Normalise! African Literature in Focus
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hat does it mean to be ‘normal’? And how much have western ideas influenced our definition of the word? What do we look for in literature? And what stories are more likely to be published, sold, and read? What are the norms in Literature? And how ‘normal’ is African Literature? Is it possible for literature to be unapologetically African and, at the same time, be universally accepted as good or even great? Is it at all possible for African Literature to be as normal a sight in Europe as European Literature is in Africa? Can we preserve the distinctly ‘African’ essence in African Literature, without compromising on its accessibility and acceptability across the board? Is it possible to normalise African literature?

Normalise!

Sometime in April, I was out and about in the city when I came across a bookshop that I hadn’t seen before. As an avid reader with time on my hands, going in was a no brainer. So in I went, and after about a quarter of an hour reading a few blurbs and taking mental notes of the books I was interested in, I went to a shop assistant and asked where I could find some African fiction. What happened next, I couldn’t have foreseen.

I followed the shop assistant as he walked me down two flights of stairs to an obscure part of the bookshop with mostly African American and Black British books. I thought it was a prank so I laughed it off and asked how it was possible to have an “African” section without African books. Then he looked me dead in the eye and said ‘that’s all we have’. At this point, I was in no mood for a drawn out conversation with a stranger so in spite of my disappointment, I thanked him for his time as he made his way back up.

African Literature in Focus

On the 31st of October, Leye Adenle, Sulaiman Addonia, and Ola Awonubi formed the panel of our second Literandra event, which took place at Waterstones Gower Street in London. The aim of this event was to discuss the current state of African Literature both at home and abroad – to create a space of discussion that focuses solely on African Literature and African authors, while at the same time, support Sylvia Arthur’s efforts in bringing literature by authors of African descent (directly or indirectly) to the readers in Ghana.  

I began the event by asking our panelists what their opinions were about the term ‘African Literature’, its ubiquity in the face of Africa’s enormous diversity, and its implicit meaning in comparison to the much less frequently used term ‘European Literature’. In stark contrast to the panelists from our previous event, all three authors rejected the categorisation of their works as ‘African Literature’ – stating that they’d rather just be seen as authors of ‘Literature’, without the added adjective. 

In keeping with this initial question, we went on to discuss the works of scholars like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who is a staunch supporter of African authors writing in African languages. Sulaiman Addonia explained, after I had asked the panel if they speak any African languages and if they have ever written in one, that he does see where scholars like Ngugi are coming from, but that expecting African authors to write in an African language implies a certain level of privilege enjoyed by the author in question.

Addonia went on to explain that with the loss of his home country came the loss of his mother tongue, that because of the displacement of himself and his family, he lost the ability to speak his African language, thus rendering him unable to conform to the expectations of authors such as Ngugi.

We continued onto the discussion of the portrayal of violence against African women in literature and all three panelists gave us fascinating insights into their works with regards to that topic, but also into their minds and writing processes when tackling the portrayal of women and the realities they are faced with, even within an African context. 

The audience then proceeded to ask some insightful questions about the topics we had discussed, specifically the usage of Pidgin English in literature, but also about the authors’ books themselves. 

Before closing the evening, and in keeping with our first event, we gifted everyone who attended the event with copies of either Ola Awonubi’s ‘Naija Love Stories’, Leye Adenle’s ‘When Trouble Sleeps’, or first editions of Sulaiman Addonia’s ‘Silence is My Mother Tongue’.

After handing out the gifted copies, everyone had the chance to get them signed, which turned out to be something everyone was interested in – at least judging by the line that formed in front of the authors’ signing table.

Our second event, though different from the first, was also a success, in spite of the many obstacles we faced on the way. Although some of the questions I had were answered, others were not. But on a whole, it was a success so I would like to express my (and Akaninyene’s) deepest gratitude to everyone who played a part in making it happen.

Thank you to the organiser at Waterstones, thank you to our panelists for agreeing to take part, thank you to Sylvia, for trusting us yet again with an event in support of Libreria Ghana, and, last but not least, thank you to everyone who chose us over Halloween, bought tickets, and came out to support. You were the stars of the night.