African Short Fiction Analysis

Lusophone Africa

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Lusophone African writing is reputed to be the first to emerge in Africa. This primacy, coupled with the high esteem in which short fiction and poetry are regarded in Portuguese culture, has resulted in short fiction enjoying a long standing in Lusophone Africa, where the writer of the short story is regarded just as highly as the writer of longer fiction. Vasconsellos’s A Mentira Vital, Mozambican João Albasini’s O livro da dor: Cartas de amor (1925), and Angolan Castro Soromenho’s Nhari: O, Drama da gente negra (1938) are among the earliest published volumes of African short stories. However, almost all of these works are either out of print or difficult to access in the English-speaking world. In the island of Cape Verde, for example, short fiction has flowered in a manner in which longer fiction has not. Also, in Lusophone Africa, short- story anthologies have tended to be true short-story collections and not excerpts of longer fiction, as has been the case with some anthologies in Anglophone Africa. For instance, in the Antologia da ficcao Cabo-Verdiana contemmporanea (1960), edited by Baltasar Lopes and containing twenty-three entries covering works published between 1944 and 1959, as well as previously unpublished material, eighteen of the twenty-three entries are short stories (contos) and two are novellas (noveletas). Only three are excerpts from novels. In addition, writers who have been known to start their writing careers with longer fiction have later turned to short-story writing. In the case of the Angolan writer Oscar Ribas, who has published both long and short fiction, his various volumes of short fiction, beginning with Flores e espinhos (1948), started appearing twenty years after two longer works of fiction. Therefore, his reputation as a writer rests even more on his short-story collections.

The Mozambican Honwana is a Lusophone writer who is considered one of the foremost short-story writers of present-day Africa. His collection We Killed Mangy-Dog and Other Mozambique Stories is one of the few Lusophone collections that is available to English readers. In the collection is “We Killed Mangy- Dog” and six other stories, including the well-anthologized “Papa, Snake, and I” and “The Old Woman.” “Papa, Snake, and I” is anthologized in African Short Stories and Under African Skies, and “The Old Woman” can be found in Stories from Central and Southern Africa. Honwana’s collection is counted one of the best books of short stories. The title story and “Papa, Snake, and I,” both of which are narrated by Ginho, a black youth, are coming-of-age stories involving a killing—the killing of Mangy-Dog in the former and the killing of a snake in the latter. In both, the killing serves as a ritual initiation of the young black adolescent narrator into manhood. “We Killed Mangy-Dog” initiates Ginho into a world of conflict between love and friendship, on one hand, and violence and inhumanity on the other. In “Papa, Snake, and I,” the black youth is exposed both to racial oppression and to the subtle acts of resistance through which the oppressed reaffirm their constantly assaulted sense of humanity. Both stories, though contemporary narratives, rely on narrative techniques from the oral tradition through the interweaving of human and animal characters, with the animals endowed with human qualities. They are allegorical and lyrical, with the language bearing the stamp of simplicity of its youthful narrator.

“We Killed Mangy-Dog” is a story of failed leadership and callowness, a political allegory in which the plight of Mangy- Dog corresponds to the political and racial oppression as well as the outcast status of black people under Portuguese colonialism. The story focuses on a dozen young boys of various colors, whose schoolyard has become home to several dogs. One of the dogs, an old, feeble, sore-infested mutt, Mangy-Dog, who is despised by almost everybody except...

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Francophone Africa

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Unlike the Lusophone African stories discussed above, which merely insinuate the theme of colonialism, Francophone African short stories often tackle colonialism head-on. The attack on French colonialism often takes the form of an attack on religion, particularly Catholicism. In Cameroonian Rene Philombe’s “The True Martyr Is Me,” included in Larson’s Under African Skies and translated by Richard Bjornson, which was first published in Tales from Cameroon (1984), Christianity is exposed as an instrument for economic exploitation parading as a mechanism for spiritual salvation. In this story, African women, whose indigenous marriages are not recognized by the Catholic Church, are removed from their marital homes and kept for an indeterminate time at a secluded compound, the sixa, at the Catholic mission. The reason for keeping them at the sixa is ostensibly to give them moral and spiritual instruction to prepare them to receive the sacrament of marriage; however, it is evident that the exploitation of their labor is the real reason for their long seclusion. They are made to work in the fields owned by the Catholic mission. The song of the women as they work in the fields betrays their awareness of their plight. After Angoni, Edanga’s wife, for whom he has “paid the bride price in front of witnesses,” has been kept at the sixa for three years, forcing him to pine in celibacy, he becomes convinced the sixa is a slave camp and sets out to liberate his wife. In the process, he kills a Catholic priest who assaults him. After the priest announces that he is dying a martyr, Edanga is compelled to howl as he is being taken to the white commandant’s jail: “The true martyr is me! The true martyr is me. ”

