Individual African-born writers have made sporadic contributions to European letters since the Renaissance and some African languages, such as Hausa and Swahili, have had Arabic-influenced written forms for several centuries. However, African literature was mainly oral until the 20th century and oral traditions of proverbs, mythological narratives, and poetry (including the praise poem in southern Africa) still persist and influence contemporary writing. The main literary languages are English, French, and Portuguese, although anticolonial feeling has prompted writing in languages such as Swahili, Ewe, and Kikuyu. On the other hand, African writers such as the poet José Craveirinha (1926– ) from Mozambique, writing in Portuguese, have won European literary awards.
Despite Africa’s enormous cultural diversity, the development of African writing has been closely associated with a growing sense of African personality and political and cultural identity in the colonial and postcolonial period, and variously linked with Pan-Africanism or, particularly in former French colonies, with the idea of négritude (blackness, belonging to a black culture), prominent especially in the 1930s. This owed much to the black American writer W E B Du Bois (c. 1868–1963) who became a citizen of Ghana, and the poet and dramatist Aimé Césaire (1913– ) from Martinique, as well as to the Senegalese poet and statesman Léopold Senghor.
Among the earlier landmarks of African writing are the South African historical novel of precolonial times Mhudi (written 1917, published 1930) by Sol Plaatje (1877–1932) and the plays and poetry of H I E Dhlomo (1905–1945), recreating African landscapes and the achievements of heroes such as the Zulu leader Shaka (died 1828). Later writing, including autobiographies such as that by Es’kia Mphalele, has paid more attention to the themes of urban deprivation and political oppression and violence, particularly in South Africa. This has energized the poetry of the exiled Dennis Brutus (1924– ) and the novels of Alex La Guma (1925–1985) and features in the work of the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Nigerian novelist Cyprian Ekwensi (1921– ). The reassertion of precolonial communal life, myth, and tradition, associated with condemnation of the cultural disruptions caused by colonists or Christian missionaries, has been a significant concern of the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor (1935– ) and of Nigerian writers such as Chinua Achebe, the Ibo poet Christopher Okigbo (1932–1967), and the novelist Amos Tutuola (1920– ), whose mysterious and fantastic narratives draw on Yoruba folk tales.
In South Africa, drama has emerged as an important instrument of political protest, particularly in the work of Athol Fugard.
Important women writers include the South Africans Bessie Head (1937–1986) and Miriam Tlali (1933– ), the Nigerian Flora Nwapa (1931– ), and Mariama Bâ (1929–1981) from Senegal.