African literature

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African literature,

literary works of the African continent. African literature consists of a body of work in different languages and various genres, ranging from oral literature to literature written in colonial languages (French, Portuguese, and English).

See also African languagesAfrican languages,
geographic rather than linguistic classification of languages spoken on the African continent. Historically the term refers to the languages of sub-Saharan Africa, which do not belong to a single family, but are divided among several distinct linguistic stocks.
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; South African literatureSouth African literature,
literary works written in South Africa or written by South Africans living in other countries. Populated by diverse ethnic and language groups, South Africa has a distinctive literature in many African languages as well as Afrikaans (a vernacular
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Oral literature, including stories, dramas, riddles, histories, myths, songs, proverbs, and other expressions, is frequently employed to educate and entertain children. Oral histories, myths, and proverbs additionally serve to remind whole communities of their ancestors' heroic deeds, their past, and the precedents for their customs and traditions. Essential to oral literature is a concern for presentation and oratory. Folktale tellers use call-response techniques. A griot (praise singer) will accompany a narrative with music.

Some of the first African writings to gain attention in the West were the poignant slave narratives, such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), which described vividly the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. As Africans became literate in their own languages, they often reacted against colonial repression in their writings. Others looked to their own past for subjects. Thomas Mofolo, for example, wrote Chaka (tr. 1931), about the famous Zulu military leader, in Susuto.

Since the early 19th cent. writers from western Africa have used newspapers to air their views. Several founded newspapers that served as vehicles for expressing nascent nationalist feelings. French-speaking Africans in France, led by Léopold SenghorSenghor, Léopold Sédar
, 1906–2001, African statesman and poet; president (1960–80) of the Republic of Senegal, b. Joal. The son of a prosperous landowner, Senghor was extraordinarily gifted in literature and won a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne
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, were active in the négritudenégritude
, a literary movement on the part of French-speaking African and Caribbean writers who lived in Paris during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Adherents of négritude
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 movement from the 1930s, along with Léon DamasDamas, Léon
(Léon-Gentran Damas), 1912–78, French poet, b. French Guiana. With Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire he was one of the first adherents of négritude, a cultural movement emphasizing black consciousness.
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 and Aimé CésaireCésaire, Aimé
(Aimé Fernand Césaire) , 1913–2008, West Indian poet and essayist who wrote in French. After studying in Paris he became concerned with the plight of blacks in what he considered a decadent Western society.
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, French speakers from French Guiana and Martinique. Their poetry not only denounced colonialism, it proudly asserted the validity of the cultures that the colonials had tried to crush.

After World War II, as Africans began demanding their independence, more African writers were published. Such writers as, in western Africa, Wole SoyinkaSoyinka, Wole
, 1934–, Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, and political activist, born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka. Educated at the universities of Ibadan and Leeds, England, and at London's Royal Court Theatre, he writes in English, fusing Western and Yoruba
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, Chinua AchebeAchebe, Chinua
, 1930–2013, Nigerian writer, b. Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. A graduate of University College, Ibadan (1953), Achebe, an Igbo who wrote in English, is one of Africa's most acclaimed authors, and is considered by some to be the father of modern African
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, Ousmane SembeneSembene, Ousmane
, 1923–2007, Senegalese author and film director who wrote and made films in French and Wolof, often regarded as the father of sub-Saharan African cinema.
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, Kofi Awooner, Agostinho NetoNeto, Agostinho
, 1927–79, first president of independent Angola. A Portuguese-educated physician and poet, he founded the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in 1956, directing the war of liberation against Portugal from exile with East bloc support.
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, Tchicaya u tam'si, Camera Laye, Mongo Beti, Ben Okri, and Ferdinand OyonoOyono, Ferdinand Léopold
, 1929–2010, Cameroonian statesman and novelist writing in French. After studying in Africa and in Paris at the Law School and the National School of Administration, he joined the Cameroonian diplomatic corps, served in various African and
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 and, in eastern Africa, Ngugi wa Thiong'oNgugi wa Thiong'o
or James Ngugi,
1938–, Kenyan writer, acclaimed as East Africa's foremost novelist. He studied at universities in Uganda and England. His first novel, Weep Not, Child (1964) and his second, A Grain of Wheat
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, Okot p'Bitekp'Bitek, Okot,
1931–82, Ugandan writer and anthropologist. Educated at the Univ. of Bristol, University College of Wales, and Oxford, p'Bitek is best known for three verse novels, Song of Lawino (1966), Song of Ocol (1970), and Two Songs (1971).
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, and Jacques Rabémananjara produced poetry, short stories, novels, essays, and plays. All were writing in European languages, and often they shared the same themes: the clash between indigenous and colonial cultures, condemnation of European subjugation, pride in the African past, and hope for the continent's independent future.

In South Africa, the horrors of apartheid have, until the present, dominated the literature. Es'kia MphahleleMphahlele, Es'kia
(Ezekiel Es'kia Mphahlele) , 1919–2008, South African writer, grad. Univ. of South Africa (M.A., 1956). He began his career as a writer for Drum magazine after World War II and he published his first stories, Man Must Live, in 1947.
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, Nadine GordimerGordimer, Nadine
, 1923–2014, South African writer, b. Springs. A member of the African National Congress, Gordimer fought apartheid in her political life and in her writings, which often combine the political and personal.
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, Bessie HeadHead, Bessie,
1937–86, South African writer. Born in South Africa to a white mother and black father, she was placed in foster homes and orphanages as a child. After 1964, she lived in exile in Botswana.
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, Dennis BrutusBrutus, Dennis Vincent,
1924–2009, South African poet, b. Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe). Brutus grew up in South Africa and received (1947) his B.A. from the Univ. of Fort Hare in Alice.
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, J. M. Coetzee, and Miriam TlaliTlali, Miriam
, 1933–, South African novelist, b. Johannesburg. One of the first to write about Soweto, Tlali is known for her semiautobiographical novel Muriel at Metropolitan (1975; later published under its original title, Between Two Worlds
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 all reflect in varying degrees in their writings the experience of living in a racially segregated society.

Much of contemporary African literature reveals disillusionment and dissent with current events. For example, V. Y. Mudimbe in Before the Birth of the Moon (1989) explores a doomed love affair played out within a society riddled by deceit and corruption. The Zimbabwean novelist and poet Chenjerai Hove (1956–2015), wrote vividly in English and his native Shona of the hardships experienced during the struggle against British colonial rule, and later of the hopes and disappointments of life under the rule of Robert MugabeMugabe, Robert Gabriel
, 1924–2019, president of Zimbabwe (1987–2017). A founder of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in 1963 and a guerrilla leader, he was imprisoned (1964–74) by the white Rhodesian government.
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. In Kenya Ngugi wa Thiong'o was jailed shortly after he produced a play, in Kikuyu, which was perceived as highly critical of the country's government. Apparently, what seemed most offensive about the drama was the use of songs to emphasize its messages.

The weaving of music into the Kenyan's play points out another characteristic of African literature. Many writers incorporate other arts into their work and often weave oral conventions into their writing. p'Bitek structured Song of Iowino (1966) as an Acholi poem; Achebe's characters pepper their speech with proverbs in Things Fall Apart (1958). Others, such as Senegalese novelist Ousmane Sembene, have moved into films to take their message to people who cannot read.


See R. Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (1970); R. Smith, ed., Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature (1976); W. Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World (1976); A. Irele, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (1981); B. W. Andrzejewski et al., Literature in African Languages (1985); S. Gikandi, Reading the African Novel (1987).

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