“The force of the poetry that was beginning to come out of those young people became one huge challenge to many of us. It wasn’t because we hated other people’s poetry but because we were frightened of our emotions.” -David Rubadiri, Malawian Poet. Makerere University , May 2009.
David Rubadiri was speaking to an audience at Makerere University in May 2009 at a memorial lecture to editor David Cook when he said this, in front of an audience of students whose parents would have been children when in 1962, African writers descended on the university:
Octogenarian and walking with a noticeable shuffle, Rubadiri still had in him, the ability to whip up the aura of the 1960s when African literature was still received with extremes of emotion; 47 years ago, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Okot P’Bitek, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and others who attended that conference were well-known already or would soon be.
Brought up on a forced diet of Shakespeare and Dickens, they plotted to throw the ‘English Department’ out of universities in Africa and replace it with African literature; a challenge to the “fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature”. In 1962, the mass of what we now call African literature had not been written yet. So, June 1962 on Makerere Hill was also a mission statement. The next two decades would see a great number of novels, poems, essays and plays written.
Lewis Nkosi reporting in The Guardian on the conference pointed out that “those writers talked endlessly about the problems of creation … as though they were amazed that fate had entrusted them with the task of interpreting a continent to the world.”
This statement by Nkosi would not have been the only sentiment at that conference, but the essence of it was picked up and passed over to become the standard reaction – and even expectation – when reading African literature, implicitly stating that African literature was written for a non-African audience. Presumably, a piece of work that “interprets” carries the sterile tones of a tour guide rather than the rounded texture of the architect.
The defining character of African literature, one from which problems of reading it emerge, is that a handful of writers and editors wilfully created a body of work that had not existed before. Compression and extensions of pasts and histories was inevitable, assumptions that would only become apparent with time went to press. In time, Song of Lawino, The Trials of Brother Jero and The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born appeared; the writing was done and the reading started in earnest.
Immediately, reviewers were at loss for appropriate expressions that would best describe the appearance of characters like Abd’ji’bidji and Lawino who in comparison to Heathcliff or Emma Bovary, seemed to orbit in a universe in which pumpkin roots, yams and Ogun had replaced cheese, daffodils and Yorkshire moors as narrative paraphernalia.
The theoretic reader’s bone of contention is that African literature was largely made to a cultural-nationalist order, however unconsciously (which can be said of any work); to use imagery of the 60s, the African Writers Series (AWS) was a cultural Apollo Project, a literary 5-year Plan.
A lot seemed to be at stake in the 1960s; the Cold War, threat of a nuclear holocaust, student protests and the Vietnam War, defining a high époque’s loss of certainty in the face of destabilising transitions. To accuse African writers of over-determining their terms, in the manner in which Kwame Anthony Appiah did in his book, In My Father’s House, may not be inaccurate but it misses the point that the ‘60s were years of over-determinism.
At the beginning of the 70s, the well-regarded African literary critic, Adrian Roscoe (Mother is Gold), in what appears a casual reference, wrote of John Pepper Clarke’s, Second Round: "The pull of the British tradition remains strong, for Clarke here is obviously feeling the influence of Hopkins, a poet whose deliberately rude handling of language for special effects might be expected to appeal to a young free spirit like Clarke!"
There would be more. Part of the praises heaped on Song of Lawino was that it sounded like Hiawatha. For Western readers, their heritage was the accepted canon and everything else could only be seen in comparison.
Tasters with less flamboyance, and perhaps weary of cross-cultural conflation, found the gravy, “remarkable”, “intelligent”; the presentation “portrayed” the “beauty of African traditions” with “humour”, “originality” and “power”; others found the gruel “thin”, lacking in “universal” salt. These first line readings licked the edges of the bowl, tentative, weary of plunging headlong into the steaming soup, occasionally snatching up bits of “culture clash”, and morsels of “tradition versus progress”.
Irate response erupted. Soyinka summed up as a “facile tag”, the convenient black/white, north/south, body/mind, and Africa/Europe, juxtaposition.
This patronizing tone from Western readers drove Ayi Kwei Armah to make an enduring riposte to Charles Larson (Under African Skies) and give name to de-contextualised readings. Larson remarked of Armah, saying that in The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born the latter had, “gone to great pains to make it clear that he is writing literature first, and that the Africanness of his writing is something of less great importance.”
Armah, fuming from this reductionist tone, termed as “Larsony” what he saw as an externalising reading "which consists of the judicious distortion of African truths to fit Western prejudices”. Perhaps worse, Larson had, again like Roscoe, compared The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.
A high point was reached with the controversy over Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, a development which focused serious reading beyond plot and story. The play’s weighty suggestions provoked significant comment. Soyinka’s stated aim was what he called a metaphysical study of death, ritual and transition. For many (who cannot be shielded by the trite defence that they don’t know Africa ), Soyinka’s description was curious, given that the antagonism between Pilkin – the colonial administrator, and Elesin – the tragic Oba (leading characters in the play) clearly spelt culture-clash.
The prime problem, which continues to our age, was that the continent lacked, or did not chrystalise, the lofty macro-narratives by which the West categorised its traditions. Hence, Marxist readers could recklessly say Soyinka neglected to take into account the impact of petty commodity trading, class structure and power politics.
