Case showing 'Things fall apart' and other work by Chinua Achebe in the British Library’s ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ exhibition

Making Story

Professor Pius Adesanmi explores the creative writing that has emerged from West Africa countries since the 1950s.
Most West African countries achieved independence from colonial rule in the late 1950s and 1960s. This era of hope was accompanied by an outpouring of new creative writing. Pius Adesanmi (Carleton University) narrates these events, and brings the story of West African literature right up to the present.

The best-known novel by a West African writer remains Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart, first published in 1958 to wide acclaim. The novel tells the story of the fracturing of an African village, and the downfall of its protagonist Okonkwo, when colonial rule arrives. It had, and retains, huge appeal to both international audiences and generations of African readers and others affected by colonialism.

Chinua Achebe’s work on display in ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’

Case showing 'Things fall apart' and other work by Chinua Achebe in the British Library’s ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ exhibition

This photograph, from the British Library’s 2015-16 West Africa exhibition, shows a variety of editions of Achebe’s 1958 classic, Things fall apart.

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But Things fall apart was not an entirely new creation. Part of Achebe’s genius consisted in taking the cadences and profundities of his own Igbo language, and capturing them in a new form of English. The literature of the independence period, and later, was shaped in part by Africa’s long literary heritage. This included earlier creative works written in English or in African languages such as Yoruba or Twi; scholarship in Arabic; and the oral literature that carries the worldview and cultural memory of the people of West Africa, and has had a profound influence on literary writing.1

Watch this celebratory dirge, or praise song, which was composed and performed by Professor Akachi Ezeigbo to commemorate Chinua Achebe’s life.

Copyright © the British Library; with thanks to Professor Akachi Ezeigbo

Modern West African literature

In West Africa today, the majority of modern writing is in English and French – reflecting the fact that France and Britain were the major colonial powers. There are also lively publishing industries in African languages as well as in Portuguese.

The independence generation

For the authors writing at the time of independence, the overriding theme was colonial violence and the socio-political damage it caused. For Francophone novelists, from countries such as Senegal and Cameroon, Negritude was the driving force. This intensely political and cultural philosophy, which flourished from the 1930s to the 1950s, sought to retrieve blackness from racism through the act of writing, and advocated taking pride in the African continent and its achievements. Its founders included Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of Senegal.

Ideas of Negritude were expressed in novels such as Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy (Une vie de boy), the story of Toundi, a child who embraces European values but eventually sees through the myth of European superiority. Many of the West African Francophone novels of this period are variations on this theme of colonial violence and European hypocrisy.

At the same time, Anglophone writers like Achebe and Wole Soyinka were engaging with cultural nationalism. This shared many of the attributes of Negritude, but also focused on African beliefs, myths and legends as a means of exploring the full range of human experience. In The palm-wine drinkard (1952), Amos Tutuola creates a surreal narrative drawing on the Yoruba spirit world. Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, is well-known for adopting this approach in his plays. In A dance of the forests (1960/1963), he mines the riches of Yoruba myth and spiritualities to predict and forewarn against the political tragedies that set in after Nigeria’s independence in 1960.  

Selections from Wole Soyinka’s annotated typescript of ‘Idanre’ (1965)

Sections from Wole Soyinka’s annotated typescript of 'Idanre' (1965)

This is a page from Wole Soyinka’s typescript of his long poem 'Idanre', showing an anvil – a symbol of the god Ogun, the subject of the poem.

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Soyinka and other writers of this time were instrumental in encouraging literature and the arts within Nigeria and West Africa. The Mbari Club, founded in Ibadan in 1961, published numerous outstanding writers at the beginning of their careers. Black Orpheus, which began publication in 1957, was a literary magazine with Pan-African reach.

Cover of Black Orpheus

Front cover of 'Black Orpheus', a literary journal that began publication in Nigeria, West Africa, in 1957.

This is a front cover of Black Orpheus, a literary journal that began publication in Nigeria in 1957.

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A second generation and life in the postcolony

By the 1970s, the political tensions were increasingly emerging, and disappointment setting in, after the initial hopes of independence.In many countries there was a shift to military rule or civilian authoritarianism, and many Francophone novels of the era explore life under dictatorship, in a genre begun by Alioum Fantouré with his Tropical circle (Le cercle des tropiques, 1973).

