'Neo-African' Literature

Books by Janheinz Jahn. Photo: Thomas Hartmann


From the beginning, Janheinz Jahn collected not only literature from Africa but also literary works by black writers in other parts of the world, which are sometimes referred to as literature from the African Diaspora but which also form literary traditions of their own, e.g., Caribbean literature, African American literature as well as more narrowly defined regional or national literatures, such as literature from Martinique or Haiti.

While the literary works from these traditions, which Jahn was able to collect, are still part of the Jahn Library this part of the collection is not actively expanded any more. More recent literary works by writers from these traditions are, however, collected by the University Library, individual departmental libraries as well as the USA Library instead and can be searched through the University Library's online catalogue.

In his Geschichte der neoafrikanischen Lite­ratur (1966), which was translated into English as Neo-African Literature: A History of Black Writing (1968), Jahn elaborated on his concept of 'Neo-African' literature. He began by problematising the classicfication of literature on the basis of language – "a handy method of classification which was justifiable enough until the beginning of this [i.e., the 20th] century" (Jahn 1968: 16). Literature, accordingly, was "national literature, the nation from a literary point of view was identical with the area where the language was used" (1968: 16). In the course of the twentieth century, North American Literature was the first to emancipate itself as an independent literary tradition. Writers no longer deferred "to European judgement" but

gradually discovered that their literature had a tradition of its own. When an overseas literature breaks away from Europe, it gains its independence through finding such a tradition, whether based on specific experiences in history or on a non-European spiritual heritage; and it will still be independent even if it goes on using a European language. (Jahn 1968: 18)

Jahn argued that works by writers from Africa, but also from the African Diaspora cannot necessary be classified by the language in which they are written. He proposed that

Literatures can only be classified by style and by the attitudes revealed: more precisely, by studying the individual works, analysing their styles and attitudes and grouping them accordingly, then fitting them into a tradition of similar styles and attitudes. You cannot hope to place literary works in their right 'families' without investigating these features; nor, without analysing a particular work, can you find out which literature it belongs to. (Jahn 1968: 21)

In Jahn's opinion, what he called 'Neo-African literature" formed one 'tradition of similar styles and attitudes' across linguistic as well as national or regional boundaries. He defined this tradition as being informed by modern, or European, elements as well as by African elements:

Neo-African literature, then, is the heir of two traditions: traditional African literature and Western literature. A work which shows no European influences ... belongs to traditional African literature, not neo-African. ... Conversely, a work which reveals no African stylistic features or patterns of expression belongs to Western, not neo-African literature. (1968: 22)

However, Jahn (1968: 22) himself already conceded that although "theoretically simple, the distinction is hard to make in practice, for it assumes that the styles, patterns of expression and attitudes produced by Africa's traditions are well known, but they are not".

Today, Jahn's conception of a 'neo-African' literature may seem out-dated. Only a few years later Jahn himself rather referred to 'African literature' in the titles of the Bibliography of Creative African Writing (1971), which he co-edited with Claus Peter Dressler, and the Who’s Who in African Literature (1972), co-edited with Ulla Schild and Almut Nordmann. It was, however, the precondition for Jahn's pioneering conception of an African literary tradition in its own right. The concept of a 'neo-African' literature and culture has also played a significant role in the construction of African American and Caribbean identities. Last but not least, Jahn's interest in and research on 'neo-African' literature have contributed to linking up black writers all over the world (cf. Jahn 1954).


Works cited

Jahn, Janheinz, 1954b: "Verblüffende Wirkung eines Lyrikbandes: 600 Briefe an die Neger aller Kontinente". Die Welt, 25 November.

Jahn, Janheinz, 1958: Muntu: Umrisse der neoafrikanischen Kultur. Düsseldorf: Eugen Diederichs.

Jahn, Janheinz, 1965: Die neoafrikanische Literatur: Gesamtbibliographie von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Düsseldorf: Eugen Diederichs.

Jahn, Janheinz, 1966: Geschichte der neoafrikanischen Literatur: Eine Einführung. Düsseldorf: Eugen Diederichs.

Jahn, Janheinz, 1968: Neo-African Literature: A History of Black Writing. New York: Grove Press.

Jahn, Janheinz and Claus Peter Dressler, 1971: Bibliography of Creative African Writing. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint.

Jahn, Janheinz, Ulla Schild and Almut Nordmann, 1972: Who's Who in African Literature. Biographies, Works, Commentaries. Tübingen: Horst Erdmann.

© Anja Oed