Arabic-speaking, English-speaking or French-speaking, African literature is a compendium of the world. This sentence sums up the abundance and richness of this literature which won all the prestigious prizes in 2021. Polar, thriller or novel, each genre has its place and the native land is often a source of inspiration, the African diaspora counting several writers remained attached to the fold, to its wonders and its ghosts, writes Doctor Sabah Attab in this forum on the occasion of the 2022 Book Fair which honors African literature.
2021, a prosperous year for African literature, African writers have won all the prestigious prizes!
The year 2021 is a good year for African literature. The world is discovering peerless names and talents, like buried diamonds, suddenly discovered to reveal a rare splendor and beauty. A first consecration through the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to the writer Abderrazek Gornah for his literary work. This Tanzanian writing in English lives in England. He had written more than ten novels which remain little known. This supreme distinction has definitively inscribed him in golden letters in African and world literary history.
The Booker Prize, another prestigious literary prize awarded by England, went to Damon Galgut, who was twice a finalist in 2003 and 2010. It was “The Promise”, ninth novel, which propelled this English-speaking writer to the top . Damon Galgut is the third South African writer awarded in the history of the Booker Prize.
In French-speaking literature, the Senegalese novelist, Mohamed Mbougar Sar, an author living in France, is the first writer from black Africa to receive the prestigious Goncourt Prize for his book “The Most Secret Memory of Men”. Asked about his relationship with the French language, the novelist explains: “It’s my natural writing language and I’m very comfortable with that idea, it doesn’t prevent me from thinking about the other languages that I could use in the future to write. One day I will write in Serer, which is my mother tongue in Senegal, or in Wolof, which is also a language in Senegal. For now, I’m comfortable with this idea of writing in French, symbolically, politically. That doesn’t prevent me from seeing what this language conveys as a past, but I refuse to let myself be defined by that story. We write in the presence of all languages (…)”
Boubacar Boris Diop, 75-year-old French-speaking Senegalese writer, is the winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. This American literary prize referenced as the American Nobel Prize is open to writers from all over the world in order to consecrate exceptional literary talents and merit.
This alignment of the stars offers the best visibility to a literature that has remained under-represented for a long time in the list of literary prizes, a literature that is little read and suffers from a deficit in terms of distribution, readership and literary institutions.
African women writers, heritage and memory
Oral heritage enjoys an exceptional aura in African culture and civilisation. The storytellers and in particular the female storytellers form relays between the spaces of escape, of the imagination and that of education. This oral literature constitutes for several writers the soil where germinated the seed of love “to listen and tell stories” as revealed by the winner of the Goncourt and author of “The most secret memory of men”, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr , in a sincere and moving tribute paid mainly to women, “authors” in the shadows and who passed the torch of passion for words to her. Who are the heirs of the storytellers?
Let us cite consecrated names that have enjoyed literary success, thus marking the literary history of Africa and Europe. The Renaudot awarded to the Rwandan Scholastique Mukasonga for her novel “Notre-Dame du Nil” published in 2012. Eight years later, the Cameroonian Djaili Amadou Amal was the lucky winner of the Goncourt prize for French high school students in 2020 for her novel “Les impatient”. A first in African literature after the Goncourt awarded to Leila Slimani in 2016 for the novel “Sweet Song”.
The Nigerian Himamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the English-speaking voices that stand out in the writing of African women authors. In her book “Americanah” (2013), before meeting with great success and before establishing herself as one of the great names in English-language literature, the writer looked back on her first steps in writing and the refusals she she wiped: “I was prepared to suffer indifference: the agents had been so numerous to explain to me by rejecting the manuscript that Nigeria did not interest anyone”.
In North Africa, in the Maghreb, women writers are carrying out a revolution in the literary world, first by the number of publications, then by the success of their works. Ghita El Khayat, Mouna Hachim, Loubna Serraj, Nouzha Guessous, Bahaa Trabelsi, Souad Jamai are some of the names that write literary history marked by a commitment to women’s causes as a major theme.
Literary genres as a mirror of society
In the literary university curriculum or the Moroccan secondary school program, African writers are, of course, present alongside the French classics or the universal literary heritage, however, this literature would benefit from more presence in textbooks. The prose collection “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal”, by Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, “L’Aventure ambiguë” by Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane and “L’enfant noir” by Guinean writer Camara Laye are among the best-known classic works of literature.
What are the dominant literary genres in African Literature?
Literature, which is only the pulse of society, sees the growth of works that tell of its sufferings, its abuses and its follies. This explains the craze for thrillers in South Africa. Writers such as Roger Smith, Mike Nicol, Deon Meyer, Marli Roode and Michèle Rowe describe conflicts, racial tensions, apartheid, criminal gangs, neighborhoods plagued by the sale of narcotics and gangs, violence in all their forms. The thriller is a great success and the thriller has a bright future ahead of it.
In Dakar, Senegal, the first Polar festival was held in 2000, where “Les Enquêtes du commissaire Habib” by the Malian writer Moussa Konaté reflects this African reality dominated by the culture of traditions and the ambition of modernity.
In North Africa, in the Maghreb, there are other literary trends, linked to other cultures and other realities. The novel is the avatar of reality. Moroccan writers are attentive to their society, reproducing, thanks to the many possibilities offered by writing, a mirror of social, political, historical reality… French-speaking, Arabic-speaking and s illustrious in the prestigious literary meetings, the latest to date is the Booker Prize for the Arab novel 2022 awarded to the Libyan writer Mohamed Naasse for his first novel “Du pain sur la table de l’oncle Milad” or the writer Loubna Serraj, winner of the Orange Prize for the African Book in 2021 for her novel “Provided he is in a good mood”.
The native land, source of inspiration
Africa has writers living far from the ground, but “close to the heart”. The African diaspora has several writers who are attached to the fold, its wonders and its ghosts. Indeed, the native land of the writers remains for many their source of inspiration. The latest is the Goncourt finalist novel of the first novel 2022, “La poule et son cumin” by Moroccan Zineb Mekouar, where the plot space is located in Morocco, in Casablanca, just like the novels of Fouad El Aroui, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mustapha Ami, Leila Slimani, Safia Azzeddine…
For the Nobel Prize, awarded to Abdurazak Gurnah, the jury hailed the “Penetrating and uncompromising analysis of the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees torn between cultures and continents”. The writer who lives in England recounts the torments linked to immigration and exile and travels through the geography of Zinzibar.
Upon receiving the Goncourt Prize, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr said he had a thought first of all for his family, who remained in Senegal, his school teachers, his family and his friends. His novel “The Most Secret Memory of Men” is inspired by the story of the first African writer, the Malian Yambo Ouologuem, described as “Rimbaud nègre”, to receive the Renaudot prize, an honor which turns into a tragedy following accusations of plagiarism.
The situation of the main character of Mohamed Sarr’s novel, “The Most Secret Memory of Men”, Siga D., an exiled writer, illustrates this situation of the African writer from the diaspora torn between his daily life and the call of his roots.
“’Elegi for dark night’ was the beginning of Siga D.’s misunderstanding with his company. He persists. He dug himself. Siga D. never returned home. I believe she will die without ever returning. But all her work, even if she found other scenes, other images, other passions, carries in her heart those of her country.
By Sabah Attab, Doctor of French Literature
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African literature, a summary of the world! (Grandstand)