In defence of Africa: no place for proscription or prescription

EVENT: Free the Word Pen Reading: Lovelace, Agualusa and Bulawayo (Friday, 23 September; Lobby Books)


Readings by Earl Lovelace, José Eduardo Agualusa and NoViolet Bulawayo. Chaired by Margie Orford.

The Caine Prize for African Writing, otherwise known as the African Booker, recently took a few knocks when critics questioned its intentions, and its consequences, albeit unintended. Nigerian poet and reviewer Ikhide R. Ikheloa said at the time: “Having read the stories on the shortlist, I conclude that a successful African writer must be clinically depressed, chronicling in excruciating detail every open sore of Africa ... The creation of a prize for African writing may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.”

No surprises then, that this year’s winner of said prize, NoViolet Bulawayo, fielded a thorny question or two on the topic from South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes, herself a recipient of the Caine Prize (2008) in a conversation held at Lobby Books.

Firstly, however, Zimbabwean-born NoViolet read from her powerful story, ‘In America 2008’, which portrays the pathos of African immigrants in the USA, where they find themselves alienated and homesick.

Henrietta then asked Bulawayo to comment on some critics’ view that the Caine Prize rewards stories that reproduce stereotypes of an Africa at war, diseased or deprived. NoViolet countered that she does not support the idea of prescribing or proscribing what writers write about. “I write about things I identify with, things close to my heart. I have seen hunger and disease, not only in Zimbabwe, but also in America. When I write about these issues, I feel readers should respect my right to do so.”

But does she ever feel pressured to write so-called “African literature”? “When I write I think of the story, not an African story. Before I went to America twelve years ago, I never looked at myself as an African or a Zimbabwean – I took these identities for granted. Now I am conscious of the fact that I am an African and a Zimbabwean living and working in the USA. This inevitably affects the kind of worlds I create in my stories.”

NoViolet revealed that she is working on two novels, one of which is about HIV/Aids – a theme the aforementioned critics may well not be comfortable with. “I have lost relatives and friends to the pandemic, so I need to speak about it,” she reasoned.

Lastly, NoViolet paid tribute the late Yvonne Vera, an award-winning Zimbabwean author, calling her her “number one influence”, and to Tsitsi Dangarembga, whose novel Nervous Conditions is one of the setworks she teaches at Cornell University.