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African literature refers to (a) African oral literature (also called Orature) and (b) written African literature from West, North, Central, East, and Southern Africa. African oral literature encompasses works from Africa’s ancient and classical narrative traditions and spans oral narratives, proverbs, drama, poetry, chants and songs, riddles, and so on. With the earliest known works located in ancient Egypt, written African literature includes inscriptions on pyramid walls, the short story, the novel, poetry, drama, autobiography, and so forth. Women’s literature in Africa refers to African literatures by and about women. While storytelling styles vary by region and experiences shaped by history and society, the themes are linked by complex worldviews rooted in a common evocation of human experiences that seem unique to the continent. The languages of African literature include Africa’s indigenous languages as well as the languages acquired by different African societies as a result of the continent’s encounters with the East and experiences of Western colonization.

Article

Terri Ochiagha

Chinua Achebe, acclaimed as the “father of modern African literature,” came to canonical prominence thanks to the seismic impact of his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958)—the best-known work of African literature in the world—and his indictment of colonial discourse in the seminal essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” originally delivered as a lecture at the University of Massachusetts in 1974. His influence and impact, however, far surpasses these two literary events. While Things Fall Apart was neither the first African novel nor the first to capture the trauma of the colonial encounter, Achebe’s transliteration of the Igbo language—its beauty, philosophy, and cadences of speech—in clear, eloquent prose, and his intimate knowledge and subversion of the Western literary tradition enthused literary critics around the world, inspired generations of African writers, and was key in instituting African literature as a field of scholarly inquiry. He further helped shape the direction of African writing in editorial roles—most notably as the founding editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series—and through his manifold critical and biographical essays, many of which preempt ideas at the core of postcolonial theory, albeit with a more accessible and mellifluous idiom. Over the course of his writing career, Achebe published five novels (Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease [1960], Arrow of God [1964], A Man of the People [1966], and Anthills of the Savannah [1987]), children’s books (Chike and the River [1966], How the Leopard Got His Claws [1972], The Flute [1977], and The Drum [1977]), two collections of short stories (The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories [1962] and Girls at War and Other Stories [1972]), two volumes of poetry (Beware, Soul Brother [1971] and Collected Poems [2004]), four collections of essays (Morning Yet on Creation Day [1975], Hopes and Impediments [1988], Home and Exile [2000], and The Education of a British-Protected Child [2008]), a political treatise (The Trouble with Nigeria [1983]), and his final work, There Was a Country (2012), a memoir on his experiences of the Nigerian Civil War.

Article

Stephen Belcher

The use of oral tradition is a distinctive and essential element in many fields of African studies. History must acknowledge it; literature sees it as the medium for much of the indigenous creative endeavor across African cultures; anthropology and its cousin disciplines rely upon oral information for their understanding of traditional societies. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition as a source across disciplines involves two efforts: first, a survey of the reported oral tradition as available and documented in past periods, and second, a review of the principles and practices involved in the collection, analysis, and presentation of the oral tradition. The paucity of written records has been grounds for dismissal of the notion of African history—most notoriously in the case of Hegel, who in ignorance wrote off the home of the human species—and more recently a cause of pride among African intellectuals who have asserted the value of the oral tradition in the face of skepticism rooted in prejudice and too often in overt racism. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition threads its path between extremes and occasional controversy. The era of the smartphone has made the documentation (and creation) of oral tradition almost too easy. Past generations made do in different ways. Their reports should not be dismissed, but studied; they are the available background to information collected in the modern era. Accurate collection and critical analysis are the essential tools for the understanding of oral tradition.