Crime and detective fiction continues to top bestseller lists across the world, spawning TV series and films. In the hands of African writers, though, the genre offers a particularly textured world view.
That Ever-blurry Line Between Us and the Criminals: Re-Visioning Justice in African Noir is a colloquium paper by Sam Naidu. It focuses on African crime and detective fiction as a complex and disruptive variety of classic, Western crime and detective fiction.
In probing the transatlantic relationship between Africa and the West, Naidu presents a useful critique of seminal Black Atlantic studies like Paul Gilroy’s 1993 The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Aretha Phiri interviewed the author.
Aretha Phiri: Your paper addresses classic noir and African noir, sub-genres of crime and detective fiction?
Sam Naidu: African crime fiction builds on and extends classic crime fiction to explore philosophical questions about identity, knowledge and power. Referencing the same dark aesthetic of classic noir – characterised by themes of alienation, pessimism, moral ambivalence and disorientation – African crime fiction amplifies political awareness. And, occasionally, it destabilises the conventions of classic crime fiction, which arose during the aftermath of the two world wars when the world was in the grip of the Cold War.
Aretha Phiri: What is the ‘political’ relationship between classic and African crime fiction?
Sam Naidu: African crime fiction builds on and extends classic crime fiction’s exploration of philosophical questions about identity, knowledge and power in the modern world.
Politically, there is a deliberate shift to consider fundamental questions about Africa and its specific requirements. The novels I have read demonstrate a preoccupation with the ambiguity of justice. They express a poignant, Afro-pessimistic lament for a continent and its injustices.
They provide this focus in terms of colonialism and the power differentials of neo-colonialism in Africa. So, you find that economic exploitation and inequalities, race, war, genocide, corruption and state capture are common subject matter.
Aretha Phiri: You read Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s novel Black Star Nairobi (2013) as a valuable way of demonstrating the disruption of the classical by the African? What’s it about?
Sam Naidu: It’s set mainly in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2007. It’s the eve of Barack Obama’s election as the first black US president and presidential elections in Kenya. O (short for Odihambo), a Kenyan former policeman who still works part-time for the police, has teamed up with Ishmael from the US, a former cop. Together they’ve formed a detective agency, Black Star, which is given a lucky break when O’s former boss hires them to investigate the murder of an unidentified person whose corpse is found gruesomely disfigured in the Ngong Forest outside Nairobi.
Aretha Phiri: You conclude in your paper that the predominant effect of African crime fiction is not so much a ‘dark’ sensibility as it is one of obscurity and poignant Afro-pessimism?
Sam Naidu: I reach this conclusion based on the literary texts. This is not my opinion of the state of the continent. The novels are very dark. They overwhelm the reader, with the mess, tragedy, garbage, cruelty, indignity and inhumanity that Africans face in reality. Due, of course, to historical and ongoing systemic oppression and corruption. For characters – and for readers – this can lead to muddledness and despair.
But the novels also offer a counterpoint – in the form of fearless detectives on the quest for justice. In the midst of the disquiet there is a faint flicker … It is this murkiness, taken to new depths, which makes African crime fiction particularly effective and significant. For example, the novel closes with a highly lyrical and metaphorical scene of African musicians in a market. Ishmael describes the competing rhythms of African music – a metaphor for the strife and power struggles of the continent. Despite the discord he detects a harmony – “a tense harmony”.
Aretha Phiri: How does Black Star Nairobi manage to disrupt classic crime fiction?
Sam Naidu: For example, through its innovative use of setting, characterisation, pace and conclusion to comment on ontological, existential and ethical themes to do with justice, it’s an exemplary African noir text. It explicitly extends classic noir into the realms of neo-noir.
Its blend of previous influences, use of setting, and its specific thematic concern with Afro-pessimism prompt the observation that African crime fiction extends classic noir into new literary, geo-political, and moral territories.
Murkiness, so characteristic of classic noir sensibility, mutates, at times, in African crime texts such as Black Star Nairobi and Leye Adenle’s When Trouble Sleeps, to a deliberate generic nebulousness. And thematically, to a moral blurriness so obscure as to disorient the reader and dismantle the basic binaries on which classic detective and crime fiction were predicated.
In classic noir or classic crime fiction there are clear detective heroes set up against indisputable villains (think of Sherlock Holmes) but in African crime fiction the heroes and villains often exchange roles or are complicit in some way.
Aretha Phiri: You describe this evolving genre as occupying a kind of borderland. How does this connect to your research in migration and diaspora?
Sam Naidu: In my work on literature of migration and diaspora I am mainly concerned with the experience of migrants. I am, however, also interested in how literary genres migrate. What processes of cross-pollination occur as a result of diaspora?
Aretha Phiri: What do you see African crime fiction contributing to Black Atlantic scholarship?
Sam Naidu: As a form of postcolonial, transnational writing, African crime fiction points to the relations between Africa and America. Gilroy’s Black Atlantic puts forward that race is fluid and ever-changing, rather than static. That it is transnational and intercultural, rather than national. I am arguing that African crime fiction represents race as a transnational or diasporic phenomenon while at the same time engaging with the notion that race is closely bound up with both nationality and ethnicity.
So, look at the detective hero figure Ishmael. He is an African-American who returns to Africa, gesturing, of course, to transatlantic slavery and colonialism. He’s neither African nor American – he is both. The novel explores his hybridity. At the same time, the novel presents Kenya as nation marred by ethnic clashes and wide-scale civil unrest.
African crime fiction, being the second most popular literary genre on the continent after romance, is worthy of study because of its accessibility, wide-spread, diverse readership and also its capacity for socio-political analysis. It is the ideal vehicle for such pertinent ‘detection’.
This article is part of a series called Decolonising the Black Atlantic in which black and queer women literary academics rethink and disrupt traditional Black Atlantic studies. The series is based on papers delivered at the Revising the Black Atlantic: African Diaspora Perspectives colloquium at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.