The University of Texas Symposium on Contemporary African Literature

In the last few years, some of the most powerful, popular, and innovative African writing has come from writers living in the United States. Yet to describe writers like Taiye Selasi, Maaza Mengiste, Sofia Samatar, Nnedi Okorafor, or Laila Lalami as either “American” or “African” writers would be to miss what is most vital about their work, which is both and neither, and gloriously so. Even terms like “exile,” “immigrant,” or “diaspora” don’t capture the reality of writers whose literary horizons are not bound by their birthplace, passport, or skin color. And perhaps they do not wish to be captured!

Each of these writers defies categorization and creates new categories. Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go (2013) challenges us to think about family and love across and between nation-states, continental imaginaries, and narratives of diaspora; Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olandria (2013) uses epic fantasy to engage African and African diasporic issues like imperialism, exile, and the fraught relationship between oral and written ways of knowing; Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010) beings to life the bloody nightmares and intimate tragedies of the “Red Terror” in 1970’s Ethiopia; and in The Moor’s Account (2014) Laila Lalami reminds us that African migration didn’t begin in the 20th century, telling the story of the New World’s first explorer of African descent, an enslaved Moroccan named Estevanico. Finally, over the last decade, Nnedi Okorafor has ranged prolifically across science fiction, fantasy, and young adult fiction, weaving her Nigerian heritage into Afro-futurism.

In December, the University of Texas will welcome these writers to Austin to read and discuss each other’s work. If, as Selasi polemically argued in November 2013, “Africa Literature Doesn’t Exist,” we will ask what kind of literature they have written. And if categories are unhelpful, we will try conversations.

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