JULY 11, 2018
ARE WE ON the cusp of a new age of African literature? If so, the key to new novels from African writers seems to be the fresh use of historical fiction to articulate a new future.
South African writer Marlene van Niekerk’s 2004 masterpiece Agaat (first translated into English from the Afrikaans as The Way of the Women by Michiel Heyns in 2006) is a candidate for the Great African Novel. Her second novel, it resonates far beyond the seminal Triomf (1994), and went unmatched for that title until Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu was published in Kenya in 2014. Winner of the Kwani? Manuscript Project (as The Kintu Saga, of which I was a lucky pre-judges reader), Makumbi’s novel is a Ugandan One Hundred Years of Solitude, a family saga that reaches back into that country’s history with an assurance and readability that makes its historical depth feel light as water. The wide acclaim it received in East Africa led to its publication in the United States by Transit Books in 2017 (with a controversially “unnecessary” introduction by Aaron Bady) and, in March 2018, a prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize, an award worth $165,000. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust, also published in 2014 (by Knopf in the United States), provokes a similar excitement.
In that moment, it felt as if African writers were taking on big topics and writing with such beauty and complexity that surely it signalled just the kind of coming of age that Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri hankered for in his December 2014 Guardian article “A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness.” In the much-criticized think piece, Okri notes, “Great literature is almost always indirect […] [it] is rarely about one thing. It transcends subject.” But don’t Agaat, Kintu, and Dust transcend subject? Isn’t this the secret to their greatness? Didn’t these magnificent writers take on historical topics that demanded this transcendent treatment?
Regardless of where we fall in that debate, bookshelves will soon be teeming with additional contenders. Will Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s (Shadows) debut novel House of Stone (January 2019, W. W. Norton) satisfy those searching for the Great Zimbabwean Novel? Could Caine Prize–winning author Namwali Serpell’s debut The Old Drift (due later this year from Hogarth Press) really be the Great Zambian Novel we have all been waiting for? What will Ayesha Harruna Attah’s (Harmattan Rain) new novel The Hundred Wells of Salaga (February 2019, Other Press) tell us about pre-colonial Ghanaian history?
In her review of Kenyan writer Peter Kimani’s Dance of the Jakaranda (2017, Akashic Books) for The New York Times, Fiammetta Rocco noted the explosion of African writers exploring historical fiction, work that includes Cameroonian writer Patrice Nganang’s Mount Pleasant (2016, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Zambia-born writer Petina Gappah’s (An Elegy for Easterly) retelling of the final journey of David Livingstone, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, which Scribner will put out next summer. Kimani’s novel has an impressive breadth and scope. His illustration of the construction of the railway from Mombasa to the hinterland of Kenya in the early 20th century follows three men — a British colonial administrator, a Christian preacher, and an Indian — whose lives have intersected in unexpected ways.
In conversation with Kimani at Waterstones in London in March, Rocco asked him why so many contemporary writers seemed to be choosing historical fiction, and he answered, “Writers are attempting to resolve or reflect on history,” which is not surprising since much of African history has been written by outsiders. His response echoes that of Makumbi, who when asked during a panel discussion at last year’s Ake Arts and Book Festival how the lack of African history recorded by Africans affects historical fictions said, “History clings to our skin. Somehow we must remember that we remember differently.”
Indeed, Makumbi’s Kintu is notable for not including any British characters or narration detailing the colonial incursion. It focuses purely on Ugandan history, as if the 60 or so years of British presence were insignificant. Owuor’s Dust reflects on a period of Kenyan history during the Moi era (1978–2002) that has been silenced, a time when genocide was being perpetrated against the Luo peoples. And Agaat obliquely tackles the land issue in South Africa through the eyes of a paralyzed white woman with motor neuron disease and her adopted “coloured” servant girl turned brokenhearted caregiver.
These “silenced voices” are unique and bold in their portrayal of subjects usually overlooked by mainstream fiction storytellers and historians. They recenter at the heart of their “histories” long-hidden truths, curses, and mysteries, and then provide resolutions of sorts. In describing Agaat in her New York Times review, Liesl Schillinger wrote,
It’s a monument to what the narrator calls “the compulsion to tell,” expressing truths that are too heartfelt, revelatory and damaging for proud people to speak aloud — or even to admit to themselves in private.
These are personal stories, yes, but with great historical, emotional, and literary significance.
Using the novel as a means of expressing alternative history has long been at the center of postcolonial literary theory, and works that utilize this approach have become a mainstay of the curricula of more progressive world literature courses globally. But it is a form that has not been dominated by female authors, and it has only recently become favored by writers from Africa. While authors such as Lauren Beukes, Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi, and Shadreck Chikoti have been exploring speculative or futuristic African fiction, there is an equal, perhaps weightier movement toward the past that refocuses African fiction on the complexities of the continent’s history. The time appears to have come for in-depth retellings and reclamations of what had previously been controlled by white European writers. As Kimani notes in an interview with Dan Magaziner for the website Africa is a Country,
[H]istorical fiction serves to reclaim a people’s history, or at least inject fresh perspectives to counter the dominant colonial views. In most instances, colonial histories are fraught with inaccuracies, distortions and simple falsifications.
Fred Khumalo, while reflecting on his historical novel about the sinking of the SS Mendi, Dancing the Death Drill (2017, Jacaranda Books), in a recent article for The Johannesburg Review of Books, states,
There is no reason why, in principle, a novel may not have its basis in research that is as comprehensive as that of a scholarly work of history — indeed, there is no reason why the research may not be more comprehensive, and no reason why, in principle, a novelist’s portrayal of the past may not be truer and more accurate than that produced by a scholarly historian.
