African literature

African literature

African literature, literary works of the African continent. African literature consists of a body of work in different languages and various genres, ranging from oral literature to literature written in colonial languages (French, Portuguese, and English).

See also African languages; South African literature.

Oral literature, including stories, dramas, riddles, histories, myths, songs, proverbs, and other expressions, is frequently employed to educate and entertain children. Oral histories, myths, and proverbs additionally serve to remind whole communities of their ancestors' heroic deeds, their past, and the precedents for their customs and traditions. Essential to oral literature is a concern for presentation and oratory. Folktale tellers use call-response techniques. A griot (praise singer) will accompany a narrative with music.

Some of the first African writings to gain attention in the West were the poignant slave narratives, such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), which described vividly the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. As Africans became literate in their own languages, they often reacted against colonial repression in their writings. Others looked to their own past for subjects. Thomas Mofolo, for example, wrote Chaka (tr. 1931), about the famous Zulu military leader, in Susuto.

Since the early 19th cent. writers from western Africa have used newspapers to air their views. Several founded newspapers that served as vehicles for expressing nascent nationalist feelings. French-speaking Africans in France, led by Léopold Senghor, were active in the négritude movement from the 1930s, along with Léon Damas and Aimé Césaire, French speakers from French Guiana and Martinique. Their poetry not only denounced colonialism, it proudly asserted the validity of the cultures that the colonials had tried to crush.

After World War II, as Africans began demanding their independence, more African writers were published. Such writers as, in western Africa, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ousmane Sembene, Kofi Awooner, Agostinho Neto, Tchicaya u tam'si, Camera Laye, Mongo Beti, Ben Okri, and Ferdinand Oyono and, in eastern Africa, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Okot p'Bitek, and Jacques Rabémananjara produced poetry, short stories, novels, essays, and plays. All were writing in European languages, and often they shared the same themes: the clash between indigenous and colonial cultures, condemnation of European subjugation, pride in the African past, and hope for the continent's independent future.

In South Africa, the horrors of apartheid have, until the present, dominated the literature. Es'kia Mphahlele, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Dennis Brutus, J. M. Coetzee, and Miriam Tlali all reflect in varying degrees in their writings the experience of living in a racially segregated society.

Much of contemporary African literature reveals disillusionment and dissent with current events. For example, V. Y. Mudimbe in Before the Birth of the Moon (1989) explores a doomed love affair played out within a society riddled by deceit and corruption. In Kenya Ngugi wa Thiong'o was jailed shortly after he produced a play, in Kikuyu, which was perceived as highly critical of the country's government. Apparently, what seemed most offensive about the drama was the use of songs to emphasize its messages.

The weaving of music into the Kenyan's play points out another characteristic of African literature. Many writers incorporate other arts into their work and often weave oral conventions into their writing. p'Bitek structured Song of Iowino (1966) as an Acholi poem; Achebe's characters pepper their speech with proverbs in Things Fall Apart (1958). Others, such as Senegalese novelist Ousmane Sembene, have moved into films to take their message to people who cannot read.

Bibliography

See R. Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (1970); R. Smith, ed., Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature (1976); W. Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World (1976); A. Irele, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (1981); B. W. Andrzejewski et al., Literature in African Languages (1985); S. Gikandi, Reading the African Novel (1987).

African literature refers to the literature of and for the African peoples. As George Joseph notes on the first page of his chapter on African literature in Understanding Contemporary Africa, while the European perception of literature generally refers to written letters, the African concept includes oral literature.

As George Joseph continues, while European views of literature often stressed a separation of art and content, African awareness is inclusive:

"Literature" can also imply an artistic use of words for the sake of art alone. Without denying the important role of aesthetics in Africa, we should keep in mind that, traditionally, Africans do not radically separate art from teaching. Rather than write or sing for beauty in itself, African writers, taking their cue from oral literature, use beauty to help communicate important truths and information to society. Indeed, an object is considered beautiful because of the truths it reveals and the communities it helps to build.

