As specific and simplistic the terminology sounds, defining African literature in a holistic and encompassing manner has never been an easy feat. Different writers have given philosophical, cultural and literary jabs to the term in a bid to formulate an acceptable definition. However in an attempt to do this, most suggestions it seems are tilting towards a dangerous edge. Most definitions of African literature depict suffering, gloom, wars, conflicts and negativities which have become synonymous to the continent. These derogatory attributes are being celebrated and institutionalized as exemplified in the number of gory tales about the continent that have gone on to win awards. Such definitions have confined the conceptualization of African literature to derogatory parameters.
Hardly does this come as a surprise. Indeed defining
Africa or identifying an African is even more of an ambiguous task. The modern day African struggles with self-determination and identity clashes. The pot-purri of foreign cultures, values, and beliefs has created a cultural gap in the psyche of the African. If one was asked to identify an African, would it mean someone who is a native of the continent? Would it include the North Africans who are of Arab descent? What about the blacks in Diaspora such as the South Americans, black Americans and other blacks scattered across the globe? These Ambiguities and intellectual disputations have reflected in the term African literature.
So if we were to formulate a definition for African literature, what would it be? Would it also accommodate literature about the continent but written by foreigners? Why is it difficult to ascertain the writings from the North African countries as African literature? Would do you classify a text that is written in foreign languages of English and French as African literature?
Defining the term has only thrown up more questions than answers. African writers themselves seem to be lost in this quagmire. The literary works of Africans have shown that we are still struggling to define ourselves. There is so much cultural pollution. An African in diaspora would certainly reflect western values in his works, perhaps more vividly than those of his roots/
Perhaps the most disturbing trend as pointed out earlier is the uni-directional approach at clarifying this concept. Tales of war, child soldiers, kidnappings, corruptions, widowhood are shaping the definition of African literature. African writers with foreign counterparts are painting a picture of a dark and hopeless continent. African writers are fuelling the fire of cultural genocide in distorting the true picture of what African literature should entail. There is the need for more works which would celebrate rather than berate the continent.
There is also the issue of generational gap. Each generation of African writers have brought its own set of ideologies, world views and how phenomena are interpreted. If Soyinka was to read a science fiction novel by Ayo Arigbabu, what would he think? If contemporary works by Africans contains less proverbs, does it make it any more less African? If we chose to dispel mysticism and superstition and replace masquerades with terrorists and bombs, does it make it a western imitation?
Indeed the picture depicted shows the looming gap in identifying ourselves as a people. Until we Africans chose to takes a common stance on our identity, the split personality would continue. The present day African struggles to define himself, and depends on what others define him to be. This has reflected in our literature. Concisely put, if we are to define African literature successfully, let us start with ourselves first.