Is African literature too high brow?

The issue is this, when standing in a bookshop in a mall or idly browsing on Amazon before a holiday or after a tough day at work, where does one find the African equivalent of a John Grisham novel, i.e. an easily digestible thriller or mystery with no weightier theme than the pursuit of a villain and triumph of a hero or similar fare in the realm of romance or comedy?

When we think of African literature, several writers immediately spring to mind. Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, J.M Coetzee, Teju Cole and the plethora of Caine Prize winners, all of whom have produced masterpieces that fall squarely in the genre of “literary fiction”. Their books typically deal with important issues such as racial tensions, political and societal issues and other complex and provocative themes addressed in beautiful, intense prose.

Why you might ask, is this issue even relevant, surely a good book is a good book? Well the short answer is, think of that feeling of relaxation you experience when reading a “bestselling blockbuster” on a beach or even in the comfort of your living room and then suddenly you spy the latest Caine, Booker or Pulitzer Prize novel in your beach bag or on your bookshelf. You know you have been avoiding it for weeks and you know why. It is undoubtedly great literature, but some days, it just looks and feels like hard work, particularly in a world where we increasingly use the easily accessible dustbin of pop culture; reality TV, Instagram and You Tube, to simultaneously satisfy our creative appetites and decompress from the daily grind of life, work and relationships.

It’s important to note, this type of easy/ier reads are not to be confused with the “literary junk food” that international publishers ram down our throats with two for the price of one offers and pink and pastel covers to encourage the readership of that awful term “women’s fiction”. What we are discussing here is simply different fare to the more usual cultural diet of African literature.

So where are the African thrillers and romances when a more accessible read is needed? The answer is, they are out there, you just need to look a bit harder to find them.

  1. Kwei Quartey’s “Wife of the Gods” (2009) is an entertaining read, the central character is Inspector Darko Dawson, a policeman, who is investigating a murder of a young woman in a small town of Ketanu in Ghana. The author Quartey is of Ghanaian descent but lives in California where he balances writing with a career in medicine. He has written several other novels including, Children of the Street (2011) and Murder at the Cape Three Points (2014).
  1. Well-known author, Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe and created the unforgettable book series “The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency” with the effervescent Mama Ramotswe who solves mysteries surrounded by a team of flamboyant characters. The novels, whilst light-hearted, touch on some important issues including domestic violence and infidelity but at all times with a humorous tone.
  1. The “Hairdresser of Harare” by Tendai Huchu is a story about a rivalry between two hairdressers. It is an exceptionally well-written, punchy comedy about class and manners and yet it also contains some powerful social commentary on the decline of Zimbabwe and the continuing stain of homophobia in its society.
  1. “It’s Our Turn to Eat” is the story of a Kenyan whistleblower by Michela Wrong and was lauded by John le Carre as “an important and thrilling book”. John Githongo, the principal character is appointed the Kenyan anti-corruption czar, but things soon turn sour and he is forced on the run.

This is just the tip of the iceberg and is by no means comprehensive, there is far more in these and other genres if one is willing to dig below the surface. Reading across genres is not just about accepting the balance between high brow and every day cultural consumption, it has a higher purpose which is supporting writers in all their guises.  My next read is, ” A Beautiful Place to Die”, a romantic crime novel set in 1950s apartheid South Africa and written by Swaziland born Malia Nunn. Easy? Maybe, but an excellent read nonetheless…….