On African Writers Writing “Black Topics.”

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“But black and African writers are read for their novels about slavery, colonialism, poverty, civil wars, imprisonment, female circumcision – in short, for subjects that reflect the troubles of Africa and black people as perceived by the rest of the world. They are defined by their subjects.”– Ben Okri, The Guardian (December 27, 2014)

I’ve read one Ben Okri book ( Astonishing the Gods ) and I quite enjoyed it. It was probably one of the first magical realism African novels that I’d read, though I’ve read a few more since. The more African literature I read, the more diversity I find in both the writing styles and the content, so I was surprised to read Okri’s article on African writers in the Guardian. The article said that African writers are suffering from some sort of mental slavery. Apparently, African writers spend too much time writing on topics such as slavery, colonialism and female circumcision, so-called ‘heavy’ topics, and a sign of a literature that is free from such ‘mental tyranny’ is literature that discusses lighter subject matter. Okri believes this focus on such heavy matters is what’s keeping African writers from being successful and being taken seriously as novelists.

Although I can see to a certain extent a point Okri was trying to make (i.e. African writers are in danger of being pigeon-holed and expected to only write on black issues), I was not at all convinced by Okri’s short-sighted, dismissive argument. Frankly, I was disappointed in him not seeing the full potential of literature, African literature in particular, and also for failing to see why we need African writers to write about these serious subject matters.

Okri says the main goal of literature is freedom. Although I’m not an English major I realize that literature has more than one role. It could be freedom, as Okri says, it could be education, it could be entertainment, and the list goes on. When Okri himself states that, “We look to writers to reflect the temper of the age,” I wonder whether he realizes that is what so many black writers are trying to do. That is why we have more and more African writers discussing colourism, hair politics, inter-racial relationships, immigration, civil war, racism, loss of home, and separation from family.These are all contemporary issues we face, and the novels that discuss them often spur some much-needed dialogue.

And there are those African writers who choose to write about the colonial, the precolonial, slavery and so on. They also have their place, an important space. They are informants of what happened in our past, a past that could easily be forgotten without them. Without Achebe I doubt I would have ever heard of the Biafran War, which definitely wasn’t taught in any of the history classes I took. We NEED this literature.

Ironically, Okri says “We must not let anyone define what we write, what we see as worthy of playful or profound investigation in words.” But that what Okri himself seems to be doing. African writers are picking topics they themselves think are worthy.

Okri makes a list of Western writers he obviously admires, authors that represent different literary art-forms: Virginia Woolf, Gustave Flaubert, Jane Austen, and James Joyce are mentioned. And this points me to another problem I have with Okri’s argument: his need to compare African literature to Western in order to legitimize it as an art form. We don’t really need an African James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, we need our own original novelists.

If Okri had read more African literature, perhaps he could find the diversity of African writers that exist (and they don’t ALL discuss African issues). I can think of Mariama Ba, Helen Oyeyemi, Yvonne Vera, Nayyirah Waheed, , Taiye Selassi and so many others, writers from both the classic and contemporary eras who have contributed to the African canon in diverse ways.

Literature is bigger than we give it credit for. Just ask the countries with authoritarian government that banned books, executed or exiled writers, or even the countries that are supposedly democratic, yet ban books all the time. Literature is powerful and the powers that be know it. The fact of the matter is as black writers we are often in charge of sharing our culture, telling our own stories and adding to our knowledge base. We are like the native anthropologist who writes about her own people and her own culture instead of letting an outsider do so. We aren’t ashamed to write about the tougher issues, the unpopular ones, because we know they are important and need telling. We want to define our own experiences. We write what’s in our heart, we write from our experiences and refuse to be made to feel guilty for it.

Chinua Achebe is my favourite African writer and I’ve always loved what he has to say about writing:

“Writing has always been a serious business for me. I felt it was a moral obligation. A major concern of the time was the absence of the African voice. Being part of that dialogue meant not only sitting at the table but effectively telling the African story from an African perspective- in full earshot of the world.”

