This blog was first published on Commonwealth Writers site.
By Louise Umutoni, a Rwandan writer and journalist who has worked as a journalist in Rwanda and Canada, and is the founder of Andika Ma, a literary community of Rwandan female writers.
Writing from the Uganda International Writers’ Conference, she charts an African literary renaissance and asks whether a fundamental question of African literature can ever be answered.
Fifty-three years after the male-dominated Conference of African Writers of English Expression at Kampala’s Makerere University, we are back in Uganda attempting to find answers to debates launched by Africa’s first wave of writers. When Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kofi Awoonor, Okot p’Bitek, Christopher Okigbo, Ezekiel Mphahlele and many others met in 1962, they grappled with the formative questions of African literature. The most important of these has dogged African writers for years and I doubt it will be answered soon: what is African literature?
The 1960s were a period of extensive literary production on the continent, as writers tackled colonialism, independence and the resultant anti-climactic effects of newly-acquired freedom. These works formed the foundations of what came to be described as the canon of African literature, and set a definitive style of African writing. This bloom of African literature did not last long; the 80s and 90s produced only a handful of writers, most of whom did not attain the same international recognition their predecessors had. Labelled the angry writers of the 1980s, theirs were voices that spoke of disillusionment and dissatisfaction.
This week, we convened to discuss yet another wave of African writing. Organised by the African Writers’ Trust, the Uganda International Writers Conference brought together writers from across the world who had chosen to set their works in Africa. The difference between this group and the one that convened in 1962 was immediately apparent. The Makerere meeting had boasted the attendance of just two women, Grace Ogot and Rebecca Njau; this year’s conference was largely attended by women. This speaks of the much wider literary landscape: women writers are no longer an anomaly.
This so called African literary renaissance has brought writing which bears little similarity to previous conceptions of African literature. The transcontinental writing that forms a significant part of these works, has further complicated the debate around what constitutes African literature, and spawned another debate around the authenticity of diaspora writing. Chika Unigwe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have had their work challenged because they are set in Nigeria, but written by US-based authors. There is an assertion that the new cohort of writers is elitist, incapable of understanding the issues that affect most Africans, let alone write about them.
We must acknowledge that this recent surge in African writing has introduced new narratives about the continent that cannot be written off as transitory bluff. It has voiced the lived experience of many Africans and reflected the global natures of our societies. The perception that African writers are defined by their proclivity to write about the continent has been challenged, with writers such as Shadreck Chikoti, who explores imaginary worlds, now celebrated. Writers are embracing literature as an art, exploring non-traditional subjects and occupying new worlds and a permanent place on the world scene as a result. As always, African writing is in flux. We are no closer to defining what African literature is, and that can only be a good thing.
Commonwealth Writers is the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation. It inspires, develops and connects writers and storytellers in a range of disciplines.