African Literature & Arts

Africa is home to extraordinary intellectual effervescence. Yet, many myths about Africa persist into the twenty-first century, despite the efforts of thousands of scholars to eradicate them. The myth that Africa had no writing and no history is one of the most persistent. So, let’s look at some facts.

African literatures are ancient. If people think of African literatures at all, they tend to think of it as beginning in 1958 with Chinua Achebe’s brilliant novel Things Fall Apart. Yet the African literatures written before the twentieth century are substantial. Whatever limits can be imagined—in terms of geography, genre, language, audience, era—these literatures exceed them. Before the twentieth century, Africans wrote not just in Europe, but also on the African continent; they wrote not just in European languages, but in African languages; they wrote not just for European consumption, but for their own consumption; they wrote not just in northern Africa, but in sub-Saharan Africa; they wrote not just orally, but textually; they wrote not just historical or religious texts, but poetry and epic and autobiography; and they wrote not just in the nineteenth century, but in the eighteenth century and long, long before.

African literatures are vibrant today. African authors are incredibly active, writing a variety of works in a variety of languages. There are 3,500 African literature titles in print in English and French alone and over 10,000 in 143 African languages. Hausa women authors are producing hundreds of novels every year, some of which sell in the hundreds of thousands.

African literatures are of high literary quality. Nigerian literature is one of the great literatures of the twentieth century, with its authors regularly winning prizes in international competitions. Its authors have topped the American bestseller lists. Ethiopian literature is one of the oldest literatures in the world, with hundreds of fascinating texts virtually unread and unknown outside Ethiopia. And South Africans have won more Noble Prizes for Literature in the past forty years than authors from any other country.

African literatures have been globally important. African folktales have shaped folktales through the African diaspora. The Malian Sunjata epic influenced canonical American literature, including work by W. E. B. Dubois, Hailey’s Roots, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Morrison’s Song of Solomon. African conceptions of time, space, and God shaped not just the culture of the American south, but its very architecture. Melville’s fiction was influenced by the Africans peoples he encountered. All of Samuel Johnson’s fiction is indebted to African thought.

African literatures are also written by and about African women. Although the stereotype is that African women are silent, they have always been engaged in African literary cultures, both as producers and as interesting subjects.  

I have various books, articles, and projects to demonstrate these facts and, more broadly, the power of African thought in the world, to a broad audience. 

Early African Literature

Most of my work is on early Ethiopian literature (see below), but I am at work on an anthology of Early African Literature: The Written Roots from 3000 BCE to 1900 CE (in progress). This springs from my research on eighteenth-century African literature, a body of texts that many do not imagine exists, but extends to ancient African literaturemedieval African literature, early modern African literature, and nineteenth-century African literature.

Ethiopian and Eritrean Literature & Arts

To read stories written about my Ethiopia research see Faculty Spotlight or Belcher: Perspective on Ancient Ethiopian Texts for my Fulbright research. You can watch me talking about my research or see an article about it at Ancient Language Lives On. Otherwise, you can read my work itself:

The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman (Princeton University Press, 2015) with Dr. Michael Kleiner.

Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author (Oxford University Press, 2012).

The Black Queen of Sheba: The Global History of an African Idea (in progress) 

“Same-Sex Intimacies in the Early African Text Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros (1672): Queer Reading an Ethiopian Female Saint.” Research in African Literatures 47, no. 2 (June 2016): 20-45. doi: 10.2979/reseafrilite.47.2.03

“The Melancholy Translator: Sirak əruy’s Amharic Translation of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas. Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Journal 23 ( 2015): 160-203.

From Sheba They Come: Medieval Ethiopian Myth, U.S. Newspapers, and Modern American Narrative.” Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters 33, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 239-257. but also American lit

“African Rewritings of the Jewish and Islamic Solomonic Tradition: The Triumph of the Queen of Sheba in the Ethiopian Fourteenth-Century Text Kəbrä Nägäst.” In Roberta Sabbath, ed. Sacred Tropes: Tanakh, New Testament, and Qur’an as Literary Works. Boston/Leiden: E. J. Brill. Forthcoming 2009. but also women

Review of David W. Phillipson, “Ancient Churches of Ethiopia: Fourth-Fourteenth Centuries.” African Arts 43, no. 4 (winter 2010): 87-88.

Review of Stuart Munro-Hay, “The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant: The True History of the Tablets of Moses,” Research in African Literatures (Summer 2006) 37, no. 2: 199-204.

After the Freedom: Post-War Cultural Production and National Identity in Eritrea.” Third Text: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture 50 (spring 2000): 87-98.

“Manuscripts in 2,000-year-old Language: Priests Identify UCLA Library’s Sacred Treasures.” UCLA Today (April 12, 2005).

“Sisters Debating the Jesuits: The Role of African Women in Defeating Portuguese Proto-Colonialism in Seventeenth-Century Abyssinia.” Northeast African Studies 13, no. 1 (spring 2013). [but also Ethiopian literature and Early Modern literature and travel accounts

Ethiopia’s Poet Laureate: Tsegaye Gebre Medhin.” Ethiopian Review (October 1998).

Still Burning the Candle: Playwright Ayalneh Mulatu.” Ethiopian Review (February 1998).

Ethiopian Grit: Women Poets Firmaye and Aregash.” Ethiopian Review (December 1997).

Mask and Shadow: Ethiopian Painter Daniel Taye.” Ethiopian Review (January-February 1998).

“Medieval African and European Texts about the Queen of Sheba: Some Speculations about the Early Circulation of Ethiopian Discourse.” Center for the Study of Women Update (May 2006).

Interview with Archivist Demeke Berhane about Early Modern Ethiopian Manuscripts. May 10, 2007. Posted on my Youtube channel.


West African & South African Literature & Arts

I also have wide-ranging interests in twentieth-century African literature, including Anglophone and Francophone novels, autobiographies, periodicals, film, and youth culture.

Consuming Subjects: Theorizing New Models of Agency For Literary Criticism in African Studies.” Comparative Literature Studies 46, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 213-232.

Indirect Resistance: Rhetorical Strategies for Evading Power in Colonial French West African Novels by Camara Laye, Ferdinand Oyono, and Sembene Ousmane.” LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 18, no. 1 (spring 2007): 65-87.

“Chris Abani” and “Chris Abani’s Poetry” entries. In Companion to 20th-Century World Poetry, ed. R. Victoria Arana (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2007).

“An Interview with Sokari Douglas Camp.” Echoes of the Kalabari: Sculpture by Sokari Douglas Camp. Washington, DC: Smithsonian. 1988. Pages 9-23.

“In Memoriam: Mazisi Raymond Fakazi Mngoni Kunene.” UCLA Today (September 2006).

“District 9’s Intentions and the Road to Hell.” Zeleza Post e-symposium vol. 3 (November 2, 2009).

African Language Literature

I have done five panels at the American Comparative Literature Association on African langauge literature. ​I also hosted a conference on Northeast African Liteatures in a variety of languages. I have posted a list of novels written in African languages, but translated into English at Translated African Language Novels. I have posted a list of Amharic language novels published in the twentieth century.

African Language Learning

Almost thirty institutions world-wide teach courses in the ancient African language of Gəˁəz (also spelled Ge’ez, Ge`ez, Geez) or Ethiopic as of Spring 2017.