old african male writers

If you call yourself an African writer--and some don't, like Petina Gappah--you are expected to be an expert on Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart is largely the only "African" book widely read by non-Africans (though I'm sure Oprah's plug for Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them puts it close in the running).

I found this out all too late, having arrived at my cottage in the woods at Hedgebrook without my copy of Things Fall Apart. I had long been disenchanted with old African male writers, and had largely stopped reading their work or paying any attention to what they said.

They seem to talk and talk and write and write and, in my opinion, have not said anything new in twenty years. They are always saying what Africa is and is not; what good writing is and is not; what colonialism was and was not; what leaders are good and are not.

It is an old boys network that is as impervious to innovation and new thought as most African governments--and as intractable to the continent as poverty and malaria. (I am talking to you, Mr. Achebe. And to you, Wole Soyinka. And...well, perhaps I am only really talking to the two of you.)

Some days I admire the elders' wisdom, their gray hair, the irreverent way their spines refuse to bend with age. And other days I feel as though I am breaking under the weight of these old men. I wonder how mine and other voices can be heard, like a shrill cry, above theirs.

I am so hungry for new, younger voices. We are all still arriving.

Until then, we are left to study the elders, to quote them, nodding in agreement when someone says one or the other is the greatest African writer of all time--at the risk of appearing arrogant, unstudied or naive. Perhaps I am all of those things.

In the end, I find myself keeping up appearances. Found a wonderful PEN tribute gathering a group of writers paying their respects on the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart. I cannot say a word against this novel. It is brilliant and beautiful.

It is also middle-aged, and I find myself waiting for the next Achebe.


{ Nanasei } | April 22, 2010 at 10:44 AM said...

I think the popularity of the "old writers" is due to a confluence of timing and circumstance. Timing because when Chinua Achebe wrote his books, there were fewer African writers and his book happened to have made a strong impression on the western literary world. It's sort of like when, as a child, you encounter something or person that/who totally changes your perspective on a certain subject- you keep making reference to that thing or person. With the constant reference came fame (and hopefully riches). As their fame increased, blind eyes were turned to the works of other prolific African writers. They began to be compared to Chinua Achebe and his contemprories...

The challenge for young writers, as I see it, is that there are so many writers out there now that it's kinda hard to stand out. I just wish, though, that the constant references to the past somehow diminished. Perhaps, all this is symbolic of how we compare our past political climate- soon after colonialism- to the current climate and are tempted to refer to them as the "good old days".

There's just something about human beings and our inclinations to make fond references to the past...

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