By Siyanda Mohutsiwa
Novel by Lauri Kubuitsile. Photograph by Paul Botes, M&G
“A writer should always consider the purpose of literature when they seek to contribute to it. How can a person dedicate their life to something whose point they cannot grasp?” my friend, American writer JC Hallman, said as he ordered another drink.
If you had entered the smoky bar packed with noisy locals cradling semi-full jugs of beer in rural Swaziland right in the middle of this conversation, perhaps you would have considered it odd.
But I found myself wondering whether there could be a better place to ponder the role of African literature in the 21st century. It was in this exact location where I began to truly consider what it means to live in a time when African writers are being recognised, with a blinding sharpness, the world over.
“These are exciting literary times for Africa,” writes Kenya’s Mwenda Micheni in the East Africanmagazine. The article (“Top 25 African Writers”) published on September 27 2010 – the year when Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was featured in the New Yorker’s Top 20 under-40 list (she came third in Micheni’s list) – states that “non-African publishers are increasingly picking up African stories”.
It further reflects on why this is the case: “We have several factors to thank for this renaissance. Over the past decade, Africa’s growth rates have attracted global attention, as has the growing competition between China and the West for its markets and resources.”
What is the purpose of literature?
Micheni seems to believe that the African writer fills the gap caused by “little visual documentation to watch and poor archives” that could be the key to teaching the world about Africa in the way African writers seem keen to do.
When Hallman, a teacher at a creative writing programme in the United States, asked me a question he asks his students – “What is the purpose of literature?”— it was my kneejerk response that caused me to begin to understand my standard tirade about the responsibility of African writers to contribute to their literary cultures, for the betterment of the intellectual lives of their people.
But even though my answer was satisfactory enough for light banter over a game of pool, I found myself thirsty for the ideas that some of my more celebrated contemporaries would have about the purpose of books, an art form that many would say is lost on a generation of Africans more interested in American reality TV than in the sweet prose of developing-nation aches.
Enter EE Sule of Nigeria
In an interview with Africanwriters.com– a handy website that affirmed my suspicion that new African writers will not have to worry about having too few locally produced platforms for their work – Sule, the 2013 winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize (Africa region), was asked by Sola Osofisan: “Can fiction – however graphic – ever surpass the reality of life in Nigeria?”
I felt that Sule’s well-thought-out response was an apt indicator of the headspace many African writers occupy when meditating about the purpose of their craft: “I don’t think fiction can surpass the reality of life. It shouldn’t even attempt to do so. It should provide an alternative reality.”
The purpose of fiction writing
This brings me back to that bar in Swaziland, where Hallman asked whether fiction should be a cold mirror of the sorry state of imperfect human societies. Or whether it should be what Ralph Ellison, the famous African-American writer and author of The Invisible Man, once said in response to a remark by Ernest Hemingway: “A means of painting a world in which we should want to live.”
Hallman’s question was inspired by Hemingway’s suggestion that any discerning writer should stop reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the point where Jim is captured and returned to slavery, because he (Hemingway) believed that the rescue mission that follows was an unrealistic portrayal of American life at the time.
Indeed, Ellison’s view was the same as that provided by Sule, in different terms. And I may very well agree and, in fact, go even further and say that African writers, whether they know it or not, are activists of the pen – visionaries whose purpose it is to show us not simply the world we have, but also the world that we should want to have.
And it is interesting that Sule takes this stance; his award-winning book Sterile Skies is filled with what the interviewer considers unbearable hardships: “Religious excesses, mob violence, VVF [vesicovaginal fistula], corruption, superstition, poverty.”
But it is the interviewer’s own description of the suffering depicted in a more “restrained” light that may be the key to understanding Sule’s own understanding of the purpose of his work.
Colliding literature and fiction
Reading the work of another award-winning writer, Tope Folarin – a first-generation Nigerian – provides further clarity for me: new writers are finding a way to straddle the two purposes – showing us the world we have through their own experiences, and showing us the world we should want.
