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The African Novel
Imraan Coovadia

Like the strong-necked women who used to balance great loads on their heads in Zululand, the African novel bears so much meaning that it has difficulty looking around and catching sight of what is happening on the road. Since I was a child these women have almost disappeared, replaced by stronger trucks and trains, while the African novel strains to depict state politics, the fast emergencies of famine and massacre, alongside the slow emergencies of disease and poverty, carrying these images even further than the women to far continents. And with due respect to those vanishing women who sustained an entire economy I believe that to have something so heavy on your head can’t help but compress your thinking.

Under such strain you might forget that the first thing to remember about the African novel is not that it is African but that it is a novel. Novels are produced one by one, sentence by sentence, feeling by feeling, and one scene after the other like certain marriages. The novel is tested out in a writer’s laboratory, on the apparatus of heart and tongue and sometimes, in the matter of sound and rhythm, on the writer’s ear and foot. Like any novel the African novel is made out of materials which a writer finds lying around the place entirely neglected by human beings—soon to be forgotten feelings and fantasies and desires, incidents which nobody thinks to think twice about, alongside pieces of string and sealing wax and the ant nests of pedestrians and taxis which dominate our cities. Yet in twenty years of being a writer I have answered far more questions about politics than about the sentences and sensations that I try out each and every day. At least my views about good sentences and great subjects for novels have a certain sincerity to them. Yet the world is far more curious about the economic and political views concerning the future of Africa that a writer carries, rather than his or her views on the curvy sides of a marvellous sentence.

I would even argue that the African novel has disappeared more completely than those sinuous women because unlike them it never existed in the first place and therefore shouldn’t cause us any headaches. There’s no such thing as an African novel for reasons not unrelated to the non-existence of an African parliament, a single African economic space, a pan-African space station, or a unified reading public on a continent divided, from a writer’s point of view, not so much into states but into the literary languages descended, in the most part, from colonial power. The money is elsewhere and despite its better instincts imagination follows it.

In any event lines on the ground mean nothing when the networks of information and commerce take different forms. So it is cheaper to fly from Cape Town to London than to almost any country on the continent and easier to discover a Mozambican novel online in a British newspaper than in a South African bookshop. Before the internet the continent was already well-defined by borders and state structures and yet deterritorialized at the level of the imagination, with its genres and much of its literature and language arriving from abroad. As a result too many of these non-existent novels have too little in them of the peculiar sensations belonging to the streets and neighbourhoods and informal settlements running from Cape Town to Cairo. Writers who baptise their own characters know the importance of names. By its very name the novel counts as something new, an entry into a paradoxical tradition of new things like, for instance, Half a Yellow Sun or Waiting for the Barbarians or Petals of Blood. Meanwhile too many of the things in novels published about Africa are neither young nor old but simply undead. They are zombie facts buried elsewhere in graveyards of the imagination only to be disinterred in African novels. Maybe it’s no coincidence that they should have chased the strong-headed women from the sides of the roads.

Imraan Coovadia is a writer and Director of the Creative Writing programme at the University of Cape Town. He is the author most recently of a novel, The Institute for Taxi Poetry (2012) and a collection of essays, Transformations (2012). In 2010 his novel High Low In-between won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg prize. He also has published a scholarly monograph with Palgrave, Authority and Authorship in V.S. Naipaul (2009), and two earlier novels. His fiction has been published in a number of countries, and he has written for many newspapers, journals, and magazines here and overseas.

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