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A Look at Africa's Literary Sunrise

Optimism and invigorating social and cultural elements distinguish modern African writing. Contemporary African writers are bringing new social and cultural elements to their continent's literature.

By Carl WoodCarl Wood is professor of English at Principia College in Elsah, Ill. / February 1, 1991

AS an art form, the novel has been adapting, changing, modernizing, constructing, and deconstructing itself for more than 200 years. It can be likened to a venerable bearer of culture. The novel takes its contact with readers seriously. Put another way, the novel is a double act of optimism; it expects to be read and have a social impact. Contemporary African novelists, bringing invigorating new social and cultural elements to the genre, are trandscending government hostility to carry on this tradition of optimism. No event in African literature during the past two decades has caused more excitement than the publication in 1988 of the Chinua Achebe's ``Anthills of the Savannah.'' The first novel to appear in 22 years by the celebrated dean of African novelists, the new book, like Achebe's ``Things Fall Apart'' (1958) and ``No Longer at Ease'' (1960), portrays Nigeria at a crucial moment in its history.

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The earlier books showed the social disruption upon the arrival of the first British missionaries and Nigeria's moral chaos on the eve of its independence. ``Anthills of the Savannah'' sums up the contemporary social scene, where white people are increasingly irrelevant but where the populace still struggles to overcome problems inherited from the West and such indigenous African concerns as sexism and authoritarian violence in politics.

ACHEBE'S African protagonists in this book include an urbane, highly intellectual woman - a new creation in the African novel. Achebe uses this feminist sophisticate to confront the sexism and elitism that continue to impede social progress in Africa.

Despite much repression and violence, this novel concludes with an uplifting scene. Here the protagonist gives a newborn baby an African name meaning ``May-the-path-never-close,'' and Achebe ends his novel on this note of grave hope for eventual social progress.

This distinguished author's integrity, frankness, and somber optimism are shared by his main colleagues among middle-aged African authors, as well as an exciting new generation of fine writers now rising all across black Africa.

Since literature in the Western sense has developed in Africa entirely within this century, it is noteworthy that the best contemporary African authors are as good as any in the world. This is well demonstrated by Achebe's fellow Nigerian, Wole Soyinka, who in 1986 brought Africa its first Nobel Prize for Literature. Africa's most versatile writer, Soyinka has excelled in plays, novels, poetry, essays, and criticism.

Soyinka has also written two beautifully evocative biographical books portraying his father's time and his own childhood - ``Ak'e: The Years of Childhood (1981), and ```Isar`a: A Voyage Around `Essay''' (1989). In ``Mandela's Earth and Other Poems'' (1988), he exhibited the continuing literary dialogue between Africans of differing cultures:

Your bounty threatens me, Mandela, that taut

Drumskin of your heart on which our millions

Dance. I fear we latch, fat leeches

On your veins. Our daily imprecisions

Dull keen edges of your will.

Compromises deplete your act's repletion -

Feeding will-voided stomachs of a continent,