Do African writers need glossaries? Namwali Serpell considers this contentious question
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In an article for the New York Review of Books, Namwali Serpell adds her voice to the ‘Sisyphean’ glossary debate in African writing.
Chigozie Obioma, the Nigerian author of the Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel The Fishermen, suggested in a Guardian article last year that African writing should try to be accessible to all.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Trevor Noah debated the topic at the PEN World Voices festival in New York this year, with Adichie saying she refused to ‘tone down’ the Igbo references in her work, and Noah saying that his upbringing in South Africa, with its diverse population, made glossing ‘seem pragmatic to him’.
Serpell examines Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s new novel Kintu, which does not contain a glossary but with glosses words in other ways – in-text explication or italics.
It is striking that, given the robustness of African fiction now—it has been heralded as “a new wave” at least thrice in the last decade—its experimentalism still seems to be limited to linguistic play, genre bending, and narrative convolutions of time and space. What about playing with the book? Readers have come to anticipate glossaries and italicized words in African fiction, even demand them. What better way to thwart expectations than to fake or fiddle with these conventions?
Makumbi’s Kintu has laid down one gauntlet.
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