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“Taiye Selasi, Afropolitanism, and the African Author: Expanding Our Notion of African Literature and Identity” by Rebecca Nichloson
Taiye Selasi’s literary works, particularly Ghana Must Go and the short story, Sex Lives of African Girls, serve as expressions of her own Afropolitanism. Though the term “Afropolitan” is fairly controversial, arguments for and against it share similar qualities, espousing a mutual objective: an embrace of the cultural nuances and complexities of African culture and the individuals who define themselves as African.
In Bye-Bye Babar, Selasi emphasizes the ever-evolving landscape of African culture and the African experience while condemning generalizations. Afropolitans are presented as a distinct group of individuals, a social class, differentiated from the rest of Africa by their eclectic cultural upbringing and relationship to the continent, education and wealth. The narrative that surrounds Selasi’s notion of the Afropolitan is similar to that of many young professionals whose parents or grandparents emigrated from other countries and established themselves in America and Europe.
In reference to the term, she states:
“You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos. Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English and a Romantic or two, we understand some indigenous tongue and speak a few urban vernaculars. There is at least one place on The African Continent to which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city (Ibadan), or an auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various institutions that know us for our famed focus. We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world” (Selasi, “Bye-Bye Babar”).
This is indicative of a reimagining of, perhaps, the characteristics, behaviors, economic and social statuses society deems to be African. However, the term is often viewed as problematic. On one hand, Africa is one of the most stereotyped, overgeneralized continents on earth. It is habitually portrayed with narratives of extreme poverty, hunger, war, lack of education and disease. There is also an intrinsic belief that it is in need or of being saved and this, rescuing of sort, can only be achieved through action taken by the west. These narratives are portrayed in all forms of media and overshadow the cultural, political and societal nuances of Africa and its many countries.
Nevertheless, Afropolitanism, as presented in Selasi’s article, is indelibly related to the notion that individuals who fall into this category are somehow more civilized, refined, and, essentially, better not because of their experiences in Africa but for having the supposed luxury of being away from it. Thus, all at once, the term devalues African culture while espousing the valuing of it.
In A Deep Humaness, a Deep Grace: Interview with Chris Abani by Yogita Goyal, the author introduces his readers to Abani’s stance on creative writing and the notion of the “African” writer. Abani is a noted Nigerian novelist, author of several books, most of which have achieved critical acclaim, as well as poetry, plays, screenplays and critical essays. In reference to his own work, he states that it is “post- national and global not in its reach, but in its attempts to locate a very specific African sensibility . . . (230). Abani refers to African writers as “curators of the continent’s humanity” (228).
This is a particularly poignant statement. It, inevitably, gives way to examination of whether or not African authors or authors who identify as such, should be deemed “curators” at all, or if a handful of writers, with varying relationships to the continent, should be given the task of curating its humanity, deciding what subjects, cultural and social aspects are relevant, worthy topics of literary exploration.
The central question becomes: should authors like Selasi be deemed as representative of the collective voice of Africa? Given the vast, landscape of African culture, can a collective “African” voice exist? Abani goes on to state: “women dominate the new global placement of African literature” (229) whereas “men dominated the first generation” (229). Thus, authors like Selasi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and others are a part of this new generation of writers, shaping and expanding narratives related to Africa and the African experience but, also, a multicultural experience influenced by other parts of the world yet still, inherently, African (Goyal 228-230).
In Selasi’s writing, positive and negative dimensions of the terms Afropolitan and Afropolitanism can be fully realized. In Sex Life of African Girls, there exists a wonderful distillation of language and a rhythmic quality that is international but never deviates from African roots. The inherent poetry of the language in Ghana Must Go and her approach, choosing not to treat the reader as though he or she is a stranger in a foreign environment, but rather an entity welcomed into a world full of familiar sentiments, characters, circumstances; all the workings of that which is universal, distinguishes Selasi from other novelists. Universality, as it exists within the African experience or within the experience of those who identify as African, can be readily identified throughout her text, not merely in regard to the themes she engages but, also in the language. She writes with the literary strength of those writers in the conventional English and American literary canon, but endows it with aesthetic qualities unique to her own humanness and the manner in which she experiences her ethnicity and cultural roots.
Selasi’s coining of the term Afropolitan couldn’t be a more fitting description of her own upbringing. Her family is filled with well-known professionals; even her father is a published poet. She was educated at Yale and is off to an accomplished writing career. In addition to inspiring re-definition of what constitutes an African novel, novelist or what novelistic subjects should be deemed African, Selasi’s novel and the writing of other authors of color with international backgrounds contribute to the question of ethnicity and its relationship with culture. Moreover, it encourages reconsideration of the way the two might manifest themselves in creative work and the role they should or should not play in the critical reception, interpretation of literary texts and their categorization.
Goyal, Yogita. “A Deep Humanness, A Deep Grace: Interview with Chris Abani”
Research in African Literature. Vol. 45. No. 3. (2014): 228-230. JSTOR. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.
Selasi, Taiye. “Bye-Bye Babar”. Lip #5 Africa. The Lip Magazine., 3 Mar. 2005. Web.
28 Jan 2015
Copyright. © 2015 Rebecca Nichloson. All rights reserved. This work may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the prior written permission of the creator.