True African literature is crucial in helping the real Africa to emerge
Books from the continent must be written for the people who live here, writes Hans Pienaar
One would not expect business people and activists for decolonisation to sit around the same fire, but when it comes to the publishing industry it might behove both sides to chop wood together.
Writers, educators and social planners are crying out for works to be published in indigenous languages. There is a vast, virtually untouched market waiting to be exploited by those who pursue profit and revolution alike.
This was one takeaway from a recent talk by Nigerian author EE Sule at a roundtable on decolonisation at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study. Sule won the Commonwealth Prize for Literature but then had doors slammed in his face when he wanted his next novel targeted at African audiences, not readers in the West.
His main criticism of the African writing scene is that it is not really African. Authors born on the continent are enticed by literary prizes, prospects of book tours and academic employment into presenting exotic subjects for consumption by non-African audiences.
Writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are able to compete with the best authors in the world, but in the end unintentionally contribute to a neocolonisation of the continent.
Even the local versions of the colonial languages they write in, such as English, are adapted for foreign audiences. In her novel on the Biafran war, Half of a Yellow Sun, the US-based Adichie mimics Igbo inflections and idiom but elicits sniggers in Nigeria when she writes about "trucks" instead of "lorries".
"In the 21st century African literature faces stronger neocolonial forces than in the 20th century," says Sule.
"This is because in the 21st century borders are being destroyed, which opens up the global space and turns African writers into a global literary marketplace that dictates [the forms] of African aesthetics."
These often include a "niche of [exotic] idiosyncrasies", in which the writers turn themselves into marketable objects, to the point of embellishing scrapes with authority into tales of repression, ending in fleeing to the West, where their status as victims grants them refuge and lionisation.
Sule cites a story by Helon Habila, in which a struggling poet is advised: "You really must get arrested. That is the quickest way to make it — you’ll have no problem with visas after that, you might even get an international award."
The irony is that when writers do want to take on real issues in their countries, publishers turn away.
"I win international prizes every time I have a protagonist who is some sort of a victim … I have stories of Nigerians in everyday situations that no one wants to publish," Sule quotes novelist Sefi Attah.
Critics call this phenomenon West-positioning, or extroversion, and the tragedy is not that it hobbles writers but that it makes invisible the many writers and readers who value a living engagement with their communities. It also frames the discourse the world has on Africa, making it meaningless for ordinary Africans.
Sule says this started with literary icons such as Chinua Achebe. The best of the new generation "are still speaking to the West by way of positioning their narratives to appeal to Western publics [in order to] maintain prominence in Western literary capitals.
"While it does not matter where a writer lives, it is important that a writer connects organically to her birthplace, her nation, and speaks about them, to them. Every developing society needs the services of this kind of writer."
The industry perspective is sketched succinctly by Namibian publisher Peter Reiner in research by an international team published by Unesco in 2010: "When it comes to the finished product, African countries often reimport the writers, the books and the paper."
For indigenous languages, West-positioning also serves to entrench Africa’s many dictatorial regimes. For them local languages are a threat to the 5%-10% of Africans in the controlling elites because they have sufficient command over the erstwhile colonial languages.
But the international team cited research that, in economic terms alone, this is regressive as multilingual or bilingual polities post better figures. Said Ekkehard Wolff: "In the 1990s, 16 African cross-border languages were already spoken by 16-million people; exploring their potential for inter-African communication, publishing and education will be rewarding."
From a developmental perspective, the team found communication is crucial, and it simply doesn’t happen if colonial languages are relied on for written messages. Politically, the publishing dispensation will remain a recipe for instability.
"Retaining the former colonial languages as languages of instruction may serve a small elite but works to the disadvantage of the majority of Africans.
"The language of instruction is a powerful mechanism for social stratification, increasing inequalities," says Norwegian linguist Birgit Brock-Utne.
But things are changing, and in unexpected ways. In Kano a vibrant Hausa literature has arisen, with Muslim women the dominant writers. An entrenched oral literature allows storytelling and drama to feature strongly.
In West-positioned publishing, tales and plays written mostly by men have made it to colonial centres, though women have for generations been satirical voices.
A film industry, dubbed Kaniwood, drawing from this tradition has grown in northern Nigeria and has in turn spawned romances focusing on women’s problems. Though censored by Nigerian Muslim authorities, there is enough leeway for the self-published books to sell in tens of thousands.
In Namibia, says Reiner, about a third of all new titles are now in indigenous languages. The usual problems apply as for all enterprises in Africa, such as a lack of infrastructure.
But this may be a blessing: "Whereas Western society has become unthinkable without computer technology, such technology will remain a dream for many Africans for quite some time," says Reiner.
"The most practical way of storing and disseminating information in Africa at this stage is the written word."
African publishing needs a change in government attitudes, but change only makes sense if there is an industry to support. There have been intergovernmental initiatives, but most have stalled. Sule believes the AU should step in. "The AU should put in place an endowment that will consciously assist Africa to build their own literary capitals."