THEY LIVE IN PARIS, ROME, NEW York, London and other major cities. One was based for many years in a small Flemish town in Belgium. Another has spent years in Switzerland, and many still call Nigeria or Ghana home. They write books that attract large audiences and win prizes, books about characters in Africa or from Africa. But don't call all of them "African writers" or label their body of work "African Literature".
"African Literature doesn't exist," says Taiye Selasi, the 34-year-old author of the much-praised debut novel Ghana Must Go. "I refer not to the body of written and oral texts produced by storytellers on and from the continent--but rather, to the category." According to Selasi, African Literature is "an empty designation, as is Asian Literature, European Literature, Latin American Literature, South American Literature, North American Literature", and so forth. "My very basic assertion is that the practice of categorising literature by the continent from which its creators come is past its prime, at best. Our dogged insistence upon doing so, in the case of the African continent foremost, betrays a disregard both for the complexities of African cultures and the creativity of African authors," she said in a keynote speech at the Berlin International Literature Festival earlier this year.
Selasi and the new generation of writers, many of them women, are forging their own identity as authors with international appeal, and they don't wish to be pigeonholed. But even as some reject being described as "African writers", others proudly proclaim their links to their motherland. Nigeria is "home", says Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the best-known authors currently writing about Africa. The author of Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah adds: "Nigeria is a place I love and a place I have a lot of hope for, despite its myriad problems." She is not bothered by being described as "African," but what she does and exasperating is the Western media's insistence on a single narrative about the continent.
"What's very frustrating, being Nigerian or being African, is that there is just one (media) story, and it's exhausting, to constantly have to be the recipient of pity. I don't like pity and I don't think a lot of Africans do," she said ata recent literary festival.
But then there is that word "African" again, which perplexes, even vexes Selasi. "Not a week goes by that I don't hear someone use the adjective 'African' and wonder: where exactly, in your mind, is this Africa of which you speak? What language do they speak in this Africa? What is the weather like? What are we thinking for food, clothing, music, worship, topography?" she said in her Berlin speech.
"Are we imagining the snow-capped mountains of Cape Town or the grasslands of Nairobi or the urban sprawl of Cairo or the cacophonous chaos of Lagos? Or are we rather imagining an animated scene from Disney's The Lion King, a yellow orange vista just before twilight with drums playing softly in the distance?" she added.
Selasi's view is that Africa is so diverse and the writing by people with links to the continent so varied that no one should speak of "African Literature". Although Ghana Must Go is about a family from the continent, Selasi herself was "born in London and raised in Boston". Her Nigerian mother was also born in England and her father in what was then the Gold Coast, and is now Ghana. The writer currently lives in Rome, Italy.
"I speak no African language and hold no African passport. But the protagonists of my novel were born in Ghana and Nigeria respectively. Does this make Ghana Must Go an African novel, me an African novelist?" she asks.
Selasi's point seems valid when one considers the multiplicity of voices with links to the continent, and the wealth of languages "African" authors use to express themselves. Nigerian-born Chika Unigwe, for instance, lived for 15 years in the small Flemish town of Turnhout and has produced books in Dutch. …