The African Imagination: Literature In Africa and the Black Diaspora (2001)

Book review by Marina Davis

Francis Abiola Irele (1936-2017) was a Nigerian-born, former Harvard professor. Irele was one of the world’s foremost authorities on African and Black Diasporic literature. He acknowledged that the depth and breadth of the subject of African and Black diasporic literature are far too expansive for any individual to claim mastery. The diversity of the literature (from language, tradition, styles, etc.) discourages neat compartmentalization and so Irele did not organize this book in this way.

About 70 pages of the book, the first four chapters, are devoted to what literature in Africa and the Black diaspora encompasses, the diversity of styles (e.g., oral traditions versus written), and how the literary tradition has developed. Of the ten total chapters, four focus on specific works within the African literary sphere, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté, Masks by Edward Brathwaite, and Monnè, Outrages et Défis by Ahmadou Kourouma. Another chapter is dedicated to the works of the famed Nigerian poet and playwright John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo. The book ends with a chapter covering contemporary African literature and the themes explored therein regarding individual authors’ interpretations of postcolonial African politics and life.

This book is not a simple or fast read; it is intensely academic and deeply thoughtful in its literary critique, discussion, and parallels. It can be verbose. However, the literary ideas and traditions Irele explores are not to be missed by any fiction lover or African cultural enthusiast.

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