Ba’bila Mutia, another Cameroonian writer who writes in English, valorizes indigenous African beliefs over Christianity. In “The Miracle,” published in Contemporary African Short Stories, Ba’mia, a fourteen-year-old cripple, born with a dead leg, is torn between his mother’s Catholic beliefs and his father’s belief that the son’s place is with his ancestors. In the end, however, Ba’mia comes to accept that he is the reincarnation of his paternal grandfather, and that his place is in the family shrine rather than the Catholic Church. Convinced that a meeting with the Pope will bring about the desired healing to render Ba’mia’s dead leg alive again, his mother takes him on a pilgrimage to meet the Pope. The encounter with the Pope fails to bring about the desired miracle. The story ends with Ba’mia handing to his mother a rosary that the Pope gave him and announcing that his place is with his ancestors. He is then ready to be initiated at the family shrine.

Senegalese writer Birago Diop’s “Sarzan,” in Larson’s Under African Skies, was first published in Les Contes d’Amadou Koumba (Tales of Amadou Koumba, 1947). This story, like most of Diop’s stories in the collection, taps the oral tradition of his Wolof people and explores the impact of the Islamic and French colonial experience. In “Sarzan,” African ways are shown to be enduring in spite of the assaults by both Islam and Christianity. Diop’s story advocates respect for ancestors and customary beliefs and an attention to the teachings of elders. The story is set in Dougouba, a place which, though at one time conquered by the Qur’anic Tukulor, at the time of the narration has regained its indigenous way of life. Dougouba “had long ago erased all traces of the Islamic hordes and returned to the teachings of the ancestors.”

“Sarzan” shows what happens to people who turn their backs on the wisdom of their ancestors and the teachings of their elders. Thiemokho Keita, or rather Sarzan, a corruption of the French word “sergent,” a son of Dougouba, returns from fighting for the French people filled with the white man’s ways and beliefs and a civilizing mission. Part of his civilizing mission is positive: He extends the paved road all the way to his hometown. However, he also shows gross disrespect for indigenous beliefs and customs. He not only dismisses the customs of his people as savage but also desecrates their ways by publicly assaulting practitioners of indigenous rituals. In the end, Sarzan goes mad. The story is told in a manner that brings out the beauty, soundness, and virtue in indigenous ways. The civilizing mission championed by Sarzan, on the other hand, is shown to be insensitive to and disrespectful of the people. “Sarzan” is told in highly lyrical language, which captures the sonority and beauty of the rituals...

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Anglophone Africa

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Most of the information available on African short fiction is from Anglophone Africa. The majority of stories in multiple-author anthologies as well as single-author collections are by Anglophone writers. Because of the constraints of space, this article will concentrate on a few writers who have gained international recognition and have their own collections of short stories, in addition to being anthologized in multiple-author collections. Writers from West Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa will be discussed in that order. Chinua Achebe, who is best known for his novel Things Fall Apart (1958), has earned himself the unofficial title of “father of African fiction.” His short-story collection Girls at...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Achebe, Chinua, and C. L. Innes, eds. African Short Stories. London: Heinemann, 1985.

Achebe, Chinua, and C. L. Innes, eds. Contemporary African Short Stories. London: Heinemann, 1992.

Balogun, F. Odun. Tradition and Modernity in the African Short Story: An Introduction to a Literature in Search of Critics. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991. Balogun seeks to bring a “neglected” body of work into the critical canon by appealing to a traditional set of standards.

Brunner, Charlotte, ed. Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa. London: Heinemann, 1983.

Denny, Neville, ed. Pan African Short Stories. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1965.

Feuser, Willfried. “Aspects of the Short Story.” In European Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by Albert Gerard. Budapest: Akadéémiai Kiadóó, 1986.

Gray, Stephen, ed. The Penguin Book of Southern African Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Horne, Naana Banyiwa. “Flora Nwapa’s This Is Lagos: Valorizing the Female Through Narrative Agency.” In Emerging Perspectives on Flora Nwapa: Critical and Theoretical Essays, edited by Marie Umeh. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1998. This article forms part of a collection of critical/theoretical essays by some thirty writers and critics, each examining a different aspect of Nwapa’s art.

Julien, Eileen. “Of Traditional Tales and Short Stories in African Literature.” Présence Africaine 125 (1983): 146-165.

Kitson, Norma, ed. Zimbabwe Women Writers Anthology. Harare, Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe Women Writers, 1994.

Komey, Ellis Ayitey, and Ezekiel Mphahlele, eds. Modern African Stories. London: Faber and Faber, 1964.

Larson, Charles R., ed. Under African Skies: Modern African Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Mutloatse, Mothobi, ed. Africa South: Contemporary Writings. London: Heinemann, 1981.

Scanlon, Paul A, ed. Stories from Central and Southern Africa. London: Heinemann, 1983.

Tsikang, Seageng, and Dinah Lefakane, eds. Women in South Africa: From the Heart. Johannesburg: Seriti sa Sechaba Publishers, 1988.