THE AFRICAN NOVEL IS TOO POLITICAL?
by Tendai Huchu
In the last few years, or has it always been the case, it has become fashionable for critics and readers to grumble about the overt socio-political dimension of most African fiction. They have complained about clichéd depictions of Africa – starving kids with AK47s, corruption, poverty, flies… you get the drift. The general idea is that there is need to move from this social realist type fiction to something less political. To buttress this argument, they point to greater thematic diversity in the Western canon compared with what one finds in African Literature. Now, of course, the middle-aged white American male writer can write a long novel about his experience of suffering a catastrophic mental breakdown because the barista in Starbucks served him a Frappuccino instead of a Cappuccino, and people will read this and think it is profound, worthy of critical acclaim and a piercing analysis of the human condition. The question becomes – so why don’t African writers do this? There have been attempts to reenvision the literary and journalistic output from the continent so we move away from the heart of darkness narrative that has dominated the postcolonial era. Wainaina’s How Not To Write About Africa and Selasi’s Afropolitan concept can be viewed as important steps in this direction.
As a writer of realist fiction (perhaps not in the academic sense but in the sense of writing outside the fantastic), I struggle with the idea that I can legitimately produce work that does not reference the political framework in which the society I am writing about is set. It is the equivalent of writing about living fish and never mentioning water. The societies in which we live are political entities and the politics determines every aspect of our existence that we may or may not even be conscious of. Without labouring the point, politics determines what you can or cannot do, who you may or may not marry, where you can or cannot go, what you can or cannot say, etc, etc. In his Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee writes, “We are born subject. From the moment of birth we are subject. One mark of this subjection is the certificate of birth. The perfected state holds and guards the monopoly of certifying birth. Either you are given (and carry with you) the certificate of the state, thereby acquiring an identity which during the course of your life enables the state to identify you and track you (track you down); or you do without an identity and condemn yourself to living outside the state like an animal (animals do not have identity papers). Not only do you enter the state without certification: you are, in the eyes of the state, not dead until you are certified dead; and you can be certified dead only by an officer who himself (herself) holds state certification…”
Coetzee eloquently sums up the totality of the nation state’s grip on its citizens, whether they will it or not, much better than I ever could.
I posit that a writer coming from a prosperous liberal democracy where there is a degree of tolerance and freedom and prosperity might find it easier to write a work that does not overtly demonstrate the interplay between people and power, the state and its citizens, in ways a writer from a poor totalitarian regime might not. As a Zimbabwean who lives in Britain, I can tell you, first hand, how there is a world of difference between how one perceives the political-power structures in the two environments. In Zimbabwe, power is brute and overt, it looms large over the landscape – an inescapable reality; whereas in Britain it seems to operate as a sort of hum, a background noise that one is aware of but largely hides itself in the background. My experience is, of course, not the same as that of every other writer from my own country, let alone from the entire continent – there is no single African reality – but I still wish to argue that where people feel the direct/overt effects of the political arrangement in their state, they cannot airbrush this from the stories they tell. Yes, ordinary life still happens, but the individual is more conscious of the effects of power than your typical Westerner. It is a very human trait that we notice and remember negative things far much more than we do for positive things.
The question should be: Is it possible to write truthfully about African societies without engaging with the fundamental socio-political reality that makes them what they are? If fiction acts as a mirror to reality and the African novel is too political, then, I believe, this is merely a reflection that Africa itself is too political a place.