Genre Expansion Necessary for African Writing

The continent of Africa continues to rely on foreign writers as suppliers of books in the genres of romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. This needs to stop immediately. We want the world to start reading romances written in Africa, by African writers. We want African readers to read romances (in the Harlequin & Mills & Boon sense) and horror stories (more horrific than those of Stephen King) written by African writers. This will help pique the interest of readers in local writing, and encourage African reading to develop to mass market heights. I know I generalize a bit here, but the trend as I have observed it, is that much of the mass market material Africa consumes if foreign-born, whether it is something relating to movies, many forms of music and writing. Perhaps the African writers are to blame. Here is why.

I started writing when I was thirteen, imitating authors like Aaron Chiundura Moyo and Vitalis Nyawaranda, whose works we were reading in school as set books. From that early on, I came to writing with a setbook mentality. Although I went through a James Hardley Chase, Ian Fleming, and Mills & Boon phase, it never occured to me that I too could write mysteries, romanes, and Stephen King-style horror. Why? Because when I put pen to paper, I had to think in terms of the literary, had to be part of that special group of writers whose books were only written for people reading literature in schools.

I have observed that most African writers write for the school system, in most cases for practical reasons, because a large percentage of reading happening on the continent is related to education. Our readers have not been trained to read for pleasure, to enjoy a mystery because that’s what it is– a mystery. Okay, there is often talk about how the nature of African life almost makes it taboo to enjoy reading for reading ‘s sake, that people are too busy dealing with demands of life more pressing than reading. So that leaves publishers looking at academia, and encouraging the production of the JM Coetzeean stories that have higher chances of winning a Caine Prize for African Writing before they even discover their readers. Our stories are wonderful, we write well, but sometimes we are too literary to the detriment our writing and its readership. Oh, and our most lucrative awards are in the short story genre. In fact, a friend of mine argues that Southern Africa is the home of the concise short story–very concise indeed– for obvious reasons, such as, he points out, long histories of government censorship of art, influence of folklore, and, he doesn’t say this, the short attention span of our readers! No, there I know there is demand for these genres, a demand for long stories dealing with the fantasy, horror, mystery, or the thick things Wilbur Smith was writing.

So here is a call to African writers to expand the genres of our writing. Let’s have awards geared towards rewarding stories about ghosts haunting this one bus stop in Kezi, Matebeleland. Let’s write romance novels set in Chimanimani and Natal, and stories about mysterious disappearance of foreigners in Alexandra and Johannesburg, horror stories of whole villages turning up limbless in election-time Zimbabwe. The horrors are all around us, so are the mysteries, and the possibilities of African romance. Put pen to paper, fellow writer, and expand the horizons of African writing.

2 thoughts on “Genre Expansion Necessary for African Writing

  1. “Our readers have not been trained to read for pleasure, to enjoy a mystery because that’s what it is– a mystery. Okay, there is often talk about how the nature of African life almost makes it taboo to enjoy reading for reading ’s sake, that people are too busy dealing with demands of life more pressing than reading.”

    Your points, on the whole are very valid, but I’d think that the quoted statement is a little categorical. If African writers on the whole tend to gravitate toward the literary, reading as an activity in itself, divorced from the tyranny of marks and exams ,is mostly geared toward the non-literary genres. We all had our Chase phase, as we did have our Ludlum, Wilbur Smith, Christie, Gardner, et al phases. Guys I knew in school, who didn’t go on to Literature ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels in my native S/Leone, were highly unlikely to be found reading what would be considered literary outputs.
    So if our ‘training’ in reading is/was literary, the practice of reading continues to be non-literary.

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