Friday, November 13, 2009

Mis-appreciation Of African Literature (101)

Students are advised that this course carries no credits. This course is designed only for the Appreciation of African Literature.

By David Kaiza

“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.


Part 2: An Open Letter To Philip Ochieng from Taban lo Liyong

I was in Nairobi a few months ago and presented a paper on “Major Indigenous Gods and Religions of Africa and their Areas of Worship”, using evidences gleaned from Professor Dr. Rev. John Samuel Mbiti on African religions and Harry Johnston on Bantu and Sub-Bantu languages of Africa. Though the evidences were mainly from those two, I discovered a trove of useful information hidden in them to establish my thesis. And that is that there are distinct African Gods and their related Religions. Because Africans have migrated far they have also taken these Gods and their observances along with them. But the names have slightly changed as African languages became dialects of the original languages.

By identifying the dialectal relationship, one can trace the migratory relationship between African ideas, beliefs and peoples as well as draw a map of the relationship. After making this original discovery I thought other scholars would now go ahead and study each God/Religion autonomously. As well as find out what their individual characteristics of Gods and Religions are, as well as their dialectal changes or transmutations.

The above, in the main, was the new knowledge I was bringing to the attention of the scholars. But one senior staff member of the Department of Linguistics and African Languages who had not even read the paper was so furious with me for having wasted his time re-presenting published materials, which he was glad I had failed to take to Spain where they had been destined for a conference.

I did not know whether to feel sorry for myself or for him. For, though the paper’s presentation was unorthodox, and I had said so, the theses, major and minor – were strewn throughout the paper. Besides, I had a map of Africa specially drawn to illustrate the areas and the peoples where these Gods and Religious are found. Since some of them like Onyame/Zambi, Mungu/Mulungu, Jok/Juok are worshipped by millions of Africans and cover many areas and nations, I thought they qualify to be called world religions. And should be respected, and studied anonymously as different entities in their own right.

In that paper, as well as another on the names of numerals in African languages, I realized that knowledge from linguistics and African languages hold the keys to the study of Africa – its history, its religions, its philosophies, its agriculture, its approaches to the environment, in short all its major ideas on everything. But I also realized during the exchanges in that lecture that the linguist, as a purely language technician, would have had no catch-all basket to have studied these pieces of information from. The more reason why the Humanities taught in the American Liberal Arts Education bring out more knowledgeable undergraduates than the products of continental European and English Universities. For, the variety of courses I took in my undergraduate studies in America put me in a better stead than most students brought up under the English system which were exported to the colonies and under which our Eastern African students were labouring. It was some of those shortcomings we had set out to correct in our revolution of 1969.

Now then Philip, what do we say? We could say the Revolution of Literary Studies has had some success. It has introduced new topics, and new subjects, but it has not, unfortunately, produced the scholarship and scholars to sufficiently justify it. (Most of us, especially the primary movers, were creative writers and people with creative minds. The students we taught should have sat in front of the few scholars in the department:

Prof. Andrew Gurr was a Shakespearean scholar. Prof. Adrian Roscoe was an ‘Africanist scholar’. There was also Ms Margaret Marshment. Dr. Angus Calder was more popularistic and journalistic than a solid literarily scholar. That was about all! Scatterbrained Jimmy had the professor’s characteristics without being a professor. But he added spice and variety to our life. And then those of our products who later got recruited into the various university literature departments all over East Africa, almost to a man or woman at one time or other, tried their hands at creative writing. Or editing - the most glamorous things, then going.

