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Literary Works from English-Speaking African Countries

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson analyzes the literary works in English produced by four African writers: Sol Plaatje, Cyprian Ekwensi, Chinua Achebe, and J.M. Coetzee. These authors share a common focus: the suffering of colonized people in Africa.

Overcoming Stereotypes

Historically, Western literature has represented Africa as barbaric and uncivilized. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is an example of this, since it portrays the exoticism and depravity of Africa from the perspective of a white narrator.

However, over the last century, a number of English-speaking writers in Africa have published novels that challenge these stereotypes by portraying the rich traditions of Africa prior to white colonization. Some examples include Sol Plaatje, Cyprian Ekwensi, Chinua Achebe, and J.M. Coetzee.

Sol Plaatje

Sol Plaatje is the author of essays, short stories, poems, and one novel called Mhudi (1930). Mhudi was the first anglophone novel written by a black South African. An anglophone novel is a novel written in English by a non-native speaker. It is a romantic epic that is set in the early part of the nineteenth century, during King Mzilikazi's extermination against the Baralong community, which resulted in the alliance between the Baralong and the Boer frontiersmen.

The novel is significant for being one of the first novels in English to fight against racism in South Africa. The novel is also noted for its celebration of African customs.

Cyprian Ekwensi

Cyprian Ekwensi is a West African novelist. Some of his works include When Love Whispers (1948), Burning Grass (1948), and Behind the Convent Wall (1987). He is best known for People of the City, which was published in 1954. The novel is acknowledged by many critics to be the first West African novel originally written in English.

People of the City is about a young man who doubles as a crime reporter and a dance bandleader in Nigeria. The protagonist loves music and dancing, but eventually abandons these pleasures because he realizes that he can meaningfully help his developing community with his news work.

People of the City is a realist novel, which reflects the evils of society in order to enact change. The novel portrays the brutality of European colonial dominance in order to introduce global readers to the plight of West Africans.

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe is another celebrated novelist who has chosen to write in English. The Nigerian author is most famous for his postcolonial novel, Things Fall Apart (1958). This novel is about a local wrestling champion and farmer in a fictional village in Nigeria. The narrative portrays the rich customs of the Igbo people, which were threatened by the arrival of British colonists and white missionaries.

The novel portrays the music, dance, sword-making, and jewelry-making within the Igbo community. Things Fall Apart was one of first novels to bring Nigeria to the world by introducing readers to an African culture from the perspective of a native, rather than a colonist. The novel challenged representations of 'savage' Africa, while also portraying western culture's ethnocentrism (belief in its inherent superiority).

Achebe has been criticized for his decision to write in English, rather than his native tongue. For instance, Kenyan author Ngugu wa Thiong'o criticized Achebe for using the language of his colonizer. But Achebe has defended his decision, explaining that English is capable of carrying 'the weight of [his] African experience.'

This novel was followed by Arrow of God (1964) and Man of the People (1966). Both of these novels also explore the impact of European colonialism on the Igbo culture.

J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee is a Dutch novelist from South Africa. He is the author of Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Foe (1986), Elizabeth Costello (2003), and Diary of a Bad Year (2007), among others. His novels use metafiction, which call attention to their own artificiality. They explore a range of topics, including western philosophy, animal rights, and the legacy of colonialism in Africa.

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