Himalaya: Listen. Learn. Grow.
Leading A Double Life
Hi, everyone, and welcome to episode 7 of my podcast Leading A Double Life. I’m Kwei Quartey, a physician and author of the Inspector Darko Dawson novels. On my podcast, reflections on being a medical doctor and a writer. This episode, part one of a series on African LiteratureAfrican Literature: What is it?African literature has been much written about. There is still debate about what it really is, its themes and its style and content. A notable aspect is that it includes both the oral and written literatures. The etymologic definition of literature is “writing formed with letters,” from the Latin littera (letters). Therefore, Pio Zirimu, a Ugandan scholar, suggested the word orature to replace the self-contradictory “oral literature.” Despite the ingenuity of the name, it didn’t really take hold, and “oral literature” is still the more popular term among scholars.Included in oral African literature is the African heroic epic. A prime example is the Sunjata (or Sundjata/Sundiata) Epic of the Mendeka peoples, relating the legend of Sunjata, the 13th century king of the Mali Empire. What is the stereotype about written African literature?The oral form of African literature is frequently mentioned and acknowledged in papers and books, but even supposedly knowledgeable scholars hold the view that written African literature barely made any appearance before the 1950s (as a result of colonization). In other words, before Chinua Achebe’s famous Things Fall Apart and other African writers’ works of that era, there was no good African literature to be found. TFA was one of the first African novels to garner international critical acclaim, but was that all there was?No, says Princeton professor of medieval, early modern, and modern African literature, Wendy Laura Belcher. She notes in her paper on African Literature, An Anthology of Written Texts from 3000 BCE to 1900 CE that while historians labor to overturn privailing misconceptions that Africa is a place without history, literary critics have done little to overturn a mistaken view that Africa has no literature. Some Westerners believe that writing on the continent was not done by Africans or in African languages. Belcher emphasizes, and others back her up, that in fact there is an at least 3000-year history of African writing. Why has some African literature escaped notice (or been ignored)?Much of African literature over the last millenia has disappeared from view because it has not survived, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, but extant texts refer to these ancient documents as having existed. Second, many works were not published and therefore went unknown. Third, very few were translated from African languages into European languages, and they were therefore ignored.As much as scholars probe and dissect shining examples of twentieth century African literature, Belcher points out there are historical precedents to the works of the prominent modern-day African writers. For example, it could be argued that the pidgin English works of Amos Tutuola (The Palm-Wine Drinkard), (which Dylan Thomas called “fresh, young English”), Ken Saro-Wiwa (Sozaboy), and Uzodinma Iweala (Beasts of No Nation) were well preceded by Antera Duke‘s eighteenth century diary, which was written in Nigerian pidgin English and carried to Scotland by a Scottish missionary. Where is that ever mentioned in popular analysis? Historical categories of African literatureOne subsection of African literature emerged from the writings of Africans living outside of Africa– both slaves and African youths whom European colonists sent to study in England, France, Portugal, Italy, Holland and Germany. The Interesting Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), was written by former slave Olaudah Equiano, who described the awfulness of slavery and the slave trade.