In her talk on ‘The Danger of the Single Story’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche indicated that current literature presented only one image of Africa. This Africa was always rural, impoverished, and riddled with AIDS. Novels did not depict the vibrant and diverse Africa that she knew.
Growing up in America, Adiche was equally shocked by the lack of literature to represent young, black, Afro-American females. The African part of her identity seemed always to be ignored. Adiche’s story raises questions: who should write about Africa and what should they write about?
Because writing is powerful, authors are thought to have a ‘responsibility’ when writing; they must write ‘ethically’ – this means they must pay attention to the possible impact of their works, such as the behaviours they might encourage, or the people they might offend. However, many disagree on what exactly this responsibility is – should authors be realistic, or inspire people through unreality? Should they talk about the future of Africa, or focus on the past? Should European ideas filter into Africa, or should African ideas be self-defined?
Some groups of authors face particular difficulties:
Some people believe that you must live in Africa to write about Africa. Authors may move away from Africa for a whole host of reasons. However, critics of African diaspora literature suggest that authors lose touch with the continent and should not comment on its condition. Ama Ata Aidoo (celebrated Ghanaian writer and academic) sees Afrodiasporic literature (literature by people who have moved away from Africa) as unjustly ‘sanitised and westernised’.
Supporters of diaspora literature claim that authors gain a necessary distance, which provides perspective. Often diaspora writers live in Africa for a long time and do not lose the sense of Africa as ‘home’. Moreover, an education abroad diversifies their perspective and brings new initiatives to literature.
Authors of foreign descent also face difficulties, despite living in Africa. For example, the works of Gordimer and Coetzee are often rejected in South Africa due to their privileged, white, Dutch descendance. Relatively new to the continent, it is difficult to see how different histories can be overcome when forging a joint, modern identity. Europeans writing about Africa is often seen as a second colonization, suppressing the voice of the locals once more.
On the other hand, attempts at reconciliation and understanding by settling authors provides another forum for conversation that is less confrontational than face-to-face.
Finally, even ‘authentic’ African literature has been criticised. In appealing to broader markets, authors are perceived to ‘hate their nation’ and to provide a sellable version of Africa.
African literature must find its voice. Many believe this will be achieved through ‘Africanising’ university curricula and creating individual understandings of the world shared by all Africans, before ideas are projected to foreign markets. If progress is to be made, literature should be judged on the message communicated rather than the identity of the author.