Report & Essay
Theme As King - The Misreading of African Literature
by David Kaiza
In The Interpreters, Wole Soyinka’s hard drinking journalist character, Sagoe, summons the office messenger, Mathias, and begins to read to him his essay on the “philosophy of voidance”, a knotted thesis that we encounter more than once in the novel.
Mathias, whose English (pidgin) is no where as grasping as Sagoe’s, let alone Soyinka’s, sits through a reading in which “voidance” morphs from void to voidate, voidante, voidancy, voidatory and climbs up to variations such as “arborial voidatory” and “Voidante pseudo-negritudinists”.
Doubtless Mathias sat through the lecture for the wicked bottle of beer Sagoe bribed him with for his attention (drinking at work), lost, as it were, in this linguistic void, managing a down-to-earth “Na so life be oga” in reply.
One time literature professor at the University of Sierra Leone , Eldred Jones, in an introduction to the novel, said this philosophy of voidance was a good joke. Funny, yes, but creative excursions of this kind did little to endear readers – tragically even in Africa – to Soyinka’s prose.
The joke becomes cruel if we think of Mathias as representing the general reader and Sagoe’s essay as embodying Soyinka’s complexity-wrought oeuvre. Complex, difficult and no friend of readers, Soyinka has been a tough question to African literature in the brief period of its life.
It is not difficult to figure out why. In what we immediately think of as constituting African literature – that body of work mass produced in the 1960s - the possibility of what an African narrative ought to be makes an about-turn if having read God’s Bits of Wood, Things Fall Apart or Mission to Kala, you stray into The Interpreters. It makes an about-turn and comes adorned in a kaftan cut in a manner not in keeping with the fashion:
Gesturing extra-thematically, a little forceful in its daring use of language, rather than ask us to consider the European-African impermeability or esteem the plenteous prodigy of the African woman, The Interpreters draws our attention to the possibility of creek mangroves (gnarled tears), a sunken canon (rotting hulks) being viable vehicles yielding poetic insight into loss and grief without saying it nakedly artlessly.
The barreling advance from sheer suspense as when Bakayoko strides messianic to a rapturous denouement in Dakar, or when Okonkwo’s suicide becomes unavoidable, were in The Interpreters replaced by a tetchy, life-loathing, post-adolescent nervousness; not very page turning stuff if suspense is all you require of a book.
Even the proverbs in The Interpreters are set at a suspect distance, given as a human tendency to think rather than as given Thought. The matter is after all debatable. In short, The Interpreters is not “African” literature as we have been bred to know it. It did not open with an “African” prescript. And so on the continent, what is doubtless a work of genius, has been punished with neglect. Another age may warm up to its expansiveness (when existentialist voidance hollows out the African middle class) but the central crisis writers from the continent face could not have been better illustrated by this novel’s reception:
Fast forward 44 years later: a rather brilliant collection of short stories and excerpts from novels is published in the Winter 2009 edition of The Literary Review; wonderful prose from the likes of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor - but not so fast. As an African writer, you must first perform a welcome ceremony to your work. So the authors featured in this collection are asked to identify themselves:
“An African writer is not just someone who has black skin and mixes alphabets to create words on paper,” writes Tracy Nneka Nnawubar. “As an African writer, I am someone who belongs to a civilization of people with peculiar experiences that have challenged our environment and continent, Africa .”
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley makes the rejoinder that “I am an African writer first before anything, and have always known myself to be. I see the world through my Africaness (sic), the sensibility of our being, and I am guided by that in all that I write”.
This suspects’ identification parade unfolds with diminishing enthusiasm, and with much diminished politeness, Yvonne Owuor brings the lid crashing on it with “I ignore the term African writer. I write. Among other things. Full stop. Place myself as far away as an Indian Ocean speck of sand is from disgraced Pluto’s fifth moon”.
It is a bit like being asked to sing for your supper, for this kind of demand is never made of European or American writers. African writing, the demand implies, is not really there yet, a shameful ambition orbiting non-canonically beyond Pluto.
