Helon Habila gehört zu den intellektuellsten Vertretern der modernen afrikanischen Literatur. Er wurde 1967 in Nigeria geboren,studierte Literatur an der University of Jos (Nigeria) und arbeitete als Journalist in Lagos. Von 2003 bis 2005 war er African Writing Fellow an der University of East Anglia (Norwich, UK) und erhielt 2005/2006 die erste Chinua Achebe Fellowship am Bard College in New York. Helon Habila ist heute Associate Professor an der George Mason University in den USA und lehrt kreatives Schreiben. Als Wissenschaftler und Herausgeber setzt er sich dafür ein, zeitgenössischen afrikanischen Autoren im westlichen Sprachraum Präsenz zu geben. Sein wissenschaftliches Engagement führte ihn im Januar 2013 nach Frankfurt. Im Rahmen der ZIAF Lecture 2013 des Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Afrikaforschung gab er an der Goethe-Universität einen Überblick über die Entwicklung der neueren afrikanischen Literatur. Besonderes Anliegen ist Habila die Entwicklung der afrikanischen Short Stories. Diese literarische Erzählform grenzt er dezidiert von traditionellen, oral übermittelten Geschichten ab. “We must never confuse the African short story with the folktale“ schreibt er in dem Essay, mit dem er die von ihm herausgegebene Sammlung der besten afrikanischen Kurzgeschichten einleitet. Seine Einführung in den Stand der zeitgenössischen afrikanischen Short Stories hat Helon Habila Faust-Kultur in der Originalfassung zur Veröffentlichung überlassen. (pol)

Essay

The Granta Book of the African Short Story

Introduction by Helon Habila

I often attend lectures and conferences where some distinguished speaker will give a talk on African literature which, to my disappointment, if not surprise, begins and ends with Things Fall Apart, as if nothing has been written in Africa since 1958. In this collection, I want to bring things up to date and present my own generation, usually referred to as “the third generation of African writers”, who, until now, have rarely been anthologized. To put them in perspective, I have also selected a few influential and representative first and second generation writers to stand alongside their artistic descendents. My hope is to capture the range and complexity of African short fiction since independence, highlighting the dominant thematic and stylistic shifts over the decades.
A good description of the third generation is given by the literary critic Paul Zeleza in his essay, Colonial Fictions: Memory and History in Yvonne Vera's Imagination: “Nowhere is the multidimensionality, multifocality, and multivocality of twentieth-century African literature more evident than in the postcolonial generation of writers born after 1960, whose creative flowering came in the 1980s and 1990s, the era of pervasive crisis for the postcolony and the triumph of postcolonial theory, both of which marked and mediated their work. This generation incorporated in their literary imaginations disdain for colonialism and distrust of nationalism that had animated earlier generations of writers who bemoaned the cultural agonies of colonialism and the aborted dreams of uhuru. The new generation had decidedly more cosmopolitan visions of the African condition, cultural production, and the subjectivities of gender, class, and sexuality.”
Taking my cue from Zeleza’s phrase, “distrust of nationalism,” I call this generation of writers the “post-nationalist” generation, whose inaugural sentiment can be traced back to Dambudzo Marechera’s famous line, “If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.”
My use of the term post-nationalist is aspirational. I see this new generation as having the best potential to liberate itself from the often predictable, almost obligatory obsession of the African writer with the nation and with national politics, an obsession that at times has been beneficial to African writing, but more often has been restrictive and confining to the African writer’s ambition. Ironically many of the writers in this anthology are or can be post-nationalist not simply because of the reasons given by Zeleza, but also because they live and work outside their countries, mostly in the West.
This shift towards post-nationalist subject matter can be seen in recent African novels favouring the themes of travel and individual identity, like Brian Chikwava’s Harare North, about Zimbabweans in London; Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street, about Nigerian prostitutes in Belgium; Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, about Ethiopians in Washington, DC; EC Osondu’s collection of stories, Voice of America, about Nigerians in America,Teju Cole’s Open City set in New York, and of course Uwem Akpan’s collection, Say You Are One of Them, set in different African cities, and so many more, I am sure, that I am not aware of. Perhaps it is this departure from the more obvious themes of African literature that has led some traditional minded critics to accuse this generation of writers of not being “ideological” enough, failing to see that this lack of ideology could be intentional and useful; an ideology in itself.

