I read throughout it all. Waded through “the classics,” my British Commonwealth and postcolonial literature assigned reading lists, and some smutty romance novels before eventually gravitating to what critics were calling millennial fiction. I broke spine after spine of these books hoping for something to connect to beyond the devastated, disheveled, bored, hunched-over, thin white women on the covers. And something did — sort of — resonate. In Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (2017), it was the protagonist’s battle with her afflicted womb, the exploration of skewed morality, and, of course, the discourse™. In Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), it was the desire for a medically induced escape, the big sleep. In Raven Leilani’s Luster (2020), it was the sense of endless wandering; artistic stagnancy; the precarious relationship the heroine had with her exploitative, older, white boyfriend; and the existential, almost cringey sting of way-too-honest passages:
All I want is for him to have what he wants. I want to be uncomplicated and undemanding. I want no friction between his fantasy and the person I actually am. I want all that and I want none of it. I want the sex to be familiar and tepid, for him to be unable to get it up, for me to be too open about my IBS, so that we are bonded in mutual consolation. I want us to fight in public. And when we fight in private, I want him to maybe accidentally punch me. I want us to have a long, fruitful bird-watching career, and then I want us to find out we have cancer at exactly the same time. Then I remember his wife, the coaster eases downward, and we fall.
As much as there were shards of relatability I could pull from these stories, however, I couldn’t help but feel that I was simultaneously gaping into an absence. There was something missing — something that’s almost always missing whenever a literary trend captures the public imagination and we begin to assign it cultural meaning — a perspective from outside. For me, what was missing was an African perspective.
A huge component of what gives millennial fiction its status as a definitive exploration of this generation’s concerns is limited to a standard set of issues and themes: college- or university-educated protagonists grappling with economic uncertainty, mental decay, the aporias of late-stage capitalism, overly intense (non)relationships with lovers who are indifferent and quietly cruel, complex friendships, or all of the above. And yet, somehow, no one considers that an African novel can be and do all of these things. It is no surprise that the literary world has yet to engage a millennial African novel in the same way it has, say, argued feverishly over how radical and/or unlikable and/or feminist the main characters in Rooney’s novels are. It is also no surprise that it is difficult to name a single well-received African millennial novel to argue feverishly over.
When I ponder this matter deeply, I think of how African writing has historically been reduced to a series of stereotypical tropes. The critical construction of the millennial novel emerges from a white Western cultural apparatus that’s dedicated to centering a certain kind of narrative voice, whose concerns are presumably not shared by nonwhite, non-Western protagonists (and readers). But surely, if anyone can accurately express the socioeconomic anxieties of a generation whose personal and communal hopes for the future have been radically disappointed, it would be African writers. While other writers may fidget self-consciously with theory, African writers experience the material consequences of the world’s decisions the most.
For Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane, a Johannesburg-based lawyer and cohost of the literary podcast The Cheeky Natives, an underlying coloniality within the publishing industry contributes to the continued erasure of African literature in these conversations. “The distribution and circulation of books written by African writers is limited geographically,” they told me, adding, “there’s a misconception that African stories are one-dimensional, so a lot of people aren’t willing to pick up what African writers produce. Writing from the continent is engaged for its political implications and not necessarily for the full scope of what a book may be about.” So, not only is it difficult for an African writer to get their work widely circulated and read, but whatever they write about is also at risk of being flattened and deprived of nuance, especially when these works deal with political topics such as poverty, war, climate change, or colonialism.
Faced with this dilemma, satirical writer and public speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa foregrounds the importance of the internet, which she believes has contributed to an observable shift in the sorts of issues and characters African writers have begun to center in their work. “It is clearer now than has been the case since perhaps the 1980s and ’90s that African writers are writing with African readers in mind,” she told me. “What the internet has done is guaranteed African writers at least a digital readership if not a physical one, and this has been a godsend to a population which is rather young and tech-savvy.” A 2021 report by The New Publishing Standard, authored by Mark Williams, corroborates Mohutsiwa’s sentiments:
Africa has 590 million people online. […]
Digital offers unparalleled opportunities for African readers and global readers wanting to read African literature, for African publishers wanting to reach other African and global markets, and for global publishers to reach Africa.
The literature exists. The readers exist. The internet users exist.
What will it take to make publishers join the dots and take this incredible market of 590 million internet users seriously?
Another important facet of this conversation would be to establish a set of African-specific millennial concerns — considering, of course, that these concerns are not universal but are still of interest to a significant number of us. In this regard, technology is crucial: it intersects with how messy we are. Emails, texts, hookup apps — a lot of our life’s plot is facilitated by these digital vehicles. Social media is the grand stage on which we perform our self-destruction, but it is also a lifeline to the community so many of us desperately seek. It is a means for us to organize virtually in the hope that our “real lives” will be impacted, even though sometimes these media are weaponized by our own governments during protests and elections.
As mentioned by Mohutsiwa, it is a way to build a platform large enough to at least suggest that someone is listening to us address the very sidelining and erasure I discuss here. “I think a contemporary African concern for me would be addressing queerness and the number of African countries that criminalize queerness and transness,” Mokgoroane told me. “But also, abortion and reproductive rights are a huge concern. We are grappling with really big issues” — concerns one would presume are shared with Western millennials. Yet one has only to sift through a few Western millennial novels to observe the sharp contrast in how these (and other) subjects are discussed. Africans are still performing the heavy work of undoing colonial harm while simultaneously finding ourselves; there’s so much to “overcome” in our fiction, so much “writing back” we feel we have to do, whereas Western protagonists are afforded a broader range of action, not to mention the privilege of boredom.
