The Case for Lusophone African Literature
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we’re missing out by not hearing from 70 million people.
A few years ago, I was at an African literature festival that was being held, ironically, in London. Important debates and discussions were buzzing around me. African literature was not yet “mainstream,” but that year, “translations” and “languages” had again become buzzwords. There was a renewed interest in exploring Francophone (French-speaking) and Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) works of literature and bringing them into the wider conversation. As an Afro-Lusophone myself from Guinea-Bissau, I waited eagerly. Years later, I’m still waiting.
Afro-Lusophone writers, in contrast to Anglophone and Francophone writers, remain conspicuously absent from the world literature scene. Anglophone writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is now a global star, with her latest book, Americanah, on everyone’s lips and her speech “We should all be feminists” on Beyoncé’s Flawless. Publishers and editors from the West were scurrying in search of African writers, feverish not to miss the opportunity to bank on the Chimamanda effect. Similarly, Francophone writers are gaining currency with Fiston Mujila winning the Etisalat Prize and Alain Mabanckou long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. However, Lusophone writers remain absent from panels, festivals, discussions and debates. Whenever I confront people about the absence of Lusophone writers, they laugh nervously and say, “It’s the language.” But if books in other languages have been translated, why not books from Portuguese-speaking Africa?
Afro-Lusophone writers, in contrast to Anglophone and Francophone writers, remain conspicuously absent from the world literature scene.
The dominance of colonial languages in the African continent has created barriers between neighbors. So much time is spent perfecting the English language in Ghana that one does not learn Kwa languages or even French to communicate with French-speaking neighbors in the Ivory Coast. These barriers have extended to the literary market. Furthermore, African writers are still more interested in being published in Europe and the U.S. rather than across Africa. A Senegalese writer will not think of publishing in South Africa; Paris will be the first thing on his mind. A Kenyan does not seek literary agents in Angola; he will go to London before anywhere else. A Mozambican will prefer to go to Lisbon’s Book Fair instead of the Lagos Book Fair.
Operating in these language silos means that the African literature market is open to few, and, in particular, the Portuguese-speaking Africans — some 70 million in total — are left out. There are six African nations where Portuguese is the official language: Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe and Equatorial Guinea.
Such discrete borders can and should be diminished, and I have seen the importance of this in my own life. I was born in Lisbon to Bissau-Guinean parents and spent most of my life in Francophone Africa. My eager parents spoke only “Victor Hugo’s” French to me and my siblings. In my grandfather’s house, we spoke Portuguese with all the “R’s” sometimes interrupted by my grandmother’s Crioulo. My mother’s brothers, two suave hipsters who wore Doc Martens before it was cool, mixed Spanish and Italian while teaching me and my sister the delights of lasagna and cannelloni. At the age of 6, I added to my growing world of languages: American English, courtesy of Cartoon Network. I have grown up mixing, playing and inventing languages.
Now I want to unite the different African-speaking countries and showcase to the world that there is more to African literature than meets the eye. Currently, only one Lusophone writer is well known around the world — the Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa, who won the International Dublin Literary Award, but there are many more worthy of note.
Recently, Abdulai Silá’s The Ultimate Tragedy was the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. Set in colonial Guinea-Bissau at the cusp of independence, it tells the story of young Ndani caught between tradition and modernity, power and freedom. The novel was published in England to much acclaim. Meanwhile, from Angola, Kalaf Epalanga published a fascinating first novel, Também os Brancos Sabem Dançar (White People Can Also Dance), heavily inspired from his years touring with the kuduro music group Buraka Som Sistema. And from São Tomé and Príncipe, Alda Barros’ book of poems, A Flor Branca de Baobá (The Baobab’s White Flower), was published in 2017.
There are even more Lusophone writers to be discovered and translated, which makes this an exciting time for the future of African stories. Agents and publishers would do well to look toward Lusophone writers this year — they just might discover their next global star.