I Only Want a Little Authenticity

SearchCountryWhile pointing to the western world’s interaction with so-called African literature, the piece below reviews ‘Search Sweet Country’, a book by a Ghanaian author. And how the release of the book takes us back to our roots and forward to an unexpected future.


When I was in college, after a discussion of Chinua Achebe at the tail end of a survey course in English literature, I got into an argument with a classmate who suggested that plenty of African literature was good but could never be great because it was so political. Leaving aside the obviously problematic use of “African” as a catch-all classification for literature from 1 billion people in 52 countries (and a decidedly Eurocentric bias), my classmate’s musings did identify a tension at the very root of the Western world’s interaction with so-called African literature. Can literature be both overtly political and also great?

It seems an absurd question when considering many prominent works of the English canon. What is Coriolanus if not a commentary on the life cycles of autocrats? What is Great Expectations if not an extended criticism of class distinction in 19th-century Britain? And yet, with writings by African authors the question persists: Is it high art delivering timeless and universal commentary on the human condition, or is it little more than a guide to the culture and politics of a specific continent (with occasional literary flourishes)? The question will not die because of the Western tendency to view life in Africa as so profoundly alien that nearly everything written from the continent becomes not literature, but a manual—and we all know how we feel about manuals.

The first wave of interest in African writers hit the global literary scene around the same time many countries won independence from oppressive colonial regimes. Beginning in the 1960s, writing from the continent was parsed so thoroughly for political meanings that a sentence was always more than a simple sentence: It was commentary on race, culture, or the politics of colonialism and independence. The stunning craft and beauty of writing by Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, for example, was often overlooked; criticism of their work focused in large part on how new Africa presented itself to its former masters—rather than how great writers from a portion of the world presented their many and varied takes on the existential questions that torment us all. African writing was labeled political because Western interest in Africa was, primarily, political.

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By Illustration by Matt Kindt

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