African Studies Quarterly
Volume 10, Issue 1
Spring 2008

West African Literatures: Ways of Reading. Stephanie Newell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 288 pp.

In West African literatures, Stephanie Newell examines, in thirteen chapters, crucial questions and debates, which are central in the commentaries of Francophone and Anglophone West African letters. The book begins with a particularly relevant introduction, which provides a very good survey of the topics, concepts and terminologies that have animated and stimulated the studies of the African literary production, and that will inform her own intervention: language, orality, postcolonialism, Bhabha's "hybridity," Appiah's "cosmopolitanism," Appadurai's concept of "-scapes," Marxism, feminism, queer literature and negritude. By circumscribing her study to West Africa, Newell's aim is to emphasize the diversity within the region, and its implications for the description and study of the literary production. By rethinking the "elastic categorizations" she aims to "highlight the enormous literary dynamism within West Africa" and to draw attention to a "seminal aspect of West Africa's postcolonial identity, or its postcoloniality: the heterogeneity of cultures and literatures within each West African nation means that the term 'postcolonial' must account for the diversity of literary currents within each country, as well as the shared historical experiences of slavery and colonial rule in the region" (p. 7). In doing so, she also insists on the implications of the authors' predilection for "European and American publishing houses," at the expense of "their own national publishers," for the forms and aesthetics of the texts. Newell can then draw attention to the tensions between "local production" and "elite production."

The chapters in West African literatures are of different lengths (ranging from a minimum of 6 to a maximum of 20 pages) and cover topics as varied as "Oral literatures" (chap. 4), "Negritude" (chap. 2), "Islam and identity in African literatures" (chap. 3), "Feminism and the complex space of Women's Writing" (chap. 9), "Queering West African literatures" (chap. 13), "Experimental writing by the third generation" (chap. 12), "Marxism and West African literature" (chap. 10) and "The three 'Posts': Postmodernism, Poststructuralism and Poscolonialism" (chap. 11). The chapters are not all equal and some of them elliptic. For instance, the chapter on Islam is relatively short for what is an important and yet neglected aspect of West African literatures. Though Newell's intention is not to be "encyclopedic" as stated in her introduction, the absence of figures such as Amadou Hampt B, whose work has been literally shaped by Islam, or Yambo Ouologuem, with his devastating response to Islamic values in Le devoir de violence is questionable. References at least cursory to such works would have certainly helped to strengthen the author's demonstration of "the diversity of literary currents." Also, Newell's very appealing label of "Islamic fiction" deserved further developments: What does it take to identify a text as an Islamic fiction? Is the religious consciousness of the text a determining element?

This observation is rapidly compensated by what remains a very solid work. Its strength lies in its important insights into existing interpretations and readings of canonical texts, or debates, as well as in its innovative and persuasive arguments. Newell's careful discussion of "Popular literatures" gives a much-needed illustration of how the literary dynamism is ensured by local productions that "generate new types of selfhood" and activate new modes of reception. In the same vein, her chapter on the new feminism, which focuses on Werewere Liking, Calixthe Beyala, and Vronique Tadjo, explores the rejection by the three writers of outdated linguistic and normative codes to open to new expressions of "the new subjectivities of African women." Furthermore, Newell's discussion includes neglected problematics in the commentary of African letters, such as translation (chap. 5). She also revisits and rejects old paradigms, such as the exclusionary relationship between "written and oral genres," which has been contradicted, as Newell demonstrates, by the works of the vibrant Nigerian "AlterNative poets" (chap. 8). Her chapter on "Marxism and literature" opens a crucial domain in the study of the history of African literatures by focusing on the dynamic debates about the affinities and divergences that make the ideologies of African literatures (chap. 10).

In conclusion, the breadth and the diversity of the key issues and debates covered by Newell, and the simultaneous reference to canonical figures and emergent writers, make West African Literatures an invaluable tool for scholars and students of African literatures.

Alioune Sow
University of Florida