- Critical Perspectives on Postcolonial African Children’s and Young Adult Literature
To Western eyes, Africa has historically appeared as the unknowable “Dark Continent” of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). While scholars today may be more aware than in the past of the cultural biases that undergird such depictions, the mystical terms of previous concepts of Africa remain part of popular culture. Significantly, “The Dark Continent” [End Page 452] was the name chosen for a popular theme park in Florida featuring African animals in a “natural” habitat. This imagined Africa is a romanticized continent of jungle and safari. Films—such as the recent Mighty Joe Young (1998) or George of the Jungle (1997)—present Africa as primitive and hostile, a vestige of humanity’s childhood opposed (however positively) to the “civilized” values of the West. The complex, modern Africa—that has produced the sophisticated artistry of Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer (both Nobel laureates), and on the negative side has experienced intractable ethnic conflicts, political turmoil, and the reality of urban industrial civilization—is generally invisible in Western cultural images. In children’s literature—books such as The Story of Babar (1933) or Curious George (1941), which remain popular—perpetuate a vision of Africa as little more than the jungle home of exotic beasts. Academic interest in postcolonial literatures has surged in recent years; scholars have made sincere, if limited, efforts to bring attention to African children’s literature specifically. Articles in Bookbird, an international children’s journal edited by Khorana, regularly examine aspects of African children’s literature; most of the major research journals have run at least occasional articles on African works. But scholarly interest does not translate into popular availability; representations of Africa in children’s books continue to be mediated by members of the dominant culture. Several recent children’s books exhibit sensitivity to African cultures. Nancy Farmer’s A Girl Named Disaster (1996), for instance, replicates in Nhamo’s journey the mental passage Western readers must make as they go from a view of “primitive” Africa to a more complicated, nuanced vision of modern Africa. Farmer’s science-fiction novel, The Eye, the Ear, and the Arm (1994), inverts typical Western assumptions about the hierarchy of white European and black African cultures depicting a sophisticated, urban future for Zimbabwe. American Jane Kurtz, who grew up in Ethiopia, has written several novels and picture books reflecting that culture. Verna Aardema’s retellings of African folk tales are also sensitive to the original, cultural settings. Nevertheless, these books represent outsiders’ perspectives, rather than “authentic” visions from within the respective cultures.
Meena Khorana’s preface to this needed collection of essays on African children’s literature calls attention to these cultural concerns, emphasizing in particular “[t]he question of an authentic voice in postcolonial African children’s literature” (x). The book’s first two essays outline powerful economic and social forces that militate against the development of such an authentic voice. Khorana’s own contribution leads off the book, briefly mapping critical concerns shaping an emergent African children’s literature. [End Page 453] She observes that African children’s books reflect the tension between creating truly national identities and celebrating unique cultures in nations artificially created from disparate peoples by European cartographers. Language itself is an issue where the only common tongue may be that of the former colonizers. On the other hand, the unique circumstances of African society encourage creativity in balancing traditional and modernized cultures and developing hybrid literary forms that merge African storytelling motifs and Western genres.
Kenyan author/publisher Asenath Bole Odaga follows with an outline of the problems besetting Kenyan publishers, which are typical across most of Africa. Publishing economics make it difficult to establish local markets for trade books. The largest segment of the children’s book market is for school texts. As Odaga notes, African book sales are so low that not even an Achebe or a Ngugi can survive on these royalties alone. Illiteracy, poverty, and weak infrastructures contribute to low readership. Linguistic differences...