Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 201-202
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Ghanaian Popular Fiction:
"Thrilling Discoveries in Conjugal Life" and Other Tales
Ghanaian Popular Fiction: "Thrilling Discoveries in Conjugal Life" and Other Tales, by Stephanie Newell. Oxford: James Currey; Athens: Ohio UP, 2000. ISBN 0-85255-536-3.
Stephanie Newell's multifaceted study of Ghanaian popular writing from the 1930s to the present time is an ambitious project that does more than provide textual reading of selected texts as representative of a genre. With chapters on Ghanaian readers' comments, on contemporary magazines in Ghana, on publishing and popular literature in West Africa, on parallels between Ghanaian and Nigerian popular writing, in addition to the expected discussions of specific authors, styles, and texts, this book gives us a fuller understanding of the many factors at work in the emergence of a popular literature in a given postcolonial setting. It builds on the earlier work on Ghanaian popular fiction carried out by scholars like Richard Priebe, and does for Ghanaian popular fiction what Emanuel Obiechina did for Onitsha Market Literature in the 1970s, with the added benefits of insights derived from contemporary theory. While readers who think of African literature research mainly in terms of textual analysis might be disappointed, Newell's strategy addresses issues that remain relevant for African and other postcolonial literatures, namely: who reads and how, who writes and how, who assesses the text, and why?
Newell starts off by questioning many assumptions that have become commonplace in discussions of African popular writing, the fact that it is considered imitative of Western models, escapist, and ideologically conservative. She counters these assumptions by showing how the authors of West African popular texts relate to foreign texts in accordance with indigenous modes of intertextuality. She further remarks how readers approach the text as a guide to real life decisions, and notes the difference between male [End Page 201] and female responses to the same texts. Indeed, gender is one of the significant variables highlighted in Newell's study, through a comparison of male and female authors, and an examination of magazines directed at a female readership, of perceptions of conjugality, love, and femininity as represented in various texts. Reading through Newell's work, one also gets a sense of some of the issues that preoccupied Ghanaian writers of popular fiction and their readers over the course of the twentieth century, issues such as racism under colonial rule, the impact of new marriage legislation on gender roles, and reflections on the changing economic fortunes of individuals and the community. Newell also focuses on the context of production of Ghanaian popular fiction, suggesting, for example, that while publication of "serious" literature may be in decline, there does not seem to be a book famine when it comes to popular literature in West Africa. In her final chapter, she calls for a problematizing of the term popular literature, pointing out important differences between African popular writing and popular literature, particularly in the Western world.
In conclusion, Newell's study is a welcome contribution to the growing body of work on urban West African cultures and African popular culture. It is informative, and mercifully free of jargon. Although some sections have been previously published as journal articles, as a complete book, this volume offers a useful overview of often-neglected questions that merit further attention in contemporary discussions of African literature.
Moradewun Adejunmobi teaches African Studies at the University of California, Davis.