What are some arguments for and against the concept of African Literature?
There is a movement among literary historians and scholars to popularize the term “African literature,” presumably on the precedent/paradigm of European literature. This term would promote comparisons among the literature of South African, Mediterranean, subSaharan countries, etc., in the same way that European literatures are compared and are treated as a group when compared to, for example, Latin American literature. More importantly, the term “African literature” invites scholarship that finds distinct features among all literature from the continent to compare and contrast to other literatures. Several historical truths impede the comparison to the term “European literature”:
First of all, the European countries share their language and cultural origins with the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, which spread their influence fairly evenly across the geographical “Europe” before it was divided into “countries.”
Second, despite the various invasions by Northern tribes, Europe was never “colonized” the way Africa was, by several cultures (English, Dutch, Portuguese, etc.), and looted for its natural resources.
Thirdly, pre-European African cultures did not support literary art (except oral traditions), so that there is little or no linguistic history or African language history to apply to present-day literary output. Also, the various languages were not always translatable.
Having said that, however, there are many thematic social similarities the African countries share, not the least among them colonialism itself, as well as slavery, and the environmental hardships—desert, jungle, coastline, etc.—and the very origins of life, and the relatively late entry into the mechanized world. Perhaps these themes could unite the literatures of all African countries into something called “African literature” (perhaps supplanting the term “colonial literature”). Today’s writers, African, European, Latin American, American, etc., are no longer necessarily identified by their countries, unless they thematically tie themselves to a country’s history or culture (Yeats will always be identified as an “Irish writer” not because of his linguistic choices but because of his settings and themes; Samuel Beckett, equally Irish, did not use much of his Irish background in his writing, and in fact lived in France most of his literary life, but is not identified primarily as either a French or an Irish author; he is, however, a European writer.) But he is definitely a European writer.