African literature is the object of immense international interest across both academic and popular registers. Far from the field’s earlier, post-colonial association with marginality, a handful of star “Afropolitan” names are at the forefront of global trade publishing.
Books like Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” and “Half of a Yellow Sun”, Teju Cole’s “Open City”, Taiye Selasi’s “Ghana Must Go” and Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” have confounded neat divisions between Western and African literary traditions. The Cameroonian novelist Imbolo Mbue captured a million-dollar contract for her first book, “Behold the Dreamers”. That’s even before it joined the Oprah’s Book Club pantheon this year.
Such commercial prominence, though, has attracted considerable and unsurprising push back from Western and Africa-based critics alike. Far from advancing narratives with deep roots in local African realities, such critics fear, many of Africa’s most “successful” writers hawk a superficial, overly diasporic, or even Western-focused vision of the continent.
The most visible of these critiques has been directed at the Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names” (2013). The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila worried in a review in the London Guardian that it was “poverty-porn”. The popular Nigerian critic Ikhide Ikheloa (“Pa Ikhide”) frequently makes a similar point. Fellow Nigerian writer Adaobi Nwaubani critiqued the West’s hold on Africa’s book industry in a much-circulated New York Times piece called “African Books for Western Eyes”.
Such debates about African writing could, and likely will, go on forever. Questions about Africa’s place in the current global literary marketplace broaden some of the most urgent queries of the postcolonial era. Who gets to document African realities? Who are the “gatekeepers” of African publishing traditions?
It goes on: To what sort of audience does African writing cater? What is the role – and what should it be, if any – of Western institutions in brokering cultural prestige?
All these issues merit concern.
Between the default poles
Too often, though, African writing ends up volleyed between two default poles of “corporate global” and “activist local”. Some onlookers, as in a recent essay by the Canadian scholar Sarah Brouillette, go as far as to name the biases of even Africa-based print outlets. Kenya’s Kwani Trust is exposed as “Western-facing” due to a web of donor relations. “West” here is code for neoliberal. “Western-facing” is for complicity with a market that skews toward British and American interests.
Faced with a “world system” argument like Brouillette’s, African literature would seem trapped between a rock and a hard place.
But, in fact, this tells only a small part of the story of how African writing now makes its way through the world. It is incomplete to the point of being outdated, given the boom over the past five years in new, globally conscious small US literary presses collaborating with African writers.
A “West subsuming Africa” brand of critique works fine for scholars with no real skin in the game of literary publishing. It also denies real agency to a lot of African writers and other literary professionals. On the ground the literary field is far more forward-thinking and diverse.
There is an entire new body of African writing that escapes this closed circuit of damning truisms. A wave of new or recently galvanised independent literary presses in the US and the UK are working in tandem with some of Africa’s most generative outlets. Together they are publishing and promoting work by young and adventurous African writers.
Labours of love
Books published originally by presses like Umuzi (South Africa), amaBooks (Zimbabwe) and Kwani (Kenya) find second lives with international publishers working to defy the constraints of profitability. They’re mostly labours of love with skeleton staffs that speak to a transcontinental commitment to innovative African writing.
Here are a few key examples of African texts published by independent American outlets – “independent” here refers to presses beyond the “Big Five” US trade publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.
These include Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Ugandan epic “Kintu” which was originally launched by Kwani. It was the first Anglophone novel put out by the brand-new Transit Books based in Oakland, California. The press seeks maximum visibility for translated fiction alongside texts originally written in English. They advocate for more ethical legal and financial dealings with translators, as well as international writers.
A number of similarly tiny, ambitious ventures have published some of the most acclaimed recent African writing in translation. Deep Vellum Publishing was behind the English translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Etisalat Prize-winning “Tram 83”.
Also dedicated exclusively to works in translation, LA-based Phoneme Media in 2016 published the first ever Burundian novel in English, Roland Rugero’s deeply contemplative “Baho!”. Phoneme’s tagline, fittingly, is “curious books for curious people”.
In a similar vein, Brooklyn’s Restless Books was founded to combat “parochial, inward-looking, and homogenised trends in American publishing”. Among their forthcoming titles, translated from the French is Naivo’s “Beyond the Rice Fields”. It’s the first novel from Madagascar to see its way to English.
Every one of these throws a wrench in a clear, cynical sense of what kind of novel Western presses prize. That is not to mention the many African writers, publishers, and editors working in concert to promote these same texts.
Small, focused channels
It applies to the Anglosphere too. Books that offer a decidedly more locally textured experience than those of the “Afropolitan” rock stars have made their way abroad through small, focused channels.
