Postcolonial African Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Postcolonial African Literature


Postcolonial African Literature

African literature written in the postcolonial era by authors of African descent.

Postcolonialism in Africa refers in general to the era between 1960 and 1970, during which time many African nations gained political independence from their colonial rulers. Many authors writing during this time, and even during colonial times, saw themselves as both artists and political activists, and their works reflected their concerns regarding the political and social conditions of their countries. As nation after nation gained independence from their colonial rulers, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, a sense of euphoria swept through Africa as each country celebrated its independence from years of political and cultural domination. Much of early postcolonial writing reflects this sense of freedom and hope. In the years that followed, as many African nations struggled to reinvigorate long-subservient societies and culture, writers of postcolonial Africa began reflecting the horrors their countries suffered following decolonization, and their writing is often imbued with a sense of despair and anger, at both the state of their nations and the leaders who replaced former colonial oppressors. Critics, including Neil Lazarus, have proposed that this sense of disillusionment, reflected in the works of such authors as Ayi Kwei Armah, marked the beginning of a major change in African intellectual and literary development. Beginning in the 1970s, writes Lazarus, the direction of African fiction began to change, with writers forging new forms of expression reflecting more clearly their own thoughts about culture and politics in their works. The writing of this period and later moves away from the subject matter of postcolonial Africa, and moves into the realm of new and realistic texts that reflect the concerns of their respective nations.

Postcolonial studies gained popularity in England during the 1960s with the establishment of Commonwealth literature—in the United States, this phenomenon did not reach its zenith until the 1990s. Because postcolonial writers are studied by and read most often by Western audiences, their works are often seen as being representative of the Third World and studied as much for the anthropological information they provide as they are as works of fiction. This, notes Bart Moore-Gilbert in his Postcolonial Theory, has led to the creation of a criticism that is unique in its set of reading practices, which are “preoccupied principally with analysis of cultural forms which mediate, challenge, or reflect upon … relations of domination and subordination.” In his study of postcolonial African fiction, Graham Huggan also comments on this phenomenon, theorizing that western critics need to make an increased effort to expand their interpretive universe in order to study African texts as fiction, rather than as windows into the cultures they represent. This difficulty is further compounded by the fact that many indigenous African authors in the postcolonial era and beyond remain un-translated, and are thus unavailable to western critics. In the meantime, the canon of translated or European-language works that are available, although but a minor part of African literature in general, have come to define postcolonial literature and its critical response.

African writers are themselves very conscious of this gap between texts that are accessible to the West and those that remain in Africa. In fact, the language issue became a central concern with many African writers in the years following decolonization, and some, including Ngugi wa Thiong'o, have chosen in the years following independence to reject English and other European languages in favor of native African writing. Ngugi and his supporters were opposed by several African writers, including Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and others, who challenged the usefulness of such a stance. In contrast, Ngugi theorized that by writing in English or French and other European languages, African authors are continuing to enrich those cultures at the expense of their own. Writers who support African-language literature are also concerned that European languages are unable to express the complexity of African experience and culture in those languages, along with the fact that they exclude a majority of Africans, who are unable to read in these languages, from access to their own literary success. In contrast, critics such as Jeannine DeLombard have pointed out that while African-language literature is popular with indigenous African populations, such writing tends to be formulaic and stereotypical. While the language debate continues, many authors, including playwright Penina Muhando Mlama, Ngugi, and several others, have expanded their literary horizons by collaborating with everyday African people to produce writing that is popular in both origin and destination.

