African short fiction comes in various forms: derivations of traditional tales, such as Jomo Kenyatta’s “The Gentlemen of the Jungle” and Martha Mvungi’s “Mwipenza the Killer”; narratives that are too compact to be novels, such as Alex La Guma’s “A Walk in the Night”; and short narratives or stories ranging from a few pages to approximately ten pages. This body of writing can be appropriately considered a literature of neglect or a literature in search of critics. Unlike African long fiction, which has established a robust dialogue between writers and critics, African short fiction has received little critical attention. F. Odun Balogun’s Tradition and Modernity in the African Short Story: An Introduction to a Literature in Search of Critics, published by Greenwood Press in 1991, is one of the only book- length studies on the subject. This anomaly cannot be attributed to a lack of production of short stories by Africans. While more of such stories could be published, African writers, both established ones and beginners, continue to express their conception of Africa through the short-story form. The neglect suffered by this genre can be partially attributed to its length, its brevity, which can easily lead to the misconception of a short story as an underdeveloped work in embryonic form, a stunted novel that has failed to reach fruition. Furthermore, most writers of short fiction have also turned their hands to writing longer fiction, thus making short-story writing appear as an apprenticeship, preparing one for a writing career in longer genres.
Nonetheless, short fiction defies narrow definition. It can claim the stature of other literary genres because it is endowed with the capacity, no matter how condensed, to illuminate the human condition by evoking a mood, state of mind, or condition, which can linger even after the narration itself has ended. It can bring about moments of epiphany, can depict one event or several closely related events, and has the capacity for great lyricism because, as a form, it compels scrupulous terseness. The compactness of the short-story form, its ability to promote greater artistic coherence than is possible with longer compositions, such as the novel, has made it a preferred vehicle for articulating many a human experience. In Africa, as in the West, most creative writers who have gained prominence working with other literary forms have also tried their hands at the short story with impressive results. These writers seem to have discovered in shorter fiction a form that best enables them to express what it means to be an African and a human being.
The African short story is extensive in the themes it covers, reflecting the problems of adjusting to life on a continent where the pace of change has been dizzying. Prominent among the themes of the African short story are critiques of colonialism, missionary activity, and religion (indigenous and foreign); the politics of independent Africa; the new ruling class; political and social...
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