In a foundational essay in African literary studies, the critic V.Y. Mudimbe once posed the provocative question, is African literature a myth or a reality? (“African Literature: Myth or Reality?” African Literary studies, The Present State/L’etat présent, ed. Stephen Arnold, pp. 7-11. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1985). His answer is equally provocative: there is no real, true nature of African literature we can locate that exists in itself. This is not because, as some have argued, African literature is a copy of literatures from elsewhere, a “belated” cultural form that imports techniques of expression and modes of thought from outside of the continent. Some such arguments have viewed the oral tradition, not the literary, as the true form of authentic African culture. Mudimbe, however, wants to question the oppositions posed between the indigenous and foreign, authentic and inauthentic, the oral and literary.
The critic asserts that the reason there is no such thing as an essential nature to African literature is that African literature, like literatures from anywhere, cannot be separated from the multiple contexts in which it emerges and to which it also responds. These contexts—publishing houses both large and small, literary journals, school classrooms, academic conferences, and now fanzines, blogs, even twitter feeds —are always in the process of establishing and re-establishing procedures for measuring, classifying, and defining what African literature is. The Caine Prize for African Writing is another such context. The selection of short stories submitted for the prize this year is a testament to the capacity of contemporary writing to make us rethink assumptions that underlie such procedures of judging.
The short stories—nearly one hundred and fifty of them received this year—challenged the very concept of what an African short-story is, if we understand by this term a category defined according to dominant taxonomizing conventions: the national, regional, or continental origins of a work’s author; the institutions and media through which it is published, diffused, and marketed; the topics it treats; the formal strategies it employs; the genre it embodies. These works possessed an astonishing range of subjects and styles, and were written and published across multiple regions, nations, continents, and platforms. They created literary worlds that were just as diverse, extending from the prosaic to spectacular, the quotidian to the magical.
In these worlds, a household pet becomes an esteemed and then disgraced local politician (Rotimi Babatunde,” Howl” in A Memory This Size).
The Sleeping Beauty fairytale is queered through the staging of a love story between a young refugee from Somalia living in Moi’s Kenya and his kindergarten classmate (Diriye Osman, “Fairytales for Lost Children” in Jungle Jim).
A man searching for redemption confesses his sins of “trafficking in human souls” and traveling to the edge of the Portuguese empire and the coastal city of Luanda in the 18th century with his father and an abducted infant (George Makana Clark, “The Incomplete Priest” inEcotone).
A new kinship formation emerges when a teacher becomes a surrogate parent to a young woman thrown out of her house, accused by her mother of being a witch (Léonora Miano, “The Open Door of Paradise” in Transition).
And a teenager steals away with her girlfriend for sex during a family send-off for her brother, whose fate in the Rhodesian Light Infantry she worries over as his departure approaches (Annie Holmes, “Leaving Civvie Street” in Queer Africa).
Taken as a whole, but also viewed individually, the stories not only stretched generic categories such as modernism, realism, and naturalism, but also troubled attempts to separate the aesthetic from extra-aesthetic spheres, the literary from the political, historical, environmental, or economic. Their plotting, focalizations, narrative voices, rhetorical devices, and structural features call into question the idea that there might be any single definition or model against which the African short-story might be measured. They give us a view into an African literature of the present and future in ongoing conversation with, and re-imagination of, literary and historical pasts.