Embracing African literature: Tips for first-time readers

Since I remember I’ve been surrounded by people who read from African authors. If you also do so and you are part of the white majority, know that in this sense you belong to the minority. Once I’m out of my precious and very small circle, no one I meet has ever heard of contemporary African writers. What’s more, a childhood friend was once arguing with me about the existence of a country called Ghana. You might think that it’s an extreme example but there is still a general lack of knowledge of the African continent.

I started reading about Africa in my early teens. About Africa, but not from African writers. There is a difference. Those books were written by white explorers, as they liked to describe themselves. In reality, they were rich white people parading around the continent with the help of local guides and slaves, who ensured that their employers were not deprived of any comfort. They hunted whatever animal they found, and they sent their ethnographic accounts back to their home countries to the awe of their compatriots. To be fair, at least some of them have done a good job of recording traditions and customs that have long since disappeared in the course of history and the demands of contemporary societies.

I read everything I found but for many years I didn’t have the necessary historical knowledge to assess those books critically. Still, the people, the land with its animals, and another reality in general, as if enchanted, beckoned me to get a little closer to the continent.

I met the first person at university who consciously guided me to learn more about African literature. He was an ethnographer, a Bantu philologist, and a literary translator. It was in the small room, no larger than 10 square metres, that he used as a library for the few of us who took African Studies seriously, where I reached for Aké, a 1981 memoir by Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. My professor said wisely, ‘Not yet’.

Most African author lovingly fill their books with expressions from their native languages, major historical events are mentioned as common knowledge, and you will find references to curious customs without explanation. For someone who received a white education, this can feel overwhelming and might result in giving up on a piece of literature that, with some background information and preparation, would be an enriching and often enlightening experience.

I’m sharing below my top tips that, over time, will make you feel welcome in the diverse world of African literature. You are completely free to ignore them all and start reading Dangerous Love by Ben Okri, right now. Do it, you will benefit from it. But if you want a better understanding of the characters and political references, and if you want to unravel why Ben Okri is considered one of the feminist male authors, then you might want to read on.

Re-learn history

Accept that education provided in white-majority societies gives a narrow and one-sided picture of the African continent.

The history of Africa and the history of the rest of the world are intertwined to the extent that it’s impossible to fully understand today’s Western societies without knowing more about Africa. It means that if you want to understand the current issues of your country, related to race, migration, trade, or environmental protection, it’s time you deep dive into the history of Africa.

Make sure you understand the basics, such as the difference and relationship between slavery and colonialism; explore the current economic links between Africa and the rest of the world; discover how major religions like Christianity and Islam have transformed traditional societies; reflect on the reasons behind the continent’s environmental pollution; and notice how the so-called developed countries still influence the economy and politics and thus everyday life today.

Focus on one region

Don’t despair, you don’t have to turn yourself into an academic or know everything from Namibia to Algeria. Choose a country or an ethnic group and see what you find.

Because my first teacher was an expert in the East, I initially learnt more about East Africa, and my first readings were from writers like the Kenyan Meja Mwangi or Ngugi wa Thiongo’o.

Over time, out of curiosity, I slowly made my way west then the north. The southern part of the continent is still waiting for me to be explored in depth but I’m in no hurry to get to know it all. It would be a futile effort anyway.

Read in your mother tongue first

Over 3000 languages are spoken on the African continent. Still, as a result of colonialism and the perceived higher status of these Western languages, the majority of writers publish either in English or French.

If neither of these two languages is your native language and you find books by African writers in your mother tongue, choose that version. It takes away the extra stress of reading in a language other than your mother tongue.

This new world you are entering provides your brain with enough new information to process, you will feel less overwhelmed if at least one complicating factor is removed from the exercise. Unless you’re bilingual, meaning you’ve absorbed two or more languages from birth, your brain will always perceive the foreign language as a foreign language and will need extra energy to convert the information you’re feeding it.

Unfortunately, partly due to the dominance of English, not everything is available in other languages. However, it is very likely that you will find a handful of books by African authors in your mother tongue to start with. Once you are comfortable reading them, you can move on to reading in the original language.

When you get to this point, notice the rich vocabulary these writers use, despite writing in their second or third language. This is partly because non-native speakers face huge expectations when using a second language and try to live up to them, and partly because African writers, like everyone else, unconsciously incorporate their culture into their second or third languages, their writing, and their daily life.

It’s exciting to get to the stage where you understand the references to native traditions and languages as if they were your own.

Experiment with various genres

Fiction, historical fiction, non-fiction, romance, short story, novel, memoir, thriller, travel writing, and many more genres are available for you within what’s considered African literature.

Reading travelogues can be an easy start, followed by biographies of the African diaspora. I like to read the latter because they link the past and the present, guiding me through the changes that inevitably occur when one moves away from one’s homeland. These genres are somewhat closer to the writing style of European writers, less influenced by the languages and folklore of a distant continent.

Most importantly

Embrace the diversity and richness of African literary voices, and let them transport you to new places, times, and experiences.

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