Representative Works

Chinua Achebe
Things Fall Apart (novel) 1958
A Man of the People (novel) 1966
The Trouble with Nigeria (essays) 1983
Anthills of the Savannah (novel) 1987

Ayi Kwei Armah
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (novel) 1968
Fragments (novel) 1970
Why Are We So Blest? (novel) 1972
Two Thousand Seasons (novel) 1973
The Healers (novel) 1978

Amilcar Cabral
Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amil Cabral (speeches) 1973

J.M. Coetzee
Foe (novel) 1987

William Conton
The African (novel) 1960

Frantz Fanon
L'An V de la revolution algerienne [A Dying Colonialism] (essays) 1959
Les Damnes de la terre [The Wretched of the Earth] (essays) 1961
Pour la revolution africaine: Ecrits politiques [Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays] (essays) 1964

Amadou Hampaté Bâ
L'étrange destin de Wangrin (novel) 1973
Amkoullel (novel) 1991

Bessie Head
When Rain Clouds Gather (novel) 1969
The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (short stories) 1977

Penina Muhando Mlama
Culture and Development: The Popular Theatre Approach in Africa (essays) 1991

Kole Omotoso
The Combat (novel) 1972

Yambo Ouologuem
Le Devoir de violence [Bound to Violence] (novel) 1968

Sembene Ousmane
Les Bouts de bois de Dieu [God's Bits of Wood] (novel) 1960
Xala (novel) 1973

Okot p'Bitek
Lak tar miyo kinyero wi lobo? [White Teeth] (novel) 1953
Song of Lawino: A Lament (poetry) 1966

Leïla Sebbar
Le Chinois vert d'Afrique (novel) 1984
Les Carnets de Shérazade (novel) 1985

Wole Soyinka
The Interpreters (novel) 1965
Myth, Literature and the African World (essays) 1976

Amos Tutuola
The Brave African Huntress (novel) 1958

Ngugi wa Thiong'o
A Grain of Wheat (novel) 1967
Petals of Blood (novel) 1977
Caitani Mutharaba-ini [Devil on the Cross] (novel) 1980
Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (memoir) 1981
Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (essays) 1986

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Neil Lazarus (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Lazarus, Neil. “Great Expectations and the Mourning After: Decolonization and African Intellectuals.” In Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction, pp. 1-26. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Lazarus outlines the political, social, and cultural circumstances surrounding the development of postcolonial African literature, focusing on the struggle by African writers to establish a new mode of writing based on the changed postcolonial and post-independence conditions in their various nations.]

On March 6, 1957, Ghana gained its independence from Britain, becoming the first sub-Saharan African colony to do so. Over 100,000...

(The entire section is 16018 words.)

Graham Huggan (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Huggan, Graham. “African Literature and the Anthropological Exotic.” In The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, pp. 34-57. London, England: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following essay, Huggan presents a critical examination of the processes by which value is attached to postcolonial works, specifically exploring the link between ethnographic interpretations of African literature and the role Africa itself has played in being a source of marketable cultural uniqueness for Western audiences.]

This chapter begins with the deceptively simple question: what is African literature? The question immediately begs another: African literature from which...

(The entire section is 12763 words.)

Criticism: Ideology And Theory

Nicholas Visser (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Visser, Nicholas. “Postcoloniality of a Special Type: Theory and Its Appropriations in South Africa.” Yearbook of English Studies: The Politics of Postcolonial Criticism 27 (1997): 79-94.

[In the following essay, Visser expounds on the development of postcolonial theories in South Africa in response to the abolition of apartheid, comparing current trends in postcolonial theory to a previously articulated theory called “Colonialism of a Special Type” (CST) and cautions against adopting a theory of definition that would in effect repeat the shortcomings of CST, thus limiting a true revitalization of South African literary and cultural practices.]


(The entire section is 7970 words.)

Laura Moss (essay date autumn 2000)

SOURCE: Moss, Laura. “‘The Plague of Normality’: Reconfiguring Realism in Postcolonial Theory.” Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies 5, no. 1 (autumn 2000): available at (

[In the following essay, Moss argues that despite widespread critical expectations that realistic novels tend to reinforce conservative ideology and that thus, they are not a suitable format for resistance narratives, the realistic format in novel-writing is a feasible form of social and political interaction in a postcolonial context.]

In his exploration of contemporary realism Dennis Walder exclaims that “despite recent attempts to...

(The entire section is 6676 words.)

