PEN 2013: The "African Writer"

May 7, 2013

In my travels around the global literary scene, the question of a writerly identity has never seemed more precarious, conflicted, and urgent than with writers from Africa. More often than not, it is the writer—not the reader—who is fixated on the question: who or what is an African writer?

African writers—that is, writers who happen to be from Africa—seem tormented by this question of identity. It is a question that cannot be answered, and yet it must be confronted over and over again. For this conundrum, we (we who read literature from Africa; we who write from Africa) have the late Chinua Achebe to both thank and blame. Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) catapulted Nigerian and African literature onto the global scene. Translated into over 50 language, his premiere novel is a canonical text. For Western readers, Achebe cemented the idea of what an African writer is and should be. On the continent, Achebe's achievements paved the way for subsequent generations of writers, who both stand on his shoulders and wish to step out of his shadow.

In the PEN World Voices Festival panel "Perspectives from African Writers," which took place at NYU's Africa HouseA. Igoni BarrettMũkoma wa NgũgĩNoViolet BulawayoOlufemi Terry, four writers from the continent, couldn't escape the question of the "African writer." The conversation, the best yet in my five festival appearances so far, was spirited, engaging, dynamic, and profound. Barrett kicked off the discussion with a question of his own: does the audience influence the writer? The question of the African writer arrived immediately in the first answer. Instantly flipping the script, Mũkoma suggested that Barrett's query begged the question about the African writer, which in turn begets more questions about content, aesthetics, form, and intention. 

The question of the African writer, however, is irreconcilable because it requires one to simultaneously hold at least two opposing thoughts:* 1) there is no single African perspective, and 2) Africa, as a place, is the center from which a worldview is crafted.

Ask a dozen writers from Africa to define the "African writer" and you will end up with a twelve distinct answers. How could it be otherwise? The African continent consists of over one billion people who speak thousands of languages in hundreds of ethnic groups, spread over fifty countries that stretch from the Mediterranean to the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, encompassing deserts, jungles, mountains, savannahs, and everything in between, democracies, autocracies, and states of upheaval, colonialism, feminism, and Marxism, modernity, conformity, dignity, and indignation, and on, and on. How the hell can there be a single African identity? And yet the question persists. Why?

The writers on stage, who come from NigeriaSierra LeoneKenya, and Zimbabwe, seemed tortured, if not in finding their own answers then in the responses of their peers. Audience members, too, from Uganda, Zimbabwe, and South Africa pressed the question, sprinkling in extra ingredients—Diaspora, immigration experiences, multilingualism—into the recipe.

A. Igoni Barrett (via Internaz)

Who or what is a writer from anywhere? Ultimately the answer comes from an individual definition, one that can be questioned but not fully refuted by another (or the Other). In this sense, the writer is god-like, is God, and requires the faith of only one adherent—the Self—to sustain the religion. NoViolet Bulawayo claims she is an African writer, with a capital "A," while Mũkoma insists he is a writer who just happens to be from Africa. Who are we to dispute either faith?

There is no African writer. Anyone who claims as much is immediately negated by any other writer from Africa who alleges the same. There is only the writer, the writer who defines and redefines her world as she travels through space and time. Identity is shaped by, among other facets, a sense of history and a sense of place. One does not need to live in the past to feel the weight of history on one's soul, just as one does not need to to live in a physical place to feel the pull of that geography. One need only to live and to express, and through that living and that expressing the identity is formed. As Olufemi Terry asserts: "If I'm not living, then I cannot write." 

* Obviously one can apply this same criteria to other "place writers." For example, what does it mean to be an "Indian writer," a "South American writer," an "American writer," "New York City writer," etc., and then we can further sub-divivide the personal hierarchy, asking what does it mean to be a "gay writer," "Muslim writer," "witness writer," and so on, ad infinitum. It therefore follows that Barrett's original question (does the audience influence the writer?) can be put to all sorts of hyphenated writers.

Shaun Randol is the founder and editor of The Mantle. He is also an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the PEN American Center.