But, without having taken courses in creative writing, or enrolled in creative writing courses by correspondence how could they hope to rise above the also-wrote! Perhaps they thought it was easy, instead of self-educating themselves as many a self-motivated or committed writer or artist has done over the ages and the world over. To the extent that a naturally gifted and also self-taught creative writer from Kenya - Samuel Kahiga -- has produced the best novel by a Kenyan – the life story of Dedan Kimathi, after Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat. Other ‘new’ books which need serious study by the budding writer who wants styles to follow are Nervous Conditions by the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangaremba. It is well-crafted, evenly paced, intellectually and creatively satisfying. He/She who wants to write a serious quality novel is well-advised to emulate this book. Otherwise they would continue to churn out novellas and narratives as we used to do at the dawn of Eastern Africa’s literary creativity.

The system inherited from Britain’s, could not have been expected to produce any better products in Africa. Only an American system of Undergraduate and Post-graduate programme, the type that produced me, could have done the revolution justice. For, we succeeded in putting together that document mainly with the background knowledge I had gathered from my American Undergraduate and Post-Graduate studies. And Simon Gikandi seems to have added to his meager Nairobi University stock from the highly competitive fruits of studying and teaching in American universities.

Now to conclude. To begin with the mastery and usage of the English tongue. Are we Eastern Africans in the category of those who ended our vocabulary gathering and sentence pattern development as far back as the O. Level? (In my encounters with West and Southern Africans with the same educational levels as East Africans, I found their usage and understanding of English to be more fluent and advanced compared with East Africans. Sorry boys. Sorry girls.) For when you write for those with A. Level vocabulary and sentence pattern, and then if your writings fall into the hands of graduates of literature , are they not likely to find them too low and insipid, or boring, for their tastes? Since at the dawn of Africa's creative writing Oluwole Soyinka, was already there with his large vocabulary and complex sentence patterns, what has caused the linguistic regress? Why have we clung to our Michael Wests and not climbed to the Advanced Oxford, Cambridge and London Dictionaries and Thesauruses?

But wait till we see some young Nigerians who have despaired of attaining Soyinka's standards. Let them go socialist and say: "Off with their heads! Off with the heads of Africans with large vocabulary and who do not pander to our socialist cause. From now onwards it is the common man and his tastes which must be satisfied." Then darkness will have descended all over Africa.

(Please do not get me wrong. I understand the fervour with which the young turks went about fighting the war on behalf of the common man. But perhaps they should have given other people room to perch on the same tree as well. They should not have appropriated for themselves the title: We are the righteous ones; the only righteous ones. That partisan role which young socialism/communism appropriated for itself, is as dictatorial and easy to manipulate for the wrong reason as the dictatorial position the state regimes had appropriated for themselves. Live and let live, that is all I beg of searchers for the way to save the Africans who need saving, meaning most of us. Whilst the workers in the department of ‘salvation now’ are busy, the forward planners for Africa’s future greatness should be left alone to do so. Even in ivory towers specially created for them. We need islands of excellence. (Kamuzu Banda was good at this.) Not every professor should be subjected to the indignity of teaching parallel students. Establish ‘University moderns’ for them.)

Chinua Achebe had created a very safe midway house between popular literature and serious literature. Thanks to the Irish writer, Joyce Cary, he wrote to depose. Achebe is the most accessible of the major African writers. Especially in the secondary school texts: Things Fall Apart and A Man of the People. Luckily No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God are slightly more complex. They give us a more complex dimension of his mind.

The call to worship the god of mediocrity started from Nigerian Universities: Ibadan, Ile-Ife and Nsuka. Dar es Salaam answered it. Nairobi imported it. It went to Rimuruti from where started the backlash at literature and all that is creative. Perhaps I am simplifying a complex story, but when the story is truly told one day we shall know the truth. Perhaps Ngugi who started the revolution also became the instrument of its demise! When you plan for an institution do not think you will have control of the process after you have handed over the plan. But between Ngugi’s regime in the Literature Department and Daniel Arap Moi’s repressive national regime, development in literary studies in Kenya ground to a halt. (Perhaps there were also some ‘collateral’ damages.) A position it has been in ever since. Perhaps literary progress is now rising out of it. But the progress is now being made outside the confines of Kenya’s departments of literature.

