The Novelty of African Poetry

Image| Jerry Riley |

I received a review copy of Eight New Generation African Poets: Tatu, a collection of chapbooks selected and edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani. Because African poetry gets little sustained critical attention, Keguro Macharia and I will spend a week on each chapbook, trying to find ways to think with it. This introductory post thinks with the broader contours of what it is we mean when we say "African Poetry."
Does “African poetry” exist?

It’s the worst sort of question, because the answer is too easy to be interesting: Yes. There are poets who are African—lots of them—and when Africans make poetry, that poetry is “African poetry.” There are poets who are Africans, today; there have, also, always been Africans who were poets. So, yes.

And yet, what is it that exists? This is a harder question, and one worth asking... even if an answer is impossible.

In a way, African poetry is older than “Africa” itself, and more African. “Africa” was a term first coined by Europeans, perhaps two thousand years ago, the Latin word for the norther rim of what is now Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia. Dating back to a time when Southern Europe and Northern Africa were closely linked by commerce and strife into a single Mediterranean civilization, “Africa” didn’t mean the Africa we think we know; as a term for Carthage and its environs, it had nothing to do with the rest of the continent, and the vast, vast majority of people living there would have had no idea they were “African,” no reason to think so, and would have found the idea absurd. They had their own names, and states, and understandings of the world, so many of which have been lost to us; it was only after the slave trade made black bodies into slaves—and after imperialism made these states and histories into primitive “tribes”—that pan-Africanism was born as a philosophy of resistance, to give the continent’s name a deeper meaning than mere geography: after the word had been used as a slur, negation, and de-humanizing brand, Africans took it up as a principle of solidarity and community.

But long before that, Africans were already poets. When Africa was not yet “Africa,” when it was just an enormous continent peopled by an unspeakably vast diversity of human societies and culture, the word “poetry” suffices to gesture towards the multitudinous forms of art-in-language that every culture used and uses to give form and meaning to the world. It is a universal rule, after all—one that includes Africa—that where there is language, there is poetry. And if there is one thing Africa has, and has always had in abundance, it is language. The same is true, and always has been, of poetry: to think otherwise is to be lost in the labyrinth of racism, or the conceit that if it wasn’t written down—and if we can’t find it in our bookstores—then it doesn’t exist.

Saul Bellow, in a moment of glib and racist douchiness, once asked "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” His point being, of course, that such people did not have such things; he found “multiculturalism” laughable because of the insistence that all cultures had Culture, and whatever it was that Tolstoy and Proust meant to him, naked savages in the jungle didn’t have it, by definition: as he went on to explain,

“I was speaking of the distinction between literate and preliterate societies. For I was once an anthropology student, you see."

If you ask the bad version of that question—if you ask “Does African poetry exist?”—you ask it because of statements like Saul Bellow’s, because of the notion that there is a clear and obvious (and ontological) distinction between “literate and preliterate societies.” This is what being a student of anthropology meant for someone like Bellow, in the 1930’s: when he was a student of anthropology, the discipline was entirely a function of the imperial rule of Africa and Asia, producing the kind of knowledge that “literate” colonial rulers needed to justify and defend their benevolent rule over “preliterate” societies. We are literate; they are not.

Of course, calling Tolstoy’s Russia a literate society is generous, since the vast majority of Tolstoy’s fellow subjects of the Czar, were, of course, not literate. Tolstoy’s Russia was not a “literate society”; it was a brutally hierarchical non-society in which a fraction of the population could read and write and the rest festered in poverty-induced ignorance. What Bellow meant by “literate” was the class-based pretension of those for whom “literature” is a mark of distinction, distinguishing elites who read from workers who do not: It can be applied within a society—to distinguish elites from the masses—and it could be applied to the world scale, to distinguish between civilized societies and mere primitives. But it’s not about societies taken in their entirety; it’s about worlds cleaved apart by class, a bigoted worldview that works to naturalize a class-based, race-based, or gender-based antagonism.

To give the easy answer to the question of African poetry, then—to say, simply, “Yes, it exists”—is the obvious and easy first step. But it still gets caught in the logic of commonsense racism like Bellow’s, even by contradicting it: whether it exists is one thing; the other is what “it” even is. And what it might be.

Of course there is poetry by Africans, and of course Africans make poetry. But what is this thing we call “African poetry”? And where do you find it?

First of all, much of it is online: You can buy Juliane Okot Bitek’s just published collection—and you should—but you can also find a lot of that material on her blog, along with a whole lot more. The ICC Witness Project is the most vital and important work of contemporary poetry I’ve seen in a long time, and it only exists online (though if any publishers are reading this, let’s change that). And a lot of African poetry lives on youtube: Name an African poet, and then type that name into a search box; what you will find might be astounding. (Here, I’ll help you. Oh, here’s some more at random! Glad to oblige.)

