Last week, I finished reading Adichie’s Americannah and promptly threw it across the room. The book infuriated me. It wasn’t because it was yet another book with Adichie’s predictable pace and prose. The book infuriated me because I saw in each character a piece of my journey through the world. I was furious but thrilled at the same time that there was something out there that represented my lived experience as a transient African.
I moved, or should I say, I was moved to Texas when I was 11 and didn’t set foot in my village for 12 years. I left a boy and came back a man, still very much connected to the little boy that I left on the shores of Lake Victoria. In all of Adichie’s characters, exists a little bit of my struggle and experience as a diaspora and reaspora. The more I read about Ifemelu, the more I grated my teeth at the memory of trying to integrate into American black culture and failing miserably to be accepted, at an age when all you want to do is to NOT stand out. In The Zed, I relived the difficulty of traveling with a Ugandan passport and the sheer inhumanity of having to practically ingratiate yourself in asking for a transit visa through Heathrow(!). There was, in each of her characters, a representation of my lived African experience.
I threw the book across the room because it wasn’t simply about me. It was about all of us. We, as Africans, possess a resilience earned through years of enduring the bullshit the world has to throw in our paths. We are, in essence, the refuse of humanity and it infuriates me that in the race to achieve success of any measure, our starting position is always in the boot. That’s why it was so disappointing to read Siyanda Mohutsiwa’s dismissal of Afropolitan narratives published in Okay Africa:
…I couldn’t get over the fact that my first encounter with Alain Mabanckou’s work was a foot-chase in a Paris subway station (The Fugitive). I couldn’t take a single new story that demanded I imagine the streets of Haywards Heath (Aminatta Forna). And for the love of God, if I had to read one more story that ends with the African protagonist being whisked away to America, I was downright ready to spit!
Where did this all come from? I can’t say for sure. Perhaps I had begun to truly believe that the importance of African literature was to connect us ordinary Africans to each other’s lives. It may have also been my encounter with the dismal African fiction section at O.R. Tambo Airport’s Exclusive Books: it had only three books, and they are all mentioned in the first paragraph of this article!
The purely African narrative ceased to exist the moment Vasco da Gamma rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and most certainly when Sir Livingston snatched the “discovery” of Lake Victoria from the befuddled gaze of Ugandans. It further ceased to be purely our own under slavery and colonialism. We were folded into the global human experience.
It is, quite honestly, simplistic and naive to argue for “African literature”. To do so diminishes the global reach of our experience. Don’t get me wrong, there is African literature: the non-fiction tripe written by so-called African experts and the literature – which is basically white people talking about how they survived the perils of the dark continent. Nicholas Kristof writes pretty good African literature, in which our very lives are at the mercy of a white protagonist. To quote Binyavanga Wainana, who’s own lived experience fills several passports, “what the fuck is African literature” anyway?
With the rise of connected technologies, Africa’s chapter in the book of humanity is not stories of four drunk men under a mango tree, it is about four drunk men arguing about the English Premier League with supported stats pulled from their smartphones.
Any which way you slice it, the African story is an Afropolitan story. We can’t go back to living our clan lifestyles clutching to the last vestiges of a foregone, isolated lived experience. Can we write more about life in the village? Absolutely. Can we write more stories based in our capital cities? Of course we can. But the authenticity of those stories depends on the author’s lived experience. Some of the best advice I was given about writing was to “write what you know.” We should be thankful that there are so many African writers putting to paper their lived experience. It is to our benefit to tell our own individual stories, not a detriment to our collective identity.
We have to also consider the shift in the mediums where we publish our stories. So many of our cultures celebrate the oral tradition of story telling. It is going to be difficult to find an elder sharing the history of his clan at OR Tambo. We have evolved from the oral tradition, to pen and paper, and are now navigating the cannibalistic nature of digital publishing platform. I’ve seen social media kill blogs that I used to read religiously. Now, most of those writers share their experiences in short narratives on Facebook, Medium, and Twitter. If Siyanda Mohutsiwa finds the shelves at OR Tambo devoid of anthologies of new “African” literature, she may be looking in wrong place. The irony here, is someone complaining about Afropolitan narratives on a blog post. What’s more Afropolitan than the cold embrace of a digital lifestyle?
The Afropolitan narrative is to Tope Folarin’s modern day Africa as Pan Africanism was to Chinua Achebe’s postcolonial Africa. It is to Africa’s benefit that we embrace our Afropolitan modernity. We aren’t defined by a single narrative. We are at once a product of the limitations of our past and architects of a post-modern future where the reach of our lived experiences is endless. My lived experience is as much about walking barefoot in my village and getting jiggers and as it is attempting to survive a Canadian winter (its (sorta) possible!). After more than 20 years in North America, I am settling back in the City of Chaos. Maybe one day I will write about this place. But more than likely, there will be plenty of references to my lived experience in America, Europe and Beyond.