Ada U. Azodo
Indiana University Northwest
...I do not even consider it necessary to preoccupy oneself unduly with
this kind of definition...It is not only from the practical point of view,
however, that the problem of definition loses its edge, but also from a more
fundamental consideration. For however gratifying it might be, for the sake of
intellectual rigour, to arrive at a precise definition of African literature,
the effort would still be beside the point, which is to place into focus what I
consider to be the essential force of African literature-its reference to the
historical and experiential. It is this which, in a real and profound way,
justifies the ready attachment of the historical and politico-ideological
connotation of the term "Africa" to such a diversity of texts and
The part that literature plays as a unifying institution of Art is paramount to our understanding of how a people can survive the present and win the future. In investigating the relationship between Africa and its Diaspora today, in the face of decades of fruitless efforts by scholars to determine who is African and what the criteria should be for determining what might be classified as African, one needs to reconsider the benefits to society of the literary genres prevalent among African writers.
The theme of the twenty-second annual conference of the African Literature Association, "Migrating Words and Worlds: Pan-Africanism Updated," pointed to the problematic notion of being an African at the millennium. Pan-Africanism in contemporary history should be about uniting all peoples of Africa wherever they find themselves. From separate distinctive currents at national and regional levels, one should work hard towards a certain type of unity in diversity, where the black person becomes once again a strong, dignified and free person across boundaries. This is why the definition of African literature continues to torment scholars, for indeed they recognize that, in a way, works of literature mirror their epochs. One needs to reexamine the functionality of African literature as an institution of Art today.
Chinua Achebe was once probed on his thoughts on the African novel and the novelist. Rather impatiently, he responded that definitely the African novel had to be about Africa as a geographical expression and as a metaphysical landscape. He added that it should be about "a view of the world and all of the cosmos perceived from a particular position."  On the qualifications for becoming an African novelist, he added: "...it is partly a matter of passports, of individual volition and particularly of seeing from that perspective.... Being an African, like being a Jew, carries certain penalties... as well as benefits, of course. But perhaps more penalties than benefits...(Joseph Conrad of Heart of Darkness was a European who did not want to be an African)....And it is not even a matter of color, for we have Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing and others." 
According to Abiola Irele, again on the same issue:
Peter Igbonekwu, for his part, seems to take the affinity of Africa and its Diaspora as a given, especially in matters concerning the ability of literature to express their similarities in social and cultural questions. He then goes on to discuss the essential elements of African literature which, according to him, should include the obligation to represent the image of Africa, given that Africa is relatively still unknown, underestimated and despised in the world. Igbonekwu cites Camara Laye and Ferdinand Oyono, two Francophone African novelists, who respectively depict Africa's past and traditions, for their contributions towards the better understanding of Africa. 
In talking about African literature, there is a tendency to forget that the whole of African art is linked with oral literature which has been the mainstay of both traditional and modern Africa.  Often times, African written literature is a transcription, adaptation, translation or exploitation of oral material, irrespective of the language chosen by the author to write her/his piece. Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Obi Wali believe that any work that is African must be written in one of the languages of Africa while Chinua Achebe and Ama Ata Aidoo are of the opinion that African literature can also be written in a foreign language. All three authors do agree that oral sources are at the heart of African cultures.
In arguing that African literature should abandon the pursuit of aesthetics, that is seeing literature as a text, to embrace the pursuit of its social functions, Chidi Amuta and others shift the emphasis to considering African literature as an institution of several associated units that defies definition; "the sum total of all national and ethnic literatures of Africa."  In apparent accord with Amuta, Irele finds it futile to de-emphasize the social function of literature, because without its social functions, African literature does not merit to exist. The problem of defining Africa's limits is relegated to the background, and the need to establish the affinity of Africans and Diasporans becomes paramount through reference to social experience and history.
