I am forty years old now, and you know forty years is a whole lifetime; you know it is extreme old age. To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral. Who does live beyond forty? Answer that, sincerely and honestly I will tell you who do: fools and worthless fellows.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground
As an effort to make a proper African literature canon takes root in festivals, award committees and publishing initiatives, yet another list was recently released at the London Book Fair. I had been excited when the call to compile this list originally came out. While the efforts to find new voices across the African continent is certainly commendable and one after my own heart, I have several problems with the way this list has been curated.
First issue is that of the arbitrary cut off when it comes to age. Why 40? What is so compelling about what can and cannot achieved by the age of 40? Well, absolutely nothing. The fixation with young writers that can be "bred" for influence and fame is an unhealthy one to begin with. In the phrasing of this search, which was meant to comprise "adventurous young Africans who will redefine our literary ecosystem in the future," the agricultural metaphor was certainly not lost on me.
Apparently, there is a 200 writer list compiled by Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainana, which was whittled down to 39. Why? Is it that hard to publish a three- or four-volume publication in which all 200 writers are included? And if that's not viable, the internet offers a vast and inexpensive space for the dissemination of these works. It is merely a question of will, and of getting out of a publishing mentality where anglophone palates rule the day (in this case there are 9 authors from Nigeria, 6 from Kenya, 3 from Uganda and 6 from South Africa) and in many cases, the one-author-per-country for non-Western nations remains the norm.
Secondly, why must the same authors be anointed again and again? Surely Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dinaw Mengestu or Taiye Selasi don't need much "unveiling" since they are given attention by mainstream presses, award juries and festivals on a regular basis. Don't get me wrong. Some of the writers on this list are my closest friends, and not only do I remain in awe of their work, but I wish very much for them to succeed in every conceivable way. It strikes me as tragic, however, that probably one of the major determining logics guiding the compilation of the list, is the deep grip of commercialism. A typical publishing-world logic is to juxtapose well-known authors with lesser-known ones to offer a kind of viable corporate-commercial vehicle to enable these newer authors to be subsumed within the well-established vortex of agent-editor-marketeer-reviewer.
Let's get real here: It is an inorganic and unintellectual process that creates a certain hype around the idea, for example, that Taiye Selasi's work is a great contribution from or about Africa. Simply google her name with the word "flamboyant" just for fun and you will see that the focus all along has been on her clothing and lifestyle, not her writing. If we are indeed concerned with the future of African literature, then the the glorious past of this continent needs to be reinstated first and foremost. The most basic exposure to Ghana's greats, for example, like Ayi Kwei Armah or Ama Ata Aidoo, will reveal a different understanding and trajectory of literature from that region, one that has profound global resonance.
I am probably not the only professor of literature who feels worn out from teaching African literature within a pathetic kind of vacuum. I can offer up some of the greatest, most influential names in African literature to the classroom (Taban Lo Liyong, Ken Bugul, Ayi Kwei Armah, Hampaté Bâ, Ahmadou Kourouma, even Ngugi wa Thiong'o), watch my students engage and devour these books, only for them to then enter a mainstream literary sphere devoid of any contemporary engagement with these names in the way we experience with Shakespeare or Conrad or Kafka or Franzen or, these days, Adichie.
I would like to propose an Africa99 list! This would be an infinite compilation of African writers under the age of 99. Well, whats so special about 99? Hell, lets just make it Africa 199! This list will bring the extraordinary talent from the continent into an immediate and mainstream dialogue with the world. Imagine if Jay-Z sampled Taban's poems, or endless debates ensued on Ken Bugul's seductive fashion choices, or if Ama Ata Aidoo gave an actually feminist TED talk, or if Ayi Kwei Armah's incredible Per Ankh initiative made it to a blog about hipster indie presses that weren't just from Brooklyn. Just imagine...
Bhakti Shringarpure is editor-in-chief of Warscapes. Twitter @bhakti_shringa