Pauline Dodgson Special Commissioned Essay on Modern African Literature Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Special Commissioned Essay on Modern African Literature Pauline Dodgson

This special entry, written by noted scholar Pauline Dodgson, presents an overview and analysis of modern African literature.

As the literature of a continent that includes many nation-states, languages, and ethnicities, modern African literature cannot be seen as a homogenous body of work. Historically, geographically, culturally, and linguistically, Africa is diverse, and its literature reflects that diversity. Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, writing only of Africa south of the Sahara, referred to it as “still a very large continent, populated by myriad races and cultures.” (Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World [Cambridge University Press/canto, 1990] p. 97.)

African literature has a long history, but most pre-twentieth-century works were part of the oral tradition and were not taken down in writing. Some African languages have literary traditions dating from the late nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth century, for example the Hausa and Yoruba languages of Nigeria and the Sotho and Zulu languages of Southern Africa. Swahili and Amharic are the oldest written African literatures, dating back to the seventeenth century. Swahili is a language developed along the Eastern trading coast, and it is the lingua franca of East Africa. Amharic is spoken in Ethiopia.

Other African languages have developed literatures from the early to mid-twentieth century, in some cases through the sponsorship of colonial or government literature bureaus that were given the task of encouraging writing in local languages. The Rhodesia Literature Bureau, renamed the Zimbabwe Literature Bureau after independence, is an example of this. Much early writing in African languages was published by mission presses and included translations of the Bible and other religious, moral, or historical works. Writing in African languages is mainly for a local market, and writers who write only in an African language are usually not known outside their region.

African writing in European languages is generally considered to date from the nineteenth or twentieth century, although there is some writing by Africans before the nineteenth century, for example the Nigerian Olaudah Equiano's autobiography, commonly known as Equiano's Travels (1789), which recounts his experiences of European slavery, and the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, an African slave working in Boston in the eighteenth century whose collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773.

Modern African literature in English, French, and Portuguese—the languages of the main colonizing powers in Africa—develops from the 1940s and 1950s. Literature in English is the largest field, and there is only a small body of work in Portuguese.