African Fiction: Genre or Cage?

I might even go as far as to say there’s an element of racism to it.

Buckle ya bucks, kids – it’s about to get rowdy.

We’re back on this moody-not-moody Monday afternoon, reflecting on African fiction yet again.

This time, we’re looking at the genre as a whole, and I’m so glad I found articles that support this post because it’s always good to bring some kind of credibility with you when you write a post like this.

In my first post exploring how we write African fiction, we were just looking at our characters, their family’s income status, and the things that make them African, posing an important question: do Africans have to be poor for us to write about them? (Or something like that –  you can read it for yourself here)

Today, however, we look into the genre as a whole.

We start with this article by Foluke Ifejola, in which Foluke basically looks at the African fiction genre as a box (a cage, in her words), a label that “seems to be some unspoken collective suggestion that no matter the subject matters and the plots and the styles and the genres, there must be some thread of similar Africanness that binds them.” (quoted directly from the article).

Ainehi Edoro goes as far as calling this a bias in her article, noting that African fiction is not bought and sold based on it’s aesthetic value, but it’s ‘thematic preoccupation’. “African critics have played a huge role in promoting this idea of African fiction as necessarily issues-driven,” she says, noting that African fiction tends to be anthropologised, focusing on studying African behaviour and societies and cultures as opposed to simply reading about them.

Both these articles look into the idea that the genre African fiction in itself has become a sort of study on socio-political issues in Africa, not because that’s necessarily what the authors have chosen to focus on, but that that’s how it has been marketed.

Because, as Foluke points out, you wouldn’t call it European fiction. No, in other fictional genres, you expect that various authors will be writing on various topics and themes. In African fiction, however, there’s a tendency to scrunch up your nose and think, “what’s this going to teach me?” if it doesn’t include some sort of insight and ‘deep exploration’ into a social, political or cultural matter prevalent in Africa.

I’ll add my own two cents and take this a step further by asking once again:

What makes African fiction, African fiction?

If I write about a young white woman living in the middle of Johannesburg, for example, does that count? Is it African fiction if the main character is not black but based in Africa? Is it African fiction simply because I as the author am African?

What qualifies a book as African? How much must it look into culture, or the socio-political climate, or a specific historical African figure to be African enough? This, of course, is the point both authors of the articles above are making. Should the genre even exist? Isn’t it going to be obvious to the reader that this book is African when they see my name, first of all, on the cover, and then open the book to find Shona names and Zimbabwean cities as the backdrop upon which the story is painted?

This is where it gets a bit rowdy, though.

Because if a book is classified as a ‘murder mystery’, then when you read it, you expect someone to die.. mysteriously (lol). Detective fiction features a detective as the main character, solving some kind of scandal or murder (or a scandal in which someone gets murdered). Romantic fiction? Obviously someone must fall in love somewhere along the line, and, in true romantic fiction fashion, that love must be tested by a presumed betrayal.

The point I’m getting to here is that the genre tag of a book is supposed to alert you as to what you will find before you open the book.

Even without the answers to my questions above, we can agree that there has to be something that qualifies a book for the tag African fiction, that thing that makes you think, “aha, this is African fiction.”

But can I get a little rowdier?

Should African fiction even be a genre? Again, we don’t go around calling it North American fiction. Instead, we would call it by it’s thematic appeal: western, mystery, thriller, romantic, fantasy, sci-fi.

So why can’t all the books listed under African fiction be awarded the same curtesy? If I write about a murder in the middle of some little village somewhere in Botswana, am I no longer writing a murder mystery? Why has all the thematic expectation been removed to leave the very basic and totally not the point of the story tag ‘African fiction’ simply because it’s about an African, or set in Africa, or written by an African?

If we’re being honest, there’s an element of laziness in which the African fiction tag is used. The genre is indeed a cage, as Foluke calls it, because what we have are entire stories that go beyond the origin and setting of the story and characters to create all sorts of other thematic elements that are then not recognised as those elements, but boxed down and reduced to simply ‘African’ fiction. We don’t even award it the decency of describing where from Africa it is, and this is the part where I remind us all that Africa is not one country.

I might even go as far as to say there’s an element of racism (or whatever you call it when non-Africans combine us into one big chunk) to it, if you look at it from the angle that everything from Africa is kept in one little box, separate and not part of the non-African stuff (and really, we’re talking about all kinds of other creative forms here too), provided as a way to learn and explore Africa like an animal in a cage at the zoo. It allows us as Africans to have our own space in which we can grow and can be found, our own collection of voices and views. Which is great, except that, for the most part, we’re kept separate from the others.  African fiction is a box over there, with a variety of toys, sure, but still over there.

In simpler terms, if what you are is a fantasy writer, you should be allowed to play with all the other fantasy writers, not kept to play with just the other African fantasy writers.

So I guess what it all boils down to is how you answer a question I asked above. How you choose to answer it will determine which side you fall on in the ‘for or against the African fiction tag’ conversation. Of course, you might even discover that there are no sides, only a complicated circle of factors that lead to the application, and validity of said application, of this tag to your work.

And so, I’ll ask again: What is it that qualifies a piece as African fiction?

(Or alternatively, why can’t it just be mystery fiction?)



3 thoughts on “African Fiction: Genre or Cage?

  1. Your reflection or investigation relates to the genre but it triggered a memory of my quest to find a South African author whose work is not biographical. Even fiction was always based on the authors life. It was driving me crazy so I discussed this with literary experts and authors etc but the answer I found in a paper written in 1998 by an Africana philosopher Lewis R Gordon who had already noticed the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. which is kind of weird, right?
    because we don’t look at non-African fiction the same way, otherwise we’d genuinely have a lot of murderers out there.
    i guess it’s the way we’ve been brought up as Africans in particular, telling stories that are very closely linked to real life and passing them on.
    i guess the real question here is does it always have to be that way?
    also, i’ll probably go and look for that paper now, just to read up more on this very interesting subject.


    1. I didn’t see your comment as it is not a reply to my comment.

      True (murderers).

      True except dinaane. Don’t know what they’re called in English. The stories not allowed to be told in daylight unless you have a matchstick or stick from grass in your hair, stories about the rabbit outsmarting the fox, the bear that swallowed hot steel to sing as sweetly as the mother for the child to open the door, etc.

      Good question. Or when will it stop being that way? Who will change the genre?

      If you give me your email I’ll send it.


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