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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 189-190

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Book Review

The Companion to African Literatures

The Companion to African Literatures, ed. Douglas Killam and Ruth Rowe. Oxford: James Currey; Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000. xiii + 322 pp. ISBN 0-253-33633-3 cloth.

In 1971 Hans M. Zell published his pioneering A Reader's Guide to African Literature (London: Heinemann). The revised New Reader's Guide to African Literature appeared in 1983 with contributions from Carol Bundy and Virginia Coulon, and has more than 3,000 expansive entries covering biographies and works of writers from all parts of Africa. Unquestionably, the task of these early compilers was facilitated by the fact that the size and volume of this new and burgeoning field was still limited and the professional lives of the writers themselves were stable and quite predictable. With the massive expansion of the field and the increasing transit of the writers across the world through the 1990s, however, African literature is anything but the steady and homogenous activity it was.

Douglas Killam and Ruth Rowe, the compilers of the latest effort aimed at presenting news on the lives and works of writers from all parts of Africa, have risen to the occasion with fine aplomb. They show a broad vision of the subject, and have relied upon an unusual number of contributors (nearly 200 scholars from around the world) to execute their assignment. Notwithstanding, as migrants, African writers resist stabilization, defy being implanted at any one spot. This is the biggest headache facing anyone who wishes to provide an up-to-date pilot work today covering not only the central preoccupations, but also the careers of African writers. Killam and Rowe could not avoid a ghastly collision with this uncertainty.

Like the Hans Zell book, The Companion to African Literatures is also an extensive work of reference, designed partly for the general reader and partly as a specialized work for advanced students of African literature. Focused primarily on the creative writers (novelists, short story writers, poets, writers of biography and autobiography, as well as dramatists), it offers occasional leads for some of their critical activities as well, and furnishes information not only on European-language African writing, but also on pieces written or performed in a number of indigenous African languages--including Gikuyu, Hausa, Igbo, Krio, Malagasy, Ndebele, Pidgin, Shona, Sotho, Swahili, Tsonga, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu. And it includes work translated from the Arabic. Furthermore, it brilliantly lists and discusses major topics and themes like censorship, the intersection of religion and literature, politics and literature, prison and literature, [End Page 189] Negritude, literature and war, literary influences, oral tradition and modern writing, literature and nation, literature and ethnicity, literature and sexuality, the African diaspora, and women in literature. With the entries listed alphabetically by region (East Africa, South-Central Africa, South Africa, and West Africa), the volume makes for ease of reference. The country-author guide provided in addition adds to the organizational adroitness of the book.

The heart of the book, however, is the portion addressed to the career history of African writers. The attempt to supply timely biographical information on each of the listed writers is a largely disappointing, because hugely inaccurate, enterprise. The compilers claim that most of the information was volunteered by the writers themselves, but the bulk of it is dated. In several instances, the data not only fail to update the Hans Zell volume in significant detail, but some of the facts are entirely erroneous. The story of South African author Mbulelo Mzamane is typical of the blunder. Of him, it is written: "In 1979 he went to Sheffield, UK for his doctoral studies, and from there to the USA, where he held posts at the universities of Georgia and Vermont" (169). By this entry, Mzamane's almost four productive years (November 1982-September 1986) at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, when he was still fresh from his studies at Sheffield, and during which time he directed several theses and dissertations and served as external examiner at a number of Nigerian universities, have been rubbed...


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