Our Nobel Literature laureates Wole Soyinka and the West Indian Derek Walcott have earned their accolades. They mastered their chosen language of creativity, English. In the writing of symbolic novels, here too the Nobel Literature Committee chose well: Nadine Gordimer and J.M.Coetzee - both writers coming from South Africa. No doubt White South Africa’s artistic creativity is an enclave of European creativity. But when you go to the Olympics and line up to run, do you plead for the Africans only session? If you do not want to go the whole hog, perhaps you have already known your limitations. And you have already eliminated yourself from the contest. Good for you. At least you are honest. But if you do participate and are defeated do not come crying: "Off with their heads those who write symbolic novels! Did not even the grand teacher Jesus say; say teach some lessons so that even your own disciples would not understand them? Or understand them first time round? Or understand them only with the help of interpreters?

Clearly speaking then, good teaching is like hiding the sweetest part of the fruit of knowledge in the centre of the hardest kernel. So one needs hard teeth to crack it; one takes time to go round it. Simply put you do not take prose speakers to discuss marriage proposals to the chief’s home. (Apples as fruits of knowledge are too soft for hiding African wisdom.) Many important matters cannot be simplified and represented in ordinary language. The message demands a higher language to present it in. Serious wisdom is to be presented above the understanding even of the apostles so that they too would seek for the services of interpreters – the prophets who understand the present state of affairs before them, and can render them in so clear a language that they become accessible to the ordinary hearers. (Have you read and understood The Interpreters?) Or understood what that Southern U.S. writer, Emily Dickinson, said about writing: Say it. But say it aslant!

As far as playwriting in East Africa is concerned, Francis Imbuga and his friend John Ruganda have given us plays that entertain and also teach. That is, they make you laugh and also think. Besides, what did Francis say about drama in his studies in Iowa Writers Workshop? In response, what did John say about drama in his studies in the University of British Columbia? If we do not read and teach what our literary practitioners have said about their craft that are in the public domain, how do we hope to enlarge our knowledge, or use the shoulders of the veterans to stand on so we can see further and perform better than they?

Otherwise why teach Shakespeare, August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, Sophocles, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, Anton Chekov? Why teach them as if they practice different arts from our own aunties’ children? Or is it because other literary students have already produced explanations about their works? And we who have no understanding of literary works teach these ‘guides’?

Two questions are being posed here: How can we, as a race, go through life performing below par as if below par is where we are destined to be? As if we prefer to spend all our time and life in the present cultural comfort zone? We must break through that comfort zone and say: Yes, we can rise above ourselves. Secondly, with the few solid and promising beginnings that we now have, how can we ignore them and continue singing songs of Conrads, Shakespeares, etc. when we have Imbugas, Rugandas, Ngugis, Soyinkas around to teach us?

To branch off a little. The late Archie Mafeje did study the history of the Great Lakes region using library sources and did the speculative armchair scholarship in his Egyptian office and home and finally came up with a first class work. I recommend it to Great Lakes historians: both Bantu and non-Bantu. In the social sciences, the Malawian professor, Thandika Mkandawire, dribbles the lingo of economists in the discussion of the intricacies and complexities of world economics very well. His language is quite mature. He knows what goes on in the world of high economics. These two are exemplar scholars. In disciplines other than literature.

They operate at the high level in which the future Eastern African creative writers and literary discussants (as well as those in any other discipline) will have to operate. Though Archie has departed this life, the African Institute of South Africa in Pretoria has established fellowships in the Social Sciences in his name to promote the mission of: Yes We Can! in scholarship. If I am to stop singing my litany, then let the uplift happen in my life time.

In 1965 when I was an undergraduate, there was an article written decrying the literary barrenness of East Africa. Sure more products have now been produced. But during the same intervening period, East African sportsmen and sportswomen made so many strides and improved their performances to the extent that they are now world beaters. Is it a cliché to say that East Africa is still barren as far as high literary creativity is concerned? Can our professors of literature point to advances their departmental members have made in the cause of the growth of literary studies and creative writing?

