The last time Granta published an Africa edition – The View from Africa (2005) – Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina bemoaned the stereotypes used in writing of and about his continent. Littered with starving babies, bloodthirsty rebels, tales of corruption and tribal rain dances, these stereotypes were created as much by the output of writers and publishers as the demands of readers. His essay is symptomatic of an identity conundrum that has confronted African artists over the last decade, and is the essential question behind Africa Utopia – a series of events curated by Southbank Centre that explores the essence of Africaness through talks and concerts, fashion shows and yoga sessions.
Hosted by Granta Books, Imagining Africa, brought together novelists Aminatta Forna and Nadifa Mohamed, Scarf magazine editor Diriye Osman and Granta’s creative director Michael Salu to discuss how notions of identity can effect the output of African artists.
It’s a reflection, perhaps, of African writing’s en vogue status – ten years ago it was Rushdie and Roy adorning Waterstones’ windows; more recently it’s been Soyinka, Forna, Achebe. As Osman quipped- “Africa is the new India.” This increased popularity has helped attitudes towards African writing develop since the days of Wainaina’s essay. Forna herself argued, a few years back that African writers were still beset by ‘ambassador syndrome’, a sense in which being a writer from Africa, or of African origin, equated to a responsibility to write and talk about African issues and little else. Today readers in the UK are more sensitive to stereotypes; their expectations of African writing have become more acute, which has in turn has fostered greater creative freedom for writers to move away from the expected notions of ‘African Writing.’
Michael Salu feels that with such a high proportion of Western readers willing to engage with African debates, now is a chance for African writers to refresh the image of Africanism both for the West and for itself. He argues that there’s a balance to be struck between engaging Western audiences with fundamentally important issues, the big questions of conflict, disease and education that occupy the lives of many on the African continent, while also moving beyond ambassador syndrome. As Forna puts it, avoiding stereotypes shouldn’t mean not writing about the most important events in her country’s history. This is a personal question as much as a thematic one; in this light writing for Africa(ns) is as much a mission or vocation, as it is an artform. It is perhaps even more of a conundrum for first and second generation African writers living in the Diaspora – artists who have dual identities but, as Salu sees it, in a sense conform to neither (a debate which is not confined to African writers; witness Kavita Barnot’s recent anthology Too Asian, Not Asian Enough).
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, identity and self-discovery in a world dominated by Westernism is a recurring theme in contemporary African writing. Novelist Nadifa Mohamed dubs her response to the identity conundrum as creating “small stories that amplify a bigger picture.” Her debut novel, Black Mamba Boy, tells of her father’s life in Yemen in the 1930s and ‘40s. It is a literal journey of self-identity, the father travelling from Yemen through North Africa to the Mediterranean and eventually to the UK; a story of self-discovery within a changing landscape. Rotimi Babatunde’s short-story Bombay’s Republic – winner of this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing – is another example: a deliciously dark tale of a Nigerian soldier sent to fight the Japanese in WW2, it’s Ajax told on the African continent; a story that draws parallels with the Gurkha campaigns in this country last year and that will resonate in so many different ways over the next 18 months as British troops return from the war.