These works might include Tendai Huchu’s “The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician” (published originally by amaBooks, and in the US by Ohio University Press); Imraan Coovadia’s “Tales of the Metric System” (from Umuzi, and again by Ohio University Press); and Masande Ntshanga’s “The Reactive” (also Umuzi; in the US by family-run Two Dollar Radio.
Clearly, this collection just scratches the surface. But what these works have in common is an investment in stylistic and structural experimentation that confounds rather than caters to an international taste for “digestible” fiction, or to mostly Western points of cultural and institutional reference.
This counter-current of transnational African literary life complicates the equation of culture, geopolitics and economics in more useful ways than stale materialist critiques.
As such titles and presses continue to gain acclaim and recognition by an international readership that is aware of and hostile to shallow representations of Africa – and who crave engagement with challenging fiction, regardless of its origin – critics will need to rethink some of their orthodoxies.
There is more to both African literature and Western publishing than meets an eye too practised in its suspicion. If literature is doomed only to echo the failings of globalisation, then why bother? On the contrary, a new generation of writers and publishers deserve our awareness of the “global literary marketplace” as a meaningfully multidimensional space.
On a damp October day in 2006, I followed Kazuo Ishiguro and my 10-year-old daughter Grace to a back table at a bustling cafe in London for an interview. As Ishiguro answered my questions, he explained how he “auditions” his characters’ voices and personalities in his head before they appear in his fiction. He spoke candidly about a writer’s messy work.
Now he is the laureate for the Nobel Prize in literature, for what the Swedish Academy praised as his unapologetic portrayals of “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”
It’s a nod to the self-delusion that many of Ishiguro’s characters possess. One, for example, rationalizes his service to a fascist loyalist. Others see their past through the cloudy lens of trauma. If we were to peel back the warped self-deception, we might find a bottomless pit of despair.
At that interview years ago, Ishiguro talked about his characters’ painful chasms, the way they protected themselves by concealing their mistakes. But when everything seems hopeless, his characters often courageously turn to their imagination to forge a connection to life and meaning.
In doing so, they beckon readers to imagine something better, too.
When I asked Ishiguro about his 2005 dystopic novel “Never Let Me Go,” his tone shifted. He lowered his voice when he told me about the students in that novel, and how they eventually perish. But he was surprised when I said that I found the novel sorrowful.
“There is an inevitable sadness,” he admitted. “On the other hand, it’s not a bleak view of human nature.”
I could sense Ishiguro’s concern for how my daughter might take his observations about death and despair.
He continued: “The question, ‘What are we useful for?’ is the question that your daughter Grace asks, and one Tommy and Kathy ask in ‘Never Let Me Go.’ Some cold system says to Tommy and Kathy that they will be useful [to the world], and it’s the same as another system saying to Grace that someday she will be useful to the world economy.”
Human systems figure in all of Ishiguro’s novels, whether these are governments, communities or families. Often, these systems are damaged, and humans still must move through them. They try to repair them or save themselves. Ishiguro has examined many facets of what it means to live among and within countless systems.
The first-person narrators of Ishiguro’s first three novels, “A Pale View of Hills,” “An Artist of the Floating World” and “The Remains of the Day,” reflect on personal losses in the context of world events: friends and families dead from atomic bombings in Japan, unrealized romances, wrong choices and lives founded on delusion. These characters long for clarity, retribution or forgiveness.
The narrators of his next three novels are, variously, a pianist (“The Unconsoled”), a London detective (“When We Were Orphans”) and a roving hospice-type worker (“Never Let Me Go”). Whether they’re situated in Japan, Great Britain, some unnamed European city or even a medieval village, Ishiguro’s characters beguile his readers with their disclosures. His eloquent prose expresses their anguish or their repressed longings. We sense time passing darkly for these characters. We see how they face disappointments and ache for dignity.
Ishiguro explained that to probe the emotional force of his novels, we must understand that the characters are set within “an internal world [and] it’s an emotional logic that is being played out.”
In narrating their sorrows and their fruitless optimism, Ishiguro gives his readers a way to empathize with his characters’ situations.
Ishiguro’s capacity for compassion was cultivated during his university gap year, when he worked with the homeless. He also studied piano and guitar and dreamed of a career in music before he detoured to the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia. He still writes musical lyrics and works with musicians as an avocation.
By his own admission, Ishiguro is a slow writer; he produces a novel every few years. In 2015, when he came to Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop to promote his latest novel, I was able to catch up with him. He remarked that he may have only a couple more books forthcoming.
“We’re not immortal,” he said. “We’re here for a limited time. There is a countdown.”