In my view, little has changed today in regard to bringing together the distant cousins of Africa and the African Diaspora, and Irele's suggestion that the focus of literary studies should be on the social functions of African literature holds true. Furthermore, for literature to reflect its society, it must be presented in the form that comes naturally to the people's appreciation of art. Moreover, in time to come, due to extreme pressures of life in modern cities, society will resort to less time-consuming ways of reading and communicating :
This paper seeks to establish the credentials of the short story as an African literary genre, one that shapes up to the challenges of the future and provides the author, a modern day story-teller, with the means to unify the peoples of Africa with her or his particular brand of art. Secondly, I wish to respond to F. Odun Balogun's urgent call to critics of African literature to direct their attention to the criticism of the short story as an African literary genre which could, with a systematic and comprehensive study, lead to a sound understanding of its themes and aesthetic values. Balogun suggests that the short story has the potential of winning more readers than the novel, thanks to its brevity in a busy modern world, its themes, styles and didactic advantages.  Although Balogun did not spell out what the latter are, it is easy to see the potential of the short story for teaching students how to read a text from any number of angles, including plot, characterization, point of view and style, to teaching students how to write so that they are able to say what they really want to say. In fact, Balogun was not alone in raising the issue. Already in 1978, Helen O Chukwuma called the short story "The Prose of Neglect."  And Charles E. Nnolim echoed the same opinion in his paper, "The Critic of African Literature: The Challenge of the 80's".  Twenty years on, the novel remains a writers' and critics' favorite, but to what extent is it a success with the African reading public? To what extent does the novel recede to the periphery of African society while the short story takes firm hold of the scene because of its adaptability, capacity to mirror better the history of past, present and future problematics, and to engage with African peoples and the Diaspora?
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the African novel gained momentum at a time of social upheaval in Africa. There were intense nationalist activities challenging the whole idea and practice of colonialism in Africa. Yet the African intelligentsia, to borrow Emmanuel Ngara's expression,  that is, the new bourgeoisie or elite was a product of missionary education. The colonial powers had acquiesced to granting political, but not economic and cultural independence to its colonies. That led the new African social elite to engage in artistic form inherited from the West but inspired by local tradition. For example, in 1952 Amos Tutuola wrote The Palm-wine Drinkard based on Yoruba mythology, using African folktale tradition as form. He was followed in 1953 by Camara Laye with L'Enfant noir (translated into English as The African Child and later in the American edition as The Dark Child), an episodic novel, which relied heavily on African oral tradition to vaunt the merits of the African past, tradition and civilization to a deaf world. In 1958 and from an historical perspective, Chinua Achebe published the novel Things Fall Apart, which set out in the very words of its author, "to set the score right about my [his] ancestors." Ngugi wa Thiong'o followed in 1964 with Weep Not Child. It was the year of Kenyan independence and the novelist was making an urgent call to Africans to embrace education and enterprise as a way of ending Western imperialism and Indian entrepreneurship on the eastern coast of Africa.
If the genre of the novel came to dominate the literary scene, it was due in part to its ability to borrow from tradition, but more importantly, it was a means that the new intelligentsia, educated in a colonial context, could understand and use to herald African values outside and inside Africa. Other genres had dominated African literature in earlier times: poetry (by David Diop, Leopold Sedar Senghor and others); drama (by Bernard Dadié, Wole Soyinka et al.). But the impact of other genres was progressively overshadowed by that of novelists such as wa Thiong'o, Ousmane, Oyono, Armah, Beti, Laye, Achebe, to mention only a few. Often, novelists made oral tradition and legends their springboard. They began telling stories about self, the immediate community or village, the nation-state or the newly formed proletariat, but by and large they remained inaccessible and foreign to the great majority of the African people.
