What are your memories of ‘Africa ‘O5’, this – if you didn’t notice yet – yearlong series of events, political and cultural, aimed at focussing a nation’s attention on that continent? For me, the highlights have been under-the-radar-moments, mainly about comradeship; bumping into some old friend at a concert or a talk, and setting your childhoods or the old country to rights over a drink after. Just spending good time amongst folk for whom Africa is more than a once-in-a-decade thing.
As for the high-profile, public side, my two abiding memories are both, unfortunately, sad ones. The first is watching Bob Geldof’s trawl through the present-day Congo for a BBC TV series and seeing him – surprise surprise – deploy Joseph Conrad’s century-old ‘Heart of Darkness’ as the main frame for his musings. The second is of hearing about Penguin’s failure to include its novelist Chinua Achebe, author of the celebrated novel ‘Things Fall Apart’, in its 70th-anniversary marking series of ‘Pocket Penguins, a series designed, apparently, to showcase ‘the breadth, diversity and quality’ of its list. “Both Baldwin and Achebe, who I concede some people might feel were left out, in fact sell very little in this country. We were looking at our foremost writers,” explained Penguin’s Marketing director Joanna Prior. Strictly speaking, the Penguin story isn’t an ‘Africa ‘O5 moment’, but it’s linked with it in my head, not least because Achebe wrote his novel partly in response to Conrad, Geldof’s Congolese-writer-of-choice.
The Golden Age of African literature is generally held to date from around the time of the 1958 publication of ‘things Fall Apart’ to the early seventies, when luminaries such as Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Wole Soyinka bestrode the international stage. Why is is that since then – and even then if Penguin is to be believed – books by black Africans have made so little impression on the western imagination? During a period when Indian and Indian diasporic literature, for example, has continued to make a strong showing.
For sure, there are any number of factors involved – and I don’t not claiming to be an expert in this matter, but, from my interested-observer, in-between-standpoint as a Briton of African descent, a couple of reasons stand out.
The first concerns the production qualities and general ‘vibe’ of many African books. Not surprisingly, given the wioder economic malaise of the continent, many africa-published books are poorly produced. The text is often small and crammed onto pages with narrow margins, the covers generic – not the most alluring prospect for your impatient western agent/ publisher hunting for goodies at an international book fair. Added to this is a conservative lean and an overregard for formality in many African cultures which can have a deadening effect on the prose, and saddle the books with an old-fashioned feel to western eyes. When you add to this Africa’s long-standing position as a place that is only really worthy of the west’s worthy attention – ‘These poor, afflicted people!’ as Queen Victoria was fond of saying – you have a low-selling cocktail. Worthiness will get you charity donations but it doesn’t (unless you hit the schools set text jackpot) shift a lot of books.
White African writers, or whites writing Africa-set stories, do not seem to suffer from any such ‘worthy’ suspicions. From a white perspective, it’s boom time in Africa. Nobel Laureates Nadime Gordimer and JM Coetzee, Peter Godwin, Breyten Breytenbach, Alexandra Fuller with her Zimbabwean farm angst and of course, Alexander McCall Smith with his Ladies Detective Agency series.
Now it may be that these writers are the only talents around, but I think that history commands us to be a touch more sceptical than that. Black Africa’s literary highpoint came at a time when the continent was going through decolonisation, and many of its lauded books were about the effects of that colonial period on African minds and cultures. The west was interested not least because they were in the story. Africa has moved on, but this western desire to be in the story is catered to by the interest in white tales of Africa. Historically, the Africa- billed – and indeed, more widely black-billed -cultural produce that makes a splash is rarely primarily about the place and its peoples, but more about whiteness: white fears or expectations, missions; a suitable backdrop to deal with white masculinity, perhaps, or heroism (Rider Haggard, Hemingway etc). The racial thinking that has existed in Europe at least since the Enlightenment days of Hume and Kant, that Africans are lower, have less interesting stuff in them, casts a long shadow.
There are fully human, 3-D, exciting stories to be found in Africa. These are countries with their own intellectual hubs with a new young, globalised, generation of people who are in touch with more than we think they are. Writers such as Cameroon’s Calixthe Beyala, for example, tell gritty urban tales of a kind we more often associate with a London or a New York, and the new, smart literary journal ‘Kwani’ is already being hailed as Africa’s ‘Granta’. More relevantly, perhaps, from a UK perspective, at a time when Africans are soon to replace Caribbeans as the largest black presence in Britain, there are a growing number of stories from British Africans that take a reckonning with their dual heritage. We hope you enjoy tasting some of these new flavours in Cheltenham.