Taiye Selasi: Stop Pigeonholing African Writers
African literature, as it’s called, is enjoying a bit of a moment, with the western media regularly heralding splashes, rebirths, dawns. When I published my novel Ghana Must Go in 2013 I joined a list of writers that, on the face of things, appears encouragingly long. There are my fellow Nigerians Chinelo Okparanta, Chimamanda Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Helon Habila, Chris Abani, Teju Cole; the Kenyans Yvonne Owuor, Binya Wainaina, Mukoma Wa Ngũgĩ; the Ethiopians Maaza Mengiste, Dinaw Mengestu; the Sierra Leoneans Aminatta Forna, Olufemi Terry; the Zimbabweans Petina Gappah, NoViolet Bulawayo. It seems that African literature is the literary dish du jour, like the Indian (more Lahiris!) and Middle Eastern (more Hosseinis!) dishes before.
Of course, one could argue that 50-odd writers emerging from a continent of 1.1 billion people represent more of a trickle than a wave. So, too, might one question the media’s fondness for these little ethnic trends. (When did the white male novelist’s moment begin, and when will it end?) One might pause to wonder what so-called African novels have in common: does the commercial category function as a creative one, as well? The Scottish-born novelist Aminatta Forna has asked why her novel The Hired Man, set in Croatia, is sometimes found in the “African section” of bookshops. What of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy Snow Bird, set in New England? (Oyeyemi is British; her family moved to the UK when she was four.) Or Teju Cole’s Open City, much of which takes place in Manhattan? Are these African works?