Five unafrican novels to read before you die


Back in 2014, a post entitled “Five African Novels to Read Before You Die” appeared on the University of Leeds blog. Authored by Brendon Nicholls, a lecturer in “African and Postcolonial Literatures” at Leeds, it consisted of:

1) Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)

2) Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Petals of Blood (1977)

3) Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born (1968)

4) Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (1988)

5) Bessie Head, Maru (1977)

Now, Aaron Bady has already blogged about some of the problems with this list, of which there are many, for New Inquiry. You can read his excellent post here, but to sum it up for you if you don’t have the time or inclination: Nicholls’s list is, to quote Bady, “fine, albeit extremely predictable”, the African lits equivalent of “Five White Writers You Should Read Before You Die: Shakespeare, Milton, Dostoyevsky, Austen, Woolf.”  It excludes African literatures not in English, and ignores completely the outpouring of literature written and/or published during the last thirty years (as well as, one might add, that written and published before 1958). Nicholls’s list consists, as Bady notes, of “canonical, important stuff”. But, he asks, “does the world need another suggestion that you read Things Fall Apart?”  As you might have guessed, I’m with Bady on this – the world certainly doesn’t need another suggestion that you read Things Fall Apart – a novel that makes it onto several widely available lists of 100 novels everyone must read. Nor does it need another suggestion that you read Nervous Conditions – a novel I would happily never read another word about, let alone of, ever again.

Bady deals well with the problem at the heart of Nicholls’s list–the passing up of an opportunity to promote less well-known, exciting, new(er) literature in favour of reinscribing a relatively well-known, regionally and linguistically-limited, and largely outdated canon–and offers a valuable antidote, in the form of his own list, which I urge you to take a look at (and read!). Having repaired some of the damage in this way, why, six weeks later, am I still unable to let my irritation with Nicholls’s post go?

I’ll tell you why. What *really* bothers me about this post is the implication that some novels are simply “unafrican”. I’ve wondered, over the past few weeks, if this is perhaps reading too much into Nicholl’s list. I’ve decided it’s not. Why else would Nobel laureates JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer be omitted from this list? I’m not saying that the Nobel process is unfettered by racism, nor to deny claims that Coetzee and Gordimer might well, to the European eyes of the Committee, represent the acceptable face of African literature. As for the double-whammy of race and gender discrimination in relation to the prize, well, Ms Afropolitan’s post speaks for itself. Nevertheless, the glaring omission of African writers of European heritage from Nicholls’s list is only the tip of a very problematic iceberg.

At stake in this omission are the very parameters of what we think of as “African literature,” or – to use Bady’s infinitely preferable phrase – “the literatures of the Africas”. Now, I’m no linguist, but as someone who works on South African literature I’ve read a lot of Afrikaans literature in translation, and I’m struck not just by the absence of works in translation from Nicholls’s list, but by the lack of any disclaimer dealing with this in the post (especially given that Petals of Blood, number 2 on Nicholls’s list, is the last of Ngugi’s to be written in English first).  This leads us to another omission: novels by African writers set in locations outside of Africa. What about Brian Chikwava’s truly mindblowing novel Harare North, which focuses on a community of Zimbabweans living in London? (Seriously, if you’re only planning to read one more novel EVER make it this one.) Or Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s equally stunning Americanah? Forget “African,” these novels are among the best I’ve ever read (and with three literature degrees and eight years of undergraduate teaching under my belt, I’ve read a LOT of novels). Adhaf Soueif’s works, too, fall into this category, as do many others.  In this vein, what about writers whose identities include, but are not limited to, the African? North African writers in particular occupy this liminal space, often categorized as “Arab” rather than “African” – what do we lose in thinking that the categories are mutually exclusive? But also writers like the Nigerian-Americans Teju Cole, Okey Ndibe, and Nnedi Okorafor; Olufemi Terry, a Sierra Leonean resident of Germany; or NoViolet Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean living in the US?

I’m also wondering about some of the more sinister implications of the African-Unafrican dichotomy. Another omission from the Nicholls’s list is LGBTQ lit. I’ve got my reservations about this as a category, but in the current climate of persecution and condemnation of homosexuality as “unafrican”, the list’s equation of “African” with Anglophone, black, and straight is, well, worrying – though this is not the only reason why the incisive, enjoyable work of authors such as Binyavanga Wanaina and Diriye Osman would be on my list (which, as you might have gathered, would struggle to keep to five books).

And finally, why no non-fiction? Is this not literature too?

As a concluding note, I’d like to flag up the excellent work of people who work hard to promote the work of African writers, like @liberatormag, Jalada Africa, the AfroLibrarians, and especially Angela Wachuka, whose project is a great place to start exploring outside the canon.

More in the series:

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