A Look at Some African Literature

AmericanahI was reminded once again of Africa’s rich literary tradition when I recently read…Americanah.

Though much of the novel is set in the United States, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 book tells a story that starts and ends in Nigeria. And the author splits her time between Nigeria (where she was born in 1977) and the U.S.

Americanah stars Ifemelu — who comes to the U.S. to study, becomes a widely read blogger on race after working in a variety of more-menial jobs, and gets into diverse romantic relationships even as she remains drawn to Nigeria and her former lover there (Obinze). So we get a fascinating look at Nigerian society (its culture, class divisions, etc.) through the eyes of someone from that nation as well as a fascinating look at American society (its culture, racism, etc.) from that same character — who’s initially a total outsider in the U.S. and rarely feels truly comfortable even after more than a decade in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Among Adichie’s other novels are Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), a compelling chronicle of how various characters are affected by Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war.

Obinze’s daughter in Americanah is named Buchi — possibly a nod to renowned Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta (1944-2017), who moved to the United Kingdom in her late teens. Emecheta’s excellent second novel is the semi-autobiographical Second Class Citizen, about a young woman who relocates to the UK and deals with a difficult marriage, exhausting parenthood, racism, and sexism as she tries to become a writer.

Adichie’s inspirations included Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) and his classic 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, which chronicles pre-colonial life and the arrival of Europeans in Nigeria.

Another renowned Nigerian writer is 1934-born Wole Soyinka, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. Soyinka has written many more plays and poems than novels, but his The Interpreters (1964) is a memorable book starring five middle-class characters who live and work in early-1960s Lagos.

Yes, all four writers mentioned so far are/were from Nigeria.

There are of course also native African novelists who are white — among them the 1991 Nobel-winning Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) and Cry, the Beloved Country author Alan Paton (1903-1988). Both were South Africa residents with anti-apartheid views. I have not yet tried the work of 1940-born J.M. Coetzee of that same country; I’ve read every other author mentioned in this post.

Also, 2007 Nobel winner Doris Lessing (1919-2013) spent much of her early life in what’s now Zimbabwe before moving to England.

Non-African authors who wrote novels with African settings include — among others — 2008 Nobel winner J.M.G. Le Clezio, whose Desert is partly set in Morocco; Paul Bowles, whose The Sheltering Sky also has a North African milieu; Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness unfolds in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and H. Rider Haggard, whose fantastical Sheย takes place in “a lost African kingdom.”

Of course, a number of Africa-set novels by non-Africans suffer from some stereotyping and patronizing attitudes on the part of their writers.

Any authors and novels you’d like to mention that fit the theme of this post?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started, award-winning โ€œMontclairvoyantโ€ topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which discusses topics such as the damage done by Tropical Storm Isaias — is here.

49 thoughts on “A Look at Some African Literature

  1. Pingback: A Look at Some African Literature – My Kreative Korna

  2. As it hasn’t been mentioned by other, allow me to add Andre Gide’s “The Immoralist” to the pile of books by Europeans, this time a Frenchman, that takes place, among other places, in Algeria and Tunis. This book was once controversial because its chief character is attracted to men, but not exclusively, as he is married. His treatment of his literally long-suffering wife is off-putting, especially give her diligent nursing of him when he contracts tuberculosis– the disease to which she eventually succumbs herself. Its take on the North African natives and their temptations is dated, but probably indicative of prevailing colonial perspective. Overall, such as I remember from my reading a half-century ago, it has a decadent feel, as if, inevitably, the chief character is sliding into something liberating yet downhill.

    I should also mention William Burroughs, who lived in Tangier in the years he was concocting “Naked Lunch”. Upon finishing the book, he threw all the chapters into the air and sent them to be published in the order he had picked them up. He also found much to admire in the nubile youth of his surroundings, and mentions of them crop up, if only in passing, throughout his writings.

    Must be something in the water of North Africa that drew more than one young man to itself. Arthur Rimbaud, spurning France and a life in letters, after first weathering the scandal of an affair with the married Paul Verlaine, skittered about North Africa in various attempts to become wealthy, most notably as a supplier of guns.

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  3. African literature and I are but passing strangers, though thanks to you and the gang of commenters i have a chance to rectify my condition. I have read “The Palm Wine Drinkard”, by Nigerian Amos Tutuola, a woozy sort of a nightmare of a rich young man with his own maker of palm wine on hand. When the man, termed a ‘tapster’ dies, the rich young man seeks to rescue him out of the land of the dead so as to maintain a reliable supply of palm wine. After many a fantastic occurrence among spirits, he is rewarded by coming into possession of a magical egg, from which the wine flows freely.

    Published in 1952, it enjoys the distinction of bring the first novel published outside of Africa in English by an African author. Dylan Thomas gave it a positive review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Wow — “The Palm Wine Drinkard” sounds like quite a fantastical book, from your excellent summary. And sobering that it took until 1952 for the first novel to be published outside of Africa in English.

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    • Thank you, William! There are indeed many great writers around the world that Americans (including myself) don’t know about or don’t know enough about. Americans and American media can be more insular than the citizens and media of many other countries. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

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  4. Hi Dave, two books come to mind:

    The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. Courtenay is a bit of an Aussie fave, but he was born in Africa and that’s where he set his debut novel. A very moving story about a boy with a tough upbringing who goes on to be a successful boxer.