In Anglophone countries there was a shift to social realism, expressed in novels, plays and poetry such as Songs of the marketplace (1983) by Niyi Osundare. These works expressed the idea that literature should raise the consciousness of the masses, in difficult economic and political times. Ben Okri, whose 1991 novel The famished road won the Booker Prize, was unusual in returning to magic realism in his writing.

The emergence of women’s writing

The first play of the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo, Dilemma of a ghost, appeared in print in 1965. In Nigeria, Flora Nwapa published her first novel Efuru in 1967, and in Cameroon two years later Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury published Essential encounters (Rencontres essentielles). Other women such as Gladys and Adelaide Casely-Hayford had blazed a trail earlier in the century. But, in general, female writing was held back both by cultural impediments to their education and the Western sexism of the colonial system.

It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that a larger number of women found their literary voices, challenging masculinist accounts of Africa’s encounter with modernity and raising the politics of gender and sexuality, as well as power and social justice, in their work. In Francophone West Africa, Mariama Bâ’s novels rose to particular prominence with their trenchant handling of female experience in marriage and tradition. 

Writing for children

The importance of writing for children and young people has been recognised by both male and female writers. Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo and Léopold Senghor all published children’s books. More recently, the acclaimed author Véronique Tadjo from Côte d’Ivoire has chosen to write and illustrate books for children like Mamy Wata and the monster, which has been translated into numerous languages, as well as writing for adults. 

Mamy Wata and the monster

Véronique Tadjo, an author from Côte d’Ivoire, wrote Mamy Wata et le monstre (Mamy Wata and the monster) for young children.

This book retells the story of the water spirit Mamy Wata for young children.

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‘Children of the postcolony’3

A new generation of West African authors was gaining recognition by the 1990s. Born after the coming of independence, these younger writers live in the world of the failed African post-colony, struggling with domestic and international challenges. In Nigeria, military rule lasted until 1999 and writing there took place in a state of siege. Works such as Harry Garuba’s Voices from the fringe reflected the suppression of freedom and individual liberties of the time.

These newer authors are also experiencing the pressures of globalisation, transnationalism and diasporic flows – to the extent that they have been dubbed ‘migritude writers’, ‘migritude’ being a combination of ‘Negritude’ and ‘migration’. Fatou Diome’s The belly of the Atlantic (Le ventre de l’Atlantique), for example, handles the theme of an immigrant’s search for identity in Paris with considerable brio.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This photograph shows Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of Africa’s foremost writers.

This photograph shows Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of Africa’s foremost writers.

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The writers of this new generation engage with an global world of publishing and prize-giving, and many have considerable international stature. Foremost among them in this respect is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the prize-winning author of several novels including Half of a yellow sun. Many others – Chika Unigwe, Helen Oyeyemi and Aminatta Forna, for example – have an international reputation. Significantly, the gender balance in West African writing has been completely overturned since the 1960s, and many of the leading lights in the field are now women.

In this short film, readers give their views on and insights into West Africa literature. The film was made at the Africa Writes festival at the British Library in July 2015.

Copyright © the British Library; with thanks to Afrikult, the Royal African Society and all the interviewees

With technological change, literature today is being shaped by gadgetry and social media. Vibrant new writers based in West Africa are very active online and constantly pushing the boundaries of the West African text. African writing today is as much the novel being bought in a conventional bookshop in Lagos or London as it is the Kindle edition being ordered in Sydney; it is as present in the tweets of Teju Cole as it is in the Facebook flash fiction of Chuma Nwokolo and Lola Shoneyin.
1 See Emmanuel Obiechina, Language and theme: Essays on African literature (Washington DC: Howard University Press, 1990). Obiechina makes a strong argument for considering the Arabic script and other African-language scripts such as Nsibidi as the true origins of written literature in West Africa
2 Neil Lazarus, ‘Great Expectations and the Mourning After: Decolonization and African Intellectuals’ in Neil Lazarus, Resistance in postcolonial African fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990)  
3 Abdourahman Waberi, ‘Les enfants de la postcolonie: Esquisse d’une nouvelle génération d’écrivains francophones d’Afrique noire’, Notre librairie, 135 (1998), 8-15
Profile photograph of Professor Pius Adesanmi, Professor of English and African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada and director of Carleton University's Institute of African Studies
  • Professor Pius Adesanmi
  • Pius Adesanmi is a Professor of English and African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada and director of Carleton University's Institute of African Studies. His book You're Not a Country, Africa won the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing in the non-fiction category.

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