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African Literature

Written Literature

Africa's written literature could easily span close to five thousand years, depending on the persuasion of various commentators. Thinkers in the Afrocentric tradition trace the antecedents of African written literature to such touchstones as the scribal tradition of ancient Egypt, the Arabic poetic tradition, which began roughly with the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century C.E., the spread of that tradition to the Maghreb and West Africa from the ninth century C.E., which culminated in the development of Hausa Islamic/Arabic verse from the seventeenth century on.

The twentieth century witnessed the blossoming of a generation of North African writers whose craft combined centuries of Arab narratological conventions and Western influences. These writers either write in Arabic and have influential translations of their works in English and French, or they write directly in the two European languages. Of those whose works attained international recognition in English are the Egyptians Naguib Mahfouz and Nawal El Saadawi. Mahfouz's deft handling of historical realism, his inimitable depiction of quotidian life in Cairo turned his fiction into an important opus of Arab imagination and earned him the Nobel prize for literature in 1988, while Saadawi's transgressive novels have become some of the most important feminist works in the twentieth century.

The modern novel in French came much later in the Maghreb. The Algerian, Kateb Yacine's Nedjma (1956), is usually considered the first significant work of the fiction from the Francophone Maghreb, even though the Moroccan, Driss Chraibi had published a novel, Le passé simple (The simple past), two years earlier. North Africa fiction in French soon blossomed with internationally acclaimed writers such as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Abdelhak Serhane, Abdelkébir Khatibi, and Assia Djebar. Djebar's expansive fictional opus, which explores wide-ranging themes such as the trauma of French colonization of Algeria, the brutal war of liberation, and the condition of women in the context of religion and tradition, has become the quintessence of North African literature in French.

With regard to subsaharan Africa, discussions of written literatures tend to take the late nineteenth century as a rough starting point. Indigenous language literatures evolved as a consequence of missionary activity during this period. Missionaries established churches and schools and introduced forms of orthography into local languages to facilitate translations of religious literature. As a result, indigenous language literatures blossomed in western, central, eastern, and southern Africa in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. The Yoruba fiction of Nigeria's D. O. Fagunwa (1903–1963) and the Sotho fiction of Lesotho's Thomas Mofolo (1876–1948) are notable examples.

European language literature, usually referred to as modern African literature, is the dominant African literature. Although the violence of colonialism and the attendant sociopolitical ruptures it occasioned in Africa constitute the background of modern African literature, texts have evolved over several decades and across numerous genres in a manner that allows for the identification of divergent thematic and ideological clusters, all of which underscore modern African literature's investment in the representation of the African experience.

Negritude poetry was the medium through which modern African literature came to international attention in the twentieth century. The Negritude movement grew out of the encounter of young African intellectuals and their black Caribbean counterparts in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. The Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001), the Martinican Aimé Césaire (b. 1913), and the Guyanese Léon-Gontran Damas (1912–1978) were the avant garde of the movement. Negritude philosophy involved a coming into consciousness of the condition of one's blackness in the racist European context of the time and the validation of Africa as the matrix of a proud black race after centuries of European misrepresentation. Damas's Pigments (1937) was the first volume of poetry to properly signal the birth of the Negritude movement, but Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1939; Notebook of a return to the native land) became its bible. Senghor's Chants d'ombre (1945; Shadow songs) and Hosties noires (1948; Black hosts) transformed the movement into a full-blown aesthetic phenomenon. However, the full dimensions of Negritude angst were not recorded until the publication of David Diop's (1927–1960) Coups de pilon (1956; Pounding).

Poetry comparable in stature with Negritude poetry did not come out of Anglophone and Lusophone (Portguese-speaking) Africa until the period of the 1960s–1980s. Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), Christopher Okigbo (1932–1967), Gabriel Okara (b. 1921), John Pepper Clark (b. 1935), Kofi Awoonor (b. 1935), Lenrie Peters (b. 1932), Taban Lo Liyong (b. 1938), Okot P'Bitek (1931–1982), Kwesi Brew (b. 1928), Dennis Brutus (b. 1924), Agostino Neto (d.1979), and Antonio Jacinto (1925–1991) were the leading lights of Anglophone and Lusophone African poetry. Okigbo's collection, Limits (1964), is representative of this phase of African poetry.

