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Future of African Literature

Clementine Ewokolo Burnley (2018)

Until recently only a few Black American writers with international bestsellers in English markets were well known in Germany. Toni Morrison, James Baldwin. Now Africa is rising on the world literature scene and Berlin is no exception. A number of relatively new, young writers live and write here;  Musa Okwonga performs here with his band BBXO, Teju Cole will occasionally pop into the local Nigerian restaurant, until recently Taiye Selasi was also to be seen at events in the Ballhaus Naunynstraße and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Some have won prizes. The 2016 Ingeborg Bachman Prize went to Berliner Sharon Dodua Otoo, who is a second language speaker of German. Imbolo Mbue and Yaa Gyaasi had literary debuts which became international bestsellers. Behold the Dreamers, tells the story of the financial crisis of 2008  through the eyes of a struggling Cameroonian couple and their wealthy American employers. Homegoing follows the descendants of Ghanaian twin sisters through four generations on either side of the Middle Passage. Both books have been translated into German.

In 2018 three major African literary events will take place in Berlin. This hasn’t happened before. In one future this trend continues with yearly African Book Festivals attracting established writers and encouraging more African writers to emerge. In one future the literary agency Interkontinental’s African Book Festival becomes a yearly fixture on the festival calendar and continues to sell out to an diverse audience of Berlin cultural regulars, booklovers and black community members. The Black community association E.O.T.O, African Literature Festival becomes another regular event. African writers are no longer celebrated as new kids on the block or as novelties but as a matter of course. People think of their books as literary fiction, crime, thriller and historical fiction.

However,  not all African writing is rising. Given how writing by Africans is defined, funded, published, reviewed, criticised, interpreted sold and read now, what is its’ commercial future in Berlin? In 2016 non-German writing made up forty percent of books sold in Germany[1]. Elena Ferrante, Ove Knausgaard and JoJo Moyes did very well. In another future there are Black German and Black European writers in Berlin. They, like many emerging African writers continue to face serious obstacles in gaining a wider readership. to do with the place of Africa in the German literary imaginary.

In one future there are more readers. There are African writers in the future. The same as African cooks, African engineers and African cupcakes. If you would like to know what an African cupcake is, you can skip straight to the end.

I’m going to tell a series of stories about writers and resistance. Because writers frequently resist being categorised. Some would interpret African writers’ resistance as shame, rejection of their identities, of blackness, or Africa. And indeed, there is is shame, but that’s addressed further on in this piece. Other people do recognise the use of a descriptor; African, Irish, female as unnecessary before the substantive, writer.

Why and how we do currently categorise African writers? How we may categorise them in the future? The past of published African writing is male. What about the future? We are beginning to rethink our ideas about binary categories like gender. Instead of speaking about China Achebe, Ngugi W’a Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka we are starting to look at their contemporaries Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo. We are starting to read new non-binary writers like Akwaeke Emezi as well. Literary curators like Chris Abani say the future of African writing is female. Writers like John Boyne say women make better novelists than men. In another future we may dispense with the category of gender completely.

The current generation of Berlin writers includes Black German writers, Black European writers, migrant writers, children of migrants,  transnational and international writers belonging to the greater African diaspora who live fully in several places at the same time and reflect those experiences in their writing.

Berlin is a great place for any writer to create at the moment. There is a thriving independent left political publishing scene, that includes magazines like Missy and freitext provide a platform for voices from the communities of colour, Publishing houses like edition assemblage,  Unrast, and Orlanda formed longstanding relationships with Black German writers like Katherina Oguntoye, Jasmin Eding, May Ayim who live or have lived as part of the many, diverse artist – activist communities here. More recently w_orten & meer,have published books written or edited by Saboura Naqshband, Emily Ngubia Kuria and AnouchK Ibacka Valente. Writers like The Good Immigrant contributor Musa Okwonga are embedded within black German communities. Most of the writers I have mentioned are active in  local political conversations around migration and race where race often stands in for migrant and vice versa. In one future that activity drops off because the threat of fascism recedes and writer activists can give more energy to their art.

There is a DIY performance scene in Berlin, with regular audience for carefully curated living texts at open mike sessions, slam poetry stages. This scene is sustained by the close relationships among the artists and producers, and personal commitment of organisers of the stages like Villa Neukölln, One World Poetry, Poetry Meets Soul, The African Story Series. In one future these stages are better resourced.

