Why Africa should reclaim her literary sons

It is time to revisit cultural ambivalence to reorient writers identified with adopted countries

In Summary

• Choosing to live outside Africa takes nothing away from its influence on your writings

• We must broaden the horizons of African literature to include the ones who got away

The Nobel Prize for Literature
The Nobel Prize for Literature

Recently, Albert Memmi, a major Tunisian anticolonial writer and theorist of decolonisation, died. He was 99.5 years old.

He is buried in France, his second home, where he cut a sterling career as a novelist and essayist of international credibility for decades. His masterpiece is a dissection of the racist logic of colonialism, titled The Coloniser and the Colonised - published in French 1957 and translated into English in 1965. It is a primary text book in postcolonial and decolonial studies at postgraduate level across the world, even here in Kenya.  

It is a sad reality that we seldom consider North African writers as part of the body called African literature. Memmi’s almost overlooked departure is not unique. Many are the writers from the Maghreb who exist on the penumbra of literary discussions on African literature yet are hailed widely abroad.


It is said that the north is an appendage of the Arab world. In fact, the waves of Arab spring that engulfed the Arab world started in northern Africa, from Tunisia to Libya and Egypt. They did not affect the rest of the continent, what is called Black Africa or Africa, to the south of the Sahara. 


It is also said that Wole Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986. He was 52 years of age then. This view sidelines an earlier Nobel laureate born in North Africa albeit in the colonial era. Algeria-born Albert Camus bagged the Nobel in 1957, 29 years earlier than Soyinka, at the age of 44 years.

Camus today is considered a major French writer on the basis of his literary language of choice. Like other Algerian whites, he left with his family for France when independence arrived in 1962. These Algerian French are known as “Black Feet” in France. He died as a French citizen, although he was born in Africa and bagged the Nobel while still rooted in the continent.

Using citizenship to classify his literary positionalities interestingly opens yet another can of worms. In 2003, a white South African writer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. John Maxwell Coetzee, popularly known as JM Coetzee, is the author of several acclaimed novels, including the masterpiece, Disgrace. He was born in Cape Town in 1940. However, at the turn of the century, he relocated to Australia.

In 2006, he took the Australian citizenship and today resides in Adelaide to the extreme south of that country. Yet, pundits still consider him one of the four Africans who have so far bagged the coveted literary trophy. The others are: Soyinka of Nigeria (1986), Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt in 1988 and another South African, and only woman in the line-up, Nadine Gordimer in 1991.

It can be argued that Coetzee’s Australian-South African ambivalent identities are not different from those of Albert Camus above. The latter with roots in Algeria and France is equally ambivalent, but got the Nobel while still resident in his country of birth in Africa. This logic can enable the claim that Africa has so far been awarded the Nobel Prize five and not four times.

In all these five times, the North African region has been represented twice, the southern region also. The West African region is represented once and it is the eastern region of the continent that has so far not produced a Nobel Laureate in Literature. In four subsequent years from 2016, pundits have vouched for a Ngugi win but to no avail.


Today’s world is an increasingly interconnected place than ever before in recorded history. The speed and spread with which the new coronavirus has engulfed the globe is a poignant illustration of our globalised age. The phrase that we live in “a global village” is no longer cliché or vacuous.  

Cultural and social ties have taken a transnational and delocalised dimension like never before. The George Floyd murder in the US has ignited Black Lives Matter movements across continents. In unanimous voices, they all call for the end of racism and police brutality.


With this new globalised era, it is possible to revisit cultural ambivalence as a site for self or communal identification. Identities and their cultural reflections, including literatures, need not belong to one space only. One implication of this reorientation is clear. We can reconsider Memmi, Camus and Coetzee as writers from Africa whose choice to live outside Africa does not subtract the gravity of the continent on their literary aesthetics.

Such reconsideration enables us to broaden the horizons of contemporary African literature to include the exciting literary voices of North Africa today. As globalised readers, let us embrace Laila Lalami, 52, of Morocco and America as well as Hisham Matar, 50, of Libya of Libya and America. E pluribus, unum (Out of many, one) is the motto of their host country abroad, and it is one that literary students and enthusiasts should adopt in their discourses or definitions of contemporary African literature. 

Edited by T Jalio