On Firsts in African Literature: Five New(ish) Translated Works

by - 11:09

I've been thinking a lot about firsts recently. Not first's in the sense of first kiss, or first love ... or even the extremely painful first heartbreak, but first's in African Literature - something I've been noticing the last few years.

The optimistic me wants to see it as African Literature gaining more prominence in global literary space - and in a genuine way. While also revealing the many wonderful literary texts and works that are written, created, published and produced from the African continent or the Diaspora. There are of course, probably more nuanced arguments and discussions around gatekeeping, and who decides which aspects of African literature gets published, but I'm sticking with my optimism around the exciting and new body of work coming out of Africa. 

There are many firsts I could have focused on, but for this post I am looking exclusively at works in translation in the last few years  … because there I have noticed a few firsts.

This includes the first ever Burudian novel in English – Baho by Roland Rugero, published by Phoneme Media in 2016, and follows 'an adolescent mute' whose attempt 'to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relive himself' is 'mistaken as premeditation for rape.' It was translated from French by Christopher Schaefer. Also from Phoneme Media is the first novel to be translated into English from the Lingala, Mr. Fix It by Richard Ali A Mutu published in 2016. It follows Ebamba - a twenty-something Congolese man whose life seems to be falling apart in the chaotic megacity of Kinshasa. This was translated by Bienvenu Sene Mongaba and Sara Sene.

In a similar vein, Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields – published in 2017 – is the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English – that was published by Restless Books. It is historical fiction delving into the upheaval of the nation's past as it confronted Christianity and modernity, through the twin narratives of a slave and his master's daughterIt was translated from French by Allison M. Charette. Also published in 2017 is Abdul Sila’s The Ultimate Tragedy - the first novel to be translated into English from Guinea Bissau, published by Dedalus Books and translated by Jethro Soutar. It is a tale of love and emerging political awareness in an Africa beginning to challenge the Portuguese colonial rule

Then this year saw the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman to be translated into English, La Bastarda  by Trifonia Melibea Obono and published by Feminist Press. It is the story of an orphaned teen who finds herself falling in love with the leader of a gang of 'mysteriou's girls and rebelling against the rigid norms of Fang culture. It was translated by Lawrence Schimel. 

Another observation I've noticed is that all these firsts - at least the one's I am aware of - are all courtesy of small / independent presses: Dedalus Books, Feminist Press, Phoneme Media, Restless Books. Another one is that out of the 5 books in this post, only one is from a woman writer. Are women in translated fiction in general, and translated fiction from Africa specifically less likely to be translated? 

Well, according to this article on English Pen 'fewer books by women are published in translation: only around 30%'. This figure is for the UK and US - according to Meytal Radzinski, the founder of the initiative - Women In Translation Month, which was launched in 2014 and happens every August. Also, 'as only 3.5% of published literary fiction is in translation ... women who write in languages other than English are a minority within a minority. Their voices are barely heard.

What have I missed? Are there any other firsts in translated African Fiction? Let me know. 

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