African Writer: the identity question

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  • As curator of the African Writers’ Evening (graciously hosted by the Poetry Cafe and the Southbank Centre) in London, I often get asked about the tag ‘African Writer’ – is it valid, how does one define the beast (African Writer), and do I reject it.
  • Of course, I suspect I get asked more than most people because we feature Indian-heritage and European-heritage African writers, but I won’t go into that here.
  • I’m really approaching this from a totally different angle, because I don’t think it’s my place to accept or reject the label; people will call you what they want to call you, it’s up to you to live what you believe you are.
  • Personally, I find it necessary to remind people that Africa is NOT a country, but I do use the label as a kind of metaphor. However, that doesn’t mean that I will EVER claim to know ALL of Africa.
  • That’s what this little blog is all about. If we are to insist on our national distinctions, then are we any different from Europeans and Americans who have never really lived on the continent and yet write about it, if we just pick countries around us as places to conveniently set child soldier and ethnic massacre stories?
  • Naturally, our Western readers will hail the stories as the TRUE VOICE of Africa, but those of us who grew up on the continent know that Kumasi Zongo differs from Harare as much as Malta differs from Ecuador; a Port Harcourt boy could not write authentic Port Elizabeth if he was soaked in Xhosa moonshine.
  • I am raising this question of ‘colonially-conferred’ authenticity (i.e. the fact that being an ‘African’ in the West can get you paid as an expert on places you’ve never pissed in) because we’re seeing from the Uwem Akpan ‘Say You’re One of Them’ phenomenon that African short story writers are spreading their locations to match headline news locations so that their stories will sell (I read a lot of submissions, so I am speaking from personal pain!). What’s worse is there is often not even the most tenuous of links to some thing that they DO know.
  • I do not know Akpan myself so I can’t comment on his authority (although there is no doubting his talent), but I am raising the question; if – in fact – writers following this trend haven’t been to some of the places that they are writing about, would it be any different from Alexander McCall Smith? In fact, wouldn’t it be worse, considering that McCall Smith was both born and raised in and later returned to live and work in South Africa. Actually, he’s pretty authentic in location politics and knowledge of the terrain – his particular skipping trick is the switching of skin colour in a place where skin colour was/is a BIG deal.
  • Further, if we are to play this trick of shifting metropolises, then can we complain (for those inclined to complain) if we are lumped under the label ‘African Writers’? Let’s hold on to that question.
  • My opinion? Writing anyplace in Africa (or anywhere) with authority is to do with lived experience; which is why Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel worked; which is why I will continue to feature Asian- Middle-East and European-origin Africans at the African Writers’ Evening. [ Our next event is at the Southbank Centre on March 25 BTW – can’t miss a plug; I am ‘African’ after all and we’re all good in the marketplace, apparently! ]


Filed under What?

5 responses to “African Writer: the identity question

  1. Belinda Otas

    An interesting and concise take, really makes you ask questions and as someone who reviews books, I have to admit, the pov you have raised never crossed my mind…points to look out for in the next few books I review, including yours 🙂

    In terms of the whole African writer name tag/label, I totally agree with this…”I’m really approaching this from a totally different angle, because I don’t think it’s my place to accept or reject the label; people will call you what they want to call you, it’s up to you to live what you believe you are.”

    My mum always says it is not what they call you, it is what you answer to…

  2. Lydia A Allotey

    Although your point is well taken; may I suggest looking at this from the point of view of a writer that just happens to be an African? I do however agree with you, that when a writer does write about what they know; the experience for the reader becomes all the more enjoyable.

    • Lydia, I don’t quite understand what you mean by pov of writer that happens to be African. ‘Happens to be African (or ‘insert country’)’ IS lived experience so it’s no different. Any immigrant/emigrant will tell you that their household is a like a different country – it’s in tone, recipes, discipline, gossip, visitors from the ‘home country/countries’, traditional obligations, terms of address, respect etc etc. If that’s not lived experience, I don’t know what is. I didn’t grow up in a Twi household, but I can write Ga and Twi realities because some of my closest friends (and my Dad’s) in whose houses I spent a lot of time, were Twi.

  3. Any debate on the subject of authenticity is good regardless of the format used, as it stimulates response whether as direct debate or someone merely ponders the matter raised. So thanks for the stimulus from a naive individual who logically knows Africa is a continent, but still did think country.

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