By Tamilore Oshodi
I think back to a tween me, feeling personally affronted when forced to read African literature. What was I – freshly swept in from the global North and reintroduced to a bustling Lagos, Nigeria – supposed to find in these books? Along with me, I had brought in my Western perception of world, its culture and dominating ideals. To me, African literature was either variations of “Eze goes to school” or the amazing writings of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, etc. With the latter, I’d imagine the heavy language and be bemused when they discussed colonial life and the years that followed thereafter that I, at the time, just couldn’t understand. It wasn’t my experience and most importantly, they were not the stories that I valued. I only knew Western literature. It spoke to what I had been sold, which was that Western literature was the epitome of writing.
The likes of Danielle Steel, Jane Austen, Jacqueline Wilson, Meg Cabot and Cathy Cassidy were my chosen escape route to another world. In secondary school, my friends and I would gather our favorite books to share amongst ourselves and inevitably, all were forms of Western literature. If someone mentioned some Nigerian book, they were usually followed by sniggers and approached with disdain.
But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus sparked some excitingly unusual interest in me. It had been a school reading requirement, but it never felt like it. This was a connection with what I saw as a reflection of my reality as a Nigerian and what I related to on a day to day basis. I was finally introduced to tender storytelling that spoke to the intricacies of my identity.
I got a degree in International Relations and African Studies, so the significance of African stories and perspectives became much more important to me. I guess it’s rather ironic that it took me leaving the borders of Sub-Saharan Africa to realize that I’d been smothered under the large, stiff thumb of the West’s cultural hegemony. My ignorance bothered me. I hadn’t even read famed classics like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
It was a Canadian university that taught me the history of my nation’s wars and feats. This meant that it came through the lens of the Western canon that didn’t necessarily account for the plurality of African experiences. This was problematic because I assumed and accepted being the object rather than the subject of history by accepting what I consumed as unequivocal fact. But, to acknowledge the truth that I was being fed equated to accepting the narratives that had long been forced on the continent. And for that, I was ashamed. There was more to the continent than coup d’états, famines, rights abuses and dictatorships. We had human stories of love, loss and hope evoked by Africans who lived and breathed these realities.
In my dorm room, I kept a copy of my Dad’s There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe that I brought from back home. I kept it with me with the hope of feeling some sense of sentimentality. But now, it meant something different. I read with widened eyes and immersed myself in human and political accounts of the Nigerian Biafran war that I otherwise would not have been easily privy to. The war is barely mentioned in school curriculum, but history can’t hide human recollections. I saw it as my job to learn and keep their memories alive.
I swept through Stay with Me by Ayòbámi Adebayo, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangaremgba Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie and many other African literary works. They were able to poetically translate African sensibilities into paper, intertwining tales of community, faith, unbridled joy, immense suffering and bountiful humour. It helped that I could easily find them by following the trail of several awards. Now more than ever, African books are experiencing greater visibility in the literary world because of a larger curiosity in domestic and foreign African stories. Finally, the transfer of authority over our stories has been enacted.
But it’s worth more if we don’t wait until African authors are crowned by Western critics and branded as the newest thing before we are drawn towards learning more about the continent. Instead, we must search for these stories ourselves. Stories from domestic Africans with less opportunities for greater viewership or whose names aren’t necessarily brought up in international conversation have just as much talent.
We’ve entered a new era of Africans being the creators of our own stories and these tales beyond the Western canon are more widely available now than ever before. But, unless people reach beyond the “great novels” from the Western dominant culture and remain curious in expansive tales of African identity, our reading lists will remain white-centered and regressive.
It’s up to everybody, both African and non-African to make an effort in educating and re-educating ourselves on the African identity as we work towards decolonizing our minds. Its values are obvious – to communicate our truths and increase our social consciousness on the realities that concern Africans.
It took longer to realize this value within me than I would have liked. But, I’m excited to explore the imaginative possibilities of the African life.