Authenticity in African Writing

July 2005 was the first time that I became aware that the authenticity of African writing was in question.  It was at the first meeting organised for short-listed candidates for the Caine Prize for African Writing (an award for short stories) with publishers and literary agents.  I had never thought about the authenticity of any writer’s work before and the question caught me off balance.  As a pensioner, who has taken up writing stories since my retirement in 2000, I found myself inadvertently thrown in with young writers, who were familiar with this kind of discourse. I suddenly realised that sitting alone in my study in Pretoria, writing about the people around me, I had missed out on great intellectual debates taking place in the real literary world.

As the question of authenticity was new to me, I became defensive, felt the need to justify my impudence in attempting to be a writer, took for granted that the question about authenticity was a valid one and immediately became involved in specious arguments to authenticate my authenticity.  I looked at ethnicity, place of abode, language, traditions and customs, none of which provided me with a clear-cut understanding of authenticity and eventually I decided that I am an African writer because I say so.  My conclusion was as ridiculous as the quest.

I look back now after a few years of conscientious writing in which I have been discovering myself as a writer and find the question of authenticity quite absurd.  A writer writes from her understanding and experience of life.  What can be more authentic than that?  No one questions the authenticity of writers from other continents who write about anything and everything under the sun and even beyond.  How does a writer of science fiction explain the authenticity of his writing?  What experience does he have of wormholes and other galaxies, Cyborgs and Klingons?  Who questions the authenticity of Alexander McCall Smith, who writes about Africa but is not African?

I assume that it is the diversity of African writers, ethnic, residential, cultural and experiential, that makes people question their authenticity.  As so many are in the diaspora and write about experiences that go far beyond the continent of Africa, they suddenly become suspect.

 Is there perhaps a feeling that writing about other cultures, in particular Western culture, is not the appropriate domain for African writers, even though they describe their personal experiences?   I remember seeing a documentary on Gerard Sekoto, and in one segment, when the artist, living in Paris, began to depict the life around him, he lost his popularity.  He was accepted as long his paintings reflected African people and circumstances. How could he paint Parisian subjects and scenes?  I assume his critics believed he was not being authentic and not that he was an upstart whose depictions of Parisians were inappropriate.  Understanding of authenticity that depends on a narrow extrapolation of what an African is, seems to me to preoccupy the thinking of those who question the authenticity of African writers.  They would like all African writers to conform to set criteria.

The question is really a pseudo-intellectual inquiry that hides discomfort at seeing the world depicted through African eyes that understand and make judgments about situations beyond the African village.  Writing should, by all means, be judged by its quality and its ability to depict with flair and imagination any situation.  It should not be judged by the extent to which it conforms to conventional notions of Africa.  

African writers, like any other writers, write from personal experience.  That is what authentic writers do. They are aware of the diversity of influences in their lives and are glad of them for they give them the power to be creative.  

Muthal Naidoo
January 2008