Tolu Olungesi is a Nigerian poetr, writer and critic. Over the last two years he won several awards. He was a student at several European universities and he presently lives in Lagos.
Last month (August 2009) the British newspaper The Guardian reported a row involving the jacket of the latest book by Australian author Justine Larbalestier, Liar. Her publisher had used a photograph of a long-haired white girl on the jacket. On her blog, Larbalestier raised the alarm, because her protagonist was really a black woman with short kinky hair. According to Larbalestier western publishers are on a large scale, willingly or unwillingly, 'whitewashing' covers. "I have been hearing the same anecdotes over and over again about the big publishers. Editors have told me that their sales departments say 'black' covers don't sell. Perhaps it is true that a white audience likes to see a white person on the cover, but I wonder are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people?"
The extent to which a novel's commercial success is dependent on the cover image is debatable. Publishing is a business, and hardly philanthropy. If they think they have to change a cover in order to make a larger profit, it is hard to object. The African book market is small, so one can hardly blame publishers for focusing on other continents. Yet there is something wrong with the way African writers are being published in the west. A random survey of contemporary fiction by writers of African origin will reveal that the output is skewed towards a certain kind of writing, bound by certain unwritten rules.
In a recent interview the novelist Chimamanda Adichie argued that "for a lot of people, the only Africa they ever see is people dying, or people killing each other. Of course, Africa isn't just about people starving and dying. Africa isn't one story; there are so many."
In Farafina, a Lagos-based arts journal, she narrates an incident that occurred at a reading she did in Perth, Australia. "One of the few men in the audience said that African writers like me are all educated and middle-class and are therefore not writing the true stories of the real Africa." Do western readers get confused when they read about the African middle-class, when all they hear about on TV are slums and poverty? But Africans also have to share in the blame. One example: as long as, in many parts of the African continent people still label homosexuality as patently 'un-African', in spite of all evidence to the contrary. How does an African writer convince the world that stories featuring homosexual Africans are not some African version of science fiction?
The battle-cry for authenticity often issues louder from critics and commentators of African origin than from anywhere else. Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Christopher Okigbo and Dambudzo Marechera have all, at one time or the other been accused of 'eurocentrism' (critic-speak for 'non-authenticity'). It is in response to such critics that the Nigerian writer, Helon Habila declared in 2007 interview that many critics don't have any idea about what authentic African literature would look like. "They wouldn't recognize it if it spat in their face. Art follows no rules, art is kinetic, art sources its materials from far and wide. Provinciality only diminishes it." It is this diminishment, this attempt to reduce 'African Literature' to this one thing or that, which we have to contend with. "Africa is many stories" Adichie consistently argues. Nigerian novelist Chris Abani said last year: "If you want to know about Africa, read our literature; and not just Things Fall Apart, because that would be like saying I've read Gone With The Wind and so I know everything about America."