— Chinua Achebe, There Was a Country

To end this, I’d like to say that what people choose to write about is their own personal choice. Writing about black issues doesn’t mean mental slavery, and let’s hope people don’t think that way. On the other side of the coin, if we as black writers decide not to discuss racial issues in our writing, that is our prerogative, and there shouldn’t be any backlash for that either. Blacks who choose not to write about race shouldn’t think they’ve transcended to a higher plane either.

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12 thoughts on “On African Writers Writing “Black Topics.”

  1. Amen to this post! I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’m surprised by Okri’s thoughts. It seems to be so important these days for blacks to write about the Black experience, no matter how serious or light the topic. It’s al valid. These days many white authors have jumped on the Write about the Black experience bandwagon and I’m not sure it’s a good thing. The danger of one’s story being told and accepted as the only one is a real threat. It’s just too bad that stories by and about black people seem to not be praised as much as those stories about black told by white people.

    1. Thank you, Didi! It’s frustrating to read comments like Okri’s and I wonder whether he feels like that because he lives in the West and is therefore removed by some of the issues contemporary black writers find pressing. And you know people like him would probably be complaining if it was solely non-blacks writing about our issues anyway!

  2. Beautiful piece, Rowena. Twitter has been buzzing with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks and I agree, but it’s like it’s the latest fad with the cool kids and I find that disappointing. It feels heavy-handed. There seem to be 2 camps: one that thinks all books should somehow showcase POC, people with disabilities, LGBTQ (this seems to be mostly from white, non-disabled, cis-het writers, but I could be wrong, maybe they’re just the most vocal). The other camp says let those people tell their own stories. While everyone largely has the same desires, needs, emotions, day-to-day issues, I think there are aspects only people who are part of those communities can tell convincingly. Maybe I’m wrong, there are likely writers outside those groups who could do it very well (I write a lot of male characters, but frankly, that’s not that big of a stretch). I’m more than willing to believe I’m wrong about just about anything.

    didi said: “It’s just too bad that stories by and about black people seem to not be praised as much as those stories about black told by white people.”

    I agree, exactly.

    1. Thank you! I was grateful for the discussion that followed the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag but you have made a great point. One of my favourite books on race in the States was written by a white woman (To Kill a Mockingbird) and I think it’s a great book from a unique perspective. I think we do need literature from all perspectives, as long as it’s realistic. I think people who write from these unique perspectives will often be scrutinized more closely so the ones who make it, the ones who are acceptable, will be the ones who do it well. I hope I’m making sense here!
      And regarding representation, I definitely don’t think that all books should incorporate all types of people (I’ve seen this argument too, DD) because then that will just come across as fake and forced, you know? And representation doesn’t always mean good representation, in my opinion, sometimes it comes across as caricature.

      Thanks again for your comment:)

  3. Rowena this post is so ON POINT! Thank you for thinking about this topic—I think more thoroughly than Ben Okri! I look forward to reading Okri’s work, because I haven’t yet. I agree that black writers must continue to write important stories about hard topics; and maybe Okri isn’t reading as widely as he could. I do feel that when we talk about “imaginative,” and “experimental,” writing black authors’ names are not the ones who spring quickly to mind. But is this because of writers, or publishers? I see more diversity of the black experience in books than I do in visual art and film; and I sometimes wonder if people Do believe that black writing is synonymous with suffering and moral earnestness 24/7?

    1. Thanks so much, Leslie! I think you’ve made a great point about publishers. On Twitter I follow a lot of writers of colour and I know quite a few of them are writing, or have written, a lot of experimental works, for example futuristic writing. I think that a lot of people do believe, as you say, that being black means X,Y and Z. I know for myself being an African immigrant people often assume I “escaped” from Africa, from famine or something. They are often surprised to learn that I had a very privileged upbringing; this fact doesn’t work into the expected narrative.

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