Reminiscing about his friendship with Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera and South African John Matshikiza as young African writers in 1970s London, Nigerian author Ben Okri says:
There was a sense that we had to take on the Achebe, Soyinka and Ngugi generation; not in a bad way, not in the way of killing your father. We wanted to take the story and run away with it. And, fi nding ourselves in London, we had to take on the challenge of Western literature. We had to write in full cognisance of everything that had been written. We couldn’t write as if [James] Joyce hadn’t written Finnegan’s Wake or [Fyodor] Dostoevsky hadn’t written Crime and Punishment . That was a steep challenge. There was, for us, a double challenge: the challenge of the older generation of African writers and the challenge of world literature. Maybe the toughest [of the two tasks] was the challenge of world literature at the point we found ourselves. We had to face the challenge and still be ourselves. (Zvomuya 2012, n.p.)
Opening a discussion on African popular fi ction with a nod to six stars in the fi rmament of the African canon may at fi rst glance seem strange. Yet, to my mind, Okri’s reminiscences poignantly mirror concerns that preoccupy a generation of young writers emerging in Kenya three decades later, in the early 2000s: a desire for novel ways of writing; a robust wrestle with the anxieties of cross-generational infl uence (to misquote Harold Bloom); a double-voiced location in the national and the transnational, the Pan-African and the Pan-global; and ultimately, a self-assigned mandate to push the limits of fi ction’s possibility. In fact, Okri’s reminiscences echo similar sentiments by one of the major voices in this emergent generation of Kenyan writers, Binyavanga Wainaina. As the founding editor of the East African literary journal Kwani?, Wainaina comments in the magazine’s inaugural editorial in 2003:
Lately I seem to meet all kinds of interesting people. Mostly young, self-motivated people, who have created a space for themselves in an
adverse economy by being innovative. [When] art as expression begins to appear without prompting, all over the suburbs and villages of this country, what we are saying is: we are confi dent enough to create our own living, our own entertainment, our own aesthetic. Such an aesthetic will not be donated to us from the corridors of a university; or from the ministry of culture, or by The French Cultural Centre. . . . Breaking new ground always provokes ridicule. [In] the old Kenya, people with new ideas were ridiculed. They threatened the position of those who had stopped having new ideas. So I shall call this new generation the Redykulass Generation. This is the Kenya that Kwani? is about. We are a magazine of ideas. (Wainaina 2003a, n.p.)
Evident in Wainaina’s editorial is a celebration of youth, creativity, novelty, and transgression of artistic conventions prescribed by various cultural gatekeepers including academia, government, and the French Cultural Centre-an increasingly important stakeholder in the arts industry across Africa-along with related organizations such as the German-funded Goethe Institute and American-funded Ford Foundation. Important for our purposes though is the recurrent concern with novelty here, which echoes Karin Barber’s emphasis on popular arts’ ongoing concern with “experimentation in the quest for novelty” (Barber 1987, 15). As she reminds us, popular arts “are recognized by their ‘unoffi cial’ character and by their air of novelty. They are unoffi cial because they are free to operate between established cultural systems without conforming to their conventions, and they are novel because they combine elements from the traditional and the metropolitan cultures in unprecedented conjunctures, with the effect of radi - cal departure from both” (Barber 1987, 13).