I remember listening to a talk by Chimamanda Adichie, where she said some of her writing had been criticised for not being African enough. I wonder if the quota of starving children and ‘savage’ rituals had not been met. With so many ‘African’ writers out there, the world is spoilt for choice. African writers in Africa and the diaspora write fantasy, romance, thriller, crime, historical, satire and so many more genres than you can name (Don’t forget Tales by Moonlight o – oral tradition). However, walk into most mainstream bookstores, you are likely to see this diverse group of writers lumped together into one bookshelf labelled ‘African Fiction!’
So What is African Fiction/Writing?
When we put the word ‘African’ before the word fiction, it seems that we are talking about a preconceived idea about Africanness that is divorced from or supplementary to the ideas of space and place that are inherent in other geographical writing. For example would you say European fiction? If you study North American writers, you expect that Mark Twain is different from Edgar Allan Poe is different from John Steinbeck is different from Emily Dickinson is different from James Baldwin is different from Harper Lee is different from Langston Hughes is different from Toni Morrison is different from Zora Neale Hurston is different from Maya Angelou. But when we encounter ‘African’ fiction, there seems to be some unspoken collective suggestion that no matter how different the subject matters and the plots and the styles and the genres, there must be some thread of similar Africanness that binds them. Like all Africans live in one hut so must have the exact same lived experiences. We place an invisible cage on the writing. The writing must tick our superimposed ‘Africanness boxes’ or else it fails as writing. This is a false and possibly dangerous misconception. Labels can be prisons, if they deny us the dignity and the luxury of multiplicity of existence. If they deny us the ability to dream new worlds as we envision them. If they limit what words we can speak into the atmosphere. Each writer writes and speaks his/her own truth. As African writers we are many and our visions are many. We are part of this world, not an exotic aside that the world should look upon to appease it fetish longings, a side and optional dish in the smorgasbord of literary delights. In terms of writing fiction, ‘African’ is an identity marker, not a literary genre. Africa is a continent, not a cause, not a curse.