Rewriting the historical epic: African women writers go big

Why We Wrote This

What history is worth telling? That’s the question at the heart of a new generation of African women writers who are turning to sprawling epics and recasting the leads in world events.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/File
Petina Gappah, a Zimbabwean writer whose most recent novel is “Out of Darkness, Shining Light,” poses for a portrait in New York on May 7, 2009.

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Ayesha Harruna Attah, a Ghanaian writer, uses her fiction to discuss the complicated role that Africans played in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“The Hundred Wells of Salaga” centers on the lives of two women – one princess, one slave – whose lives tangle against the backdrop of a struggle for power between local kingdoms and newly arrived European traders. 

“What I set out to do was to tell us something we’ve forgotten about ourselves, something we don’t want to go back and consider,” Ms. Attah says.

In recent years, African literature has been reinvented by a new generation of women writers. Their books are unapologetically ambitious, sprawling across hundreds of years.

“This is a generation [of African writers] that isn’t just writing about colonialism and postcolonialism, or just looking at African governance and its failures,” says Petina Gappah, a Zimbabwean writer. “We write history. We write romance. We write science fiction. In this generation we have gained the freedom to write about the things that American and European authors write about, which is to say anything we choose.”

For Ms. Attah, while her novel was meant to prod at Ghanaian history, like any novelist, she also had a simpler objective.

“I also just wanted to tell a good story.”

For more than two decades, wherever the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah went, the colonial explorer David Livingstone seemed to follow.

She found Livingstone – his papers, his diaries, his biographies – in Melbourne and Cape Town and London. She discovered Livingstonia wedged into boxes at Zimbabwean flea markets and tucked onto high shelves in Irish bookshops. Livingstone followed her to estate sales and book fairs and antique shops splayed across nearly every continent.

She couldn’t shake her fascination with his story – a “heroic failure,” she called him, searching in vain for the source of the Nile River. But more than that, she was struck by the faceless Africans who swirled around him in every account of his journeys: cooks and porters, translators and assistants. Who were they? she wondered. And what did they make of Livingstone and his world?  

Ms. Gappah’s newest novel, “Out of Darkness, Shining Light,” published in the United States in September, is an attempt to answer that question through fiction. Told in the voices of two of Livingstone’s African companions, the book recounts the real-life journey of 69 of his workers as they transported his body across central and eastern Africa so that it could be put on a ship bound for Europe.  

“Though he tried enough to explain to me why he was looking for this Nile beginning, I could never quite understand it,” explains one of Ms. Gappah’s narrators, a cook named Halima, of Livingstone’s erstwhile quest. “I said to him … the Nile won’t care about whether you know where it begins. It will flow on as it always has whether you find it or not.” 

African historical fiction is far from a new genre – is there a more globally known work of African fiction, after all, than Chinua Achebe’s 1958 classic story of Nigeria at the moment of British colonization, “Things Fall Apart”?

But in recent years, the genre has been reinvented by a new generation of African writers. And this time around, most of them are women. Like Ms. Gappah’s, their books are unapologetically ambitious, sprawling across hundreds of years of the past and recasting the lead characters in major events in modern world history.

“Before, the space to write big grand historical narratives was mostly a man’s space. Women were expected to focus on smaller, more domestic stories,” says Ainehi Edoro Glines, an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the editor of the African literature blog Brittle Paper. “Now you’re seeing African women writers reconfigure their national histories around women’s lives – their bodies, their desires, their capacities. To me that’s a revolutionary thing.”  

And these writers are also, Dr. Glines says, redefining the idea of what history is worth telling.

“Older African historical fiction tends to obsess about that colonial moment, this era when African history became legible to the Western world in a certain way,” she says. “But many of the writers working now are moving the clock further back. They’re saying, this is just one of many things that defines the African past, a footnote in a much longer history.”

Take, for example, “Kintu,” Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s 450-page epic about three centuries in the life of a cursed Ugandan family. As she trails the family across generations, British colonialism, the original sin of much of African historical fiction, is merely tucked into the folds of a bigger, more sprawling, more dramatic story of a family’s history, and a country’s.   

After the initial publication of “Kintu” in Kenya in 2014, Ms. Makumbi struggled to find a Western publisher for a book full of long African names and long African stories, which agents worried would be “too difficult” for British readers.

In fact, it wasn’t. And when “Kintu” was finally published in the U.K. and the U.S., critics effused that it was, perhaps, “the great Ugandan novel,” and compared its energetic and lyrical sweep of history to those of Charles Dickens and Gabriel García Márquez. 

“This is a generation [of African writers] that isn’t just writing about colonialism and postcolonialism, or just looking at African governance and its failures,” says Ms. Gappah. “We write history. We write romance. We write science fiction. In this generation we have gained the freedom to write about the things that American and European authors write about, which is to say anything we choose.”

And what they have chosen, even within the confines of historical fiction, is vast. For Ms. Gappah, it was the figures in the shadows of David Livingstone’s historical glow. For Liberian American writer Wayétu Moore, in her 2018 novel “She Would Be King,” it was her country’s founding days shot through the prism of magical realism. For Moroccan novelist Laila Lalami, it was the story of one of the earliest European conquests of the new world, narrated by one of the expedition’s North African slaves. (That novel, “The Moor’s Account,” was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.)

And for Ayesha Harruna Attah, a Ghanaian writer, the choice was to use fiction to discuss the complicated role that Africans played in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Her novel, “The Hundred Wells of Salaga,” centers on the lives of two women – one princess, one slave – whose lives tangle against the backdrop of a struggle for power between local kingdoms and newly arrived European traders and explorers.  

“What I set out to do was to tell us something we’ve forgotten about ourselves, something we don’t want to go back and consider,” Ms. Attah says. 

But if the novel was meant to prod at Ghanaian history and change the way readers related to their own past, Ms. Attah, like any novelist, also had a far simpler objective.

“I also just wanted to tell a good story,” she says.

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