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.
A generation later, a second wave of interest in African writing arose as the world became reacquainted with Africa as a realm of human suffering—a continent that needed to be saved from itself by the same people who had so thoroughly exploited and rubbished it. Again it seems much of the writing by African authors of the aughts (including my own) was seen as illuminating a very particular form of African misfortune (war, disease, corruption) and not issues that were globally generalizable. In other words, to reinterpret my long-ago classmate’s comment, African literature will never be great in the Western mind not because it is political, but because it is African—and African is too particularly other to be universal.
The Ghanian poet and educator Kojo Laing released his debut novel Search Sweet Country, newly reprinted by McSweeney’s, in 1986—directly between those two eras of international visibility for African writing, a time when once-prestigious universities across the continent fell into disrepair, victims of despots and broken economies. Born in Kumasi, a city well inland from Ghana’s coastal capital Accra, Laing was educated in the U.K., earning a master’s in political science and history at Glasgow before returning to a Ghana completely transformed from a hopeful place post-independence to an economic and political basket case ruled by increasingly aggressive and paranoid military regimes. Gone were the pseudodemocratic Pan-African rhetorical escapades of Kwame Nkrumah, replaced by the numbing military speak (“Operation Keep Right,” “Operation Feed Yourself”) of the generals who overthrew the civilian regime and then each other through the 1970s. It’s those strongmen, particularly Ignatius Acheampong and his successor Fred Akuffo, who most concern Search Sweet Country, a book that for years has confounded those who try to summarize and categorize it. As the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina writes in his insightful introduction to the rerelease:
When Search Sweet Country was first published it created a lot of critical attention—and confusion. Is it magic realism? No. A satire? No. Panicked critics, constrained by newspaper word counts, by epistemological confusion, by the usual third world head fogs, searched for catchphrases with which to hitch this unruly wagon to a recognizable star.
The closest thing to a plot in this book is the thin thread of happenings after a botched horse-smuggling operation creates a scene at Accra’s international airport. Aside from this, the many, many main characters —the loud and pestering madman Beni Baidoo, the brooding wanderer Kofi Loww, his lover Adwoa Adde, the cantankerous Professor Sackey, his nemesis the scheming academic Dr. Boadi, to name just a few—are free to come and go as they please, telling their stories in a nonchronological fashion, offering bits of wisdom and patent absurdities up to the last page when we wonder, out of confusion and because of our enjoyment, why they stopped. Like Samuel Beckett, Laing utilizes narrative confusion to help construct the book’s environment and emotional tone at any given moment. And as we do with Beckett, we continue reading Laing in spite of our confusion and frustration because of the beauty of his prose. His sentences can only be described as heated, bubbling over with images, slamming metaphor and simile against quiet and simple observation, sometimes purposefully confusing meanings in the most poetic fashion: “The workers stole me right and left, and it wasn’t right that they left me so stolen.” Perhaps it’s the poet in Laing that privileges wordplay over exposition to create both textual wonder and a sense of wondering exactly what we are wondering about.
But however confusing the multiple characters, plots, and even languages of Search Sweet Country, the book zeroes in on what my former classmate might call a particularly African literary shortcoming: politics. Specifically, the politics of identity—or more accurately the search for it—in a world no longer defined by the oppositional forces of the independence era. It is a search that takes place on multiple levels—personal, national, and even international—and in multiple realms: the bedroom, the compound, the farm, the market, the church and streets, in short all the spaces that comprise Laing’s thoroughly and poetically rendered Accra.
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