Department of English

African Street Literatures and the Future of Literary Form

What happens to literary expression under extreme social pressure? Does it thrive? Or does it become irrelevant when life and health are precarious, when everyday life is radically unpredictable, when development is so fragmented and uneven that it neither elicits hope nor expectation, and when violence is both immediate and spectacular (terrorism, civil unrest) and incremental and invisible (environmental, epidemic). Such are the conditions of everyday life in contemporary African megacities. While some global forces have boosted African economies, others, such as climate change, forced migration, epidemics, and increasingly rapid urbanisation have left African spaces amongst the most precarious in the world. Our project asks what happens to literature under such extreme forms of precariousness and unpredictability? How does literature function in such environments, and how are literary forms shaped by these contexts?

To investigate this matter further, we propose to critically survey and analyse new literature from Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg. These three cities have been chosen to extend the national frames that have dominated African postcolonial literary studies, and to allow us to assess the similarities and differences of literary production across the sub-Saharan region. We are particularly interested in what we call ‘street literatures’, that being those literary forms that both materially and aesthetically fit the rhythms, challenges, and specificities of everyday life in African megacities. Such forms include spoken word poetry, blog fiction, micro-fiction, street art-as-literature, street theatre, pamphlet literature, digital poetry, and graphic fiction. More conventional literary genres such as the novel and the short story and written poetry will also be analysed, though the focus will fall on alternative forms of publication of these genres; for example serialised novels in newspapers and magazines, or self-published short story pamphlets. It is our contention that these alternative material forms of publication and distribution, which are entangled with the economic vagaries of the African city, impact on the literary forms of such genres in significant ways.  

English is the dominant language in the literature we seek to analyse. This is certainly not because English is the only literary language in sub-Saharan Africa; but as a lingua franca of the region, it is one of the continent’s most prolific literary languages. Where African language literatures tend to accentuate the distinctiveness of a linguistic, national, or ethnic community, the Pan-African dimensions of English call into being audiences that cut across such divisions. In other words, even though street literatures in English address local issues and communal experiences, they also intersect different linguistic and ethnic communities. African language literature that innovates on the level of form will be included in our material collection, though our capacity to analyse these texts is limited by our linguistic competence.  

Linguistic code switching is, however, pertinent to this study, particularly when used as a literary strategy or in ways that highlight formal innovation. This often happens, for example, as a direct consequence of literature being distributed in multimodal ways (for example, an African-language poem might be recorded in an English translation for distribution on the internet). We are interested in these and other multimodal literary forms, which are particularly common in Africa where poets and writers are often prompted by the demands of low literacy rates, economic isolation from print culture, and the established and long traditions of oral literary cultural forms, to explore multimodal avenues for their literary expression.  

These street literatures might be described, in Raymond Williams’s famously classification, as emergent literary forms, which he defines as “active and pressing but not yet fully articulated”. While the idea of Williams’s emergent literature has gone through significant debate in African literary studies (see Barber 1987, ter Haar, Newell & Okome) we maintain the relevance of the term and wager that the analysis of these emergent forms can help us to understand processes of creative expression and their function in extremely precarious and uneven social environments. Our research questions thus ask: What is the relationship between emergent African literary forms and the structure of everyday urban life on the continent today? And, how does economic, environmental, and epidemic vulnerability shape literary expression? 

This project aims to critically describe the ways that social forms determine and shape literary ones in the context of the African megacity. Our longer term aim is even more ambitious: following African urban theories that posit African city life as a template for the global urban future, we seek to lay the foundations for a further project on the form and function of literature in the world’s precarious future.

Barber, K. 1987. ‘Popular Arts in Africa’ African Studies Review 30.3: 1-78.

ter Haar, H. 2009. ‘From Primitive to Popular Culture’ in Falola & Agwuele eds. Africans and the Politics of Popular Culture. U of Rochester P. 

Newell, S & O. Okome. 2014. Popular Culture in Africa: The Episteme of the Everyday. Routledge.