African Settings in Contemporary American Novels

By Dave Kuhne | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
Conclusions: Africa--A Continent of Words

The early examples of English novels with African settings establish a tradition that associates specific thematic concerns with Africa. These thematic concerns--slavery and the slave trade, the conflict between humans and the natural world of Africa, and the notion that Africa is the home of lost cities and civilizations--continue to interest contemporary American authors who feature African settings in their works. Africa has traditionally been seen as an empty, mysterious, disease-ridden, and fearsome place that is in binary opposition to the West; and, in both British and American fiction, African environments are often described as harsh, challenging, and deadly, and Africans are frequently portrayed as primitive, savage, and hostile. Images of Africa and Africans in contemporary American fiction are usually either extensions of or reactions to notions about Africa popularized by earlier English and American authors.

For many contemporary American novelists, the appeal of Africa as a literary setting is its "otherness," its difference from the United States. Because Africa is frequently considered to be in opposition with the West, authors often employ African settings in their novels as ways to measure and assess Western culture by comparing Western and American ways of living with life in Africa. American novelists writing since World War II also look to African settings as a way of commenting upon themes such as courage, death, religion, and war as well as the relationship between an individual and his or her society. Africa, then, is a place where characters in American novels go to discover the truth about themselves and their culture by comparing their values with African values and by testing themselves against the challenges provided by African landscapes, animals, and peoples. Ironically, even those novels that challenge Western assumptions about the nature

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