Selasi Warns Against Clumping African Culture
Published: Thursday, October 10, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 10, 2013 01:10
Drawing on her own experiences as an author and years of history, Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go, described the categorization of literature in her lecture on Wednesday, entitled “African Literature Doesn’t Exist.” Selasi, who was born in London, of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, and raised in Massachusetts, argued that literature should exist without being classified by the author.
“The classification of writing and writers is never as benign as it seems,” Selasi said. “To call me an African novelist constricts me and my characters.”
The presentation was one of a series organized by the African and African Diaspora Studies department called New Directions in African Diaspora Studies. Selasi is a rising author, with Ghana Must Go as her debut novel. She was named to Granta’s prestigious list of Best Young British Novelists in 2013. She is also the author of The Sex Lives of African Girls and Bye-Bye, Babar.
Selasi discussed the lumping of literature into “African,” which does not take into account the diversity of the continent, comparing it to the ways in which European or Asian authors are treated. According to Selasi, Africa is often treated as a single identity, while other countries of the world are treated as individual nations with very diverse cultures.
“Why do we do this?” Selasi asked. “Of all the earth’s landscapes, Africa might be religiously, ethnically, and linguistically the most diverse.”
Selasi described the literary classification of “African novelists” as a category in which she is often placed, but she does not believe it should exist in such simplicity.
“The only way to define African literature is to overlook these complexities, which is the problem,” Selasi said. “I’ve never heard of anyone from Switzerland or Sweden be put on a panel of ‘European writers.’”
Selasi’s 2013 novel, Ghana Must Go, tells the story of a family of Ghanaian descent. She discussed one of the characters from the novel, Kweku, and his desire to “unhook” his own personal experience from the experience of “Africa” and to have his own identity as a human.
“I couldn’t agree with him more. The challenge of African writers is the same as Kweku’s,” Selasi said.
Selasi described how she often hears people refer to “Africa” as an entire entity, and reflected on how the usage of the word as such reinforces the idea that the entire continent is to be treated as such.
“Of all the continents, Africa is the least eligible for generalizations, and yet not a week goes by when I don’t hear someone talk of ‘Africa.’ I wonder, what is your ‘Africa?’ The singular ‘Africa’ to which we allude with ‘African literature’ does not exist,” Selasi said.
In answer to an audience member’s question about what can be done to combat the usage of ‘Africa’ and ‘African literature’ as terms to classify works of literature, Selasi stated her belief that, as language was used to create these classifications, language can be used to fix the problem.
“Ask people ‘What do you mean?’” Selasi said. “There is no Africa—we just keep making it up as we keep saying it. We’re literally inventing it.”
To solve the problem, Selasi said, we must look at its roots and discover why we classify. Selasi quoted authors from the 19th century and described how colonialism and imperialism created categorizations of literature that are sometimes not easy to define today. Selasi talked about her own background, and how she does not fit neatly into a category.
“I’ve come to feel I’m standing in an anteroom with four doors—English, American, Ghanaian, and Nigerian,” she said. “I began to think, there must be others who feel the same way.”
As an author, Selasi said that the very process of writing, in which she experiences a detachment from time and space, makes her transcend the boundaries of nationality.
“To write powerful fiction, one must disappear altogether,” Selasi said. “These are the moments that we live for, as writers, these portals into truth. We call this madness art, and those afflicted by it artists. It allows a single human being to access all human beings. This madness knows no national boundaries.”
Instead, Selasi believes that literature should be treated more like music, in which, she stated, the product is not classified in terms of the creator.
“The identity of consequence is the writers, not the writing,” Selasi said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we classified literature not by the country, but by the content?”