Whose New African Writing?

Yesterday, I had a piece in Africa is a Country that makes a case — I hope — for why “North Africa” (you know, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and sometimes Mauritania and Sudan) should be included in literary “Africa”:

From AIAC:

wnaw2-659x323The latest issue of the Journal of Postcolonial and Commonwealth Studies takes on “African writing in the twenty-first century” and presents views on topics as varied as South African theater, queer Kenyan bloggers, digital publishing, and the Caine Prize for African Writing. An edited version of Lindsey Green-Simms’s introduction to the issue appeared here on AIAC mid-June. But as varied as the issue is, it’s hard not to read the Africa depicted in the journal—like most popular and scholarly Africas—as a shrunken, sub-Saharan continent. More than that, it’s hard not to read it as a primarily Anglophone Africa.

Looking first at English-language works is an accessible way to talk about African literature, and certainly it does provide an “embarrassment of riches,” as Green-Simms writes. Many African authors are doing beautiful, boundary-pushing things with the English language. If we were to paste North Africa back onto the map, we could find plenty of authors doing interesting things with English: Libyans like Khaled Mattawa or Egyptians like Youssef Rakha and Maged Zaher. Algerians (Rachid Boudjedra) and Moroccans (Abdellatif LaabiFouad LarouiRachida Madani) are meanwhile moving French in new directions, or sometimes Dutch (Abdelkader Benali). When there is an event like the impressive 2013 “Africa Writes,” it is usually the English-writing North Africans who are included, authors like Leila Aboulela and Jamal Mahjoub, although a July 5 event does foreground the importance of translations.

Green-Simms talks, in her introduction, about how the Internet has changed writing, making it about “shared interests and emotional attachments rather than shared physical spaces.” It does seem that the Internet has hooked Anglophone African writers more tightly with global Anglophone readers and publishers; an African writer can now submit to a New York literary magazine just as easily as anyone in Manhattan. But this is not “democratic” in any easy sense. It follows a path carved by the economics and politics of previous generations, one that usually runs through European and North American metropoles. As in the physical world, a flight from Cairo to Casablanca too often goes through Paris.

But, again, if we are to paste North Africa back onto the map—and I think we should—we need to grapple not just with English or French, but with other languages: Modern Standard Arabic, colloquial Arabics, and Tamazight. The most common reason I hear for keeping North Africa out of African literary discussions is that they “already have their own prizes/magazines/book fairs/venues.” That seems spurious. The question is: Does this shared map have meaning? Keep reading on Africa is a Country.>>