Saturday, 6 April 2013

Diversity of Expression

Literature necessarily lives on diversity because it would be boring to read the same old stories ever again. Mind you, I wouldn’t take much pleasure in writing them down, either! Of course, there are themes and plots that are so characteristic of our human existence that we writers like using them as well-tried patterns or rough guidelines for our own work, but the stories that we produce are ours. Not one is the same as the other. Our approaches as well as our highlights are different. So are our tones and our styles. And it goes without saying that cultural background and language have their share in creating a unique story. 

Africa is a good example for the diversity of expression in literature. It’s a vast continent. It suffices to see the impressing vistas in Out of Africa to know that this is true. The film also proves that, even at a time when many believed in the supremacy of European civilization, there were people like Karen Blixen and Deny Finch Hatton who loved Africa as well as the people living there. However, they couldn’t strip off their culture and so it’s no surprise that Karen Blixen founded a European-kind school for the tribal children on her farm. Since then much of the original culture of the area must have got lost, but education was the key to independence, too. 

Even today Africa still is The Undervalued Continent as regards culture. Lamentably, the wealth of contemporary African literature isn’t very present in my corner of the planet. It’s simply overlooked and very few books of African authors are translated into German (at least to my knowledge). The situation may be better for those whose works are published in English or French, but it’s my impression that Europeans and (North as well as South) Americans keep dominating the best-selling lists. Of course, The Value of Best-Selling Lists is questionable because they give account only of high sales, but not of the literary quality of the books on them. 

J. M. Coetzee rose to fame as a novelist in the 1980s, but I never really perceived him as an African writer. Of course, he never made a secret of being South African, moreover one of Afrikaner decent. Quite on the contrary, he made his country the setting of his books. He wrote about South Africa and the living conditions there which made his work controversial in his own country. The marginalization of minorities in South Africa - Afrikaner and indigenous - takes up an important place in his work. And yet, J. M. Coetzee’s way of writing fits into the European, especially English tradition. The colonial past of South Africa keeps dominating the country’s culture. 

Albert Camus, too, is a writer whose name isn’t automatically linked with Africa in people’s minds. Much more often he’s referred to as an exponent of French existentialism and, in fact, he may have seen himself as belonging to France rather than to Algeria. After all, Albert Camus wasn’t a member of the native Arabian population of Algeria, but he was the son of French-Spanish settlers. Despite all, there can be no doubt about the Algerian youth of Albert Camus having influenced his writings as can be seen most strikingly in The Plague. All his life he felt affection for Algeria and he was critical of French politics regarding the country, and yet his culture was European, above all French. 

But indigenous Africans no longer stand in second line. There is a lot going on in the African literary scene. Authors are active at home as well as abroad as shows the big number of contributors to literary journals like African Writing Magazine, not to mention the host of entries on literary websites like African Writer. Through the internet African Words Around the Globe can spread across frontiers. Emerging as well as locally established authors can promote and possibly sell their books worldwide. In addition, important literature prizes like The Caine Prize help making the diversity of African literature visible. 

We readers and writers should be grateful for all the new ideas and points of view that African literature is going to give us.


  1. I have come to think of Coetzee as very much an international author, one of those great authors who defies boundaries.
    I seem to recall reading somewhere, quite a while ago, that American book stores don't stock a lot of literature in translation which to an extent leads to a rather limited view of the world. Here in Australia the situation is not much better our shelves are dominated by what ever is on American best seller lists.

    1. Actually, Arabella, the situation isn't that much better in Austria, either. Of course, bookshops have heaps of German-language literature on stock since this is a German-speaking country, but translations of American and English writers from best-selling lists fill quite a lot of shelves there, too.


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