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The Swahili Novel

The Swahili Novel: Challenging the Idea of 'Minor Literature'

Xavier Garnier
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Swahili Novel
    Book Description:

    For more than fifty years a dynamic modern literature has been developing in the Kiswahili language. The political weight that Kiswahili carries as the emerging national and pan-national language of many East African countries places this literature, much of it in the form of novels, at the centre of heated literary debates on the social function of literature in the context of rapid global social change. Garnier provides new insights into the Swahili novel form with all its vibrancy and capacity for experimentation. Its obsession with social issues relates to larger, all-pervasive political debates running through East Africa: in its press, its streets, its public and private places. The novels both record and provoke these debates. Based on the study of more than 175 Swahili novels by almost 100 authors, Garnier brings to light a body of work much neglected by African literary critics, but which looks outwards to the wider world. Xavier Garnier teaches African Literature at the Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle and is former director of the Centre d'Etudes des Nouveaux Espaces Littéraires, Université Paris 13.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-170-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    The emergence of prose fiction in the age-old Swahili literature provided the opportunity for a new evaluation of literature’s political function. The experimentation with novel forms is closely tied to the political adventure in which East Africa and particularly Tanzania was involved in the mid-twentieth century. In this book, I would like to draw attention to the nature of this link between literature and politics in the making of Swahili literature with an emphasis on the novel.

    A characteristic of the substantial amount of work on the Swahili novel is that it focuses on political questions, exclusively the socio-cultural dimension....

  4. 1 Narrating Values Describing a World
    (pp. 19-46)

    In order to understand the background which gave birth to the ethnographic novel, one needs to go back to the first texts produced in the colonial context. The German African scholar Carl Velten publishedDesturi za Wasuaheli(Customs of the Swahili People) in 1903. The material for this text was taken from the work of Mtoro bin Mwanyi Bakari who had the aim of studying the customs of the Swahili people in order to make them accessible to a wider audience. More than half a century later, Lyndon Harries and then J.W.T. Allen translated this description of the customs of...

  5. 2 Shaaban Robert The Optimism of Writing
    (pp. 47-62)

    All specialists in the history of Swahili literature agree on the crucial role that Shaaban Robert (1909-1962) played in the move towards modernity. While efforts were being made to create a standardized Swahili that would meet the expectations of the modern world, there was an urgent need for a literature that would go in hand with such a linguistic development. Shaaban Robert’s aim has been to create a literary corpus that stands as the reference point for a new language that was specifically created to be able to serve new circumstances and demands. This body of work ispar excellence...

  6. 3 The Crisis of the Bildungsroman
    (pp. 63-77)

    The education of younger generations is a very complex issue which is a priority for Swahili novelists especially in the context of a colonial world which is bound to change and to question of rules of the game. A principal feature of the Swahili novel is the fact that the Bildungsroman has no place in its repertoire. The one who looks to the world in order to develop is doomed to failure. The world is not a teacher. It is riddled with traps that those who are not well advised will fall into. The key proverb of the Bildungsroman goes...

  7. 4 Euphrase Kezilahabi An Initiatory Realism
    (pp. 78-94)

    The main subject of Kezihalabi’s first four novels is Tanzanian society. Each character is fully integrated in this world where there is little place for fools or marginalized people. This is not to say that everybody is in the right place. Kezilahabi writes fiction precisely because society is an arena of tensions. Conflicts are intrinsic to society. They arise from within, not from the external world. The title of his third novel,The world is an arena of chaos, displays the author’s sharp awareness of the presence of disorder at the heart of every aspect of reality. A society can...

  8. 5 The Political Novel
    (pp. 95-114)

    Historical circumstances easily explain why political questions have been at the heart of the Swahili novel in Tanzania in the years since independence. Patricia Mbughuni has argued that Swahili literature followed the path of a politicization that steadily became more explicit (Mbughuni, 1978a). The years under Nyerere’s regime fall within this scheme. Tanzanian society was shaped by political sloganeering for at least three decades. This society was subjected to a pronounced political thrust. The Arusha Declaration of 1967 that launched theUjamaapolitics of grouping villages is an example of a discourse that is closely connected with basic social transformations....

  9. 6 Mohamed Suleiman Mohamed Narrating a Dual Reality
    (pp. 115-126)

    I have chosen to analyse Mohamed Suleiman Mohamed’s works through the critical lens of the French philosopher Clément Rosset, whose bookThe Real and its Double, one of his most noteworthy works, begins with the following sentence: ‘Rien de plus fragile que la faculté humaine d’admettre la réalité, d’accepter sans réserves l’impérieuse prérogative du réel.’(Rosset, 1976: 7) (Nothing is more fragile than the human faculty of recognizing reality, of accepting unreservedly the imperative of the real). Most characters in Mohamed Suleiman’s novels face this challenge because they are full of hopes and dreams. The title of his first novel...

  10. 7 The Criminals & the Corrupted
    (pp. 127-141)

    Mohamed Suleiman’s works show how people are always caught by a reality that they want to escape. One of the tasks of the popular novel is to explore the depths of a social reality, which is the polar opposite of the task of the fable with its ideal character-types. Thus, the criminal takes the role of the hero in novels which allow no room for fables and whose plots unfold in the bowels of the social system.

    The Swahili popular novel develops the fantasy theme of a society ravaged by crime. Under the guise of an ordered social organization lies...

  11. 8 Investigations & Enigmas
    (pp. 142-162)

    In 1975, an article by the writer Euphrase Kezilahabi was published in the journalKiswahilicondemning the proliferation of the Swahili detective novel. Kezilahabi’s main problem with the authors of this genre is that they do not face the problems of Tanzanian society but hide behind the formalism of an abstract investigation. For Kezilahabi this explains why their texts are not very substantial and do not stand up over time:

    Why then are detective novels no longer interesting when read for the second time? Their value diminishes because they float above real life and are not deeply rooted in a...

  12. 9 Said Ahmed Mohamed The Dark Side of Images
    (pp. 163-177)

    Most novels by Said Ahmed Mohamed end badly, in some kind of catastrophe. However, nothing is further from his world-view than the concept of fate. His disasters are always the outcome of a build-up of conflicts, set out in the novel in minute detail. Any two characters, no matter what they are like, never meet in a neutral way; there is no such thing as an encounter without some imminent conflict. The basis of these conflicts is the animal hostility of human beings. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that this hostility is rooted in either their familial or...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 178-181)

    The development of the Swahili novel has proceeded hand in hand with a significant amount of critical and sometimes polemical commentary on the role of the novel in modern society. The summary of the trends in fiction writing in this book points to a widening scope. Looking at the polemics of the nature and purpose of fiction, it is evident that this debate takes place in the political rather than the literary arena. When a novelist’s work is considered to be based on social issues, it is clear that a grand political vision of society lies behind that judgement. The...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 182-192)
  15. Index
    (pp. 193-202)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 203-203)