The Untold Story of the African Novel

Course Description:

In this course, we will do an experiment. We will imagine a history of the novel in Africa that excludes the influence of European aesthetic forms. Modern African fiction has traditionally been situated within the history of the novel as a European invention, thereby making the history of fiction in Africa merely a part of a longer history that begins in Europe. Our goal is to tell the story of the African novel differently by setting up pre-modern African texts as the starting point. We will begin with texts like The Ozidi Saga, the Sundiata epic, Sayyid Abdallah’s 18th century Swahili poetry, Walatta Petros’ 17th century biography, Ifa divinatory stories, folk tales, etc. and then work our way up to novels like Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard, Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka, Coetzee’s Dusklands, Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. Our goal is simply to identify aesthetic elements in the African novel that are generated from within the African literary archive.


This course was inspired, in part, by a statement I found in an essay by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe:

As it happens the novel, even in its home of origin, has not behaved very well; it has always resisted the straitjacket. What is more, being a robust art form, it has travelled indefatigably and picked up all kinds of strange habits!

(“The Writer and His Community.”)

The image of the novel “resisting the straitjacket” evokes the image of a madhouse. I have always been intrigued by this image of the novel as an unruly narrative form resisting the discipline and domestication that would forever stamp on it a European label. The novel may have originated in Europe, but, as Achebe suggests, it had to escape Europe in order to achieve its full potential.

Achebe’s statement reminds us that that the novel is a global form. The novel as it emerged in Europe is simply just that: the novel as it emerged in Europe. The novel as a global form is something different, with myriad histories and formal trajectories, fluid origins and unexpected endpoints. The novel that emerged in Europe stayed in Europe. What escaped and became the basis of a powerful global aesthetic form is a border-defying entity that has taken roots everywhere including Africa. Thus, in telling the story of the novel, we do not always have to begin from Europe.

This idea of keeping the origin of the novel open and fluid helps us avoid the rhetoric of mimicry we often employ when we talk about novels from other parts of the world. The African novel for example, is not simply a European novel spiced up with African flavor. It has its own genealogy and comes with a raft of formal and aesthetic innovations.

This course titled “The (Untold) Story of the African Novel” pushes the assumption in Achebe’s statement to its furthest extreme by setting up the African literary archive as the starting point of the novel. Our goal is to establish a link between a pre-modern African literary archive and the form of the novel in Africa.

The course is divided into three parts. In the first part of the course, we will study a selection of pre-modern literary texts, ranging from 17th century Ethiopian hagiographies to Yoruba divinatory verses. In the final version of the course, we will then use the terms, concepts, and paradigms excavated from our study of pre-modern texts to explain the formal innovations in a selection of African novel classics.