It's a sad but apparently undeniable fact that the short story has always taken second place to the novel in Africa. Some of the best African writers simply don’t write short stories, which is why this anthology doesn't include some of my favourite writers: JM Coetzee, Wole Soyinka, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Flora Nwapa, Sello Duiker, Zakes Mda, Damon Galgut, Tsitsi Dangremgba, Meja Mwangi, Boubacar Boris Diop, Chris Abani, and many more. One of the best historical and critical studies of fiction in Africa covering the period from 1958 to 1970, Charles Larson’s The Emergence of African Fiction (1971), has nothing to say about the short story. Post-colonial African writers, determined to create an alternative narrative to colonialist denigration of African culture and history, saw more possibilities with the novel than the short story. As the critic Simon Gikandi puts it in his book, Reading Chinua Achebe, “…the novel may be the genre that is most alien to African cultures, but it is also the most amenable to representing the historical transformations and contradictions engendered by the colonial enterprise.”
This relegation of the short story to second place continued well past the immediate post independence period. In the introduction to their excellent Contemporary African Short Stories (1992), Achebe and Innes lament the sharp decline in short story production in Africa, attributing it to the collapse of publishing companies on the continent, companies like Heinemann with its influential African Writers Series; and the disappearance of magazines like Okike, Transition, Black Orpheus, and many more, where short stories usually make their debut before ending up in collections and anthologies. To this can be added the disappearance of a middle class in many African countries, a sector historically necessary for the survival of a short story culture.
This appears to be the situation on the surface. On closer examination one sees that the short story in Africa has always persisted, sometimes challenging the very assumption of its secondary status. While some magazines disappeared, others like Presence Africaine, and Achebe’s African Commentary, continued to publish short stories from outside the continent. Collections and anthologies also continued to be published, some of which have proved to be as enduring and as influential as any African novel: I'm thinking of, for instance, Achebe’s Girls at War, Alex La Guma’s A Walk in the Night, Taban Lo Lyong’s Fixions and Other Stories, Bessie Head’s The Collector of Treasures, Ama Ata Aidoo’s No Sweetness Here, Ben Okri’s Stars of the New Curfew, Can Themba’s The Will to Die, Tayeb Salih’s The Wedding of Zain and Nadine Gordimer’s Some Monday for Sure.
Perhaps critics need to shoulder the blame; although short stories were being written, the critical establishment simply weren’t paying them as much attention as they were to novels. Short stories were often seen as light and inconsequential. In his book, Tradition and Modernity in the African Short Story: An Introduction to a Literature in Search of Critics (1991), which is the first book length study of the African short story, F. Odun Balogun, laments the lack of serious critical attention given to the short story, despite its widespread practice in Africa. He blames both the difficulty of publishing and “the fact that the genre, as one observer says, is a ‘paradoxical form’ patronized by both beginners and accomplished writers…”
Today we are witnessing what has often been called a “renaissance” in African literature. Writing and publishing on the continent have had their lulls, particularly in the late eighties and much of the nineties, but African writers have always written – it is often their only way of “throwing” their voices into the knife-fight of their continent’s socio-cultural discourse – and this tag of “renaissance” is not at all accurate. I remember, in Nigeria in the 1990s, during the darkest days of the dictatorship, when most publishing houses closed down, newspapers stepped in to fill the vacuum. The Post Express in particular launched a short story and reviews series called Post Express Literary Series (PELS), edited by Nduka Otiono, from which grew the annual Liberty Merchant Bank short story competition. PELS gave voice to many young writers, although not many of them managed to get any international notice because, at that time, Nigeria was cut off from the rest of the world by economic and political sanctions.
With the coming of the internet to many parts of urban Africa around late 1990s, a new avenue for publishing was discovered and the African short story finally began to get its long overdue moment of recognition. The traditional publishing landscape, with its excessive restrictions, was suddenly superseded. The internet is today doing what the newspapers and magazines did to the development of the short story in Europe and America at the start of the industrial age. It is also worth pointing out that the internet, due to its own peculiar restrictions, seems actually to favour short stories over novels, thereby reversing the restrictions that traditional publishing had placed on African fiction.
Another factor that gave a boost to the short story in Africa, and forced critics to take it more seriously, is the Caine Prize for African Writing, which began in 2000. To demonstrate how influential it has been in the development of recent African fiction, almost half of the writers in this anthology have either been shortlisted for the Caine or have won it, from Leila Abuleila (2000), to the most recent winner, Olufemi Terry (2010).
Yet, despite its influential effect on recent African writing, the Caine prize seems to have been founded on a common fallacy regarding the African short story. On its website it advertized its focus “on the short story, as reflecting the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition.” This statement would seem to link the African short story to oral tradition in Africa and the folk tale in particular. Before you know it, the short story is declared a “more distinctly African form”. Similarly critics seek to find oral narrative devices in every African work of fiction.
I witnessed this rather reductionist view of African writers recently at a conference in Europe when I was invited to take part in a panel on oral literature. I had assumed that I and my fellow African writers would be asked about the influence, if any, of oral narrative devices in our writing, or to discuss the handling of it by earlier writers like Achebe and Ngugi. But no. We were simply put on stage in front of a few hundred Swedes and asked to discuss oral literature. We didn’t. After a few false starts the discussion finally found itself contemplating the literary and aesthetic values of rap music and slam poetry.
This leads to the question: what exactly is the African short story? What makes a work particularly African? This is not a new query. Writers and critics have been asking exactly this since the emergence of African fiction, and I don't intend to repeat all the same arguments again here. The important thing is this: we must never confuse the African short story with the folktale. A folktale is episodic; it often uses deux ex machina to extricate characters from sticky situations; it is didactic; and it mostly uses fairies and animal characters. Mastery of the folk tale doesn’t necessarily make one a great short story writer. And so most of the short stories in this collection are folkloric only in the sense that Kafka’s man turning into a bug is folkloric; they use folkloric elements as Ursula Le Guin uses the archetypal myth of the scapegoat in her story, “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas”.
In his Introduction to the The Picador Book of African Short Story, Stephen Gray quotes Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala’s description of the African short story, which I think best defines what we are working with here: “It is indebted to the tradition of Chekov and Maupassant, Mansfield and Hemingway; it is concentrated…; its relationship to the expansive novel is that of poetry to prose; it is solely the creation of its individual author, written for experienced short story readers, rather than any written reduction from orature.”

