By Shaniah Shields, Jia Wen Ho and Leanne Francis
In the second instalment of our Writing the World: Africa series, we travel to countries in Central Africa and observe their intricate historical literary scenes. From topics of identity and belonging to exploring the effects of war, Central African literature is raw and expressive, telling stories of those long forgotten and unheard.
The literary scene in Gabon is reflective of the strong French colonial influence on Gabonese culture, with the majority of contemporary writers expressing themselves almost exclusively in French. Gabonese literature and particularly that by women writers has little exposure. However, Cheryl Toman collated Women Writers of Gabon: Literature and Herstory which is the only book-length critical study of Gabonese literature that exists in English. The book showcases major voices in women’s writing in Gabon, including Angèle Rawiri, Justine Mintsa and Sylvie Ntsame.
Although Chad boasts a rich culture which encapsulates a tapestry of different languages and religions, Chadian literature has suffered as a result of economic and political turmoil. Ahmat Taboye, a Chadian literary critic, published Anthologie de la littérature tchadienne in 2003 which covers 40 years of Chadian literature. The anthology shines a light on the silenced voices, ranging from the 1960s to the early 2000s. More recently, contemporary writers including Koulsy Lamko and Salma Khalil Alio are producing dynamic and expressive work.
The Republic of Congo
The Republic of Congo is often obscured by the cultural and political exploits of its larger namesake and neighbour, Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, its writers are producing compelling literature that is some of the best of Francophone Africa. Alain Mabanckou has solidified his name in Congolese literature with his debut novel Blue-White-Red receiving the Sub-Saharan Africa Literary Prize. His latest poetry collection As Long As Trees Take Root in the Earth (2021) conjures nostalgia for an African childhood against a raw, music-infused backdrop.
Although Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel grew up without access to books other than school books, he became the most translated author from Equatorial Guinea. Outspoken against dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea, Ávila Laurel was exiled to Spain in 2011 after going on an anti-government hunger strike. One of his novels, The Gurugu Pledge, is about refugees on Mount Gurugu attempting to scale the fence in an effort to cross over to Europe. Telling each individuals' stories as well as their collective hope for a better place, this book puts names to the refugee community.
São Tomé and Príncipe
With Portuguese as their official language, Sao Tome and Principe has a wide variety of Portuguese literature, but little of that literature is available in English. One Saotomean poet that has been translated into English is Conceiçao Lima, who has published four poetry books. Exploring the impact of colonisation and slavery in her country while showing the plurality of Saotomean identity, her poetry is evocative and thoughtful. Her poems ‘Afroinsularity’ and ‘Petty Tyrants’ are available to read.
Democratic Republic of Congo
At the age of ten, Sandra Uwiringiyimana survived a massacre of her own people, witnessing horrific acts of violence that would haunt her. She and her remaining family fled to the US. However, it wasn’t the safe haven she thought it was: America presented new problems of racial discrimination. Her book, How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child, tells her story of escape from her homeland and her struggles of finding her place in a new country.
Cameroonian-American novelist Imbolo Mbue creates fascinating stories in New York Times bestseller Behold the Dreamers and How Beautiful We Were. Behold the Dreamers, which received the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2017, tells the story of Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant who lives in Harlem, hoping to provide a better life for his family. After securing a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers, Jende and his family’s future appears much brighter. When the 2008 financial crisis strikes, the main characters’ worlds are destabilised and they are faced with a series of difficult decisions to make. In this powerful story of family, love and power, Mbue makes space for people whose stories often remain untold.
Central African Republic
Literature from the Central African Republic is harder to come by. Due to the instability in the CAR, most of the literature available to the public focuses on the civil war, politics and history. State of Rebellion: Violence and Intervention in the Central African Republic, written by Louisa Lombard in 2016, documents the ongoing conflict in great detail, closely examining the roles played by different groups of people including politicians, journalists, and marginalised rural youths. This is a thought-provoking and insightful book which provides a comprehensive breakdown of the conflict, but does require prior knowledge of the situation in the Central African Republic.