simply. The short answer to Lekan’s other, hypothetical, questions is: yes.

    I am sure that if Lekan merely paid attention to the history of the African novel, Lekan’d find that those hypothetical questions were answered so long ago, and that even now contemporary reality consistently responds to those questions in the affirmative. The mode in which Lekan put those hypothetical questions merely reveals Lekan for the rube if not the racist. And, that’s just by considering the African novel.

    Being African literature or European literature or American literature doesn’t stop a work from being something else at the same time. Just as Selasi can, wonderfully, be Ghanaian, Nigerian, British and American at the same time. The implicit assumption that a thing has to be only one thing at any one time and in all and every context is false.

    The term African literature functions in very complex ways. An attempt to reduce it to one thing, due to a yearning for exactitude or universality, is so simplistic as to be ludicrous.

    A similar effect is produced when Selasi tries to hang her arguments on the peg of authorial intentions. I’ll ignore Wimsatt and his infamous 11th footnote: what about the stated intentions of the Achebes, the Armahs, who intend that their work be read as African literature?

    Lekan concludes by claiming, “The ‘category’ does not exist.” The arguments of both Selasi and Lekan would benefit from a statement of their understandings of the meanings of the word “exist.” It certainly seems quixotic to “designate” something, go so far as try to “take [it] down,” yet maintain that it doesn’t “exist.” To place a thing “under erasure” requires a strategy that is more self-conscious and explicit.

    On the surface, Selasi’s and Lekan’s moves fly in the face of logic. Their assertions certainly fly in the face of fact. Do they mean that like unicorns, African literature doesn’t exist? If their argument is something of that sort then it wouldn’t be out of place to congratulate them on their perceptiveness.

    I think both sides of the debate would be less susceptible to certain types of howlers if this debate is framed in functional terms: how does the category function? And, one can read Selasi as having engaged with this question, if one chooses to look beyond her provocative framework to seeing that she argues that it can function in racist ways.

    Selasi also takes time to give her account of the emergence of such categories, out of exclusionary, nationalist contexts. Although, she seems too caught up in the beauty of her own rhetoric to thoroughly examine the specific pre-colonial and colonial contexts of the emergence of African literature. Perhaps, to go down that road would expose the inconvenient contradictions of her polemical piece.

    On the other hand, one can read Iduma’s essay as asking whether the ways in which Selasi presents the category as functioning are the only ways in which the category functions or can function. Which leads to another salient, normative, question: how should it function or should it not function at all? The latter question is one way of reading Selasi’s submission.

    Selasi’s ontological framing, which she claims she intends to be provocative, certainly provokes laughter. The joke is on her and those who don’t challenge her framing of the issue.

    What exists isn’t merely determined by the arguments in fashionably disingenuous essays. Selasi’s propositions are no less arbitrary and unstable than the category she seeks to attack. But above all, it is unlikely that the adoption of her position would slay the dragon of racism, which I take to be her ultimate quarry. The category can be used in sloppy and racist ways. To argue that it should not be used at all for those reason is funny. I am at least glad that Selasi uses “African literature” 18 times in 15 pages. That is certainly better than “the nothing nothings.” LoL!

    I certainly find her amusing even as I disagree with her enterprise.

    1. I think Taiye did not do enough research for her article — the only problem I have with her work as a whole is that she assumes too much that her personal experiences are common experiences. Having said that, if Taiye had done enough research she would have found out that the category of african literature has been unpacked and it encompasses the complexities of Africa. Within African literature exist national literatures in local languages, national literatures in european languages, oral literatures, gikuyu literatures, swahili literatures etc. The thing is that african literature is just a category that allows us to speak of literature coming from a certain experience — the same way it allowed Selasi to speak of her experiences. Without this category Selasi would not have had the tools to even express her rather eloquent essay. but selasi can go on being all afropolitan if she wants. and maybe she can also read mudimbe and gikandi on the invention of african literature. these two scholars do say that african literature was invented but they do not deny its existence. yes african literature was invented and they are lots of us who will infuse it with meaning . And selasi talks of categorising literature according to content and here she messes up big time because content embraces the very things she is against eg nationalities, politics and identities. she should rather have spoken about form

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