LATELY WE SEEM to be experiencing a boom in the genre of the African literary memoir. In the past five years, we have had memoirs from luminaries like Wole Soyinka (You Must Set Forth at Dawn, 2007), J.M. Coetzee (Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, 1997, and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, 2002), Zakes Mda (Sometimes There Is A Void: Memoirs of an Outsider, 2013), Chinua Achebe (the long-awaited There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, 2012). In November 2012, the great Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o — who had already written one memoir of his childhood, Dreams in a Time of War, in 2010 — published a second volume, In the House of the Interpreter. Part of the power of the memoir genre is the way it personalizes history, giving us the general past as a single individual’s life story. But in the context of this explosion of “personal histories” from all the old lions of African literature, a book like Ngugi’s feels like something more, like a moment of summing up, both for him, for his generation, and for his relationship to his generation.
In the 1950s and 1960s, after all, many of this generation’s defining works were portraits of the artist as a young man, and semiautobiographical Bildungsromane formed the foundation of canon-making institutions like the African Writers Series. The book that launched Ngugi’s career, for instance, was Weep Not, Child, a lightly fictionalized version of his own early schooldays. Today, we are seeing the other end of that autobiographical spectrum, as this same literary generation enters its twilight: the writers who collectively came of age in the era of decolonization and independence are slowly retiring from the scene, and their memoirs, in that sense, complete the collective portrait these writers began half a century ago.
Or perhaps this boom in Great African Writer Memoirs is simply the result of old men discovering that they have little new to say? That none of the Big Names of African Literature live in Africa any more is worth noting: Ngugi, Achebe, Mda, and Soyinka have all lived in the United States for decades now, but, with the exception of Mda, they’ve never been interested in writing about American life or culture; their respective pasts may be the only subject matter they still have available. (One of the few times I’ve agreed with V.S. Naipaul about anything was when he expressed his disappointment that Achebe never chose to write about his decades in the United States — and if ever there’s a writer who wrote all his interesting work before receiving the Nobel, it’s Wole Soyinka.) Ngugi has only written one novel in the past 20 years (albeit a big one: the monumental Wizard of the Crow in 2006), while Achebe and Soyinka have published nothing but nonfiction since the 1990’s. That’s not to say that these books are without interest; they’re each shaped by the personality of the writer, and in illuminating ways, from Achebe’s blend of soft-spoken modesty with ferocious polemic to Soyinka’s sly articulation of crude wit into dazzling flights of multisyllabic poetry (or even Coetzee’s own disappearing act into his own memoir). But while a younger generation of Afric...read more