In contrast, the short story seems to belong to the people rather than to the elite. An increasing number of critics see it as a new alternative to the African novel whose formal complexity and intimidating status, borrowed from Western hierarchies, have never been naturalized in Africa. With the voice of ordinary people, the short story claims to be the legitimate heir of the traditional legends through which griots chronicled community history. The short story writer tells stories to entertain and educate "ordinary people" in a way they understand. Like the storyteller, the short story writer holds the audience spellbound by the very beauty of the narrative, giving pleasure and also teaching morals and beliefs of the community, race or nation.  The short-story has much in common with African oral tradition which, according to Irele, is better described as "the African classical tradition":
African classical tradition then finds its renewal in the short story because in a familiar way this genre puts in the context of today a number of subjects relevant to traditional and modern African values. It shows how economic, political, religious and social situations relate to pre-colonial Africa, colonialism, neo-colonial independence, apartheid, indigenous and imported religions, etc. Thus the themes dealt with by the short story are many and include art, religion, urban-life, tradition and culture, apartheid, ironies of life, and pre-colonial, colonial, and neo-colonial reality, etc. Just as the common storyteller of old, the contemporary short story writer aims at helping his/her society to change while retaining the best features of authentic African cultures. A large number of literary authors of great talent have not lost sight of the short story' s potential to enrich human lives and African societies. Thus, they have made use of the versatility of the genre. A few names among the more noteworthy are: Bessie Head, Sembene Ousmane, Bartho Smit, Nadine Gordimer, Christopher Hope, Kojo Laing, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ben Okri, Flora Nwapa, and Chinua Achebe.
Although the short story is short - as its name implies - usually simple in terms of plot and characterization and has wide appeal to the "ordinary people", it would be a mistake to believe that its simplicity translates into limited skills on the part of the writer. On the contrary, some critics argue that the short story, after the poem, is the literary genre which makes the greatest demand on the writer. She or he has to capture a moment in time by making a quick statement about a contemporary situation within a very limited space. The roots of the African short story are as old as human society. In all cultures of the world, human beings have engaged in story telling before embracing the longer forms that can be found in both written and oral tradition.  In that context, the arrival of the short story on the African cultural scene is a mere evolution, a proof of the adaptability of living cultures. Individual authors have brought out collections which deal with a variety of issues. For example, Aidoo's collection of short stories, No Sweetness Here, is set in post-independent Africa and deals with the tension generated by oppression, slavish imitation of white people (e.g. "For Whom Things Did Not Change"), brutality of the former colonial masters (e.g. "Big Man."). The Heinemann Educational Books has published regional collections on contemporary short stories from all four corners of the continent.
More importantly still, hundreds of short stories by African authors have been published in local newspapers and the very few that have made it to the West - and which are not necessarily those which had the most appeal in Africa when they were published - represent only the tip of the iceberg.
In an environment where people do not have a lot of time or leisure to read works of great breath, the short story that runs anywhere between one and fifteen pages in length lends itself to pleasurable reading in a way that imitates the traditional mode of entertainment. The writer seizes the plot at the high point of emotion, when the story is most interesting to the reader or listener and does not relent until the final denouement. This condensation of a full story in a form that can be easily adapted in terms of time and space to the small interstices of busy everyday lives gives the short story a definite edge over the novel.
Moreover, literature is not timeless. It is not written in an ahistorical vacuum, rather it remains part and parcel of society which, according to Roger Webster, is subject to two contexts: that in which it is created or produced and the other in which it is circulated and consumed.  Irele , for his part, dwells on sources and influences on literature in his own exploration of the changes that literature undergoes with changing awareness in society. He notes that African literary studies, like all literary studies, should involve an exploration of the sources and influences - that is, external circumstances to the literary work and an exploration of the internal factors - that is, literary criticism, meaning interpretation, analysis and evaluation. Any form of literary study, Irele adds, implies recognition
The second point that needs to be made on the issue of production and consumption relates to the hiatus between writing and reading, or rather to the usefulness of the genre in confronting pressing social issues. On the one hand, most novels are often many years in the making and their publication lags way behind the historical moment that informed their writing. The short story on the other hand can be published in newspapers and magazines without waiting for academic journals and big publishers to accept them as manuscript. They can be read on the Internet, even be heard on television or on radio a short time from leaving the writer's desk. It is interesting to note that a number of novels by African authors, at first were not published as novels, but as a succession of short episodes in local magazines.( e.g. La revanche de Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama published by Mongo Beti in his Journal Peuples noirs Peuples africains. )  The limited appeal to many scholars of the short story may stem in part from this versatility and the ability of the genre to make sense to the lowest just as much as to the highest social classes. In the same way, the genre lends itself to both professional and amateur writers, to mundane and sophisticated literary interpretation.
