The strangeness of much of African literature (early impressions)

One of the common elements of African literature is that it tends to flow forth emotionally quite readily, and with a relatively free form. If you can position yourself in the place of the protagonist, you will be invited to laugh at yourself and others. You mustn’t see the protagonist as someone apart from you, but rather as someone just like you. Only then can you laugh at their misfortunes and smile with them at their pleasures. African literature is intimate — although it may not always be seen to be, because of its relatively foreign form (as compared to the genres of western literature, which provide us with the fruits of certain standard expectations).

If, as a reader, you are unable to flow with the main character and his problems, taking the good along with the bad, you will probably not be able to fully appreciate African literature.

What is different about African literature as compared to western literature, especially of the non-fiction variety, is that there is a certain expectation that the reader should come along for the journey without being overly anxious that the authorial voice is of good moral standing. Self-reflexive preening of the individual self is much more of a western concern. It might be for this reason that African literature appears to be more amenable to an interpretation of an
epistemological concern rather than of a moral concern.

Free flow: One flows from one situation to another, each with its own mystery or dilemma for the character concerned. Westerners often have trouble with this openness of an epistemological arena, as they tend to be stumped and arrested by various moral concerns along the way. For those preoccupied with moral concerns, the typical African narrative raised more questions than it answers, and thus a sense of the narrative’s flow is hindered.

To the African consciousness, on the other hand (and I speak also of my own), the self is always something hidden and in search of self-discovery. For the archetypical Western reader, the self is known positivistically, through its behaviour and words or reflections. For the African onsciousness, the self may just as well be hidden from itself as well as from others on the basis of such self-reflections or behavioural manifestations.

For myself, as an African — or one who has lived in Africa, and been conditioned by its environs — the western mode of acting and being (which is reflected profoundly in the western mode of reading and understanding) is far self conscious and circumspect for any spirited sense of flow through one situation into another. In the West, “blue collar” personages seem to manage best to exude something of this typical African sensibility — but once you reach the so-called “middle classes, this sense of joie de vivre is much more circumspect and contained. So, is the narrative sense of flow, as it pertains to personal living patterns; how they day is broken up, divided into categorically-defined objectives, whereby one event occurring is not likely to directly link on to another: I refer to how life in the west is normatively, actually experienced.

The African mind-set in me is impatient with the middle class westerner — not always but quite often.

Befriending many a westerner is often a frustrating process: Not least, because it is as if you had invited them to walk with you. They start, and you walk on, only to notice, as you casually look back, that leg irons have stumped them. They have walked only so far with you, a few steps, only to find that their continuation has been restricted by the post to which their chains are
tied. They have to stop. Circumspection catches them. The do want motion — only they’d prefer it circumscribed by genre, limited to arguing a moral discourse, engaged less with the phenomenology of living, and more with an approach to higher social consciousness. The need to establish prior moral and social consensus before setting off is always on the agenda for the western thinker. For my African mind, the meaning of African literature is to provide an adventure, with not fixed direction. One can and should embark as one who is already a friend.

Or failing this, one will remain just where one is, just seated.