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Research in African Literatures 34.1 (2003) 1-10

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African Literature, African Literatures:
Cultural Practice or Art Practice?

Michael Chapman
University of Natal, Durban

My title is provoked by two tendencies in the discussion of literature from Africa. First, a certain hesitancy over the last decade in using the bold, singular term of the decolonisation years: African Literature, the implication being a pan-African concept. The current conference, for example, refers to the plural form, African Literatures: "versions and subversions," i.e., "the multiple facets, themes and styles emerging currently . . . that question hegemonic discourses in this field." 1 Second, a tendency—to some extent, in literature studies generally—to subsume the literary work under cultural, political, or historical practice. Questions of value or quality simply vanish, there being no reason why, say, Achebe's novels are a better index to, or symptom of, the cultural aporias of colonialism or postcolonialism than any number of bestsellers or, for that matter, civil service or medical or prison reports of the period.

There are good reasons why the plural form African Literatures should be preferred. Indeed, my own study—originally advertised by the publishers as "Southern African Literature in English"—ended up titled Southern African Literatures. African Literatures remind us that Africa is far from homogeneous in language, culture, religion, style, or in the processes of its modernity. Rather, it is what Ali A. Mazrui describes as something of a "bazaar" (97). Early colonisation in the extreme north has resulted in considerable Arabic and Islamic influence; the return of South Africa to African recognition reminds us that the original people at the southernmost point—San/Bushmen—experienced the harshness first of Bantu-speaking African migrations, then Dutch colonial intrusions.

There are good reasons, too, why the literary text should be regarded primarily as a social document. African literature, at least in the colonial language, is the direct result of a political act: that of colonisation. The literature is itself, in consequence, often a political act. It is expected that the African writer address the big sociopolitical issues of the day. The writer who does not may end up being considered irrelevant. Indeed, I shall suggest that, in Africa, the close correlation between the texts of politics and the texts of art poses challenging questions as to what constitutes a literary culture, what might be regarded as the practice of art. Initially, we may consider whether such questions should be pursued under the category African Literature or African Literatures. For both categories have value.

The recently published "A-Z," The Companion to African Literatures (see Killam and Rowe) utilizes the plural form, I think, because it recognizes that diversity and heterogeneity threaten to undermine any single map of the field. Scholarship over the last decade in both the West and Africa, for example, has focused not on grand narratives, but on local contexts, whether the method be Marxist, feminist, or varieties of the post-condition. Criticism may wish, accordingly, to distinguish between the "African" [End Page 1] novels of Achebe and Ngugi, respectively. Like British rule in Nigeria, Achebe leans towards the interaction of cultural identity and administrative coercion. An intrusive settler presence in Kenya, in contrast, turns Ngugi to material conflicts of race and class. Despite such national differences, criticism remains alert to the difficulty of foregoing the categories African Literature or African Literatures and employing, in the case mentioned above, the categories Nigerian Literature and Kenyan Literature. African countries cannot escape now the uneasy demarcations of colonial boundaries: boundaries that cut through language and group affiliations. At the same time, fundamental requirements for converting groups into nations are lacking in African countries: not only in robust economic and civil infrastructures but, more to the point in literary discussion, in the widespread, multiclass literacy of a common language. Recognizable themes and genres alone are not sufficient to delineate a national literature. Writers and readers would have to be aware that an intelligible field of Nigerian or Kenyan literature could exist, and that they were actively contributing to its development. Universities, publishers, and...