Early written literatures

North Africa had an early literate indigenous civilization (Ancient Egypt) some of whose hieroglyphic writings survive. North Africans also contributed to writing in Phoenician, Greek and Latin. Phoenician material, from Carthage and other colonies on the continent, has been very largely lost. Encouraged by the royal patronage of the Ptolemaic rulers, scholars in Alexandria assembled the famous Library of Alexandria and Alexandrian writers contributed not insignificantly to the material housed in this institution. North Africans writing in Latin include Apuleius and Saint Augustine.

In Islamic times, North Africans, such as ibn Khaldun attained great distinction within Arabic literature.

Oral literature

Oral literature (or orature) may be in prose or verse. The prose is often mythological or historical and can include tales of the trickster character. Storytellers in Africa sometimes use call-and-response techniques to tell their stories. Poetry, often sung, includes: narrative epic, occupational verse, ritual verse, praise poems to rulers and other prominent people. Praise singers, bards sometimes known as "griots", tell their stories with music. Also recited, often sung, are: love songs, work songs, children's songs, along with epigrams, proverbs and riddles.

Precolonial literature

Examples of pre-colonial African literature include the Epic of Sundiata composed in medieval Mali, The older Epic of Dinga from the old Ghana Empire, and the Kebra Negast or book of kings from Ethiopia. One popular form of traditional African folktale is the "trickster" story, where a small animal uses its wits to survive encounters with larger creatures. Examples of animal tricksters include Anansi, a spider in the folklore of the Ashanti people of Ghana; Ijàpá, a tortoise in Yoruba folklore of Nigeria; and Sungura, a hare found in central and East African folklore.

Colonial African literature

The African works best known in the West from the period of colonization and the slave trade are primarily slave narratives, such as Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789).

In the colonial period, Africans exposed to Western languages began to write in those tongues. In 1911, Joseph Ephraim Casely-Hayford (also known as Ekra-Agiman) of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) published what is probably the first African novel written in English, Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation Although the work moves between fiction and political advocacy, its publication and positive reviews in the Western press mark a watershed moment in African literature.

During this period, African plays began to emerge. Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo of South Africa published the first English-language African play , The Girl Who Killed to Save: Nongqawuse the Liberator in 1935. In 1962, Ngugi wa Thiong'o of Kenya wrote the first East African drama, The Black Hermit, a cautionary tale about "tribalism" (racism between African tribes).

African literature in the late colonial period (between the end of World War I and independence) increasingly showed themes of liberation, independence, and (among Africans in French-controlled territories) négritude. One of the leaders of the négritude movement, the poet and eventual President of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, published the first anthology of French-language poetry written by Africans in 1948, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry in the French Language), featuring a preface by the French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre.

Postcolonial African literature

With liberation and increased literacy since most African nations gained their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, African literature has grown dramatically in quantity and in recognition, with numerous African works appearing in Western academic curricula and on "best of" lists compiled at the end of the 20th century. African writers in this period wrote both in Western languages (notably English, French, and Portuguese) and in traditional African languages.

Ali A. Mazrui and others mention seven conflicts as themes: the clash between Africa's past and present, between tradition and modernity, between indigenous and foreign, between individualism and community, between socialism and capitalism, between development and self-reliance and between Africanity and humanity. Other themes in this period include social problems such as corruption, the economic disparities in newly independent countries, and the rights and roles of women. Female writers are today far better represented in published African literature than they were prior to independence.

In 1986, Wole Soyinka became the first post-independence African writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Algerian-born Albert Camus had been awarded the 1957 prize.

Noma Award

The Noma Award, begun in 1980, is presented for the outstanding work of the year in African literatures.

Major African novels

Major African poets

Secondary literature

  • Encyclopedia of African Literature, ed Simon Gikandi, London: Routledge, 2003.
  • The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature, ed Abiola Irele and Simon Gikandi, 2 vls, Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Table of contents
  • Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writing by Women of African Descent", ed Margaret Busby (Random House, 1992).
  • General History of Africa vol. VIII, ed. Ali A. Mazrui, UNESCO, 1993, ch. 19 "The development of modern literature since 1935," Ali A. Mazrui et al.
  • Understanding Contemporary Africa, ed. April A. Gordon and Donald L. Gordon, Lynne Rienner, London, 1996, ch. 12 "African Literature", George Joseph

See also

References

External links

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