“African literature is a question…an open question that invites…” | A Review of “The African Literary Hustle” (New Orleans Review, Issue 43, 2017) by Nancy Henaku

Last summer, the New Orleans Review, a journal of contemporary literature and culture housed in the Department of English at Loyola University, published their recent issue titled “The African Literary Hustle.” The journal, which has featured several writers including Pablo Neruda, Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Olen Butler, is entering its fiftieth year in 2018 and “the African Literary Hustle” is a celebration of their last printed volume as they move completely digital. The publication of “The African Literary Hustle” at this pivotal moment in the history of the journal is both symbolically and practically significant. Just as the New Orleans Review, African literature finds itself in this liminal space between the past and future and is at this present moment, recreating itself in a manner that requires us to engage with it in more dynamic ways. The symbolic significance of the collection is reinforced by the cover of the collection which features a figure that is neither human nor non-human. Through this cyborg figure, the collection envisions African literature beyond the human (or real) and opens space for speculation about its future. From a practical perspective, the volume provides a rare opportunity to center African writing which, despite the current emphasis on world literature, continues to be highly marginalized and marketed through the prism of the “anthropological exotic” (see Huggan, 2001). The issue itself is ambitious and critical, raising significant questions about the “hustle” of African writing (and writers) as well as the nature and reception of African literature. This volume is undoubtedly a physical manifestation of what Ngugi and Murphy, in their introduction to the collection, describe as African literature: that is, “an open question that invites, and has to keep inviting, different geographies, languages and forms” (4).

The anthology is huge. With four hundred and forty-two (442) pages, it reflects the diversity of African writers and literature. It features thirty-four (34) emerging and established writers from different African backgrounds. The varied background of the writers suggests a vision of an African identity, and in essence an African literary tradition, that is vast and fluid, expanding beyond the continent to include African diasporic communities and the many spaces in-between. The author profiles – and the content of the writings – suggests that African literature is as much about “writing the world from Africa” as it is about “writing Africa into the world” (Mbembe and Nuttall, 2004). But the collection itself weaves an interesting narrative about the current state of African literature. Unsurprisingly, the collection is skewed in favor of Nigeria that has thirteen (13) writers represented. The country with the second highest representation is South Africa which has four writers represented. Countries like Ghana that have not made as much influence in the literary scene recently have only one writer represented. More strikingly, the collection features only two writers from North Africa, represented by the Sudanese writers Safia Elhillo and Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin. This cursory survey somehow points to the constraints of creating a more inclusive African literary collection. And in the case of the fewer representation of North Africa, which is mainly a French/Arabic territory, language may have been a significant factor. The editors are not oblivious to the politics of language in African literature and engage with the issue through the publication of both the originals and translations of stories such as A. Samwel’s “Malaika” (translated by Koenings) and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire’s “Susu” (translated by the author) – a move that simultaneously alienates and invites readers while opening up a space for comparative reading and appreciation.

“The African Literary Hustle” presents an eclectic mix of literary genres: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, speculative fiction but many – if not all – of the texts are intentionally experimental, defying easy categorizations. For instance, though D.M. Aderibigbe’s “Someday we will be beautiful” is written in poetic verse and is condensed, the text also employs elements of drama such as dialogue, stage directions, prologue, acts and scenes. Bernard Farai Matambo’s “Cinema Verite: Scenes from the City” tells the story of the protagonist in the form of a
PechaKucha, a Japanese public speaking genre that also emphasizes the use of images presented in the form of PowerPoint. The result is a combination of features of the oral, visual and written modes. This technique creates a kind of presentation-like narrative that aligns with the effects of distanciation and immediacy enabled by the second person narration. In terms of content, significant comparisons can be drawn between “The African Literary Hustle” and other recently published African literature collections. The ones worth mentioning include Ivor
Agyeman-Duah’s edited collection The God Who Sends Us Gifts: An Anthology of African Short Stories and Saraba’s “Transition” issue which was published in October this year. The God Who Sends Us Gifts, which will be released in January 2018, commemorates the 55th anniversary of the first conference on African Writing held in 1962 at Makerere University College. Unlike “the African Literary Hustle”, The God Who Sends Us Gifts seems to prioritize the short story form. Saraba tends to publish an ecclectic mix of genres often based on a theme and this is reflected in the “Transitions” issue. Interestingly, while “The African Literary Hustle” was published as New Orleans Review moves digital, Saraba has been publishing online and it was just this year that its first printed version, the “Transitions” issue, was published.

