Literary Treatise | On Contemporary African Writers And Their Choices Of Themes

By  Marvel Chukwudi Pephel

African literature has really come a long way, with a new crop of writers emerging on both the African and global literary scene. From Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe setting the pace to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ben Okri following up to Yaa Gyasi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Uzodinma Iweala, Chigozie Obioma, Taiye Selasi and many others keeping the African literary scene abuzz with excitement and expectation. In this digital age, it is easier to be a writer than it was in the days of Soyinka and his colleagues. However, this does not mean that to produce quality literature depends on this. The production of quality works depends solely on the writer’s talent and hard work. And because the predecessors like Achebe, Soyinka and Clark wrote about colonial themes, some writers and western readers feel that’s what African literature is all about and these writers feel they ought to toe the same line as their predecessors. This, however, has led to a wrong expectation and a massive pressure to write on such age long themes. And this has led to a kind of problem.




I think that is the appropriate word to use. That word has lingered enough on the shoulders of African Literature. Monotony becomes a burden: one that promises to weigh down, when a people’s literature is known by a certain trademark. And a shameful trademark at that. In an interview conducted by Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature, with regards to the judging of the 2015 Caine Prize, a truth wriggled its ugly head. Dr Coilín Parsons, when asked what his expectations were when he was selected as one of the judges, had this to say:


“I expected a lot of child narrators and a lot of so-called ‘Poverty porn’, both of which are seen as trademarks of the prize. I was proven wrong on both counts.”


A lot of child narrators, fair enough. Poverty porn, a coinage to be frowned at. But that is what our literature seemed to be all about. The poverty, the slavery, the colonialism, the female circumcision, the civil wars, and the many African-ish woes. Is that the essence of Literature? Literature should serve as a template for the synthesis of new ideas, new philosophies; and in fact, for the synthesis of a new world. The essence of a new work of art should lie within the shores of (new) creation. The world seeks new ideas and art. And not just that, new works that are laden with the beauty of thought and language. I am a votary of Muriel Barbery who said in his book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog:


“Personally, I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty.”


From this point of view, I think that African writers should write with beauty in mind. They should write with an overwhelming poetic licence. There should be a freedom of thought, and it is only through this that writers can create enduring masterpieces. By so saying, we should solicit for a slash in the frequency of the well-known African-ish themes. We should evolve into other genres, and into a new thinking. Talking about the evolution, I would love to mention Nnedi Okorafor. This is a kind of writer, a kind with a kind of thinking. She is a writer whose genius lies in weaving African traditions, beliefs and superstitions into Science fiction, Fantasy and Speculative fiction. Gary K. Wolfe had this to say about her work:


“Okorafor’s genius has been to find the iconic images and traditions of African culture, mostly Nigerian and often Igbo, and tweak them just enough to become a seamless part of her vocabulary of fantastika.”


African literature needs a sophisticated revamping, and the African writers need to embrace a paradigm shift. This change has only just begun, but it will take some time before its effect will be felt. Think change, think Tomi Adeyemi. But of course, we are willing to wait while believing Maya Angelou that, “All great achievements require time.”


The limitations of repetition of certain themes are that it renders the literature monotonous, less imaginative, less adventurous, and less enduring. Ice cream is just sweet, but there is a subtle reason for the variation in flavours. Automobiles are just for transportation, but there is a reason for a variation in designs. All these variations boil down to creating that which has never been seen or heard of. And when they are created, there must be satisfaction for the curiosity of the respective required sensory organs. In there lies the appreciation for originality, innovation, ingenuity and beauty.


Let the African writer write, let the African writer diversify.



 Marvel Chukwudi Pephel is a prolific Nigerian writer who writes poems, short stories and other things besides. Has works appearing or forthcoming in Pyrokinection, High Coupe, The Kalahari Review, The Avocet, African Writer, The Naked Convos, Peeking Cat Poetry Magazine, Jellyfish Whispers, PIN Quarterly Journal, Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature, Poetry Tree on the Charles, Academy of the Heart and Mind, amongst others. Shortlisted for 2016 Quality Poets Competition. Has poetry selected for the Best New African Poets 2016 Anthology? His poetry was selected for the Austrian Haiku Association’s Lotosblüte 2018, with his poetry consequently translated to German. He is currently a two-time winner of the Creative Writing Ink Competition (Ireland). You can follow him on Twitter @Marvel_C_Pephel.



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