While it would be both unfair and untruthful to say that African literature is necessarily contradicted without this also being a general statement on all literatures, there is a specific, unignorable, historical problem: five decades since it became a fact, we still have not made a serious effort to read it; a fault of the reader who does not expect enough and of the writer unsure if he should do more.
Almost without exception, we read our books for themes, and not just any themes: history forms the central plank; colonialism too, which is itself presented as an inescapable African-European encounter (for centuries, African empires colonized other African societies and not without brutality), so that an Ezeulu has to be measured against a Winterbottom; a Lawino cast alongside a Westernised Clementine. The result is that Africa seems impossible without an opposite, this Other necessarily being Europe , the continent a shadowgraph of its northern neighbour.
Inescapable too is our expectation that our books be plot-based, so that literature classes are endlessly descriptive of action, cause and effect.
That it is possible for African literature to muse poetically, even if just for the heck of it, is rarely contemplated. Its not that such books are not produced. How many discussions about African literature consider Sweet and Sour Milk a canonical text, despite it exploring newer, moist terrain?
It is a tragic counterpoint that this literature looking at “peculiar experiences” never dives inwards, to consider the African mind, to feature an African thinking, musing on the abstract and the proffered. It is as if once Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary reacted to the European shock of seeing a human being with a body blackly contradicted to white skin, that the African writer saw it as his job to offer explanation.
It was a strategic error for the foundational generation of our writers to answer back Cary ’s insult. Had those insults been made by a Tolstoy or a Shakespeare – high achievers of the Western canon – then it might have meant something. But Cary is third rate, and by humoring him, Chinua Achebe ensured that third rate became our starting point.
It became the standard, so that a text like The Interpreters, which “pounced” rather than self-declared its negritude, seemed un-African. While Negritude's reactionary but tragically simple-minded thrusts never made it across the writer-generation, its conflation of one’s race with one’s subject continued. Jean Paul Sartre’s ironic statement that it was negation, anti-racist racism pointed out in an important way its devaluation of Africa as innately incapable of empirical thought.
By their very nature, literary creations (incorporeal word-realities) cannot be racialised. Realised by agency of symbol, possible through a conscious cooperation of readers willing to believe, they are creatures of the mind. But more than this, as creatures of words, they too reflect the creative process.
To not pay attention to the technique by which they are realised, is an insult to civilization, which being a contemplation of what it is, also traces how it becomes. To read Things Fall Apart for the titillation of suspense alone, and not pay attention to the manner in which Achebe writes, is to read only half of him.
It is essential to suspend for a while, the time-worn reading of African literature and concentrate on the manner in which these books were written – suspend as if colonialism never happened, as if we are not our colour, nor that Church and Shakespeare ever invaded our sacred spaces.
It is important to ask if Achebe’s famous “simple” language was sufficient to convey a complete Igbo world or whether his proverbs constructed fully their worldview or if those proverbs merely served to confirm Cary ’s stereotypes. Perhaps they did more than that, but we haven’t asked the questions yet. Every culture has proverbs and at the last count, I found as many English proverbs as Igbo ones.
Was Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino an enabler rather than inhibitor of poetic possibilities? Perhaps it enabled much more than we think. But how can we tell if we are unwilling to empirically “disown” these books by looking at them as no more important to Africans as say Murder in the Cathedral?
Is it not self-inflicted imperialism that we continue to see Europe as our nemesis or self-defeating that Francophone African writers write to repudiate French literature and Anglophone, the English?
There is a world above and beyond history as source for text, but the reactions to Conrad and Cary, whose unintended historical mission ended reducing the African to his body parts (“the lower the brain – the beast blood”) – as colonial economy intentionally reduced us to labour (African thought labeled witchcraft), means that any book in which Africans are considering free-floating notions of human existence is received with suspicion.
Sagoe’s laboured essay on voidance seems to me a more fitting rebuttal to Conrad than the frontal, misleading comments Achebe made of the Anglo-Polish writer for it does a number of things:
One, an African is thinking; two, this thought interrogates Thinking itself; three, it is a self-critical examination of the idea of writing and four, acknowledges that what we call Literature is no more than a pastiche of linguistic registers. Fifthly, it is an uplifting satire about the very idea of blackness being prime locus for African literature – and no literature goes very far without a little self-mockery.