How can you gather together the stories of a continent that is larger than China, Europe, and the United States put together? How can you “anthologise” fifty-three countries, a billion people, and over a thousand ethnic groups?
I could have organized this anthology by regions, scrupulously making sure each of the 53 countries, big or small, has at least one story. This is the usual logic behind the packaging of most anthologies of African writing. (For instance: Stephen Gray’s excellent The Picador Book of African Stories (2000); Chinua Achebe and CL Innes’ groundbreaking The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories (1992); Rob Spillman’s Gods and Soldiers (2009); Charles Larson’s Under African Skies (1997).) Some even have maps and diagrams explaining exactly where the stories originated, and where the originating countries are situated on the continent.
Another obvious way to arrange an anthology is by themes; Soyinka did it in Poems of Black Africa (1979). This plan – although I didn’t use it here – appeals to me more than the geographical one because it turns the focus on the writing itself rather than the countries or regions of origin. It is instructive to note that even when anthologies are arranged by region, an unmistakable thematic pattern soon develops. Sometimes, but not always, themes are regionally determined. Achebe acknowledges this in his Introduction to The Heinemann Book when he notes that most of the Southern African stories show “a painful, inescapable bond to racism”, while in the West African stories there’s a total absence of that, an absence verging on “complacency”, and in North Africa Islam and women’s place in the culture are often the dominant themes. But no region really has a monopoly on any particular theme; more often reading different writers side by side will simply show how similar we are as humans.
I eventually decided to order these stories generationally, starting with the youngest writer, and ending with the oldest. The intention being to showcase the newest writing from the continent first, before moving back in time to show what came before that, that is what these younger writers must have grown up reading.
While selecting the stories, I would sometimes write to the authors to see if they had a story they preferred to have in the anthology. I was curious to see what their choice would be and whether it would match my own. I wanted to make the selection as collaborative as possible, because I believe an anthology should also give an insight into the motives and inspirations of the writers. As an author I am aware that often it is not my favorite story that is also the readers’ favorite, or the critics’. In a sense, then, this is a sort of writer’s anthology of African short stories.
Ala Al Aswany (Egypt) suggested “Mme Zita Mende: A Last Image”, a beautiful story about childhood and romance and life’s transience, a story that brings to life the old and fading expatriate community in Cairo; Leila Aboulela (Sudan/Egypt) at first suggested “Something Old, Something New” but we finally settled on “Missing Out”; Patrice Nganang (Cameroun) sent me the politically charged, twist-in-the-tale story of racism in pre-WW 2 Germany. Mansoura Ez Aldin (Egypt) is here with that strange and enchanting “Faeries of the Nile.”
Regardless of the author’s suggestion, before settling on a particular story, I would ask myself a simple question: ten years from now, would this story illuminate the preoccupations and concerns, literary and social, of the times in which it was written? The story of Africa, from independence to the present, is best told not in its history books and other officially constructed documents, but in its novels, short stories, poems and other artifacts.
Africa’s strength is not, contrary to what most people like to think, in its homogeneity, but in its diversity of cultures and languages and religions and skin colours. It is a large place; it contains multitudes. There is so much here to celebrate, like the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the return of democracy to Nigeria and Egypt and many other African countries formerly under dictatorships, the end of the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. I hope this anthology will echo that celebratory mood, and also to hint at what the future looks like. As long as people have freedom to think and discuss and travel and find fulfillment, and are not slaves to the nation and politicians, they will create art and put down their best thoughts and ideas in the form of stories.

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erstellt am 02.3.2013

Helon Habila, Foto: Wolfgang Becker
Helon Habila, Foto: Wolfgang Becker

In 2011 Helon Habila edited The Granta Book of the African Short Story. Habila has been a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review since 2004. He also teaches every summer in an annual creative writing workshop series in his native Nigeria, the Fidelity Bank International Creative Writing Workshop.

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Helon Habila (Hrsg.)
The Granta Book of the African Short Story
Englisch
Hardcover
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