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  • Readings in African Popular Fiction
  • Oyekan Owomoyela
Readings in African Popular Fiction. Edited by Stephanie Newell. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press; Oxford: James Currey, 2002. x + 206 pp. Cloth: $54.95; Paper: $24.95.

The volume, patterned after Karin Barber's earlier Readings in African Popular Culture, explicitly examines certain commonly held opinions about African reading habits, opinions like those Chinua Achebe propagated in his article, "What Do African Intellectuals Read?" The prevailing view has been that African intellectuals read next to nothing, because most are preoccupied with the demands of making a living or of living in a state of siege. When they do read at all, the belief holds, they favor texts on history, economics, mathematics, and the like. The volume rephrases Achebe's question, asking, "Do Africans read? If they do, what do they read, and why?" It thus avoids the suggestion that in Africa reading is an activity peculiar to intellectuals, or that if non-intellectuals do read we need not to be concerned with their reading habits. Achebe did note a significant increase of interest in reading and writing among African youth, even among soldiers, and the articles in this volume address the rising tide of literary creativity and consumption he saw on the horizon.

The objectives of this collection include fostering a better understanding of literary production and consumption in Africa, as well as of the factors that influence these activities, and providing "appetizers for students and researchers, aimed at encouraging further detailed research into particular regional literatures." To those ends the editor has assembled twenty articles, excluding the introduction and eight primary texts. Of the articles, seventeen are reprints, such as Donatus Nwoga's celebrated study of Onitsha market literature, Njabulo Ndebele's critique of the spectacular bent in apartheid-era South African popular writing, and Bodil Folke Frederiksen's discussion of Joe, a magazine popular in Kenya in the 1970s. The remainder, commissioned specifically for the volume, include Misti Bastian's essay on the ogbanje phenomenon in Nigerian fiction, Alain Ricard's argument proposing Félix Couchoro as the pioneer of West African popular writing, and [End Page 229] Lindy Stiebel's discussion of South African thriller writers of the spectacular were apolitical. The primary texts are varied: translations of African language originals (e.g. Hausa littatafan soyayya), excerpts from English-language works (with one full length reproduction), and facsimiles of cartoon strips and book covers.

The volume limits its coverage to sub-Saharan Africa, which it organizes into three zones—West, East, and South Africa—in order "to encourage an appreciation of the different 'zones of culture' in which African popular fiction is produced," and to allow comparisons between them; the orientation is admittedly Anglophone, the intention being to emphasize the debt the post-colonial African writers owe English literature.

Unquestionably, the book represents a profound enhancement to our understanding of the popular literature industry in Africa, and argues for substantial revisions of what we imagined we already knew about it. For example, the high sales figures of fiction by Kenya's Aubrey Kalitera and Ghana's Asare Konadu, and the immense popularity of the magazines Joe (Kenya) and Drum (South Africa) refute the view that Africans, even non-intellectual and non-affluent Africans, lack interest in leisure reading, or that a book famine exists on the continent. As Newell points out, one can persist in holding such a view only if one assumes that literature cannot be didactic, or that only works of such cosmopolitan writers as Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ng_g_, and Ben Okri count in considerations of Africans' reading.

Another assumption the volume urges us to abandon is that popular fiction writers, like the Onitsha pamphleteers, serve as mouthpieces for their readers, whose level of education, social status, and tastes they share. The evidence shows us that in fact the writer is as a rule better educated than his reader, and also better employed and better paid. Indeed some writers of popular texts are professional (doctors and journalists for example), for whom writing is an avocation. Moreover, the writers often have no direct links with their readers, and their identity is sometimes uncertain in any case...


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