Don’t Call me an “African” Writer

I yesterday had the priviledge of attending a discussion forum organised by Kwani? during the Caine Prize for African Writing Workshop that is ongoing. The discussion basically revolved around African Writing.

From the onset, and all through, I have a serious opposition with the label African writer being attached as an identity upon my writing or that of any other writer, in addition. Why can’t the African writer just be a writer and so identified, bought and read?

These in a nutshell are my reasons:

First, from a socio-economic perspective, the perception that African literature has had in the minds of readers  (both African and International) is that African literature is mediocre. We therefore buy African literature to “support” our writers. Also, the “Africanna” section (as dileanated by the bookshops) is inundated with two kinds of books: factual books and fantastic books about Wildlife, Culture and some writer’s romantic view of an aspect of the traditional Africans.

Therefore, when an writer comes up with a comedy, or a thriller, or a whodunnit sort of book, the genre it invarably gets into is “African” and it is slotted among Kuki Gallman’s I dream of Africa and the Autobiographies of some African statesman.

Thats all very well, but when you know that people go into the shop looking for comedy or thriller or whatever other category, and that when they do go specifically looking for a particular kind of book, they will miss yours because it is misplaced in the Africanna section.

When you ask why the bookshops do this, you realise that its a matter of perception. The same perception that the readership has is the self-same perception that the seller has.

Secondly, when you apply yourself to the label “African” writer, you discover that the designs of the books are decidedly “African” in the sense that they are largely wildlife photographic covers or illustrations and such.

By Contemporary standards mostly the layout is not unique, the quality of paper largely chosen is of bad quality and all round presentation is not competitive. The writer’s defence is that its the publisher’s fault and they have no control. My position is that some marketing prowess should be tied to the publishing process – and I’m not talking about sales only but also building a relationship with the buyer.

The presentation has everything to do with managing the perceptive receptions of the book or work.

I warn you: don’t call me an African writer. For African I am and writer I am. But my writing is just that. How come you don’t hear African Doctors vs international doctors? Because a doctor is a doctor and so is a writer just a writer regardless of location or affiliation.

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  1. Al Kags
    I don’t think i understand what you mean. Africans should not be embarrased to write for and hope to see to the african audience.

    If you are based abroad and write for that market, then it’s ok for drama, romance, or crime novel based in abroad not be “classified” as african.

    The african life is unique, not just the writing, that is why kenyan blogs can so naturally bunched together in kenyaunlimited!
    I don’t know about the mediocre tag, beauty after all is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. a small typo correction to my comment:
    “in Africans should not be embarrased to write for and hope to sell to the african audience.”

  3. The tag “african” is not for the benefit of the writer but his audience.

    If i saw your book, or any other african book, in the crime or drama section, i would hesitate to buy it.

    I remember like 4 years ago before Obama became famous, i went a local library and performed a computer search of kenya writers and came across his book…

    You bet that had an impact on my likelihood to read the book

  4. Vee

    Alexcia I think what he is trying to say is that the term African writer comes with so much negative or untrue stuff attached to it. Such as it either has to be a Ngugi wa Thiongo type book or an autobiography of a white person who lived here or a big pictures book of wildlife and “african living”.

    With this in mind why don’t we have sections for British Writers, American Writers in our book shops? It implies that all writers in the world are just writers and they don’t need classification.

    Why then can’t we just be writers as well and have our books in all sections of the book shop or library rather than have a small section, at the far corner where all the genres are bundled up under the tag “African Writer”.

  5. Vee is right.

    The problem is that once you call yourself a African writer, you are placed within a box. African writers don’t write comedy, thrillers, whodunnits, or drama – they write “African literature” that can only be sold in the “Afrikanner section” of the bookshop.

    I wan to write comedies and drama and more – not “African Literature”

  6. Vee

    Sadly it would still be called African Comedy… as if the war torn, drought infested and poverty stricken continent doesn’t laugh…

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