You don’t, however, tend to find African poetry in “African literature.” In the places where African literature lives and circulates—where it is read and debated and taught—the thing we take to be “African literature” is almost always novels. Poetry is an afterthought, if it’s even a thought at all. “African literature” is a story that begins with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1958—if we don’t push the beginning back to Camara Laye or Thomas Mofolo, or some earlier novelist—and after that, it’s all novels, all the way down. The fathers of African literature are almost always people like Achebe or Ngugi, and the future of the tradition is, likewise, in prose, writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

African literature is novels. And because of that, it is not poetry.

Let me give a simple example. Here, Ainehi Edoro begins by talking about African fiction, but slides into discussing African literature without ever changing the subject. She knows, of course, that she’s talking about fiction—and not about poetry, not about drama—and so she begins by framing the essay in that specific way. But critical habits assert themselves: We might start off talking about fiction and the novel, but soon it will be literature we’re discussing when we talk about novels; if we know, on some level, that novels, poetry, and drama live in different worlds from each other, and that you can’t really generalize, our grip on that fact will inevitably slip: we’ll eventually use “novel” and “literature” as synonyms.

I’ve done this myself, many, many times. So has almost everyone who talks about African Literature. Not (only) because we’re careless, but because there’s something fundamentally true in it: African Literature is novels. Novels are what we are talking about when we are talking about African literature. And for that reason, when we are talking about African literature, we are not talking about poetry.

Of course, we can and should observe that there have always, also, been poets writing poetry. In the 1960’s, Achebe was surrounded by poets like Christopher Okigbo, Kofi Awoonor, and Gabriel Okara, and his work is steeped in oral proverbs and other forms of Igbo language play. If we go back to the 50’s francophone novelists like Camara Laye, Mongo Beti, and Cheikh Hamidou Kane were writing in response to the Négritude poets of the 30’s. Poetry is always, also, there: if we go as far back as Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka—published in 1931, but written two decades earlier—we will find ourselves talking about a “novel” adaptation of… oral memory and epic poetic form. A lot of the great novelists, too, are also poets; somehow, poetry is always, also, there. Poetry is also, always, also.

It’s easy to see the problem once you look for it, but it’s not a problem you can correct by adding a few poets to the usual lists. The underlying structure is based on fiction; the narratives and timelines and canons by which “African Literature” becomes knowable as a thing are based on prose. Adding poetry doesn’t change that.

The problem is this: poetry is a long, long story, the story of a continent before it even became one, and also, many stories, the many, many, many stories of many, many peoples, long before they became one. But “African literature” is novels because it’s a story about national independence, a comparatively short story, one that barely spans the 20th century, if that; like most African nations, “African literature” is a single, genealogical story about a handful of fathers (always fathers) and their descendants. Three or four generations, at most; the “first” generation of African novelists—if we date it back to Achebe and company—has only relatively recently begun to pass away.

This short story of African literature is relatively tidy. If we push hard, we can get as far back as J. E. Casely Hayford’s 1911 Ethiopia Unbound, even though calling that strange book a “novel” might be a stretch. But we won’t get much farther than that. If we can debate what the first African novel is, and if we can find predecessors that start the clock earlier than the 1960’s (Is Amadou Mapaté Diagne’s 1920 Les Trois Volontes de Malik really a “novel”? Is René Maran’s 1921 Batouala really “African”? and so forth), we cannot push the history of the novel back even as far as the Victorians who colonized the continent. And so, in the grand scheme of things, African literature is a novel short story, much shorter than European colonization of Africa, and much more tidy.

This tidiness is one reason why critics and readers keep telling it, the only story short enough, coherent enough, and Eurocentric enough for us to be comfortable with. The longer stories take us into impossibly complicated places, and the word “Africa” stops meaning very much. After all, is Ge’ez writing, in Ethiopia—whose manuscripts date back to the third century of the common era—an “African literature”? Perhaps it is. But with rare exceptions, scholars and critics tend not to see it that way; for all practical purposes, what people mean when they say “African literature” is the literature of the 20th century, the literature of national independence.

Each African nation has the story of its literature, a story that is simultaneous with the nation-state itself: Nigeria’s literary story that begins with Chinua Achebe (or someone like him) and extends forward to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (or someone like her). In Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (or Grace Ogot): now there is Binyavanga Wainaina, or Yvonne Owuor, or Okwiri Oduor. In Angola, Pepetela: now there is José Eduardo Agualusa, or Ondjaki. The Congolese novel could take us from Sony Lab'ou Tansi to Fiston Mwanza Mujila; Sudan, from Tayeb Salih to Leila Aboulela. And so on.

Collectively, these national stories are the story of the postcolonial continent. They are, collectively, the story of pan-African collectivity, in and through the nation-state.