    I read Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime a few months ago, but it’s refused to leave me. Mostly, it’s about a boy growing up in a crazy family, and could be set in lots of places around the world, but Noah includes many snippets of the different cultures throughout Africa which makes the memoir a perfect mix of humour and sadness.

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    • Thank you, Susan, for those two book mentions! After seeing your description, I put “The Power of One” on my to-read list. ๐Ÿ™‚ And although I’m not a TV watcher, I’ve enjoyed seeing some YouTube clips of “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah. His memoir is definitely highly regarded, and sounds really gripping in addition to being funny.

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  5. Hi, Dave. If memory serves at all, I believe Adichie was the first book I read by a Nigerian author, and the only South African author I’ve read is J.M. Coetzee. The latter emigrated to Australia and commenced writing some experimental literature. On the topic of apartheid I highly recommend Age of Iron, Disgrace and Life & Times of Michael K. Another favorite is Algerian author, Albert Camus. What I find so refreshing about Adichie is her take on cultural differences between people of the same ‘race’ from different countries. Lots of great recommendations found in this thread!!

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  6. Oh, dear, looks like you’ve found a spot of literature where my background is pretty lacking! I have read some pieces that take place in Africa, most notably the first few in the Wilbur Smith series. I stopped reading after that because they began to feel a bit repetitive. I will say that Americanah is on my list, I just haven’t managed to get a copy of it yet. Then of course I’ve read a slew of WWI & WWII material that takes place in Africa ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s an area I need to get caught up in with novels though.

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    • Thank you, M.B.! I think a lot of us have not read a huge number of novels by African authors. And, yes, Africa figures in a lot of nonfiction, including works with a war focus. I guess WWI and WWII both had North African campaigns.

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  7. I seriously need to read some books set in Africa written by native novelists. Just thinking there that those I have read set in Africa were largely colonial. Our of Africa. And let’s just look at the African Queen for a second. It may mention Africa in title, it may be set there but beyond that is seemed as African as Scots mist. Great post .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Don’t Lose Hope! Great that you’ve read all of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books! I’ve gotten to two so far. I’m sure there are quite a few more in her future, given that she’s only 42.

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  8. I enjoyed “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi. It’s a family saga set in Ghana and in the US. It tells the stories of two sisters and their numerous descendants, beginning in the 18th century and moving up to present-day. The author was born in Gyana and lives in the US.

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  9. Oh dear, here I go again segueing into non-fiction. I heard Lehman Gbowee interviewed on late night television a few years ago. She was speaking about her book: โ€œMight Be our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War.โ€ The next day I had the book in hand and read how Lehman Gbowee was broken by the Liberian civil war. It was a transformative read for it told a story of one woman who join with other women to lead the Liberian Mass Action for Peace. My takeaway was that there were many others like Lehman who strive to bring positive outcomes for all. When we read her story we celebrate the lives of others who follow her same path. The other memorable read (fiction) for me was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which was a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. The quote that I kept from this poignant story was: โ€œListen. Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember.โ€ Whether fiction or non-fiction, reading a book changes you. Another great post, Dave!!!

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    • Thank you, Liz! I also haven’t read a lot of African literature — just enough to eke out a blog post about it, I guess. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I’ve never read any of Nadine Gordimer’s short stories. (I wonder if the one you mentioned was metaphorical in some way?) I did get to one of her novels: “My Son’s Story.” Her long friendship with Nelson Mandela was inspiring.

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  10. I was somewhat disappointed in ‘Americanah’, which I just finished reading last week. It had such a promising beginning. The first 50 pages or so were very engaging and had some interesting observations on the differences between American-Africans and African-Americans. However, Ifemelu became progressively less sympathetic. Her blog entries seemed superficial and not as insightful as the observations in the early part of the novel. She didn’t seem to have sufficient motivation for many of her impetuous actions. Her boyfriends, other than their race seemed interchangeable. Obinze’s situation was a bit more interesting and his dilemma as an illegal alien in the U.K. was more interesting than Ifemelu’s somewhat less difficult life fitting in on at least a financial level in the U.S. I’ve watched some interviews with Adiche on YouTube and she’s pretty interesting. Maybe one of her other novels will be somewhat more profound.

    I am now more interested in checking out other African authors. I don’t know why I haven’t read ‘Things Fall Apart’ or ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ or something by Naipaul other than that his statement about women not being able to produce literature that’s as significant as that created by men turned me off of him. You mentioned Joseph Conrad who set a few of his novellas and novels in Africa. You also mentioned H.Rider Haggard, who among others, was an influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs who, through his Tarzan stories, probably made more Americans aware of a highly fictionalized Africa than they would have been.

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    • Thank you, Brian!

      I can’t disagree with some of your points. I liked Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” more than her “Americanah,” even though the “Half of a Yellow Sun” ending left something to be desired.

      But, overall, even with its flaws, I found “Americanah” to be an absorbing read. I guess one could argue that the impetuousness of some of Ifemelu’s actions resulted from her cultural disorientation living in the U.S., and her missing Obinze and knowing he was superior to her later boyfriends Curt and Blaine (even though she sabotaged the initial relationship with Obinze).

      Ifemelu is indeed not a totally sympathetic character, which may have been Adichie’s intent. That made her seem more real.

      As for Tarzan — yes, a mass phenomenon for many years with a very distorted/fictionalized view of Africa.

      Liked by 2 people

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