Criticism: Postcolonial Testimonial Literature

Neil Lazarus (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Lazarus, Neil. “After the Break: Trends in Radical African Literature since 1970.” In Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction, pp. 185-234. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Lazarus suggests that the 1970s witnessed a collapse of the intellectual infrastructure within which much African writing was composed, creating a crisis in the intellectual community in Africa. This conflict, which Lazarus explains in the context of Ayi Kweh Armah's work, has led many African authors, writes Lazarus to re-examine their novelistic horizons by moving away from the seminal moments of past history, such as independence, and to focus increasingly on...

(The entire section is 25640 words.)

Jeannine DeLombard (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: DeLombard, Jeannine. English Postcoloniality: Literatures from Around the World, Radhika Mohanram and Gita Rajan, pp. 63-76. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, DeLombard uses the writing and critical career of Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o as a representative example of postcoloniality and its relationship to the development of East African literature.]

Addressing the topic of postcoloniality and its relationship to East African literature, one immediately faces a dilemma. Such a discussion must acknowledge in some depth the work of Ngugi wa Thiong'o—East Africa's most celebrated author and one of the continent's most outspoken...

(The entire section is 6295 words.)

Criticism: Major Authors

Neil Lazarus (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Lazarus, Neil. “From Frantz Fanon to Ayi Kwei Armah: Messianism and the Representation of Postcolonialism.” In Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction, pp. 27-45. Westport, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Lazarus draws connections between the thought and writing of Frantz Fanon and Ayi Kwei Armah, focusing on Armah's first three novels.]

Ayi Kwei Armah's first three novels—The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), Fragments (1970), and Why Are We So Blest? (1972)—are all set in postcolonial Africa. Any attempt to delineate the conceptual horizon of these three novels must take the work of Frantz...

(The entire section is 9094 words.)

Marni Gauthier (essay date June 1997)

SOURCE: Gauthier, Marni. “The Intersection of the Postmodern and the Postcolonial in J. M. Coetzee's Foe.English Language Notes 34, no. 4 (June 1997): 52-71.

[In the following essay, Gauthier studies the way in which Coetzee's novel Foe views history, including its interpretation of colonial discourse and postcolonial stances.]

The relationship between the postmodern and the postcolonial has been viewed, at best, a tenuous one. In a recent interview with J. M. Coetzee in Contemporary Literature the interviewer questioned Coetzee as to his opinion about the relationship between the two, and was answered with what he called the “trivial”...

(The entire section is 7223 words.)

Ralph A. Austen (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Austen, Ralph A. “Amadou Hampaté Bâ: From a Colonial to a Postcolonial African Coice: Amkoullel, l'enfant peul.1Research in African Literatures 31, no. 3 (fall 2000): 1-12.

[In the following essay, Austen explains that Bâ stands out among his African contemporaries because he is one of the only authors who has lived the colonial experience and reproduced it in his works, and thus his works provide an insight into how African scholars and writers have found their voice, both as participants and recorders of the colonial experience as creators of their own tradition, in the postcolonial era.]

In our broad use of the term...

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Anne Donadey (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Donadey, Anne. “The ‘Algeria Syndrome’.” In Recasting Postcolonialism: Women Writing Between Worlds, pp. 19-42. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2001.

[In the following essay, Donadey theorizes that the Algerian War is a central theme in most of Sebbar's works, and that although many of the characters in her Sherazade trilogy are unfamiliar with the war, it affects their lives and existence in numerous ways.]

What is buried in the past of one generation falls to the next to claim.

—Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones 179

Leïla Sebbar, born and raised in Algeria by an Algerian...

(The entire section is 10522 words.)

Further Reading


Booker, M Keith. “African Literature and the World System: Dystopian Fiction, Collective Experience, and the Postcolonial Condition.” Research in African Literatures 26, no. 4 (winter 1995): 58-75.

Discusses the differences between Western and African dystopian visions, focusing on the difficulties faced by African authors who are attempting to create cultural identities while trying to escape the dominance of bourgeois ideology.

Ingersoll, Earl G. “Reconstructing Masculinity in the Postcolonial World of Bessie Head.” Ariel 29, no. 3 (July 1998): 95-116.

Proposes that Bessie Head's writing reflected...

(The entire section is 365 words.)