Origins are often obscure and beginnings easily forgotten. The first novel ever published by an African has, until now, been lost in rare book collections, unknown to scholars and public alike. Now reissued a century after its first publication, Joseph J. Walters's Guanya Pau can be reread in the context of a varied and vigorous African literature. Its subject and the author's outlook make it remarkably modern. Guanya Pau deals with the desire of Guanya, an African princess, to escape a repulsive fate: betrothal to a wealthy man twenty years older than she. Worse, he is a polygamist, compensating for his own ugliness with the beauty of many wives. Guanya must combat his eagerness, her mother's wish, and a tribal tradition that is as entrenched as it is oppressive. When she cannot fight, she flees, encountering fierce anti-feminine practices everywhere she goes.
Joseph J. Walters, a Vai born in Liberia in the 1860s, was first educated in Robertsport, Liberia. He continued his studies in the United States, earning a Bachelor of Arts at Oberlin College in 1893. He then returned to Liberia, where he died in 1934 of tuberculosis contracted when in the United States. Oyekan Owomoyela is the editor of A History of Twentieth-Century African Literatures (Nebraska 1993).
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