African authors discuss the myth of the ‘African novel’ at SIBF 2019
Sharjah, October 31, 2019:What makes a novel written by an African author ‘African’? Was it the geographical location the writer was born in; or the language it was written in; or it’s subject matter that demands it to be classified an ‘African Novel’? Should there be such boundaries set to writing in this age of globalism and multiculturism? This was a question that two authors from very diverse cultures and backgrounds, and writing in two different languages, attempted to answer during a panel discussion on the inaugural day of the 38th edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair.
In the session moderated by writer Mohamed Abu Arab, Hagi Jaber, a writer from Eritrea who writes in Arabic, said he did not believe in such classifications. “Whatever you classify me as – an Arab writer or an African writer, the book will remain what it was meant to be,” he said. “However, I do not think such classification is negative. I feel it is a temporary label that people give it. Ultimately, the book will live on the merit of its subject matter and my skills in conveying the same.”
Nigerian novelist Nnamdi Ehirim, who writes in English, felt it was unfair to box novels and their writers, under such labels. “There are authors who write in Spanish from both, Latin America as well as Spain. But you don’t label the Latin American writers as Spanish just because they write in Spanish,” he opined. “Likewise, there are many African authors settled in other countries. Why label them all as African? Every one of us have our own identity.”
Jaber spoke about his dilemma of hailing from Eritrea, which is sandwiched between Arab Sudan and Ethiopia, which is African. “I struggle to identify myself as writer from either region,” he said.
Both authors decried the tendency to slot ‘African novel’ writings that describe the so-called exotic side of the continent. “You see many such programmes on channels like National Geographic that show two-headed snakes or exotic tribes, and this is deemed to be Africa across the world. The same thing happens in writing; African novels are expected to be about exotic things. They don’t realise there is a whole other Africa out there that is very similar to the rest of the world.”
Ehirim said: “Just as you would find something exotic in my country, when I go to Europe and I see a native walking in the streets doing something entirely normal for him, I find that exotic and exciting. To me, there is a richness in it that we don’t comprehend. So, it is not the geography, but the experience.”
He added: “There is a need for African writers to take control over their narrative. We should focus on the importance of the human experience.”
Both writers also spoke about the need to bring the world into Africa, in the form of translation of world literature into the African languages.