The literary tradition in Mali is primarily associated with an exceptionally rich oral poetry. Much of it draws inspiration from the history of the great kingdoms and rulers who dominated the geographical area that today constitutes Mali, prior to French colonization. The legacy of this tradition is also expressed in modern literature. It includes both fiction and historical works, written both in African languages and in French. One example is the historian Amadou Hampaté Bâ (1901–92), who adapted Arabic writing to fulani (pod). He published versions of both verses and prose of traditional initiation rites and the poetry associated with them, as evidenced in his most famous literary work, L’Étrange Destin de Wagrin (1973). His most significant work, however, is the two-piece work on the history of the ancient Fulani kingdom of Macina, L’Empire peul du Macina (1955–62).
The legend of the great ruler Sundiata, found in much of the literature of the interior of West Africa, is recreated in the epic poems Kala Jata (1965) and L’Aigle et l’épervier ou le Geste de Sunjata (1975) by Massa Makan Diabaté (1938–90). He also published the romantic trilogy Le Lieutenant de Kouta (1979), Le Coiffeur de Kouta (1980) and Le Boucher de Kouta (1982). This historical material is also the background to the great and controversial novel Le Devoir de violence (1968) by Yambo Ouloguem (b. 1940). The author has been accused of plagiarism, among other things. Graham Greene, but today the book is considered among the most important African novels written in French.
Kouyate Seydou Badian is best known for the novel Sous l’orage (1957), which from a female perspective portrays an arranged marriage as a picture of the contradiction between tradition and modernity. He has also written several dramas and other novels dealing with cultural conflicts. However, a clear woman’s position on the conditions in Mali was first expressed by Aoua Keita (1912–80) in the autobiographical work Femme d’Afrique: La vie d’Aoua Keita racontée par elle-même (1975), which is primarily a depiction of her political activities as a radical woman in 1960s Mali. Other authors include Madina Ly-Tall (b. 1940) and Moussa Konate (b. 1951).