Beauty, Mourning, and Melancholy in Africa39

By Mukoma Wa NgugiNovember 9, 2014

Africa39 by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey

The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: The Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course, was mailed to subscribing LARB members earlier this month. Click here to get your subscription today.


A FEW YEARS BACK I was in Kenya with my father, the writer, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o. We were standing on a small hill overlooking the busy Limuru Market. He looked around: “You know, this used to be our land,” he said.

But to me I was simply standing on a hill. I knew that it mattered, that somehow my life had been shaped by that loss — in the same way that I know it matters when, in my father’s book In the House of the Interpreter, he writes about coming back from school to find his whole village burned to the ground by the British colonial government. I have been shaped by that history even though I cannot account for it. It haunts, steers, and shapes me as its heaviness weighs me down.

This is the feeling that came back to me as I was reading the excerpt from Tope Folarin’s novel, New Mom, in the new anthology Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara, which begins this way: “The most confusing period of my childhood began when my schizophrenic mother left us and returned to Nigeria.” After that opening sentence, there is no putting the story down.

In the story, we see trauma handed down to the next generation like a prized family heirloom. The story is about first-generation Africans in America, or American Africans, (the name has yet to be settled upon, let alone find a hyphen) children and their immigrant parents. But this is not immigrant literature in the sense of a child of two worlds, or assimilation versus maintaining one’s culture. For the first and second generation of American-born Africans, that battle — if it was ever real — has been lost. It is, instead, the move from mourning to melancholia.

Born in the United States, the kids in Folarin’s story see a father mourning things he knows he has lost: country, wife, culture, and so on. From their vantage point on the stairs in the family home in Utah, they can see their father in the sitting room suffering after his schizophrenic wife, who returned to Nigeria in order to heal, deserted him. This Nigeria that the children do not know is a large and looming presence. But they cannot account for it. Their names are African, but having never been to Nigeria they cannot account for their names either.

Africa39 spins at this axis, between the colonized generation of Things Fall Apart and Heart of Darkness — the two best-known novels of colonialism in Africa — and the post-colonial world to which it gave birth. There will never be another Things Fall Apart or Heart of Darkness. The world that made those novels is gone. Africa39 would not exist without these novels and the world that created them. Yet this anthology — which may bookmark yet another beautiful and painful epoch in the African literary tradition — reveals something crucial about the state of the post colonial generation — my generation — today. The legacy of colonialism’s bifurcated world — on one side the European colonists, and on the other, the colonized Africans — its corrosive effects on both, and the ensuing culture clashes and alienation has given way to something harder to articulate than mere “globalization”: a metaphysical colonization in which language, and racial identity itself, gets scrambled.

Despite being written in English, Things Fall Apart features a protagonist, Okonkwo, who is assumed to be speaking Igbo, is well respected in his community, and is fluent in the ways of his culture. He does not bend to the will of the invading culture and so is eventually broken by it.

In the Africa of Africa39, the once invading culture and its language are the norm. If Things Fall Apart reflects the time of British Empire building, Africa39 reflects that of the “metaphysical empire,” a term coined by the literary critic Adam Beach, referring to a British language-and-culture empire rising out of the ashes of a dying colonial material empire. It’s a future that was foreseen by Samuel Johnson when, in the preface to the English dictionary[1] of 1755, he wrote:

I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations, and distant ages, gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth; if my labours afford light to the repositories of science, and add celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle.

The English metaphysical empire has overrun my generation. While the Achebe generation debated the question of African storytelling and language — Achebe making the case for writing in English, and Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o making the case for writing in the original African languages — the young writers in Africa39, and those like me who are somewhat older, are working from a consensus that African writing in English and French is the inevitable norm.

Even translation — the movement from one language to another, that Walter Benjamin claimed gives a piece of literature a second life — is not seen as an option by this new African generation. We do not write in our own languages; we write in the language of the departed yet present colonizer. Except for a few translations into Kiswahili, there have hardly been any translations into African languages, not even of writing by African authors. Despite the call for stories also originally written in African languages, there are none in Africa39. The three translated stories in the anthology were not originally written in native African languages, but in Western languages other than English.

This is how bad things are for writing in African languages: since its publication in 1958, Things Fall Apart has been translated into over 50 languages, but not Igbo, Achebe’s mother tongue. A close parallel would be if Conrad’s Heart of Darkness had never been translated into Polish — but even then not quite, since Conrad identified and was received as an English writer while Achebe identified and was received as an African writer.

And here is the irony: Things Fall Apart has been translated into Polish. Who will give African literature in African languages a second life, if not some of the 39 writers from this anthology?

To understand the aesthetics and political distance African literature has traveled between Things Fall Apart and Africa39, one would have to think of it in those terms of mourning and melancholy, of inherited traumas and memories, which define the new African literary generation. For Freud, mourning is “the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one's country, liberty, an ideal, and so on.” In contrast, melancholia describes when “one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost,” and “is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious.”

The older generation in Africa can be said to be mourning — they know what they have lost, whether it is language and culture, or land and nation. And their writing is an attempt to recover a lost known object. But the Africa39 writers do not fully know the language they have lost, and have no direct memory of the land and nation that belonged to their parents. In Africa39, the characters, like their writers, have no intimate knowledge of the cultures that formed their parents and grandparents. They are in a state of melancholy.


To my ear, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story in Africa39 — also set in the United States — suffers from an African, middle-class aesthetic that was also present in her latest novel, Americanah. This is an aesthetic that is so concerned with not telling a single story of poor, fly-infested Africans, that it goes overboard into the academic halls of Princeton, of mansions, housemaids, and casually worn and perhaps ill-gotten wealth.

