You only have to look at any English Literature syllabus to see a canon dominated by white authorship. While no one is denying Dickens’ acerbic wit or the ethereal charm of the Romantics, our literary canon is in desperate need of more inclusivity.
Recently, Kenyan novelist and playwright, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the bookies’ favourite to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, narrowly missed out to French writer Patrick Modiano. Ngugi has previously been nominated for the prize, pointing to the undeniable excellence of his writing; yet despite this, his work is still relatively unknown on a larger scale. In fact, Wole Soyinka, Nigerian writer and Leeds alumnus, is the only black African to have won the award.
So what is the reason for the absence of African voices in the canon? It can’t be an issue of language. Due to colonialism, English is spoken nationally in twenty-four African countries. Allowing African writers to share their rich and vibrant tales in a more accessible tongue.
It’s important for Africans to be given a literary voice. For too long their lives have been misrepresented in canonical literature. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness erases the African voice and perpetuates the damaging stereotype of Africa as barbaric and antithetical to Western civilisation. Why should texts that reduce Africans to mere caricatures be seen as more literary than stories about Africa written by Africans themselves?
Perhaps the real problem lies in the difficulties Western academics have in engaging with and fully understanding African forms of literature. Jane Plastow, Professor of African Theatre at Leeds, remarked that African writers feel ‘limited’ by ‘Western literary forms’ – ‘the novel is classically focused on the psychology of the individual, whereas African societies are much more collective.’ Western readers seem to have difficulty engaging with texts that focus on the communal nature of African life.
Professor Plastow went on to comment on the Western aversion to the ‘overly polemic’ nature of African literature. Ngugi himself has been imprisoned for illuminating the injustices of Kenya’s dictatorial government, and perhaps some readers can only see his texts for their fearless activism, rather than their aesthetic value. It is absurd that a writer as accomplished and erudite as Ngugi, who wrote his debut novel Weep Not, Child here at Leeds, should be constantly overlooked by critics because his writing doesn’t adhere to Western formal tradition.
Despite this history of neglect, African authors are slowly obtaining mainstream interest. A notable example is Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose debut, Half of a Yellow Sun, was recently adapted for film. A major draw to Adichie’s writing is the depth of her characterisation and the voice she gives to African women, a group constantly marginalised in a white patriarchal world. Recently lines from her ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ TED talk even featured in Beyoncé’s ‘***Flawless’. Adichie’s ability to make feminism a more intersectional doctrine, shows that African writing has social importance and deserves canonical recognition.
Can the Nobel Prize for Literature claim to award those who produce ‘outstanding work’ when they underestimate the writings of a large and dynamic group of people? The lack of African winners points to a need to accept more culturally diverse forms of literature, and redefine what we classify as ‘canonical’.
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