Tendai Huchu | A Few Thoughts on the Literature Which May/May Not Be Called African Literature

Tendai Huchu is the author of The Hairdresser of Harare. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Wasafiri, Warscapes, The Africa Report, The Zimbabwean, Kwani? journal and numerous other publications. In 2013 he received a Hawthornden Fellowship and a Sacatar Fellowship. He was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize. His next novel will be The Maestro, The Magistrate, & The Mathematician.

We live in interesting times for lovers of African literature. You can’t go a week or two these days without some middle-aged white dude decrying the death of the novel etc, etc. yet in Africa we’re still thinking of expansion. It could very well be that the western novel reached its zenith whenever and is now in decline, but Africa still has room and hope for expansion. There is a surge of confidence in writers who are winning over global audiences for their stories.

Some of the more interesting developments are happening outside the stables of large international publishers and don’t get as much notice/airplay/recognition. I’m thinking of indie authors in romance like Myne Whitman (A Heart to Mend), Nkem Ivara (Closer than a Brother), Rudo Muchoko (When Love Strikes) and Kiru Taye (author of the highly popular Men of Valour series, which has done extremely well on Amazon), who are pushing the boundaries and mining spaces traditional publishers have neglected.

In speculative fiction you have self-pubbed authors like Masimba Musodza who publishes in both Shona and English, and whose novel, Hebert Wants to Come Home, was first serialised on JukePop Serials. Running parallel to the work of indie authors, it is also interesting to see new developments by Ivor Hartmann, publisher of AfroSF, and Marius du Plessis of Fox and Raven Publishing who are creating alternative platforms for writers working in Genre Fiction.

There is the never-ending debate in which African writers are accused of writing for a Western audience etc, etc. You’ve heard it all before, because the most popular writers you hear of are in effect published by Western publishers. But one needs to go beyond that, and, if you are willing to look, you will see there is a wealth of variety out there that seldom gets noticed.

While western literature has a massive R&D department in the form of the mid-list and smaller/alternative publishers, the African market is simply not yet developed enough for that. This is the space that is being occupied by self-published authors and writers’ collectives who do not always get recognition and this makes it hard to see new innovation on these fronts.

It will also be interesting to see whether authors like Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Deon Meyer exert a large enough gravitational pull for new writers to enter the crime genre. Already in Nigeria there is a new start-up, Cordite Books, headed by Helon Habila which hopefully will ignite a spark in crime fiction written on the continent.

The more recognisable/mainstream end of the literary spectrum seems to be moving towards what has been termed the Global Novel, which speaks to two or more continents. The GN is not without its criticisms, perhaps best outlined by Pankaj Mishra in his article Beyond The Global Novel for the Financial Times. But with so many of the continent’s leading authors based in the West, a great many products of the American MFA, it is difficult to see this drift as anything but inevitable.

Another interesting/new factor to add to the literary scene has been the emergence of online bloggers and critics. Publishers have often complained that newspapers on the continent have little real interest in literature, which is why bloggers like Zahrah Nesbitt (Bookshy), Sarah Norman (White Whale), James Murua (James Murua’s Literature Blog), Ainehi Edoro (Brittle Paper), Nana-Ama Kyerematen (Afri*Diaspora), Vitabu and many others now occupy a crucial space in terms of reviewing and publicising books from around Africa to their potential readership across the world. This can only be enriching because book blogs (even for large western publishers) have become the essential, go-to place for readers today and can create a buzz for works that might otherwise be ignored in mainstream media.

The work of expanding access to literature as more popular art form on the continent will have to be done on the ground, which is why it is essential to pay attention to new and old initiatives like Kwani? Short Story Day Africa, Worldreader, Writivism, Mazwi, Paperright and a host of local publishers across the continent who do work of reaching both writers and readers, one person at a time. The problems of intra-African book trade are well known and remain a hindrance, but hopefully the internet will make it possible for readers to access works by “African authors” regardless of location, at reasonable cost.

This article merely skims my anecdotal knowledge on what is happening in African lit today and I can only speak of my interactions with other practitioners in the field, but I certainly have reason to hope for a larger and more vibrant literary culture in future compared to the one we have today.

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