Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Undervalued Continent

I’ve never been to Africa, nor do I have African friends, so my point of view on this old and vast continent is necessarily European, Central European to be more precise. Not that this specification makes much of a difference. When I think of Africa, pictures of dreamlike landscapes vibrating with wildlife, of gruesome wars and of starving children emerge in my mind. There isn’t much else that I connect with it quickly although common sense tells me that there must be more – much more. Above all there must be literature from and about Africa, but somehow I don’t have it present. 

Africa has been home to many thriving, often misunderstood and depreciated civilizations in the past. Today there are many countries and many different cultures enriching the world with their diversity. They all have their stories and I’m sure that they are being told. Despite all I can only think of few writers related to Africa one way or another among them Karen Blixen, André Brink, Albert Camus, J. M. Coetzee, Doris Lessing, António Lobo Antunes, and Alexander McCall Smith. They all have one thing in common: they or their backgrounds are more or less European.

For the rest, African literature is widely unknown in my corner… provided that it’s justified to talk of African literature. I doubt it. The continent is so vast and diverse that it seems impossible to me to merge the wealth of its literature in a single name. There’s the North with its longstanding relations to Europe and the Middle East, not to talk of the Islamic literary heritage that influenced the literature of the region. Then there are all the countries South of the Sahara that inevitably are under the influence of their colonial history along with religious as well as local traditions. 

Certainly all African peoples know the art of telling stories. Most likely it is something that is passed on orally from one generation to the next, but times have changed and keep changing. Africans are no longer illiterate savages (using a stereotype that can never have been correct – African culture simply happened to be incomprehensible to us Europeans because it was so different). They can read and they can write. Let’s hope that many of their works will find their way also into the hands of readers outside the African continent. I’m sure that we can expect some true gems!

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