Furthermore, in extraordinary circumstances, the short story can move quickly to the heart of human drama in a way forbidden to the novel. A case in point is Chinua Achebe who, during the Nigeria-Biafra war, wrote short stories, ending up with two collections, Beware Soul Brother and Girls at War. Another good example is Flora Nwapa's This is Lagos and Other Stories, and Women at War and Other Stories based on the Nigeria-Biafra war as well. The short story can, in a manner that the novel cannot, deal with African and Diasporan issues, "on the spot," as it were, bringing people to reflect, comment and determine the best way forward.
The issue of production and consumption leads also to a common stereotyped perception of the ways specific literary genres relate the Black experience. One sees a tendency on the part of the novel to relate more and more to nationalistic, even ethnic entities, as African societies and people move their separate ways. One can distinguish the West African novel from the East, South or North African novel. The Nigerian novel has its characteristics that the Kenyan one does not have. A Yoruba novel differs from an Igbo novel,  a Gikuyu one from a Luo one. The picture gets even narrower when the peculiar experiences of Blacks in the Diaspora are dealt with. African-Americans, themselves faced with increasingly different societies and concerns, are a case in point.
The short story, by virtue of its brevity and elliptic nature, which is not the case with the novel, has much less time to explore ethnic or regional context in any depth, unless it is the very theme of the short story, which usually it is not. As a result, writers tend to use ethnic or regional idiosyncrasies only as a springboard to discuss issues that are more often than not relevant to the whole of Black experience. For example, a short story on present-day slavery will be relevant to all kinds of people of African origin living in slums, ghettos and inner cities in Africa, Europe or America. There is no doubt that Bartho Smit's "I Take Back My Country," or Sembene Ousmane's "Tribal Scars" go far beyond the limited scope of the short story itself. In both stories, the authors depict ironies of life as Black people remain “enslaved" in contemporary society under the gaze of Whites who pretend it is not so. Even though slavery ended in principle many decades ago, the short story, used as a reporting literary tool, serves the needs of all Africans and Diasporans in telling a different story: that of continuing oppression and repression of Black people in our time.
Unlike the novel, which has found it hard to establish itself as a popular medium in African societies, the short story has been far more successful in attracting people's interest and in linking the past, present and future of Africa and the Diaspora. By its nature, it has been less prone to the external influences and limits to which the novel has been subjected. It is serving the concept of Pan-Africanism and its quest for unity in diversity for all peoples of African heritage, better than the novel. Reading patterns and hierarchy of literary genres developed outside Africa have led writers and critics alike to embrace the idea that the novel is at the top of the literary edifice. Literature in the making in Africa tells otherwise, and with technological advances taking place on and beyond the Continent, one can foresee a future in which the short story will get its due recognition. Furthermore, in any discussion aiming at defining "literary value" in an African context, it is imperative to consider the part a given genre can play in bringing a variety of African peoples and the Diaspora together as a force to be reckoned with in the face of a hostile or indifferent world.
Early African novelists answered as best they could the inequities of colonization and decolonization in their time. Towards the millennium, in an age of rapid change, it is time to give far more credit to the importance of the short story and to recognize the contribution of the short story writer, and her/his skill at addressing issues relevant to Africans and Diasporans of all walks of life.
 Chinua Achebe. "Thoughts on the African Novel," Tradition, p.2.
 Ibid., p.2.
 Abiola Irele. The African Experience in Literature and Ideology, p.10.
 Peter Igbonekwu Oke. Two Ways of Explaining Africa: An Insight into Camara Laye's L'Enfant noir and Ferdinand Oyono's Le Vieux Nègre et la Médaille in Rowland Smith. ed. Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature. New York: Dalhousie Press, 1971, p.74.
 Chidi Amuta. The Theory of African Literature. pp. 104-123.
 Ibidem, p.104.
 Chidi Amuta. Op. cit., p.105. See also Mao Tse-Tung "Talks at the Yanan Forum in Literature and Art," in Selected Works, vol. 3, Foreign Language Press, 1967, p.82 (also cited in Amuta. Op. cit., 1989, p.106).
