Uncovering the full story of African literature – Fellows’ seminar by Ashleigh Harris

22 March 2022

Africa is facing a paradoxical situation – on the one hand it is enjoying an upsurge or renaissance of African literature to critical acclaim on the global stage while at the same time there is an overall decline of the published novel across the continent. But is this, as some publishers would assert, because Africans don’t read or African language literature doesn’t sell or is it because people are resorting to other means of publishing and of literary expression that aren’t being captured and catalogued in official data? And if those means exist and are being produced and read, how do we access and study them?

These are some of the issues that STIAS fellow Ashleigh Harris of the Department of English at Uppsala University, Sweden, is tackling.

STIAS Fellow Ashleigh Harris during her seminar on 17 March 2022

“I have some concerns about the kind of African literature that enjoys high visibility globally as well as the way it’s marketed. It’s starting to become homogenised. It’s all in English or French and the way in which it is written is often specifically directed to non-African audiences – it’s a story about Africa but directed elsewhere.”

“This is impacting on the discipline. Hundreds of articles and PhDs lead to a glut in scholarship about one or two globally high-profile writers. Most scholarship is from outside the continent on writers also living in the diaspora.”

“Of course, we should celebrate the acclaim of this fiction, but this is not where the bulk of African literary production lies – the bulk is in Africa.” And it’s this bulk that Harris hopes to catalogue.

“The publishing industry is stretched in Africa. It’s just keeping its head above water,” she said. “Colonial legacies of publishing mean that colonial languages still dominate the book trade and publishing houses are largely owned by large multinational corporations that impose western stylistic and aesthetic standards.”

She pointed out that Africa comprises only 3% of the global book trade. South Africa has one of the largest publishing industries in Africa but the top 1000 titles sold in 2020 only resulted in total sales of only 280 500, not a lot in a country of nearly 60 million people. Of these 687 were in Afrikaans, 319 in English and 2 in Zulu – no other indigenous languages were represented.

Looking specifically at South African fiction sales in 2020 – 68% were in Afrikaans and 32% in English and 0,2% in Zulu – almost the exact inverse of the languages people speak in the country estimated at 7.2 million Afrikaans speakers, 4.8 million English speakers and 45.6 million speakers of all other official languages. The bestselling author in South Africa is crime writer Deon Meyer – his book Donkerdrif sold 30 000 copies in 2020. The next highest at 10 500 is romance novelist Dudu Busani-Dube who self-publishes after starting her writing career on FaceBook.

Harris believes though that this is only part of the story and that the problem lies in the lack of accurate data on informal literature. She pointed out that the data (from Nielsen book scan) are based on International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) which assume equivalence between nationality and language – so, for example, they code all South African books as English. “ISBNs don’t work in a colonial context,” she said. And many authors who self-publish don’t even bother to use them.

Also, due to high costs, the printed book is on the decline across the continent and the almost universal roll-out of mobile-phone access “has transferred most people’s reading from paper to screen”.

Okada Books a Nigerian, online, no-cost, self-publishing site using mobile phones boasts 27 000 books, 8000 authors and a readership of 445 000 while FunDza Literary Trust in South Africa has nearly 2000 authors and 3.5 million site visitors.

“African literature is there,” she said, “and people are engaging.”

Taking to the streets

African cities have also always been rich sites for alternative literary forms.

“While alternative literary cultures and forms (including street performances, community plays, zines, twitterature, instafiction, spoken word, recorded storytelling, comics, self-published books, and flash fiction) thrive across Africa, they are largely invisible above the street-level at which they circulate,” explained Harris. “Africa is a leader in this because for many writers and performers on the continent it’s the only way available.”

Harris reported on the four-year African Street Literature Project undertaken by herself and her co-investigator, Nicklas Hållén, which looked at these forms of literary expression in four cities – Nairobi, Harare, Johannesburg and Lagos. In that project, a student researcher Jasmine Mattey compiled a dataset based on 420 sites and uncovered a rich treasure trove of spoken word, slam poetry, theatre and comics many of which are only circulated on social media. These forms are commonplace in African cities and yet largely unarchived because of the challenges this informal material presents to archivists and scholars.

Performance literature is also extremely popular. Using the poet Koleka Putuma and her poem Water as one example, Harris pointed out that one version of the poem shared via YouTube resulted in 39 000 views.

“So there is an audience. But if you don’t know the poet’s name, how do you find her?” she asked. “Of course, there is lots of information on social media sites but the metadata is owned by big conglomerates and they don’t necessarily want us to have it.”

These are some of the challenges that Harris hopes her project proposal to the European Research Council will start to address. The African Literature Metadata Project will study the history of categorising metadata on the continent; create a multilingual metadata scheme for informal and ephemeral African literature; and, establish an open metadata repository that enables searchability and ground-up data capture.

“The project is at the intersection between book history, library science and literary studies,” she explained. “I hope it can pave a way forward for future literary archives that include non-book forms. We will move into a digital blackout in African literature if we don’t address this.”

“We need to move away from the book only as the unit around which global publication is organised,” she added. “There are more exciting materials on the ground.”

She believes the project would also contribute to the field of literary studies. “African literature has always resisted the gatekeeping of the publishing process and, as such, informal literatures in Africa have a long history. This has meant that scholars have had to patch together archives of historical ephemeral literatures, which are most often woefully incomplete. The African Literature Metadata Project aims to address this issue as these writings and performances are created, leading to much more substantial coverage of informal literatures.”

“The project is also about addressing the hyper-visibility of just one form in literature studies,” she said. “This creates a situation in which African literature is globally constituted as a body of English or French novels, written, published and largely read outside the continent. Many of these books are not relevant on the continent because they are not being read there, but at the same time there is a substantial body of work that has local audiences but is not circulated more broadly and, most importantly for scholarship, is not catalogued.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

Share this post:

Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Subscribe to posts like these:

STIAS is a creative space for the mind.