Besides its varied content, “the African Literary Hustle” also transgresses the restrictive expectations of the African literary canon in its older (represented by Achebe, Ngugi, etc.) and newer (represented by Adichie, Bulawayo, etc.) manifestations and as Ngugi and Murphy rightly indicate, “they have left African literary criticism behind” (2). The entries interrogate the logic of realism that, as Andrade (2008) suggests, has become the definitive critical approach to African literature. For instance, Unathi Slasha’s “The Unlanguaged World: Reflections on Contemporary South African Fiction” draws attention to the limitation of the logic of rationality and linearity that underlies the realistic mode of writing literature. He emphasizes the uncanniness of life in (South) Africa and the ways in which this blurs the distinctions between the real and the unreal. Unathi’s work suggests that the uncanny is not an exception in Africa. It is not a defamiliarizing literary mode. It is, in fact, an everyday reality. Ngugi’s “Publisher’s Deposition: The Famished Dick and the Wicked of the Earth” is simultaneously aware and wary of the African literary canon. This is evident in the following excerpt from the text where the author’s attitude to the canon seems more obvious.

Let me try and make sense here. I am not who I thus far seem to be. You see this book from afar, its glossy cover beckoning you, or perhaps you have heard about it from a friend and you think it is published by a house with a good reputation like Heinemann, or perhaps by a radical house like Kimaathi Publishing. These are two publishing houses where this book would have found a good home. You might think that if you wrote a good novel or biography, you would send it to the publisher of The Broken Lives of Joseph Kamau. Depending on who you are, there is a good chance our relationship begins and ends with this book. Allow me to tell you why.

Does the name Sunny Side Up Publishing mean anything to you? How about the following titles from the “AFRICAN SERIAL LOVER CLASSICS?”
The Famished Dick
Maps: Tracing Your Lover’s Body
Redemption Thong
Stirring Love in an African Pot
Things Fall Inside
No Longer with Ease: Viagra and Old Age in Africa Petals of Honey
The Honey Between
The Beautiful Ones are not Yet Born: Let’s Get It On
Nervous Conditions: Fifty Ways to Get It On for the First Time

The biting irony, sarcasm and playful intertextuality of the excerpt above produces an iconoclastic tone that sheds off every romantic idea the reader may have about the African literary canon and brings to the fore the politics and economics of the “hustle” of publishing in Africa. Central in this excerpt are the sexual innuendos that unapologetically cast slurs at “what African literary critics call High Literature” (427). Written as a paratext – a publisher’s introductory preface to a novel – “The Famished Dick” on the whole makes a joke of the distinctions we make between fiction and nonfiction.

The entries are not anthropological narratives of African lives and cultures. This does not mean that the texts have no socio-political significance. In fact, the collection’s emphasis on the African literary hustle is itself a very political decision. However, the writings in the collection are not political in the same sense as Things Fall Apart was political. They invite readers to give as much attention to aesthetics as they give to themes. And if you are looking for the usual themes, the ones that have become the defining characteristics of postcolonial Africa – war, corruption, coups d’état – you won’t find them in this collection and when you think you have found one, you should be prepared for some surprises. For instance, when we encounter the protagonist of Obi Calvin Umeozor’s “The Marvel in the Storm”, he is a man who seems to have all the characteristics of a greedy politician – he cheats on his wife, fights in public and embezzles public funds. Yet readers are surprised by the situational irony at the end of the narrative that enables us to see this politician not just as a caricature but as one with the capacity to feel love and regret. And like the protagonist’s son, the reader comes out of the reading almost forgiving the protagonist’s misdemeanors.