Who said you must write to ideological order, and was not Marxism a product of specific, Western experience?
Pushed into a corner, and asked to contextualise themselves within already existing grand narratives, African writers – sadly - came with such constructions as “Cosmology”, “Unanimism” as armour against the Roscoes of the time.
The charge was that rather than presenting Africa as it was, African writers were inventing a past to equal the material stature of another’s heritage; assuming that race was a fact and that with so many “tribes” and languages, the idea of Africa was false.
It could be however argued that the spirited response from Soyinka and Armah held Western readers in check. With the closing of the 70s cursory readings gave way to the multi-disciplinary facet of theory.
But Africa was not solely the pre-occupation of the literary world. Historians, linguists and anthropologists from the continent like Valentin Yves Mudimbe, Cheik Anta Diop and Armah himself, who had started digging as far back as Egypt, further complicated the milieu. Given the climate of the time, the reading of African literature too went extra-literary, into the risk-fraught grounds of Theory.
The problem of its birth meant that inevitably, African literature would be asked teething questions. AWS had created a body of works lacking textual parentage. That it was written in refutation, that this refutation was a militant counterpoint to Europe , made it a foregone conclusion that the tag, “Afrocentrism” would be slapped on it.
Stephen Howe’s book, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes, which came out much later, was the kind of ground on which not only the works of Diop and Armah were doubted, but also the intellectual context in which men like Appiah had questioned African creative works of literature.
For defenders of the idea of Africa , philosophical and technical questions stunk of neo-colonialism: Could these deniers not see that the immensity of suffering of the black peoples necessitated a massive counter-offensive? Could they not see that these theoretic affronts were rearming the neo-imperialists who walked boldly back into places like Congo ?
The complexity arises from the fact that this self-fortification of the African spirit was made at the tail-end of a tragic, intellectual refraction that begun in Europe a few hundred years before. In claiming ownership of truth and science, renaissance Europe appropriated all the good that all other societies do as their preserve, the very reason for their existing. In equal measure, it regurgitated the messy waste it did not need, and heaped it upon all the other societies it dominated; to work, imperialism dubiously over-emphasized black/white demarcations.
It was as if two plus two equalled three in the tropics. With equal imbecility, Negritude claimed for Africa, patent rights over the innate and the inscrutable, oblivious of the same being mass-produced in Hitler’s Europe .
In many ways, Negritude thrives in circles that spell Africa with a K; Negritude’s two plus two may equal four, but the four is dressed up in a grass skirt for authenticity. It was within this chimera of cultural confusion that the misdirected readings emanated.
The uncertainty over reading African writing properly came from an old idea that the straight, the symmetrical and the structured could only be European; that what is authentically African could only be the malformed, primordial, and lacked surface finesse. It was as if Africans never puzzled over psychology, as if the knowledge of smelting and tooling metal, lost wax casting and making dies – which reached high levels of refinement in pre-colonial Africa had been the product of witchcraft rather than of science.
Armah’s characters failed to agree to an easy patenting along Negritudinist lines, and could hence be labelled as “European” by Larson. An immense silliness seemed to have gripped everyone.
There was and is no special key into reading African writing – no African solution to this Africanised problem. All Art, whether made in the Tundra or the Savannah , comes from the same place and hence, to think that different standards ought to be erected to study works from different geographical settings is a disservice to art.
It is only from this deformity that any narrative of a pre-colonial Africa in which the rational and explicable happened could be perceived as “inventing” an African past.
AWS’s heroic act of “creating” a grand project was dismissed as mere invention; the “invented” seen as a dubious, back-handed creation of heroic pasts big enough to respond adequately to Conrad, Carey and other colonial anthropologies.
It is not too hard to know why hardly any of these readings grappled with these works as pure works of art, to give them a good shaking to see whether they were good or bad art, to find out if as novels, they created narratives that captured the essence of existence properly.
There are readers who still think that Africans experience existence in alien ways; theorists like Appiah consider good or bad art as categories for the lowly craft of criticism; defenders of African essence were interested in these books only for the sake of history. Nearly all were interested in the anthropological possibilities they offered.
One can jump up with an easy defence of African literature and say that all literary traditions invent pasts, that the renaissance in Europe was appropriation of a classicalism borrowed from the Greeks who borrowed it from ancient Egypt . One can say this to brutally undercut European claims to primacy in the same way Howe made claims of the new African literary project.
It would be easy to say that all books are written with conscious intent, rather than absent-mindedly – in the same way it was once said of the acquisition of the British Empire , a thin attempt to escape historical responsibility for its crimes. To the extent that Beowulf is literature, that War and Peace does not oversell the Russian spirit, Howe’s thesis that African writers and scholars were constructing ‘mythical pasts and imagined homes’ can pass as legitimate.
But the fights over reading African literature ought to concern us in Africa only as a curiosity. We have, for good and for worse, inherited a body of work already. But it is not our place to doubt what is ours.
We who would continue creating art and literature on the continent ought to concern ourselves with technical questions to start the kind of reading which should have been done years ago; to say if a book is written well or badly, to compare what we experience inside the pages and compare them to what we experience outside of them.