In Ling Ma’s Severance (2018), the millennial novel takes on a new sci-fi texture, which makes the typical exploration of life’s zombie-like entrapment much more interesting and complex. Ma likens our mindless commitment to capitalism to a viral pandemic, which is especially jarring when you consider how, during our own pandemic, there was a desperation to cling to a sense of familiarity and routine:
To live in a city is to live the life that it was built for, to adapt to its schedule and rhythms, to move within the transit layout made for you during the morning and evening rush, winding through the crowds of fellow commuters. To live in a city is to consume its offerings. To eat at its restaurants. To drink at its bars. To shop at its stores. To pay its sales taxes. To give a dollar to its homeless.
To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?
Similarly, millennial writers on the continent are reflecting on the unpleasant and difficult aspects of modern society by means of different literary modes and genres. It is possible that we have already read this elusive African millennial novel, only it has been marketed under a different name; after all, most anything from the continent is usually lumped into the “African fiction” section irrespective of genre. According to Mbali Sebokedi, a South African Bookstagrammer who uses her platform to promote and discuss books written predominantly by Black/African women, the first thing that comes to mind when she thinks of African millennial fiction is Tshidiso Moletsane’s Junx (2021), another genre-spliced novel. The novel’s “millennialness,” in her view, derives from its biting depiction of substance abuse, mental illness, and the impact of Apartheid on Black youth in contemporary South Africa. Mokgoroane, on the other hand, cites Mohale Mashigo, author of the novel The Yearning (2016) and the short story collection Intruders (2018): “I think Mohale writes amazing work that engages African, millennial concerns. Her way of doing this is through folklore and genre-bending.”
Many of the sources I contacted for this piece struggled to reconcile African literature with the parameters of millennial fiction, and this is where perhaps the conflation of “millennial writer” with “millennial fiction” occurs. For the two are not necessarily the same. In a 2019 essay published in The Guardian — entitled “Darkly Funny, Desperate and Full of Rage: What Makes a Millennial Novel?” — Olivia Sudjic argues:
[T]here is still no consensus on whether a “millennial novel” is qualified by an author’s age or that of its main protagonists, or even the age of the readers it is marketed to. I would argue that it is two things taken together: the age of the novelist (born between 1981 and 1996) and the novel’s own mood and preoccupations — even when these are not set in the immediate present.
I agree to some extent, but not all fiction a millennial writes should be considered millennial fiction, as Sudjic goes on to state herself. There’s a particular aesthetic these types of novels cultivate, and for me, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018) strikes me as quintessential African millennial fiction. While it is not stylistically or technically impressive, this satirical crime novel about a young woman and her murderous younger sister fits so well into what BookTokers call “unhinged women’s fiction” — the “I’m in my Fleabag, self-destructive, coming-apart-at-the-seams era” kind of novel we’ve been discussing here. Braithwaite’s novel explores the complicated and toxic sibling dynamics that are fostered during childhood in a way that makes me pick at my own emotional scabs:
That’s how it has always been. Ayoola would break a glass, and I would receive the blame for giving her the drink. Ayoola would fail a class, and I would be blamed for not coaching her. Ayoola would take an apple and leave the store without paying for it, and I would be blamed for letting her get hungry.
Yet despite being shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize in Fiction, the novel is never mentioned in the online booksphere for its double role as both an African and a millennial novel.
Whenever someone makes an inquiry about why they are not included in something, a common retort is to ask why they would try and slip into a space that was very clearly made without them in mind. But African experiences matter — our takes on the world’s shifting paradigms, on digital and pop culture, deserve to be engaged, discussed, and critiqued widely, not just as an afterthought. And the issue goes beyond millennial fiction because soon we will tire of the discourse about millennials and their books. In a few years, we will be more interested in what Gen Z writers have to say about the state of the world, and those sentiments will take hold of the cultural zeitgeist, and rightfully so. Yet my worry is that, as literary critics scramble to assemble another neat little box to serve as a marketing tool, a discourse starter, a Goodreads list, Africa’s place in the dialogue will be lost.
I find value in these generational categories of literary work because recognizing how literature operates as a historical archive of the sentiments of our time is important. But will the literary world really reckon with what these categories overlook? What I’m advocating for is equity because, as it stands, few longform platforms are willing to invite African critics to discuss not only locally produced work but also cross-cultural productions as well. The opinions of non-African academics and critics are deemed more valuable, and this erasure of our perspectives, especially when it applies to trends like those discussed in this essay, make us seem strangely out of touch when in fact Africa is home to the world’s largest population of young people. Given that two-thirds of us are unemployed or working in exploitative positions, you would think that our novels, commenting on these injustices and describing how we navigate our personal upheavals, deserve to be seen as millennial fiction par excellence.
As an African, as a millennial, as a writer, and as a person at the intersection of all these identities and more, it has been incredibly frustrating to watch as the world talks over and around us, pretending that we don’t exist. To quote Nina Simone, “An artist’s duty […] is to reflect the times,” and a lot of the work African writers do is very much of the times.
Masiyaleti Mbewe is a Zambian freelance culture writer and literary critic based in Gaborone, Botswana.
Featured image: Joburg Nights - South Africa by South African Tourism licensed under CC BY 2.0.