 Chinua Achebe. Morning Yet on Creation Day, p.56.
 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, p.54, cited in Amuta. Op. cit., p.107.
 F. Odun Balogun. Tradition and Modernity in the African Short Story. 1991, pp.173-174.
 Helen O. Chukwuma. "The Prose of Neglect," cited in F. Odun Balogun., p.3.
 Charles E. Nnolim. "The Critic of African Literature: The Challenge of the 80's" cited in Balogun. Op. Cit., p.3.
 Emmanuel Ngara. Art and Ideology in the African Novel. 1989, p.30.
 Ibid. p.31.
 Emmanuel Ngara. Op. cit., p.31.
 Irele. Op. cit., p.12.
 Balogun. Op. cit., p.6.
 See for example the Sounjata Epic.
 Roger Webster. Studying Literary Theory: An Introduction. p.16.
 Irele. Op. cit., p. 12
 e.g. Peuples noirs Peuples africains 35 (Octobre 1983), pp.123-155.
 Obiechina. An African Popular Literature. 1973 and Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel. 1975.
 Oladele Taiwo. Culture and the Nigerian Novel 1976; Emenyonu. Studies on the Nigerian Novel. 1991.
 Emenyonu. The Rise of the Igbo Novel. 1978.
Mongo Beti. "La revanche de Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama". Peuples noirs Peuples africains 35 (Octobre 1983), pp.123-155. Chinua Achebe. Morning Yet On Creation Day. London: Heinemann, 1975.
Chinua Achebe and C. L. Innes. Eds. African Short Story: Twenty Short Stories From Across The Continent. London: Heinemann 1987.
Chinua Achebe and C. L. Innes. Eds. The heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories. London: Heinemann, 1992.
Chidi Amuta. The Theory of African Literature : Implications for Practical Criticism. London and New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd., 1992.
F. Odun Balogun. Tradition and Modernity in the African Short Story: An Introduction to a Literature in Search of Critics. New York: Green Wood Press, 1991.
Biyi Bandele-Thomas. The Man Who Came in From The Back of Beyond. London: Heinemann 1991.
Jemie Chinweizu and Madubuike. Towards the Decolonization of African Literature. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Press, 1980.
Phanuel Akubeze Egejuru. Towards African Literary Independence: A Dialogue With Contemporary African Writers. Westport (Ct) and London: Greenwood Press 1980.
Ernest N Emenyonu. The Rise of the Igbo Novel. Ibadan: Ogun State University Press, 1978.
Ernest N Emenyonu. Studies on the Nigerian Novel. Ibadan: Heinemann, 1991.
Simon Gikandi. Reading the African Novel. London, Nairobi, and Portsmouth: James Currey and Heinemann, 1987.
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Emmanuel Obiechina. An African Popular Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
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Ben Okri. The Famished Road. New York: Double Day, 1993 (1991).
Sembene Ousmane. Tribal Scars and Other Stories. Trans. from the French by Len Ortzen. London: Heinemann, 1974 (1960).
Oyekan Owomoyela. Visions and Revisions: Essays on African Literatures and Criticism. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1991.
Rowland Smith . Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature. New York: Dalhousie Press, 1971.
Oladele Taiwo. Culture and the Nigerian Novel. London: Macmillan, 1976.
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Dr. Ada Uzoamaka Azodo is currently a visiting assistant Professor of French at Indiana University Northwest, USA. She is the author of a book L'Imaginaire dans les romans de camara Laye (Peter Lang Publishers, New York, 1993) and the co-editor of an Anthology on the Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo, entitled Emerging perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo (Africa World Press, 1999) which also has chapters of her own work.Dr. Azodo is also the author of two book chapters in Emerging Perspectives on Flora Nwapa (Africa World Press, 1997). She has also published in academic Journals includingJournal of Religion in Africa, Feminist Press of New York Quarterly and Africa World Press. She is currently working on a novel tentatively entitled "Afuda: Or Meditations."