The Swedish Academy honors a laureate for a lifetime of achievement. To date, Ishiguro has published eight books as well as many short stories, television and film scripts. His career may seem disjointed when focusing on only the best-known novels, “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go.”
But few contemporary authors have dared to take as many risks as Ishiguro. The more complicated, Kafka-esque novel “The Unconsoled” is a book some critics called disappointing. A different sort of writer might have quit, but Ishiguro persisted.
Similarly, even though some readers responded coolly to “The Buried Giant,” Ishiguro had taken yet another literary leap: The highly metaphorical story is set in an early English era that predated historical records. Memory, repression of pain and the resolve to protect oneself and loved ones return as themes, but in unusual, allegorical ways.
Each novel is a singular achievement; each successive undertaking enriches a broader canvas of Ishiguro’s portraits of alienated lives.
During that 2006 London interview, I watched Ishiguro banter with my daughter during a break. They were laughing about what it means to “snarf” food, and they were picking up some biscuits and spooning melted ice cream to demonstrate. Ishiguro’s ease and humor when speaking with my child captivated me.
In spite of the sadness in his books, Ishiguro is a gracious guardian of humanity. He is a fine curator of emotions and a skilled storyteller.
We don’t know how many more books Ishiguro will publish. But we can be certain that in his literary explorations, he will remain undaunted.
Today’s students see themselves as digital natives, the first generation to grow up surrounded by technology like smartphones, tablets and e-readers.
Teachers, parents and policymakers certainly acknowledge the growing influence of technology and have responded in kind. We’ve seen more investment in classroom technologies, with students now equipped with school-issued iPads and access to e-textbooks. In 2009, California passed a law requiring that all college textbooks be available in electronic form by 2020; in 2011, Florida lawmakers passed legislation requiring public schools to convert their textbooks to digital versions.
Given this trend, teachers, students, parents and policymakers might assume that students’ familiarity and preference for technology translates into better learning outcomes. But we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.
As researchers in learning and text comprehension, our recent work has focused on the differences between reading print and digital media. While new forms of classroom technology like digital textbooks are more accessible and portable, it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.
Speed – at a cost
Our work has revealed a significant discrepancy. Students said they preferred and performed better when reading on screens. But their actual performance tended to suffer.
For example, from our review of research done since 1992, we found that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length. This appears to be related to the disruptive effect that scrolling has on comprehension. We were also surprised to learn that few researchers tested different levels of comprehension or documented reading time in their studies of printed and digital texts.
To explore these patterns further, we conducted three studies that explored college students’ ability to comprehend information on paper and from screens.
Students first rated their medium preferences. After reading two passages, one online and one in print, these students then completed three tasks: Describe the main idea of the texts, list key points covered in the readings and provide any other relevant content they could recall. When they were done, we asked them to judge their comprehension performance.
Across the studies, the texts differed in length, and we collected varying data (e.g., reading time). Nonetheless, some key findings emerged that shed new light on the differences between reading printed and digital content:
Students overwhelming preferred to read digitally.
Reading was significantly faster online than in print.
Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.
Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus
The medium didn’t matter for general questions (like understanding the main idea of the text).
But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.
Placing print in perspective
From these findings, there are some lessons that can be conveyed to policymakers, teachers, parents and students about print’s place in an increasingly digital world.
1. Consider the purpose
We all read for many reasons. Sometimes we’re looking for an answer to a very specific question. Other times, we want to browse a newspaper for today’s headlines.
As we’re about to pick up an article or text in a printed or digital format, we should keep in mind why we’re reading. There’s likely to be a difference in which medium works best for which purpose.
In other words, there’s no “one medium fits all” approach.
2. Analyze the task
One of the most consistent findings from our research is that, for some tasks, medium doesn’t seem to matter. If all students are being asked to do is to understand and remember the big idea or gist of what they’re reading, there’s no benefit in selecting one medium over another.
But when the reading assignment demands more engagement or deeper comprehension, students may be better off reading print. Teachers could make students aware that their ability to comprehend the assignment may be influenced by the medium they choose. This awareness could lessen the discrepancy we witnessed in students’ judgments of their performance vis-à-vis how they actually performed.
3. Slow it down
In our third experiment, we were able to create meaningful profiles of college students based on the way they read and comprehended from printed and digital texts.
Among those profiles, we found a select group of undergraduates who actually comprehended better when they moved from print to digital. What distinguished this atypical group was that they actually read slower when the text was on the computer than when it was in a book. In other words, they didn’t take the ease of engaging with the digital text for granted. Using this select group as a model, students could possibly be taught or directed to fight the tendency to glide through online texts.
