Orality has been the mode of transmission in essence for most African civilizations, through stories, tales and legends with a memorial as well as educational vocation. This memory, which has spanned millennia, has however been weakened by colonization and the imposition of foreign languages and forms of storytelling.
With the exception of a few civilizations whose elites handled writing (Egypt, Ethiopia, etc.), the production of knowledge borrowed alternative textualities, and this, on a plurality of materials. This transmission was weakened by colonial, Islamic and European facts, which introduced a hierarchy, a relegation of orality and sometimes a banishment of the use of vernacular languages in favor of the language of the dominant, creating a real dichotomy between morality and culture of writing and an asymmetrical relationship between one and the other
With the arrival of the first scholars in the language of the colonizer, we are witnessing a desire by writers to capture this evanescent culture by retranscribing the weakened intangible heritage. We can cite the works of Djibril T. Niane with Soundjata or the Mandingo epic, Birago Diop with Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba, or even Amadou Hampâté Ba in all his work.
Today, and it is to be regretted, this non-protected intangible heritage is disappearing, despite the attempts of Unesco, laudable but incomplete in essence and which even tend to "keep under glass" this intangible cultural production, freezing its evolution in the weather.
The first publications of African writers in the pre- and post-independence 20th century allowed scholars (in the language of the colonizer) to, so to speak, "turn the gun against the aggressor" through this "loot of war", according to the famous formula of Kateb Yacine. It is both a creative and liberating act. Unsurprisingly, the themes revolve around the denunciation of colonialism and its economic, social but also psychological consequences on Africans, the denunciation of the destructuring of traditional African societies.
We can cite the cult Everything is collapsing by Chinua Achebe (1958) which castigates the effects of colonization, the upheaval of communities and the rise of individualism, without falling into nostalgia and without rejecting progress. The no less cult L'Aventure ambiguë by Cheikh Hamidou Kane features the young Samba Diallo, for whom the culture shock and the attempt at acculturation will be fatal, a sign of the impossible reconciliation of the two worlds.
After the euphoria of independence came quickly, from the 1970s, disillusion and disappointed hopes: dictatorial regimes, injustices, social inequities, wars were the key themes of the post-independence period. We remember Allah is not obliged, (Renaudot Prize 2000) with in passing a reappropriation of the language, quite original for the time (we have spoken of Malinkisation). This was also the whole point of Ousmane Sembène in his bibliography and his filmography.
African writers are thus guilty of a double transgression: the act of writing but also the story of oneself, through a whole new reflexivity of the gaze. Africa is no longer told, aestheticized, fantasized through the travel stories of Westerners but dares to speak for itself and reclaim its imaginations.
One of the first writers to have articulated a decolonial thought is the Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, in The wheat will spring up in 1967, but especially in Decolonizing the Mind, in 1986, a founding text in which he denounces the use of the language of colonizer by African writers. He himself made the militant choice, at a stage in his career and his notoriety, to write only in Kikuyu.
This echoes the denunciation of what the Congolese writer-philosopher Valentin Y. Mudimbé called the "colonial library", a corpus of texts on Africa written by Westerners and which served to produce knowledge for many Africans themselves...
In this generation, women's literature cannot be ignored, and in particular the epistolary novel by Mariama Bâ, Une si longue lettres, translated into 25 languages, a committed novel in which the narrator, Ramatoulaye, pours out with modesty but bitterness on the status of women in a society that is still too conservative, hesitating between modernity and tradition.
Writing Africa goes through its diasporas, from the first or second generations, who experience the problems of integration (or more violently, attempted assimilation) of visible minorities, but who also live the fantasy of an Africa at the same time near and far. A sometimes painful distance that allows them a distanced, amused or uncompromising view of the continent. Alain Mabanckou in Bleu blanc rouge was one of the first to return to this diasporic experience, but not only. With intrinsically local themes, the author immerses the Western reader in an African contemporaneity, as in Broken Glass or Little Pepper.
We also find these cultural tensions linked to the diasporic experience in the literature of writers such as Ken Bugul or Fatou Diome in La Préférence nationale, Le Ventre de l'Atlantique or her essays Marianne porte la complaint and Marianne face aux forgers. We cannot fail to mention Léonora Miano, and in particular La Saison de l'ombre (Renaudot Prize 2013) who, in this powerful novel, returns to the slave trade and in which mysticism and beliefs mingle.
Finally, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, one of the most outstanding writers of her generation despite her young age (ranked in 2017 as one of the most influential personalities in the world), noticed since her first novel and consecrated by Americanah which speaks of cultural uprooting and issues of racism, including in the black community towards non-African-Americans. She raises her voice, also for self-affirmation as a woman, especially in her little essay, We are all feminists.
Today, contemporary African writers are aware of living in a world no longer polarized by the West, but in a multipolar world where they can articulate critical and uninhibited thought.
These authors take a decentered look at the world, freeing themselves from the North-South dichotomy by focusing on their own themes. In this, they get rid of the assignment of writing on imposed and expected themes and regions. The African writer no longer feels the tacit injunction to write about Africa, about the politico-socio-economic conditions of his country of origin, or any other expected subject, which would tend to reinforce the imagination of Westerners who read it. He writes from where he is, on the continent or elsewhere. The contemporary African writer militates for a truly universal universal, as Souleymane Bachir Diagne pleads, taking up Immanuel Wallerstein, the designer of the World-System.
To date, five Nobel Prizes in Literature have been awarded to African authors: South Africans Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee, Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, Nigerian Wole Soyinka and most recently Zanzibari Abdoulrazah Gurnah in 2021.
2021 was precisely an exceptional year with a harvest of great prizes: alongside Gurnah, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr with La Plus Secrète Mémoire des hommes (co-edition Philippe Rey and Jimsaan) Goncourt Prize, the South African Damon Galgut was rewarded of the Booker Prize, the Senegalese David Diop of the International Booker Prize, Boubacar Boris Diop of the Neustadt Prize and the Mozambican Paulina Chiziane of the Camoes Prize, among others.
This illustrates, if need be, the recognition of a contemporary African literature, historically under-represented, but which is now imposing itself on the international literary scene.
* Recognized author of several novels and short stories, Nafissatou Dia Diouf has received numerous distinctions including the Prize for young Francophone writer in 1999, the Francomania Prize in Canada, also in 1999, the Senghor Foundation Prize for short stories and poetry in Senegal in 2000 not to mention the Special Mention of the jury in the literature category for the V Jeux de la Francophonie in Niamey (Niger) in 2005.
Created on the banks of the Senegal River by Amadou Diaw, cultural patron, creator, among other things, of Senegal's first private business school and of the photography museum of the former capital of Senegal, the Ateliers de Saint-Louis are intended to be a space and a time when people from diverse backgrounds "to speak the same language of humanity, to think about the present and imagine ways to inhabit the world of tomorrow by making it more fruitful, more pleasant and safer", in the words of its founder. Last October, they were held in Normandy, in Juvigny-le-Tertre where ideas about Africa were able to express themselves.