As indicated earlier, “hustling” is the dominant motif in the collection. It manifests itself in myriad ways, viz the hustle of language, the hustle of living, the hustle of writing and reading. Consider Novisi Dzitrie’s poem “Getting Down to Business” which explores the hustle of writing through its succinct description of the labor and ritual of writing. The poem is as much about the struggle to make meaning, to express the unknown as it is about “the way the mind conducts business”, which finds expression in the constant shifts in the persona’s consciousness: from the weather, to the writing, to the food, to the news portal, back to the writing and finally to “the fury of your [a lover’s] bouncing bottom” (292). Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire’s “Susu” is about the hustle of living in an African city. The story centers on the frustrations of a protagonist in search of an appropriate place to urinate in a city that has limited public toilet facilities. Politics is important in this story too and is reflected in the commentaries on the annoyances of mobility in the African cityscape, the state of public toilets and the general political condition. But what we don’t have is some moralizing authorial voice intent on diagnosing the problems of a failed state.

The entries are as much about the hustle of living in Africa, as they are about the hustle of living in a precarious world. This is evident in Salawu Oladjide’s “Remembering Bouazzizi”, Stephen Derwent Partington’s “I am offered a Praline while Syria is Bombed” and Adefolami Ademola’s “No Dancing in Syria.” But writing about the hustles of the world also calls for an engagement with worldly aesthetics. This is obvious in the hybridity of stories such as Iheoma Nwachukwu’s “Sirrin Mata” and Olufunke Ogundimu “The Armed Letter Writers” that capture the cadence of African speech via English. It is in the jazzy flavor in Makambo Tshionyi’s “Slo Girl, Jazzy, and Me” as well as the bluesy undertones (intermixed with humor) and the intertextual reference to Odetta in Tsitsi Jaji’s “Blue Note”. It is in the hustle of communicating with “an other” without sharing a common language in Akin Adesokan’s “A Chair Named Stalin”. And it is in the otherworldliness of Dilman Dila’s “The Taking of Oleng” and Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti’s “It just kills you Inside”. As the examples indicates, the aesthetics of the entries are as varied as their subjects but most importantly, the aesthetics of each text aligns with its subject. Consider the following excerpts from Makambo Tshionyi’s “Slo Girl, Jazzy, and Me” for instance:

The first time I come to know what I know about him, I feels like I’m swimmin’ on the quiet side of the never before. I wriggles my toes, struggles to get free. But there he be: starin’ at me proper; a wolf’s grin pinned to his ears. I feels then that I looks like I knows somethin’ that maybe I shouldn’t. Because I seen the Man and the Man seen me. He whistles sharp into the dark, and his words drift down like dust, an’ I can’t do nothin’ but listen. His mouth comes to full circle and he grins. My knees buckle easy into the quiet. I feels stone in my legs, drift weight in my calves. You hear him, I ask Jazzy an’ Slo Girl? Singin’ up our supper? Uh course we does—they reply—Uh course we does… (155-156)

Besides being characterized by linguistic features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), the rhythm of the narrative adds a musical feel to the prose which effectively aligns with the centrality of music in the text. Moreover, the text’s delicious descriptions engage with the reader’s senses in significant ways. The brief excerpt above, for instance, appeals to the reader’s tactile, kinesthetic, visual and auditory senses and allows the reader to vicariously experience the sensual pleasures that the characters (that is Jazzy, Slo Girl and the narrator) seems to be experiencing in the excerpt.

These works are universal. They confound temporal, historical and geographical boundaries. They invite us to engage with them for the mere fact that they say something beautiful and insightful about being in the world whether as humans, non-humans or hybrids. They teach us to reimagine African literature beyond the real. They show us that African literature is like the cyborgian figure on the cover of the issue, with its eyes both intense and intimate, challenging as well as inviting us — writer and reader alike — to reassess our engagements with African literature. The collection tells us that African literature is not homogenous. It is a question, an open-ended question — the kind that confounds and defies straightforward answers. And it is a hustle for both writer and reader.

Ngugi, Mukoma wa and Murphy, Laura T. (2017). The African Literary Hustle. New Orleans
Review, 43.

Andrade, Susan Z. (2009). The problem of realism and African fiction. Novel, 42(2), 183-189.

Huggan, Graham (2001). The Post-colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. New York:

Mbembé, J. A., & Nuttall, S. (2004). Writing the world from an African metropolis. Public
culture, 16(3), 347-372.

Nancy Henaku (PhD Candidate /Graduate Teaching Instructor Rhetoric, Theory and Culture, Michigan Technological University)

This book review was published in Africa Book Link, Winter 2017-2018, December 2017.