An African writer? A writer is a writer. Those were my initial thoughts, but a little contact with African literature and my perspective was changed. It first started when I read works of with the prolific Binyavanga Wainana, and Okwiri Oduor, both who have both won the Caine Prize for African Writing.
Later, I discovered the likes of Camara Laye and Chimamanda Ngozi. Bushra al-Fadil only came to my attention after winning this year’s Caine Prize. After reading his award winning story, ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’, I discovered that African writers have something in common in their stories, authenticity. Authenticity in the sense which Chimamanda puts across- “they write about someone like themselves…someone next door who looks like them, someone they could identify with and who eats the kind of food they eat.” This for the African writer, as for any other writer, “is when literature starts doing wonders.”
A recurring theme that I have spotted in accomplished writers, both African and non-African, whether fiction or non-fiction is their ability to tell a story that one can relate to. The writers I have mentioned have taken the African experience and moulded it into words, through vivid description. Bushra al-Fadil devotes about four paragraphs in describing the setting his story is taking place. No one can tell what the plot is about until they read on.
The same occurs for Okwiri’s, ‘My Father’s Head’ which won the Caine Prize of 2014, the opening two pages describe the priest leading her father’s funeral, and the people’s reception of him, never mind that the book is about Okwiri’s nostalgic memories of her late father.
Like Bushra and Okwiri, most African writers highlight the African experience through their words. For them, vivid depiction is not just a writing tool, but is crucial in making alive the African experience – its people and culture which have never been fully understood, or misunderstood altogether by the outside world, and even by the African themselves. This is because throughout history Africa has had many narratives, many of which have been distorted and stereotyped.
Ironically, the first books to be popularized about Africa were written by Westerners. Although Africans in the colonial era were writing stories, especially those of liberation and negritude, it is at the post-colonial times that African literature grew and became recognized. This fairly new phenomenon adding writing to African oral tradition begs a deeper level of understanding their way of life, made possible by words.
Sometimes, interpreting the African experience using English can be taxing, and more often than not, some African writers will use their indigenous language for certain phrases that have no direct translation in English. Other writers choose to write their entire pieces in their native language.
Take for instance, Bushra’s award winning story was originally written in Arabic, and then translated into English. Perhaps, if he had written in the story in English, the story would have lost its authenticity as he used the language he knew best to capture a fragment of the Sudanese experience.
Hence, the ability to localise an article whether by the choice of words or references used to make it relatable to people like you, and those not familiar with the African continent is what any writer, including the African writer is faced with.