Wendy L. Belcher, in a mail dated 6 September 2012 in H-NET List for African Literature and Cinema, queried for assistance in the selection of “recent African novels” to complement a list that she and her colleague Janice Spleth (and others) were compiling. The idea is/was to form a virtual reading group, which is just great. Browsing the list, however, I started to wonder by what criteria these ‘African novels’ and other candidates for such a list have been or were to be selected, whether the initiators had any views about their selective strategy or were just improvising.

My timid question was communicated to the list. Wendy Belcher responded  that “’African novel’ is a shorthand for me, meaning novels written by people from the continent and not novels written about the continent” (mail dated 10/9).

Fair enough, only that the compactness of her ‘shorthand’ hides significant problems as I will show. I decided to have a look at the list of 6 September, realizing its provisional nature, but accepting it for what it was: a single ad hoc list by professional, American academic readers with a passion for Africa. But what ‘Africa’? Here are my observations of the Belcher/Spleth list. (I have numbered the 17 writers in the order they appeared on the 6 September list.)

1. Ellen Banda-Aaku, Patchwork: A Novel
2. Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love
3. Marie Ndiaye, Three Strong Women
4. Alain Mabanckou, Broken Glass
5. Sony Labou Tansi, Life and a Half
6. Catherine Taylor, Apart
7. Tendai Huchu, The Hairdresser of Harare
8. Noo Saro-Wiwa, Looking for Transwonderland
9. Lauren Beukes, Zoo City
10. Leila Aboulela, Lyrics Alley
11. Ian Holding, Unfeeling
12. Damon Galgut, The Good Doctor
13. Jose Eduardo Agualusa, Book of Chameleons
14. Fatou Diome, The Belly of the Atlantic
15. Tony d’Souza, Whiteman
16. Ekow Eshun, Black Gold of the Sun
17. Douglas Rogers, The Last Resort

The original language of the works is English, except for nos. 3, 4, 5, and 14 that have been translated from French; no. 13 from Portuguese. No single work on the list is originally written in an African language.
Translation, the world’s largest language, seems to be unknown to American academics.

Six of the authors listed live in the U.K., five in the U.S.A, two in South Africa, one in Germany, one in Portugal, one in Zimbabwe, one – the late Sony Labou Tansi – lived in Congo-Brazzaville. So: of the seventeen writers listed here, one three writers live on a permanent basis in Africa.

A majority of the writers’ thematics is bi-polar or inter-directional where ‘Africa’ forms an inspirational setting for inquiry, travel, nostalgia, or memory-work. The ethics of diaspora, migration and exile permeate these works in one way or another. They are 1 (Zambia), 2 (Sierra Leone), 3 and 14 (Senegal), 4 (Congo-Brazzaville), 6 (South Africa), 8 (Nigeria), 10 (Sudan), 13 (Angola), 16 (Ghana), 7 and 17 (Zimbabwe). ‘Africa’ is conditioned – once again.

All these works have been published, distributed and backed up by prestigious publishing houses in the West such as Hougton Mifflin Harcourt, Arcadia Publishing, Granta, Atlantic Books, Serpent’s Tail, and so on. They have been reviewed in prestigious magazines and newspapers. All of them have beeneither awarded, or have been listed, for awards such as the Bloomsbury Commonwealth Prize, the Penguin Prize for African Writing, the Dylan Thomas Prize, or the Caine Prize for African Writing.

Nobody could question the literary qualities of these works. But the vehicle of monetary ‘literary qualities’ does not assist us to understand what we have not seen. Africa will remain ‘there’, alienated. Is that the point?

People in the West. Not in Africa.

See the title of my essay.

Raoul Granqvist

Raoul Granqvist

Raoul Granqvist is an emeritus professor of English literature at the University of Umeå, Sweden.