I’ll admit to a certain amount of nervousness when the debate about who is and who is not an African – and in this version a “real African” writer – begins. As a South African, it seems a wagging finger waits reflexively to adjudicate on matters determined centuries before; where dogma overrides history and geography and even, personal belief.
The recent kerfuffle about Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin’s nationality was the source of my poor nerves. Was he African the question went, or at least African enough, to win the prestigious Caine Prize for short fiction, having been born and raised in the USA?
The discussion seems as necessary as it does superfluous. Writers will write anyway, telling and re-telling innately varied stories from a continent that coalesces 55 states, with multifarious histories, languages, cultures and belief systems (often within the same borders, drawn, after all, by the European hand).
Still, the question demands to be answered from perspectives as varied as the continent itself. And interlinked to it is another troubling one: who decides what African fiction is and which (African) writers fall within its ambit? We know that Amos Tutuola and the masterful Chinua Achebe – amongst the architects of the African novel – developed techniques, styles, voices, vocabularies that spoke intimately to many Africans, in ways that novels on this continent had rarely before done; expressing viewpoints about and for people who had for decades been drawn by a demeaning other.
But to imply that there only ever was one kind of African experience, or indeed one African story, is at its most basic premise inaccurate. There is always danger in telling a single story. The fear is always of the distorting effect an overriding narrative may have and how this carries on interminably.
What happens when one employs the broadest possible definition of what the African novel is, however liberating the notion of the initial form has been to contemporary writers and readers alike? What if one incorporates different strands, influences, novelistic approaches as befits a global world (one that has been global for as long as history has been told). Or writes an African story, as Tope Folarin has done, despite that he is only distantly familiar with the country of his parents? Perhaps, in answer: we develop, broaden and diversify.
Let me confess, that even though I have treasured Chinua Achebe’s stories since my earliest years as a serious reader, I never identified with his writing on a visceral level. He was a writer that I could read and love, but his stories gave me no greater understanding of who I wished to be as a writer, or of my place in the world, or in Africa (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has expressed about Achebe’s influence on her) – my own experience having being determined in another African region, country and era.
In fact, it was Salman Rushdie, writing about India from a room somewhere in London, that I first identified as a principal motivator. Perhaps because in some way I recognised his characters, though I am not Indian, or, his postcolonial narratives stirred something in me. What is certain is that his novels awoke a primal love of literature that I could not then, or now, quite explain. Does this make me less African? Any less of an African writer?
The Ethiopian born American writer Maaza Mengiste wrote above a tone of fury, about being asked repeatedly whether she considered herself to be an African writer. “The question is problematic. It assumes a static and compressed definition of Africa … My nationality makes up as much a part of who I am as my experiences …” she replied.
My own African, Asian and European ancestries, shaped by and in Africa, as well as the fact that I have lived on four continents, make my story as valid as any other, as South African as any other, and as African.
Yet when I entered my novel into an African novel writing competition last year, I wasn’t certain what was expected and how far my novel would get. My book, The Blacks of Cape Town, was conceived about a city itself often dismissed as Un-African, even though there it continues to sit, resolutely, on the continent’s Southern-most tip. I had been made aware, both during and after apartheid was dismantled, and from both sides of the fence, that I was not African. When I fill out forms these days, the judgement still stares back: white, African (often interchangeable with black), Coloured and Indian.
But this debate does not emerge from nowhere and high ground cannot be easily claimed, because many South Africans still refuse an African identity, no matter how far back their ancestry dates. And in the acceptance of such identity for those with (distant or near) roots elsewhere, surely there rests some onus to comprehend the depth and span of the colonial hangover; of the zeitgeist of the place one has chosen.
The Kwani? Manuscript Project sounded impressive: an initiative (aided in part by European funding, based in Kenya with a panel of Diaspora judges) which sought to award African debut writers who continued to advance the form of the African novel. But where would I, a mixed race descendent from a city compared more often to Europe than any other African city, fit into this process? And what to make of novelist Imraan Coovadia’s comments on the Kwani? website, eviscerating the idea that the African novel had ever existed, given that any novel is composed “sentence by sentence, feeling by feeling, and one scene after the other like certain marriages.”
Eight months later, my novel made the long list of 30 from entries amounting to almost 300 manuscripts. I felt an immense sense of relief and also pride in the knowledge that my story had been included in the narratives of the continent. But this sense was ultimately displaced by an annoyance at what my relief really indicated: my expectation that if I were (largely) not considered African in the country of my birth, then surely I would not be considered such, much less an African writer capable of penning an African story, beyond my home country.
I learned from one judge’s commentary that a steam punk novel had also been long listed – and rightly, because science fiction is bound to form part of any contemporary, diverse and broadening narratives of a country and continent. That Kwani? widened its arms to include stories such as these, is indicative of changing perspectives of what and who may determine African fiction(s).
Still, there is a niggling, in part resonating from Coovadia’s essay, that we are chasing a false idol: any novel, every novel, can ultimately only be judged on its own merits as every writer can only write his or her experience.