African Literature

African literature, literary works of the African continent. African literature consists of a body of work in different languages and various genres, ranging from oral literature to literature written in colonial languages (French, Portuguese, and English).

See also African languages; South African literature.

Oral literature, including stories, dramas, riddles, histories, myths, songs, proverbs, and other expressions, is frequently employed to educate and entertain children. Oral histories, myths, and proverbs additionally serve to remind whole communities of their ancestors' heroic deeds, their past, and the precedents for their customs and traditions. Essential to oral literature is a concern for presentation and oratory. Folktale tellers use call-response techniques. A griot (praise singer) will accompany a narrative with music.

Some of the first African writings to gain attention in the West were the poignant slave narratives, such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), which described vividly the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. As Africans became literate in their own languages, they often reacted against colonial repression in their writings. Others looked to their own past for subjects. Thomas Mofolo, for example, wrote Chaka (tr. 1931), about the famous Zulu military leader, in Susuto.

Since the early 19th cent. writers from western Africa have used newspapers to air their views. Several founded newspapers that served as vehicles for expressing nascent nationalist feelings. French-speaking Africans in France, led by Léopold Senghor, were active in the négritude movement from the 1930s, along with Léon Damas and Aimé Césaire, French speakers from French Guiana and Martinique. Their poetry not only denounced colonialism, it proudly asserted the validity of the cultures that the colonials had tried to crush.

After World War II, as Africans began demanding their independence, more African writers were published. Such writers as, in western Africa, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ousmane Sembene, Kofi Awooner, Agostinho Neto, Tchicaya u tam'si, Camera Laye, Mongo Beti, Ben Okri, and Ferdinand Oyono and, in eastern Africa, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Okot p'Bitek, and Jacques Rabémananjara produced poetry, short stories, novels, essays, and plays. All were writing in European languages, and often they shared the same themes: the clash between indigenous and colonial cultures, condemnation of European subjugation, pride in the African past, and hope for the continent's independent future.

In South Africa, the horrors of apartheid have, until the present, dominated the literature. Es'kia Mphahlele, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Dennis Brutus, J. M. Coetzee, and Miriam Tlali all reflect in varying degrees in their writings the experience of living in a racially segregated society.

Much of contemporary African literature reveals disillusionment and dissent with current events. For example, V. Y. Mudimbe in Before the Birth of the Moon (1989) explores a doomed love affair played out within a society riddled by deceit and corruption. In Kenya Ngugi wa Thiong'o was jailed shortly after he produced a play, in Kikuyu, which was perceived as highly critical of the country's government. Apparently, what seemed most offensive about the drama was the use of songs to emphasize its messages.

The weaving of music into the Kenyan's play points out another characteristic of African literature. Many writers incorporate other arts into their work and often weave oral conventions into their writing. p'Bitek structured Song of Iowino (1966) as an Acholi poem; Achebe's characters pepper their speech with proverbs in Things Fall Apart (1958). Others, such as Senegalese novelist Ousmane Sembene, have moved into films to take their message to people who cannot read.


See R. Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (1970); R. Smith, ed., Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature (1976); W. Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World (1976); A. Irele, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (1981); B. W. Andrzejewski et al., Literature in African Languages (1985); S. Gikandi, Reading the African Novel (1987).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

African Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

Student Encyclopedia of African Literature
Douglas Killam; Alicia L. Kerfoot.
Greenwood Press, 2008
A History of Twentieth-Century African Literatures
Oyekan Owomoyela.
University of Nebraska Press, 1993
Encyclopedia of African Literature
Simon Gikandi.
Routledge, 2003
The African Imagination: Literature in Africa & the Black Diaspora
F. Abiola Irele.
Oxford University Press, 2001
African Visions: Literary Images, Political Change, and Social Struggle in Contemporary Africa
Cheryl B. Mwaria; Silvia Federici; Joseph McLaren.
Praeger Publishers, 2000
Challenging Hierarchies: Issues and Themes in Colonial and Postcolonial African Literature
Leonard A. Podis; Yakubu Saaka.
Peter Lang, 1998
The African Novel and the Modernist Tradition
David I. Ker.
Peter Lang Publishing, 1998
Tradition and Modernity in the African Short Story: An Introduction to a Literature in Search of Critics
F. Odun Balogun.
Greenwood Press, 1991
West African Literatures: Ways of Reading
Stephanie Newell.
Oxford University Press, 2006
Southern African Literatures
Michael Chapman.
Longman, 1996
Magical Realism in West African Fiction: Seeing with a Third Eye
Brenda Cooper.
Routledge, 1998
Gender in African Women's Writing: Identity, Sexuality, and Difference
Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi.
Indiana University Press, 1997
Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender
Florence Stratton.
Routledge, 1994
Proverbs, Textuality, and Nativism in African Literature
Adeeko Adeleke.
University Press of Florida, 1998
Autobiography and Independence: Selfhood and Creativity in North African Postcolonial Writing in French
Debra Kelly.
University of Liverpool Press, 2005
Women Writers in Francophone Africa
Nicki Hitchcott.
Berg, 2000
African Literature, Animism and Politics
Caroline Rooney.
Routledge, 2000
African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity
Isidore Okpewho.
Indiana University Press, 1992
Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook
Pushpa Naidu Parekh; Siga Fatima Jagne.
Greenwood Press, 1998
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