The African novel also developed within the ambit of historical revaluation, cultural nationalism, political contestation, and anticolonial protest. Although modern African fiction started with the publication of the Ghanaian Joseph Casely-Hayford's (1866–1930) Ethiopia Unbound (1911), it was not until Amos Tutuola's (1920–1997) The Palm Wine Drunkard appeared in 1952 that Anglophone West African fiction attained international recognition. Francophone Africa's first novel, René Maran's (d. 1960) Batouala, was published to considerable acclaim in 1921 and went on to win the prestigious prix Goncourt. Batouala owed its fame to Maran's vivid portrayal of the effects of French colonial rule in Africa as well as his evocative and humanizing descriptions of African life and its environment.

The novel came of age in Francophone Africa from the 1950s onward when writers such as Camara Laye (1928–1980), Seydou Badian (b. 1928), Mongo Beti (1932–2001), Ferdinand Oyono (b. 1929), Sembene Ousmane (b. 1923), Cheikh Hamidou Kane (b. 1928), Ahmadou Kourouma (1927–2003), Williams Sassine (b. 1944), Sony Labou Tansi (1947–1995), Henri Lopès (b. 1937), Alioum Fantouré (b. 1938), and Tierno Monenembo (b. 1947) arrived on the scene. The thematic spectrum of these writers is broad and their range reveals the shifts that occurred in the sociopolitical dynamics of their informing contexts, particularly the tragedy of one-party states and military dictatorships that became the rule in postcolonial Francophone Africa. For instance, Laye's L'enfant noir (1953; The African child) is a powerful bildungsroman that explores the growing up of an African child who loses the values of his traditional society in a world permeated by European values. In Le pauvre Christ de Bomba (The poor Christ of Bomba) and Une vie de boy (Houseboy), both published in 1956, Beti and Oyono, respectively, deploy critical satire to expose the hypocrisies of the colonial situation. Ousmane brings class analysis to the crisis of colonialism in Les bouts de bois de dieu (1960; God's bits of wood).

However, it was Chinua Achebe's (b. 1930) Things Fall Apart (1958) that placed African fiction in the ranks of twentieth-century greats. In Things Fall Apart, the epic dimension of Africa's contact with the West, a preoccupation of much of modern African literature, reaches its philosophical and aesthetic peak. Much of Anglophone West African fiction explores versions of Achebe's themes either as collective sociopolitical fissures in a changing world or as individual dramas of alienation. Cyprian Ekwensi (b. 1921), T. M. Aluko (b. 1918), Elechi Amadi (b. 1934), Onuora Nzekwu (b. 1928), John Munonye (b. 1929), Wole Soyinka, Kofi Awoonor, Ayi Kwei Armah (b. 1939), Ngugi wa Thiong'o (b. 1938), Kole Omotoso (b. 1943), and Festus Iyayi (b. 1947) all became major Anglophone West African novelists in the period from the 1960s through the 1980s. While Armah adds a humanist/universal dimension to the drama of man's alienation from his environment in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), Ngugi offers a Marxist exploration of the African experience of colonialism and neo-colonialism in A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1977).

Apartheid and race relations are the background of Southern African fiction. Peter Abrahams (b. 1919), Richard Rive (1931–1989), Es'kia Mphahlele (b. 1919), Lewis Nkosi (b. 1936), Alex La Guma (1925–1985), and the Afrikaner novelists, J. M. Coetzee (b. 1940) and André Brink (b. 1935), all produced novels emblematic of the South African situation. Abraham's Mine Boy (1946), Rive's Emergency (1964), Alex la Guma's A Walk in the Night (1962), and J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) document the scale of the human tragedy created by apartheid in South Africa.

African drama is perhaps the genre that has explored the resources of oral tradition most effectively as a result of the ontological linkages between the two: African religious ceremonies—rituals, sacrifices, festivals, funerals, christenings—are forms of drama and the roots of that modern African genre. Wole Soyinka, Wale Ogunyemi (1939–2001), Ola Rotimi (1938–2000), Femi Osofisan (b. 1946), Bode Sowande (b. 1948), and Olu Obafemi (b. 1950) have all written plays exploring the full range of human experience within the cosmic order and within the material contexts of colonialism, neocolonialism, and the self-imposed tragedies of the African post-colonial order. Soyinka's plays, the most notable of which are A Dance of the Forest (1963) and Death and the King's Horseman (1975), explore the entire range of these thematic preoccupations. In South Africa, drama proved to be one of the most versatile cultural instruments in the antiapartheid struggle because of its immediate accessibility to a large audience. The South African dramaturgy of Athol Fugard (b. 1932) comes closest to Soyinka's in terms of artistic accomplishment and thematic range.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adrenoceptor (adrenoreceptor; adrenergic receptor) to AmbientAfrican Literature - Oral Tradition, Written Literature, Women's Writing, Children Of The Postcolony, Debates And Critical Engagements