Why so many U.S. publications are going loco for an expanding list of African authors

Carl de Souza Jr., winner of “African Living” 2012. The awards will be held in Johannesburg on March 18 and 19. (Photo courtesy of CANAL/Lucy Wood)

Following: the latest

The literary continent is buzzing with “African Living” award nominations, starting with the popular Caine Prize for African Writing, which awarded Sarah Orne Jewell with its Main Prize, $30,000, last weekend in Cape Town. The awards, which aim to acknowledge outstanding books written by authors residing in Africa, have sent up a tentacle that extends well beyond the continent’s frontiers. Every year, more and more U.S. publications have begun to recognize and honor a greater selection of authors living within its borders.

So, is there a specific colonial legacy that has percolated down to a modern day emphasis on more African language and literature? Yes.

“The arts of the colonized such as writing and singing come from the colonizers’ own roots in modern African languages,” says Cara Pyongawala, associate professor of linguistics at Duke University. “North African and West African languages on the whole are both much more literate than their countries, a result of being the supreme culture makers on their colonial lands.” And therein lies the problem. “In other words, the colonizers’ own native languages should be their first language,” says Pyongawala. “They should be spoken before other languages.” That’s also part of the benefit of reading in English and French, says the linguist, who encourages more language studies as a commitment to dialogue.

“As with any continent and ethnicity,” she says, “Africans are very complex people and their languages reflect that.”

And yet, Pyongawala has taken her interest in language and its development to the forefront on her college campus. She’s the director of languages in the Triangle Community College Language and Literature Institute at Duke University. Pyongawala says many of her students in this particular field are African and from West Africa, where her institution, and others, provide study-abroad programs and university courses focused on African languages. The diversity of learning in African languages is one of the strengths Pyongawala finds in the region, she says. “What I am trying to encourage is for students to be even more critical of how they are using and expressing themselves in these languages.”

Meanwhile, Africans across the continent and the world are hoping to bring it home. The 2018 “African Living” awards will be held in Johannesburg on March 18 and 19.

Leave a Comment