Between the headlines

African literature fills in journalistic blanks

Date published: 2006-04-18 9:06:17 AM

Newspapers and television are full of desolate images of Africa. Reports on AIDS, war, scandal and famine overwhelm the senses. But there is a bigger and more compelling picture of Africa. Just read some African literature.

Try internationally recognized authors Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and J.M. Coetzee, or Nobel Prize winners Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer. Their works and many others by African authors show the rich and complex life of the continent.

“This literature is a wide and varied response to the general historical, social, political and cultural needs of the peoples of Africa,” says Douglas Killam, professor emeritus from the University of Guelph. “It begins as a response to the colonizing experience and is devoted to restoring their history.”

Killam is the editor of the only comprehensive guide to African literary works written or widely available in English: The Companion to African Literatures.

To compile the book, Killam called on his long-standing connections with hundreds of writers, scholars and critics in Canada, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Tanzania and elsewhere.

This extensive network has continued to grow as African students, including the daughter of internationally renowned Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, have come to study at Guelph.

By the time the book was published, 350 experts had contributed over 1,000 entries on the authors, genres, and literary movements of 34 African countries. Writers working in 13 indigenous African languages, as well as Afrikaans, Portuguese and French, receive their own entries.

With the Companion now a standard university reference book, students and scholars worldwide are better able to read between the headlines to understand topics ranging from censorship, prison literature in South Africa and the Nigeria-Biafra war to women in literature, oral tradition and folklore and Francophone-Anglophone literary relations.

“Writers examine the achievements and abuses of African governments,” Killam explains. “The writing is political and is designed to teach.”

Douglas Killam’s work has been supported by three SSHRC grants. His Companion, published in 2000, was designated an outstanding academic title by CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries.