Who is an African Writer? (Part Two) #ALAconf2014

Those curious about Africa (and indeed any country, continent or culture) look to its literary writers and their works to get some grasp, however ephemeral, of its cultural mosaic. “Contemporary” – if we mean it to be writings by young African authors as opposed to fictional depictions of relatively recent times – Sierra Leonean literature makes writ large the continuing debate about who qualifies as an African writer; especially as it relates to the increasing literary stature of Aminatta Forna.

Mohamed Kamara (Washington &Lee University) in his reading of the works of Aminatta Forna and Yema Lucilda Hunter titled “Constructing a Nation and it’s Memory: Reinventing Sierra Leone’s Past in the Works of Aminatta Forna and Yema Lucilda Hunter” highlights how a nostalgic and determined Aminatta tries to discover the truth about her father’s hanging (a government minister) in 1960s Sierra Leone while inevitably providing a glimpse of that period in Sierra Leone’s history and nationhood. Relying on her journalistic experience, she provides an investigative, unemotional and arguably distant (a recurring theme) memoir that doubles as a reconstruction of memories lost (or perhaps vanishing) about Sierra Leone’s turbulent history. “The Devil that danced on the Water” relies on both written and oral history to document, albeit intentioned as a personal memoir, a period in “Salone” (local parlance for Sierra Leone) nationhood that is becoming increasingly contentious on account of lost historical documents during Sierra Leone’s hitherto long running civil war(s).

However, Eustace Palmer (Georgia College & State University), another Sierra Leonean, points out some historical inaccuracies in Aminatta Forna’s “The Memory of Love.” His presentation titled “Defining the Sierra Leonean Writer: The case of Aminatta Forna” highlights the particular instance (amongst others) of her depiction of mass excitement about the American landing of a man on the moon as an exaggeration. Palmer recollects muted excitement (and perhaps some ambivalence) in Sierra Leone – being as he was resident in Salone at the time – about that great American scientific feat (not that there wasn’t an appreciation of the epoch). Palmer therefore wonders whether Forna’s distant (and sometimes inaccurate historical assertions) but highly regarded fictional depictions of Salone life qualifies her as a Sierra Leonean (and African) writer just because she was born to an indigenous father.

In her commentary, Joyce Dixon-Fyle (Depauw University) argues Forna’s increasing acclaim cannot be removed from her position of privilege. Western-trained, born of a Scottish mother, married to a European and working (residing) in western citadels of literary excellence, Forna’s vantage position gives her significant access to the Western literary intelligentsia and arguably contributes to her acclaim amongst western literary critics. However, there was a consensus (with Dixon-Fyle’s concurrence) on the very high quality of her work. Aminatta Forna writes excellently well.

So, who is an African writer? Arthur Onipede Hollist (University of Tampa) wondered if Palmer’s drift towards a definition that requires birth and a minimum formative existence (that extends to advanced education and some working life) may not be too restrictive; especially since most of Africa’s writers reside, work and teach outside of the continent. What about the non-African but very excellent and highly-regarded Writers of African literature? Would such a definition not exclude these significant contributors? Dixon-Fyle nonetheless thinks there is an indigenous flavour that inevitably eludes the well-researched “African” literary work by a non-African (including persons born to African parents but without any meaningful formative experiences in Africa).

The definition of the African Writer remains an open question therefore and a very important one.



“Ruins, Remainders, Residues: Sierra Leonean Literature and the (De)Formation of Archives”

40th Annual Conference of the African Literature Association
“Texts, Modes and Repertoires of Living in and Beyond the Shadows of Apartheid”
Venue: Wits Professional Hub, Room 314, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Time: 15:30-17:00 (18:00) Thursday, 10 April 2014


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