The first literary journal was published in Amsterdam in 1684. Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres declared its focus to be what the French called “belles lettres.” Over the next century similarly focused periodicals sprouted up in most European capitals. Leaving “belles lettres” behind, their subject came to be called “la littérature.” Madame de Staël’s two-volume essay, De la littérature, in 1800, described and codified the category in ways that still hold today. “Literature” is and always has been a reputational category developed by a narrow class of people in European Enlightenment cultures, a tool of the bourgeoisie that enabled their ascension into the role of culture-makers. It isn’t surprising to find that every European colonial enterprise eventually led to the founding of literary journals in the occupied lands where settler Europeans pursued their usual goals. The North American Review, founded in the former British colonies in 1815, was among the earliest, and it survives today.
Given the long history of “literature” as an instrument of power—a privileged category vetted by the occupiers in the long tail of Europe’s many colonial expeditions—it was surprising to find the New York Times’s East Africa correspondent recently praising the emergence of Africa’s “new literary journals,” and characterizing them as good news for African writers. We asked a young writer in Zimbabwe to tell us what she thought.
1 March, 2022