Berlin is also home to literary magazines such as Sand, publishing writing in English for an international audience, and to open reading stages for works in progress such as Fiction Canteen, curated by Lucy Jones from the translators collective Transfiction and Anton Lang of Sand. In one future there is more cross fertilisation between the writing and performance scenes.

I’d like to situate the African writers I have named so far within an African  literary lineage. This won’t cover all the literatures of the greater Africa. The population inside and outside the continent are estimated at one billion people. I will simply mention the span of time and the geographical distances between 1. Hausa and Fula texts of the first century written in Arabic characters  and found until recently at the Great Library in Timbuktu, 2. Axumite texts from 340 A.D., 3. Ahmharic texts from the 16th century, 4. the first diasapora texts; English narratives written by enslaved people like the Igbo seaman and merchant, Olaudah Equiano writing around 1789. After that period we have texts in colonial languages and African languages from 19th and 20th century, and then the national and panAfrican literatures from 1960 onwards.

In one future while African writers are aware of their literary heritage, no national, cultural categories are fixed. These writers are thought of as people, not pea plants. African writers shift, flow, are reassessed and revised. There are the nomads;  Diasporan African writer who refuse to be categorised at all and if categorised want to be called expatriates. Or who reject the title expatriate for its upper class associations. Nomad writers play the role of new native informants, easily gaining access to tell authoritative stories of vulnerable communities, both insiders and outsiders in Europe and Africa, young, fluid, and increasingly marketable.

Time for a story. A writer goes into a bookshop in New York. She finds a book, The Hidden Man in the African literature section. She wants it moved. It is set in Croatia. The bookseller agrees it is not an African book by theme or  setting. The Hidden Man is moved to the European literature section. Aminatta Forna is a Scottish born daughter of a Scottish mother. Her last three books were on a Sierra Leonean war. Forna is one of the new generation of African writers. When I mention transnationality as a conceptual category for thinking about African writers, I am immediately reminded of Aminatta Forna’s playful allusion in a Guardian article to cisnational writers[2]. Diasporans reject cisnationalism, embracing complexity, dynamism instead.

Robert Alter, writes about the impact of one migrant writer on the language that receives his work. Israeli Dan Pagis, who was born Bukovina, left  a concentration camp in 1946 and became the foremost living poet of his country. So, ‘Migrant poets become formative influences on the body of literature that develops in the adopted country, sometimes even despite the fact that they had not been connected to the second language before.’*[3] Pagis, like Kafka was from a German-speaking family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Some Black writers have always been here; Black German writers, born and brought up within a German literary tradition would be within their rights to question their inclusion into the category, African literature defined as literature of the ‘other’ as opposed to European. May Ayim, Katherina Oguntoye, Hans Massaquoi, Ika Hügel-Marshall, Theodor Wonja MichaelI are a stable presence in German writing. They are at home in German; their work a distinct, if still muted voice in the national conversation between German texts. Those texts reference German colonial history. Theodore Wonja Michael’s father came from the territory now called Cameroon, at the edge of the 18th centrury Edo Kingdom, annexed by the 1884 Conference in Berlin, lost to the British and French. German history continues to haunt the present of its writers. What will be the influence of writing by Black authors on the German body of literature in the future?

Questions of African identity in terms of race, nationality are at once intimate, abstract, reductive and bound up with a singular image of Africa in the world. Still, these questions can’t simply be ignored by the writer. There are writers in each category I have described  who see themselves as belonging to more than one or none of these categories. As Bibi Bakare-Yusuf of the African press Cassava Republic says, ‘there are many Africa’s’. The publisher, bookseller, critic, reviewer, translator, educated reader is expected to be familiar with national literary voices, plus a few international all-stars; Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Brecht. This person is an enthusiastic newcomer to Teju Cole or or Imbolo Mbue. African countries are not yet distinct cultural or political entities in the European literary imagination. Not a single African book is required reading on the German school syllabus. Looking for a quick way in the newcomer situates the book in the biography of the writer or the continent. Like The Hidden Man, where a book ends up being shelved in a bookstore affects the number of copies sold. Aminatta Forna’s book was moved from a niche section to the centre table with European bestsellers.

