Thursday, December 17, 2009

Is Petina Gappah Ashamed of Being an African Writer?

In her first interview after winning the Guardian First Book Prize, Petina Gappah vehemently objected to her being labeled the voice of Zimbabwe. Rightly, so, one would say, for she is just a voice, a very confident one for that. She is a voice that, like others before her such as Yvonne Vera, Marechera, Tsitsi Dangarembga, addressed the human condition from a given position (at least for now), Zimbabwe. All literature is local.

Since her interview, various internet discussion groups have devoted considerable attention to what is perceived by some as a betrayal of her African roots. The title of her interview, “Petina Gappah: ‘I don't see myself as an African writer,” is provocative enough to make one ask whether she has contracted Michael Jackson’s “yellow” fever. Is it possible to create art that is not rooted in some place? Is she merely a copycat of her famous dead compatriot, Dambudzo Marechera?

Not so fast, friends. I think we are witnessing the birth of a robust thinker, a kind of Nietzschean philosopher with a hammer. Prove me wrong.

To start with, it is abundantly peculiar even to a troubling degree, that only African writers appear to be burdened with the seemingly annoying issue of identity, with the question of whether they are writers from, of, and for the continent. As one writer in my internet discussion group, coming to Gappah’s defense, said, you don’t ask water whether it is wet, do you? Yet, the writer rightly pointed out the tricky issue of identity. Thank God, identity is not as settled as the wetness of water.

It has to be born in mind that the issue of the African writer is fraught with contested meaning. If other writers from other continents do not face the same niggling problem–which I doubt–it might have to do with many factors one of which is that writing in Africa, literature as belles-lettres, has been closely associated with liberation struggle and the definition of self. Chinua Achebe gave this type of writing a definitive form not only with Things Fall Apart, but also, and indeed more robustly, his subsequent essays and interviews and interpretation of his own book. Thus, since the publication of that epochal book, African literature has largely been seen as a mode of writing-back, fighting the West’s misrepresentation of the African image. To be sure, Achebe cannot be identified with the Negritude movement, but his project is not far removed from Negritude’s redefinition of the maligned image of the African. The subtle different might lie in the Senghor’s lionization of the past and Africa’s perceived essence.

This century has witnessed a robust renaissance of the African literature, thanks in large part to Caine Prize. This rebirth boasts of such fine writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Abani, Sefi Atta, Brian Chikwava, Helon Habila, Chika Unigwe, and of course Petina Gappah. Reading their works, one discerns their allegiance to, or the influence of, what could be termed, for lack of proper terms, the Achebean and Soyinkan schools of thought. The Achebean school sees its role as primarily redefining the African. It does this among other things, by challenging the West’s “single story.” The Soyinkan, is of course different from the first in the sense that it appears to ignore the gaze of the white man, and explores the human condition as it is found in the African households, villages and towns. It does not even shy away from employing Western concepts and idioms to elucidate African native ideas. Doing so, simply telling normal stories of normal people, is understood as engaging in a deeply universal exercise.

Among the new crop of African writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie unapologetically positions herself as the torchbearer of the Achebean tradition. This is evident in her writings and speeches, the most renowned of which is “The Danger of a Single Story.” Chris Abani and Sefi Atta appear, at least temperamentally, to have sided with Soyinka, caring little about the burden of meeting the gaze of the white man. Put Gappah in this group. She seems to be interested in just being, telling stories, indeed, confronting life rather than in defining herself.

When Petina Gappah says that she doesn’t see herself as an African writer, it is important to note that she never denied being African, or black. Nor does she contest her being Zimbabwean. She, I think, avoids being holed in a given, transcendental role of saving the African, or a perceived essence, by telling the authentic African story.

Perhaps one day the term “African writer’ will lose its Achebean stamp when it becomes obvious that writings from that continent will be read also for their aesthetic wealth and not for their apology. The day has actually arrived, and reading Petina Gappah’s short stories, you feel as aesthetically fulfilled and as morally confronted as you would ever be. Hopefully, her little controversy goes a long way to instruct interviewers and commentators of African literature that the question of who is an African writer is as redundant as the medieval problem of wanting to know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or to use a better example, setting up a symposium to determine whether Ian McEwan is European.

Chielo Zona Eze teaches Postcolonial African literature and theory at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago. He is the author of The Trial of Robert Mugabe

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