There is more, much more, to African writing than the literary holy trinity of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe (now an ancestor) and Ngugi wa Thiong'o. There are stories about women, about members of the LGBT community, about lives in Northern Africa, about childhood stories that don’t all start with growing up in huts and end with the colonial powers taking their community’s land, leaving a nation of victims.
“The problem with stereotypes…particularly in literature,” postulated Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “is that one story can become the only story: stereotypes straightjacket our ability to think in complex ways.”
Adichie’s essay, “African ‘Authenticity,’” is part of this book, edited by Geoff Wisner, a White, Brooklyn-based writer who has demonstrated a serious commitment to African literature. It is billed as the first anthology of African memoirs and autobiographies. Skipping past the irony of this situation, Wisner wisely gets out of the way so that Africans can speak for themselves.
The writing in this collection—novelists contribute from all across the continent and autobiographies, or speeches of, or conversations with, major 20th century African political leaders such as Steve Biko and Kwame Nkrumah show their necessity—has been translated from many (mostly colonial) languages, so that English speakers can sample the rich diversity of the continent’s writing.
Wisner’s selections emphasize personal identity, so that stereotypes can be shattered. Dagmawi Woubshet writes about his sexuality while growing up in Ethiopia. Many of the childhood tales—and there are many, perhaps too many—share the universal feelings of pain and pleasure that situate the reader into the worlds of the writers, whether male, female, Muslim, Christian or indigenous religion. “I took for granted the fact that my friends came in all shapes and colours,” remembered James R. Mancham of his growing up in the small East African island of Seychelles, “that a Seychellois could be blond with blue eyes or as Black as night, or any shade in between.” Not surprisingly, the personal evolves into the political in many of the excerpts, with the CIA and the colonial powers firmly placed in the background.
The anthology is heavy with writers recalling their empowerment through writing. “I had always told stories,” declared Laila Lalami, a Moroccan journalist and novelist, “but now I wanted to be heard.” Wisner ensures that the continent’s multi-hyphenated rainbow of nonfiction writing, old and new, at all edges of the continental compass, gets that chance.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is the co-editor, with Jared Ball, of “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X” and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of “Civil Rights: Yesterday and Today.” He has taught at Morgan State University and Howard University. He is currently working on a monograph of Gil Noble and WABC-TV’s “Like It Is” and a journalistic biography of imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. His popular culture blog is drumsintheglobalvillage.com and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org .