Is Labeling a Writer by Race or Ethnicity Too Reductive?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Is it an African or a European novel?

Is it an African or European novel?

In today’s lead story, Nigerian-born author Chika Unigwe, who now lives in Belgium, states:

“I’m African, and I never question my African identity. What I question sometimes are the expectations that come with being labeled an ‘African writer.’ What you are supposed to write, how you are supposed to write and so on. But then that is the problem with labeling; it comes with a whole box of expectations, usually people’s projections of what the label ought to cover. It’s not always right or accurate.”

What are the expectations to which she is referring? Are they the expectations, primarily of writers and publishers in the West, that Africans will only write of poverty, chaos, corruption, disease or war—of, essentially, many of the same subjects covered most often by the nightly news—rather than typical middle-class life? (It’s a topic Tolu Ogunlesi discussed in his editorial “In Search of ‘Authentic’ Africa” earlier this year on Publishing Perspectives). Is that it, or is it something deeper and perhaps more insidious?  And does emigration free the writer from these constraints? Or, because of their background, do the expectations of publishers tie them even more tightly to the subject matter of their home?

And, ultimately, is labeling any writer by race, ethnicity, or even nationality or country of birth, fair? Surely it is somewhat useful, perhaps for marketing purposes, but is it ultimately reductive?

Let us know what you think in the comments below of via Twitter using hashtag #ppbonus.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.