In his Caine Prize-winning short story Miracle from Transition, issue 109, Folarin paints a beautifully vivid picture of a church in the US that caters for a Nigerian-immigrant congregation. During the service depicted in the first hypnotising act, an old man appears as a revered healer to perform miracles for the church. He picks Folarin’s protagonist as the lucky target for his healing.
A lengthy description of the healing process follows, one in which all the known acts of Nigerian “healers”, now notorious around the continent, are described. The protagonist, who remains unnamed, is touched repeatedly by the “prophet” until he is pushed by the healer into a heap on the floor – all in the name of curing him of his bad vision.
The pivotal moment in the story is when the protagonist decides to “be healed”. He does this by realising that, even though his sight is still as bad as before, the healer’s purpose in coming to the church is to revive the desperately needed faith in the congregation. So he “goes along with it”. He allows the church to believe that the “healing” worked. Because he believes: “This healing isn’t even for me. It is to show others, who believe less, whose belief requires new fuel, that God is still working in our lives.”
And this may perhaps be the key to understanding why we need fresh African literature on the continent: to show our readers that there is something to believe in – a better Africa. And writers who believe in that specific role for their craft, to create an “alternative reality”, will continue to produce just that.
But there is something to be said for a writer turning her work into a prism from which radiates the harsh light of reality. I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t mention that my favourite type of literature is slice-of-life fiction. There are not many African writers who adopt this style of writing, but there is one that comes to mind: Zimbabwe’s Shimmer Chinodya writes Chairman of Fools in the haphazard manner of a writer who expects you to see his reality as your own.
And there is an objective beauty in a craft that appears to have resigned itself to hopelessness. That is what Chinodya seems to be doing as he describes the daily life of “a supposedly successful writer, professor and self-acclaimed artist, living in an African culture in which tradition weighs heavy and middle-class aspirations are crude.”
The purpose of fiction brought to life
As you read the book, you are struck by how the events that indicate that the protagonist’s life and sanity are unravelling beneath him, are described in a tone of detachment with which one would describe the act of going to the store to get bread. In this book, Hemingway’s beliefs about fiction’s purpose are brought to life – modern Zimbabwe is described with all of its faults and obvious destruction, as though the author sees no need to focus on deciding what’s wrong with them.
It is a wonderful, sobering and simultaneously calming portrayal of contemporary Africa. The hopelessness of ordinary citizens is not the subject of the novel, but a featureless background that need not be probed.
And then of course there are writers who pick a specific issue they want to outline and shine a light on it, neither too harshly nor too softly, with an unspoken desire to have the viewer decide for herself that said issue should no longer be tolerated.
That’s what I thought when I read Lauri Kubuitsile’s short story collection In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and other Stories.
The hilarious title story, McPhineas Lata, shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize, forced my hand at the bookstore. It is about a teacher who insists on having dreams for the students of the near-abandoned school in the corner of the harsh Kga-lagadi desert that comes to mind.
Kubuitsile depicts for us, through the eyes of her protagonist, some of the harsh realities endured by dislocated Basarwa people, without drawing attention to the controversy that surrounds the topic (the ejection of indigenous peoples from the Kgalagadi). She places no judgement on the practices of the people. But her protagonist’s desire to change the fate of one student stays with the reader long after the story’s end.
In the same vein, South Africa’s Thando Mgqolozane uses his novel A Man Who Is Not a Man to recount “the personal trauma of a young isi-Xhosa initiate after a rite-of-passage circumcision has gone wrong”.
Another South African writer, Zukiswa Wanner, in her book Men of the South, sheds a noninvasive light on the lives of three characters (a musician, a homosexual man and a displaced Zimbabwean) and the issues they face, while maintaining the calm dedication to telling a vivid story, the way a writer who understands the purpose of their work would.
Ultimately, alI I can say is that, for myself, and the emerging generation of African writers, whether we use our pens to design alternative realities, stay true in our portrayal of our various realities, or highlight an issue we are personally passionate about, the continent will be better for having had us.
And what more can we ask?
Siyanda Mohutsiwa is a 20-year-old mathematics major at the university of Botswana. Follow her ungovernable tweets: @siyandawrites