Why does the physical location of a book matter? Surely we can get all the books we want on the internet? True, but we have internalised categories we use to shop for books. All knowledge is not equal in its reception. Some markets reward the African writer more than others. There may be a huge production of texts in a language like Hausa but without translation there are limited commercial opportunities for writers outside that language. The unintentional default in commercial publishing is that while African writers can clearly appeal to a mass European market their books are not yet gaining access to that market as standard. The European novel form perspectives and narratives, are the reference point for literary discussion of form and quality in the industry. New York, London, Paris cultivate a particular reader. Insights from literature produced in some languages is seen as ‘universal’ and applying to all, and literature produced in some languages is seen as ‘other’ and applying only to those who speak those languages. Literature produced in some languages has a larger market share than other. Some languages aren’t written at all. The future of the African literatures depends on which reader they choose to address.

The African writer is positioned differently from the European reader. If they wish to gain readership in the publishing hotspots of Europe; Frankfurt, New York, London, Paris they had better be familiar with national voices in European literature. Most African writers have studied  the major European texts as part of the required reading in their national syllabus. In future the African writer may chose to shape their text for the reader in New York, Paris or London, to respond to that reader’s expectation of a text, of an African text. The reader may expect to read about race, tribe, patriarchy, de-colonisation, globalisation, migration. African writers have the potential to become African versions of more important European writers, the comparison is mostly due to the critics not knowing any other writers to compare them to, leads the one trick pony of the West and its ‘other’. Or, the African writer may choose to train the reader to accept cognitive dissonance, discomfort or delight in reading a text that defeats their expectations.

Editors are often described as gatekeepers. An editor gets a manuscript, which takes place in Africa. The editor has to choose who is going to be the trusted guide for the reader. It’s a commercial and artistic decision. Many editors feel safer when that guide is German or at least European, Australian, or North American.  When that guide is African there are still safeguards that the editor can put in place to protect the investment of the publishing house. The more marketable story may be the familiar story, in the sense that the characters are poor, uneducated, simple, primitive and helpless. These are the terms of the rejection letter sent by an editor to the literature agency Interkontinental.

At the beginning of this essay I referred to shame. As a writer from Africa, or even as a black European writer I can’t avoid the image of Africa in the world. African achievement, or lack of achievement is the silent ocean. For some it only whispers. For me, it roars. Many people who have escaped into the rich billion are haunted by the sound. Chinua Achebe notices James Baldwin’s shame in  ‘Stranger in the Village’. Baldwin writes

‘For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modem world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in away that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory-but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.’

Taiye Selasi is one of the few contemporary Diasporan writers to have addressed this central taboo and how that wound to the psyche of Black writers may have affected the confidence of their writing, the topics they choose and forms they feel entitled to use.  I side with Achebe, in thinking Black writers in future will educate themselves not about their artistic, cultural and literary lineages. Given that 90% of Africa’s sacred cultural objects and art removed during the colonial era and placed in mainly white European hands, perhaps to become aware of that we need to be in Germany. Perhaps our future is here, as much as it is in the many other Africa’s in the world. In future perhaps our freedom of movement will be as obvious and unchallenged as our writing.

The future of African literature? It’s the future of literature. People will keep telling stories. I suppose the real questions are what sort of stories, over what mediums, to what audiences, in what markets, within which funding structures, with what cultural resonances. People with access to internet are reading less formally published fiction. They are writing more, and watching more tv series I suspect a substantial number of texts will be serialised fan fiction and memoir writing, home video and audio distributed over over peer sharing platforms. Perhaps more African writers will lose the strict separation from their readers, blur the boundaries between profession and passion.

Some of us leave home, some are violently expelled, vomited like foreign bodies into the unknown to make new homes. And some of us are not looking for home. To assume that every writer wants to belong in Germany, would be wrong. To assume every writer has a home to return to would also be wrong. For many home is a shell carried on the back. Home can be an ever receding horizon. A place of no particular interest. Some writers are home in themselves. And the African cupcake? It’s just a cupcake baked by an African[4].

[1] Frankfurt Book Fair, 2016 figures

[2] Aminatta Forna, The Guardian Books 2015. ‘Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover’


[4] Leye Adenle, conversation at the African Book Festival 2018 Berlin, Germany


Afroberlin. Parataxe Symposium III, May 24th, 2018

Clementine Ewokolo Burnley for © PARATAXE 2018

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