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s timely, long-awaited first novel, House of Stone, comes less than a year after Robert Mugabe’s house of stone finally crumbled when he resigned from presidential office after 37 years of autocratic rule. The reclamation of the name “Zimbabwe” upon the country’s independence in 1980 was a significant recasting of the nation’s image from one white man, the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes (the source of “Rhodesia”), to the “large houses of stone” (dzimba–dza–mabwe) that represent the origins of Great Zimbabwe. This reference to the nation’s 11th-century ruins, which are considered evidence of a sophisticated ancient civilization, is itself a revolutionary marker since it overthrows the colonizers’ attempts to repress the true history of Zimbabwe by claiming that Arabs or Phoenicians must have built them, not “simple Africans.”
The publisher’s hype on House of Stone’s cover declares, “[Tshuma] prosecutes the past and celebrates those on the wrong side of history in this mad and glorious epic about the death of colonial Rhodesia and the bloody birth of modern Zimbabwe.” Significantly, Tshuma focuses her novel on the Ndebele (Matabele) people of the southwestern part of the country rather than on the dominant Shona-speaking areas. From the outset her concern is “Hi-story,” the word oddly hyphenated to accentuate the “story” element and highlight the manufactured nature of any history. From the first pages, Tshuma uses the less well-known story of the Gukurahundi massacres to anchor her narrative. The struggle against amnesia, or the willful forgetting, of the atrocities perpetrated by Mugabe’s red berets of the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the mid-1980s is the driver of the plot, as the protagonist Zamani tries to understand and rewrite his own hi-story so that he can insert himself in the life of his surrogate family as their new son.
The description on the book cover emphasizes that “the one who controls the narrative will inherit the future.” By reinserting Gukurahundi in the narrative of Zimbabwe as a central element in its formation, Tshuma takes up the mantle of Yvonne Vera, who wrote about Gukurahundi in her 2002 novel, The Stone Virgins. Less lyrical than Vera, Tshuma is no less devastating in her descriptions of the torture and killing of thousands of Matabeleland civilians, and she goes no further than Vera in explaining why the massacres were ordered.
But as is gradually revealed, Zimbabwe’s inability to forget history, its obsessive desire to “never be a colony again,” as Mugabe habitually repeated in his speeches, is what governed it for too long. Coming home, Zamani notes with distress that the people are not reckoning with Mugabe’s butchery. “When I returned from my travels abroad […] I found the country living in hi-story,” he laments,
Everywhere, odes to the past were being composed, sung, recited; here the past lived more vividly than the present, for there was no future that could be seen, no future to be imagined […] encouraging us to always look back.
Mugabe no longer controls the narrative of Zimbabwe, and Tshuma offers us a new House of Stone in which Zamani, a lost character whose consciousness has been warped, can undergo “hydrolysis”: “I come in to contact with hi-story’s iron particles, cleaving my being from the present to form new bonds with the past.”
It is only in this process that Zamani can become a self-made man who has “transcended hi-story and got hold of the present, and is thus able to rule the future.” Even if his motivations are twisted, Zamani is really just trying to reconstruct the fractured family he lost in the atrocities and create answers to questions he was long ago forbidden to ask. Similarly, retelling Gukurahundi and recognizing its part in Zimbabwe’s complicated history is crucial to remaking the country’s House of Stone in the 21st century.
In her Guardian review of Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga, Nadifa Mohamed suggests,
One of the strengths of the novel is that it complicates the idea of what “African history” is; while the film Black Panther mixed ethnicities and cultures for the sake of spectacle, Attah emphasises often overlooked distinctions of religion, language and status.
Attah’s book is set in precolonial 19th-century Ghana — the title refers to the wells used to wash slaves before they are sold at a market near Tamale — and tells two separate narratives that eventually meet. As a princess of the Gonja people, Wurche expects to get everything she wants, and she takes a lover soon after she is strategically married to Prince Adnan of Dagbon. Meanwhile, a slave raid takes poor, teenaged Aminah from her family home in Botu. After Wurche escapes her loveless marriage in Salaga-Kpembe, her fate becomes entwined with Aminah’s in Kete-Krachi.
Moro the slave-trader has a smoldering allure that both women resist initially since they find his activities repugnant, but his story is complicated by the fact that he is a descendant of slaves himself. Even the German, Helmut, with whom Wurche later develops a romantic relationship, claims the colonial project is “an exchange,” with apparent sincerity. Aminah, who is “treated as if she were no different from cattle or kola nuts,” suffers terribly, but by the end of the novel she is headed toward Moro’s farm in Sisipe with hope for a new life of love and creativity. We know, however, what bloody convulsions history has yet in store, as the Germans, British, and Ghanaians will continue to fight over her homeland well in to the 20th century.
A recent Guardian editorial made the claim that readers want historical fictions that are “safely cocooned in the past.” But African historical fiction is turning an increasingly uncomfortable lens on aspects of the past that have yet to be fully addressed. Khumalo writes, “As a genre, historical fiction can be a powerful tool in the hands of a writer who is also an activist […] they help us reimagine ourselves in the present day.”
The courageous, probing works of Tshuma, Kimani, Attah, Owuor, Makumbi, and their cohort attempt to resurrect neglected narratives lost to the Kenyan, Zimbabwean, Ugandan, Ghanaian, and South African memory. By writing detailed personal stories, these authors reclaim ownership of a stolen history and lay the foundation for a future they’ll write for themselves.
Writer and critic Dr. Lizzy Attree is the author of Blood on the Page and co-editor of the poetry collection Thinking Outside the Penalty Box. She is co-founder of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, and she is a director on the board of Short Story Day Africa.