Despite the ignorance of most so called “literati” to the domain of African literature, African literature in fact is one of the main currents of world literature, stretching continuously and directly back to ancient history. Achebe did not “invent” African Literature, because he himself was inundated with it as an African. He simply made more people aware of it. The Beginnings of African Literature The first African literature is circa 2300-2100, when ancient Egyptians begin using burial texts to accompany their dead. These include the first written accounts of creation – the Memphite Declaration of Deities.
Not only that, but ‘papyrus’, from which we originate our word for paper, was invented by the Egyptians, and writing flourished. In contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa feature a vibrant and varied oral culture. To take into account written literary culture without considering literary culture is definitely a mistake, because they two interplay heavily with each other. African oral arts are “art’s for life’s sake” (Mukere) not European “art’s for art’s sake”, and so may be considered foreign and strange by European readers. However, they provide useful knowledge, historical knowledge, ethical wisdom, and creative stimuli in a direct fashion.
Oral culture takes many forms: proverbs and riddles, epic narratives, oration and personal testimony, praise poetry and songs, chants and rituals, stories, legends and folk tales. This is present in the many proverbs told in Things Fall Apart, and the rich cultural emphasis of that book also is typically African. The earliest written Sub-Saharan Literature (1520) is heavily influenced by Islamic literature. The earliest example of this is the anonymous history of the city-state of Kilwa Kisiwani. The first African history, History of the Sudan, is written by Abd al-Rahman al-Sadi in Arabic style.
Traveling performers, called griots, kept the oral tradition alive, especially the legends of the Empire of Mali. In 1728 the earliest written Swahili work,Utendi wa Tambuka borrows heavily from Muslim tradition. However, there are little to no Islamic presence in Things Fall Apart. The Period of Colonization With the period of Colonization, African oral traditions and written works came under a serious outside threat. Europeans, justifying themselves with the Christian ethics, tried to destroy the “pagan” and “primitive” culture of the Africans, to make them more pliable slaves.
However, African Literature survived this concerted attack. In 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustava Vassa was the first slave narrative to be published. Kidnapped from Nigeria, this Ibo man wrote his autobiography in Great Britain in English, and like Achebe used his narrative as a platform to attack the injustices of slavery and cultural destruction. Back in Africa, Swahili poetry threw off the dominating influence of Islam and reverted back to native Bantu forms. One exemplar of this was Utendi wa Inkishafi (Soul’s Awakening), a poem detailing the vanity of earthly life.
The Europeans, by bringing journalism and government schools to Africa, helped further the development of literature. Local newspapers abounded, and often they featured sections of local African poetry and short stories. While originally these fell close to the European form, slowly they broke away and became more and more African in nature. One of these writers was Oliver Schreiner, whose novel Story of an African Farm (1883) is considered the first African classic analysis of racial and sexual issues.
Other notable writers, such as Samuel Mqhayi and Thomas Mofolo begin portraying Africans as complex and human characters. Achebe was highly influenced by these writers in their human portrayal of both sides of colonization. Emerging from Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, the negritude movement established itself as one of the premiere literary movements of its time. It was a French-speaking African search for identity, which ofcourse took them back to their roots in Africa. Africa was made into a metaphorical antipode to Europe, a golden age utopia, and was often represented allegorically as a woman.
In a 1967 interview, Cesaire explained: “We lived in an atmosphere of rejection, and we developed an inferiority complex. ” The desire to establish an identity begins with “a concrete consciousness of what we are–…that we are black . . . and have a history. . . [that] there have been beautiful and important black civilizations…that its values were values that could still make an important contribution to the world. ” Leopold Sedar Senghor, one of the prime thinkers of this movement, eventually became president of the country of Senegal, creating a tradition of African writers becoming active political figures.
Achebe was doubtless familiar with the negritude movement, although he preferred to less surrealistic and more realistic writing. In 1948, African literature came to the forefront of the world stage with Alan Paton’s publishing of Cry the Beloved Country. However, this book was a somewhat paternalistic and sentimental portrayal of Africa. Another African writer, Fraz Fanon, also a psychiatrist, becomes famous in 1967 through a powerful analysis of racism from the African viewpoint – Black Skin, White Masks.
Camara Laye explored the deep psychological ramification of being African in his masterpiece, The Dark Child (1953), and African satire is popularized by Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono. Respected African literary critic Kofi Awoonor systematically collects and translates into English much of African oral culture and art forms, preserving native African culture. Chinua Achebe then presents this native African culture in his stunning work, Things Fall Apart. This is probably the most read work of African Literature ever written, and provides a level of deep cultural detail rarely found in European literature.
Achebe’s psychological insight combined with his stark realism make his novel a classic. Post-Achebe African Literature Achebe simply opened the door for many other African literati to attain international recognition. East Africans produce important autobiographical works, such as Kenyans Josiah Kariuki’s Mau Mau Detainee (1963), and R. Mugo Gatheru’s Child of Two Worlds (1964). African women begin to let their voice be heard. Writers such as Flora Nwapa give the feminine African perspective on colonization and other African issues.
Wole Soyinka writes her satire of the conflict between modern Nigeria and its traditional culture in her book The Interpreters (1965). A prolific writer, she later produces famous plays such as Death and The King’s Horseman. Later, in 1986, she is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. African Literature gains more and more momentum, and Professor James Ngugi even calls for the abolition of the English Department in the University of Nairobi, to be replaced by a Department of African Literature and Languages. African writers J. M. Coetzee, in his Life and Times of Michael K. written in both Afrikaans and English for his South African audience, confronts in literature the oppressive regime of apartheid.
Chinua Achebe helps reunite African Literature as a whole by publishing in 1985 African Short Stories, a collection of African short stories from all over the continent. Another African writer, Naguib Mahfouz, wins the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988. In 1990 African poetry experiences a vital comeback through the work I is a Long-Memoried Woman by Frances Anne Soloman. African Literature is only gaining momentum as time marches onwards.
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