4. Something that can’t be measured
There may be economic and environmental reasons to go paperless. But there’s clearly something important that would be lost with print’s demise.
In our academic lives, we have books and articles that we regularly return to. The dog-eared pages of these treasured readings contain lines of text etched with questions or reflections. It’s difficult to imagine a similar level of engagement with a digital text. There should probably always be a place for print in students’ academic lives – no matter how technologically savvy they become.
Of course, we realize that the march toward online reading will continue unabated. And we don’t want to downplay the many conveniences of online texts, which include breadth and speed of access.
Rather, our goal is simply to remind today’s digital natives – and those who shape their educational experiences – that there are significant costs and consequences to discounting the printed word’s value for learning and academic development.
In Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, a collection of nine short stories about robotics, Asimov explores the possibilities of human-computer interaction. How can humans and computers co-exist? How can they work together to make a better world?
A research group from the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam and the Antwerp Centre for Digital Humanities and Literary Criticism recently introduced a new digital creative writing system. Using a graphical interface, an author drafts a text sentence by sentence. Then, the system proposes its own sentences to continue the story. The human and the computer work together to create what the system’s developers call “synthetic literature”.
The paper detailing this project describes the text generation system as an attempt to:
Create a stimulating environment that fosters co-creation: ideally, the machine should output valuable suggestions, to which the author retains a significant stake within the creative process.
How to train your robot
To learn language and sentence structure, the system has been trained using the texts of 10,000 Dutch-language e-books. Additionally, the system was trained to mimic the literary styles of such renowned authors as Asimov and Dutch science fiction author Ronald Giphart by generating sentences that use similar words, phrases, and sentence structures as these authors.
As part of this year’s annual Nederland Leest (The Netherlands Reads) festival, Giphart has been trialling the co-creative writing system to write a tenth I, Robot story. Once Giphart’s story is completed it will be published at the end of a new Dutch edition of Asimov’s classic text. Throughout November, participating libraries throughout the Netherlands will be offering free copies of this edition to visitors to get people thinking about this year’s festival theme: Nederland Leest de Toekomst (The Netherlands Reads the Future).
As Giphart types new sentences into the system’s graphical interface, the system responds by generating a selection of sentences that could be used to continue the story. Giphart can select any of these sentences, or ignore the system’s recommendations altogether.
The point of the system, its developers explain, is to “provoke the human writer in the process of writing”. Giphart says he still considers himself “the boss, but [the system] does the work”. One article even described the system as being ideal “for those who have literary aspirations, but who lack talent”.
Can a computer be creative?
The “synthetic literature” referred to by this system’s developers implies a combined production effort of both human and computer. Of course, the human still guides production. As co-developer Folgert Karsdorp explained: “You have numerous buttons to make your own mix. If you want to mix Giphart and Asimov, you can do that too.” The system follows its user’s direction, responding by using its own capacity for creativity.
But can a computer ever be truly creative? This is a question that the field of computational creativity has been studying since computers were invented. The field generally accepts that a computer can be called creative if its output would be considered creative had it been produced by a human.
Computational creativity debates are all rooted in one underlying question: is the computer merely a tool for human creativity, or could it be considered a creative agent itself? In a discussion about computer-generated art, creativity scholar Margaret Boden noted that:
It is the computer artist [the developer] who decides what input a system will respond to, how the system will respond, how unpredictable the system’s output will be, and how transparent the system’s functionality will be to users.
Even the most unpredictable output, according to Boden, results from choices the computer artist has made. While a developer may not be able to predict a system’s exact output, the output nevertheless reflects the choices the developer has made while programming.
The co-creative writing system Giphart is using isn’t able to produce an entire book by itself, but it can produce paragraphs that continue Giphart’s story for him. Giphart, though, ultimately has the power to choose what computer output he uses.
But does this mean that Giphart alone will be credited as the author of his Ik, robot story, or will his computer be given credit as a co-author? It’s still unclear. Although it could be hotly debated whether the creative writing system is just a tool for Giphart’s vision or could be considered an agent itself, we won’t be seeing the demise of human authors any time soon.
One Nederland Leest blog post compares this new method of writing to the evolution of the electric guitar. It may have existed for nearly a century, but it wasn’t until Jimi Hendrix showed us how to really play the instrument that its potential was realised. Similarly, we still need to discover how to “play” this writing system to get the best results, whatever they might be.
So is synthetic literature the future? Maybe. Keep reading to find out.
A video explaining the project is available here, in Dutch.
The link below is to a book review of ‘A Modest Proposal,’ by Jonathan Swift.