When we talk about poetry, however, things get strange. We don’t have these handy stories: every poet seems sine qua non, ex nihilo, or some other Latin phrase meaning “off on their own.” Where do you put Kofi Awoonor in the story of African literature? Or Léopold Sédar Senghor? Or Dennis Brutus? Or Christopher Okigbo? Or Shabaan Robert? Or Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye? If critics tend to treat novelists as exemplary or representative—and build stories about literary nationalism and development out of them—poets are always sort of eccentric, individual and fragmented. They tend to be also’s: did you know that there were also a bunch of poets around when so-and-so was writing a novel? Did you know that Chris Abani or Kojo Laing or Ama Ata Aidoo also writes poetry?

You probably didn’t, or if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have a place to put that knowledge. If African literature is a thing, a simultaneity of novels linked to nation-states, it is also not something else, or anything else: it is not, for example, the multitude of poetries that preceded it, and surround it.

Once you start looking for poetry, however, you find it everywhere. The poetry that’s been written in Swahili since the 16th-century, for example—when the Arabic script was used—is only the written version of an oral tradition that goes much farther back; when we read modern Swahili poetry, the echo of millennia rings through it like a bell. But the critics who fence in “African literature” invariably focus on European languages, along with European styles like the novel; even discussions of “the African novel” almost never include Shaaban Robert’s 1951 Swahili novel, Kusadikika. Partly, that’s because Kusadikika has never been translated into English (and Eurocentric critics rarely read Swahili). But I think the reason is that Shaaban Robert is, fundamentally, a poet. His 1951 novel would only be novel if we called it a novel: Kusadikika is early compared to Achebe or Tutuola, but if we think of him as a poet, if we place him in the grand thousand-year tradition of Swahili poetry, then he’s nowhere near the beginning. As a poet, he was a latecomer to a story in media res.

But even the story of Swahili poetry—as vast and as old as it is—is literally just one of many, many literary traditions, each pulling us back into a different horizon of antiquity.

If we follow that pull, in any language, we will find poetry. Pick a language, pick one of the thousands of languages that Africans speak, today, and follow its thread back: poetry is there, whether or not you can find it.

That’s a story that intimidates critics like me. There’s no room in Africa’s literary history, as we know it, for a thousand years of Swahili poetry. There’s especially no room for thousands of these thousand-year traditions, something which, if we think about it for even a minute, even we critics will know to exist. So we look at “African Literature” and we see the novel, and we look at a novel like Roland Rugero’s Baho!, and we see “the first novel from Burundi translated into English.” We don’t see the lines of poetry in Kirundi that begin each chapter, because we’re looking for firsts, not latests. We look at poetry, poetry, poetry, and also a few novels, and we see: the African novel.

African poetry exists: but it tends to get lost when we tell this very short story about the thing we call African literature, the short pan-African story about beginnings, about emerging forms and authors and traditions, about the future and the beautyful ones that have not but soon will be born. Since the 60’s, African literature has been a story about emergence, about what would be after colonialism. It was a story about fathers and heroes and the Great Authors who forged the soul of their nation with The Word; it’s a story that got all caught up with nationalism and with the creation of imagined communities, new ones, that could break with both the colonial and pre-colonial pasts. But poetry doesn’t lend itself to those kinds of stories. Poetry isn't a thing. Poetry is eternal. Poetry was always, already there, and always, already everywhere else. Where there is language, there is poetry. Poetry crossed the borders that new postcolonial states were fast building; poetry is the sound when a child hears a story and likes the taste of the words on her mouth.


Today, African poetry is being found: in the last few years--even before Beyoncé discovered Warsan Shire--African poetry has begun to become a thing. In the last three or four years, there has been an explosion of “African Poetry” institutions--both imprints and prizes--mostly sharing DNA with The African Poetry Book Fund. This fact has changed what it means to say "African Poetry."

Along with Keguro Macharia, I'm going to spend some time thinking about this fact: in three years, they have published a remarkable (and somewhat overwhelming) library of chapbooks by twenty-three young African poets, and they’ve already produced full-length collections by some the greatest poets from the continent, young and old: how would you talk about the development of African poetry without placing people like Kofi Awoonor and Gabriel Okara at the center of the story? And how could we imagine its future if we didn’t look to young poets like Clifton Gachagua, Ladan Osman, Mahtem Shiferraw, Mukoma wa Ngugi, and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley?

That's one question to ask. And thanks to the African Poetry Book Fund, we don't have to ask it. As this archive grows, "African Poetry" is coming to mean something that it didn't before; it is coming to be a thing that, before 2013, it wasn't. It is becoming an answerable question. One can only celebrate this prospect. One can only be glad these works are published, circulated, and read. One can only be glad they exist. And while part of me wonders what happens as African poetry becomes a thing, and a thing, at that, that must pass through universities in the UK and the US before it can exist, most of me is simply glad that we have the luxury of asking that question. And of not asking the other one.