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  • Currents in African Literature
  • Ode S. Ogede (bio)
Oyekan Owomoyela, ed. A History of Twentieth Century African Literatures. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

This concisely presented volume is a welcome addition to the growing body of writing on the contemporary literatures of Africa. There have been many studies both by individual hands and by groups which attempt to present a survey of the themes and styles of African literature, but to date nothing quite as readable has appeared which does what this book attempts to do: to present a comprehensive view not only of the major issues around which debates in African writing have focused and continue to focus, but also a detailed inventory of the principal writers in the field in a portable text. One notable text to rival it is without question the two-volume set European-Language Writing in sub-Saharan Africa (Budapest: Akademia Kiado, 1986) edited by Albert Gerard, which has an identical objective. But, as indicated by its title, Gerard’s book does not include African-language writing, and besides that, it is too voluminous for ease of reference. Owomoyela’s volume, published in 1993 but in gestation since 1984, derives its uniqueness, then, from the condensed manner in which it has pulled the resources of some of the most noted experts in the field of the modern literatures of Africa. By encompassing some information on Africa-language writing with entries on the history, styles, and themes of the writings in English, Portuguese, and French by sub-Saharan Africans in a portable volume, Owomoyela and his contributors have produced a book that anyone who desires to know the [End Page 245] origins, principal figures, and the main trends and currents of African literatures and criticism in our time would find very useful.

The contributions are without doubt not of uniform quality, for, while some adopt an eclectic style that weaves a coherent narrative—for example, Jonathan Peters (on English-Language Fiction from West Africa); John Povey (on English-Language Fiction from South Africa); and Edris Makward (on French-Language Poetry)—some seek for an inclusiveness which led to the adoption of a rambling style that consequently results in some quite avoidable incoherence and unreadability (see particularly the essays on English Language poetry from West Africa, on African women’s writing, and on Portuguese-Language Literature). And some of the essays are not as informative as they should be, which makes the reader wonder why the editor has not insisted on improvement (for example, see the quite perfunctory piece on African-Language Literatures whose author’s knowledge does not seem to have progressed beyond a few titles in a limited number of Africa’s major ethnic groups). While the book’s selection is based on very debatable exclusionary practices, notwithstanding, much that one would want to learn about sub-Saharan African writing has been included in this book.

In light of the immense potential importance of this book, therefore, my concluding remarks will focus on possible areas of improvement I would like to see in future editions of the volume. Right from the commentary on Casely-Hayford’s Ethiopia Unbound (1911), probably the first significant known work written in a colonial language by a continental African, to the latest works of Ngugi, what is taken to be an apriori condition by the contributors to this book is the cultural unity of black Africans. Editor Owomoyela sets the tone for this in his laconic introduction, in which he spells out the ground for the exclusion of the literatures of North Africa:

[T]he book excludes the countries of North Africa, for while they share some historical experiences (such as colonialism) with the countries below the sahara, they are in fact Arab in culture, outlook, and lingua franca, and they perceive themselves to be part of the Arab world. The literatures discussed in the following pages, therefore, are those of the sub-Saharan countries, which share a cultural unity.


I beg to differ. Since the contributors mostly discuss the literatures as responses to colonialism, rather than as expressions of culture, the exclusion of North African literature is inexcusable. That North Africans see themselves as...

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pp. 245-246
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