The plot breaks new ground in African writing. We meet Umkaka, a heartbroken graduate student in Princeton, and Chinedu, a gay African living without documentation. As the story unravels, we get to understand the tragedies and personal betrayals that fuel their friendship. But Adichie’s writing style does not allow her to enter her character’s inner lives, nor does it allow her a grasp of their trauma; the story reads like diaspora slumming. It is as if she has heard that African immigrants suffer when they do not have papers, and families get broken up when one parent gets deported, so she visits with those families, and then writes about them.

The Folarin excerpt, on the other hand, enters the materially cruel and psychologically punishing underbelly of the model African immigrant narrative that has become so popular nowadays. This is the narrative that showcases the achievement of African immigrants and their children, and seems to point out that African Americans have no excuse. As if with that narrative they can erase the history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the racism that allows white citizens and policemen to shoot unarmed young black men, and everything else that haunts black Americans from the first day in school to the last. In Folarin’s work, we get to see the United States as experienced from below.

Folarin’s promising novel excerpt points to a new direction in African literature. This literature features African characters who were born in the United States, or immigrated at a young age, and who do not feel grateful, or are caught between two worlds where one is new and the other old.

What ultimately links the Africa39 stories is an intense human connection. In an excerpt from a novel in progress, Echoes of Mirth by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, we find a father and his two sons — the younger of which happens to have a serious crush on his older brother’s girlfriend — living in the shadow of the mother’s death. That human connection is captured in the first sentence, and the story does not let go of it: “I used to like my brother’s girlfriend, until she desecrated our house with laughter not long after Mammy died.” The story ends with laughter, too.

In the short story Hope’s Hunter by Mohamed Yunus Rafiq, he does something with language that I have only seen Amos Tutuola do in The Palm-Wine Drinkard: he uses language that is lyrical, beautiful, and physical all at once, as if the words on the page are literally pregnant with the meaning they are trying to convey. For example, “This is the land: once teeming with galloping and prancing antelope, now a desert of fine dust […] But now, shrunken heads are sunk deep on the cadavers’ chests.” Or, “His countenance resembles that of a fisherman who holds a rod at which a might catch mischievously tugs.”

Speaking of language, there are no wise old African men who oil their words with proverbs, or speak slowly and deliberately in long, Africanized English sentences. “Suck. My. Dick,” a drunk cat yells at Nadifa Mohamed’s narrator in “Number 9.”

But Africa39 is not just opening up new frontiers. Some of the writers revisit familiar themes of colonialism and resistance, and the neocolonial relationships between African countries and the West. But they do so with refreshing twists and turns. In the allegorical excerpt from Mama’s Future by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, the mother figure is a personified, humanized, and literalized mama Africa. She is on her deathbed; her children out in the diaspora have returned to bid her farewell and discuss her legacy and the future. Returning to the land of their ancestors, they find a mess of extravagance, theft, and poverty.

Rotimi Babatunde’s The Tiger of the Mangrove excerpt recounts the meeting between the colonizer and the colonized in new ways — giving both Africans and Europeans a history and agency. In Things Fall Apart and earlier novels, the white characters are often cardboard cutouts of the khaki-wearing, bible-carrying colonizer. In Babatunde’s story, which is an excerpt from a novel in progress, he reimagines the first meeting between the soon-to-be colonizer and the soon-to-be-resisting colonized. The narrator observes after the meeting, “some would later say this duet of omission was the acknowledgement from the two men that Berlin had made dialogue redundant long before they met. So Hamilton spoke about his rafting down the Nile.” Berlin, here casually thrown, refers to the 1884 conference where the major powers carved up Africa. If history had already decided to cast them as enemies, why not get to know each other off the battlefield? Why not be cordial and learn a thing or two from each other? History has already dictated that they be enemies, so they take that history for granted.

Eleven of the stories have been culled from novels in progress. They are a promise of 11 excellent novels coming our way soon. In this way, the anthology as a whole is a preview of excellent writing yet to come. Mehul Gohil’s short story, “Day and Night,” which focuses on how we come to knowledge as children, and the little things that bond the child to the parent, is a longer, happier and yet more melancholic take on fathers and sons than in the poem, Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden. The care for the language, the craft, and the form are clearly present. Gohil has what Linda Gregg calls “resonant resources,” those things and experiences unique to oneself that become a “vital force that fuels.” But he has not yet found a way to use them for his writing. He tries to do too much — as if he believes that writers have to be rebels — and the story gets lost in its own cleverness.

It is necessary, too, to mention the preface to the anthology. Symbolically, it makes a great deal of sense to have Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, representing the older generation, write the preface, entering Africa39 into conversation with an African literary tradition. But Soyinka’s rambling preface is also the worst part of the anthology. He is fighting a proxy war with nameless political writers of his generation while saying nothing at all about the writing in Africa39.

When I was young, I would give books from my then exiled father’s library to that black hole I called friends. My mother sat me down and told me, “Books are wealth.” Well, I am telling you this anthology is wealth. You will find a beauty that is complex and contradictory — aesthetics true to the calling of making us see the world anew. Africa39 will leave its mark on the African literary tradition.


[1]. Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. A Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols, London: Printed by WS Johnson - Strahan for J. & P. Knapton [et. al.], (92)


Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University.

LARB Contributor

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University and the author of Black Star Nairobi (Melville House Publishing, 2013), Nairobi Heat (Melville House Publishing, 2011) and the forthcoming Mrs. Shaw (Ohio University press, 2015).  For more information, please visit


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