It is taken for granted that they teach in the classrooms. But in what ways do they also ‘cheat’ the university by promoting literature and culture OUTSIDE the confines of the university? My buddy and I used to pride ourselves by boasting that ‘We cheat at the university!’ Little did we realize that that way we enhanced the standing and role of the university more outside its confines!

Let me offer an excuse for myself, perhaps a lame one. In my second year at college I was an up and rising pure elitist. But because I was bitten by the bug of teaching, I threw myself into it with passion, worked hard to simplify what was abstruse so that my brothers and sisters would understand them. I climbed down, perhaps hoping that that way I would rise up with them after they had been affected with the spirit. Some may have, others may not. When I look back to the 45 years that have passed since the ‘Literary Barrenness’ article was written I am not sure if I had made any impact. The more reason why I have kept on reiterating it.

One of my earlier admirers was so furious with me. It is a man who unfortunately is now not with us, the former graduate of Makerere University: Atieno Odhiambo. He berated me for producing Another Last Word. Atieno had thought it was going to be an advance on The Last Word, Another Nigger Dead and Meditations. He felt let down when he found that it contained my articles for teaching Kenyans how to publish books and magazines, how to become Olympics record setters, how literature students were to collect oral stories from their grandmothers, etc. Perhaps I should have taught a little and had more time for my advanced creativity? Perhaps I should have remained up the mountain and beckoned for those of my brothers and sisters who had the strength to climb up to me?

But will serious African writers emerge when they do not know the English language and literature? When they have not mastered American culture? When they do not know classical Greek literature and philosophy? When they do not know Indian religion and religious poetry or religious philosophy? Did T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound not do these things? Did W.B.Yeats not do these things? Has Derek Walcott not done these things? As for religiosity, I make no apology for saying that the serious writer is a religious person. Not a Moslem, a Christian, a Hindu, or Buddhist. But a person who understands what lies at the core of the world’ religions which they are grappling with, and has found his/her own niche in it and is carving it in his writings in order to help them fulfill their role to all humanity.

What I have now resolved is to retreat into myself and do what I can rather than to go on talking. Of course the products that are in the drawers will have their airings. But otherwise if I start to sound incomprehensible it is because I am retreating into where Atieno had thought I was destined.

Best wishes and Aluta Continua.

Taban lo Liyong, University of Juba, South Sudan, 14th July 2009

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


An Open letter to Philip Ochieng from Taban lo Liyong

Dear Philip,

It is 40 years since we had the English Department revolutionised into the Literature Department. That was in 1969. And, unless Nairobi University’s Literature Department, Linguistics and African Languages Department, the French sub-department (it was already a sub even 40 years ago) and the Chinese Confucius Centre want to wait to tell the tale after 50 years have passed so that they can celebrate a Golden Jubilee, I think the 40th anniversary is a good enough time to celebrate.

James Ngugi – as he was then known – was the conceiver and main mover of the project - I was the secretary and had the administrative know–how to co-ordinate the process. Professor Alan Bethwell Ogot, the then Dean of Faculty of Arts, was the anchor man. Indeed, without his backing and support we could not have succeeded, let alone ventured out. Jimmy Stewart, the then Acting Head of the English Department, was less a foil than a collaborator in our endeavour. Professor of African Languages, Professor Wilfred Whiteley had much know–how. And he did contribute. Dr. Gideon Were and Dr. John Okumu were helpful, as was Okot p’Bitek when in town from his assignment in Kisumu Extra-Mural, and Jonathan Kariara, Parsali Likimani and you, yourself – Philip Ochieng.

And finally, the Faculty of Arts adopted the proposal. After the Board adopted it, the Council of Nairobi University made it its own institutional document. The paper does not belong to Ngugi, Taban or Owor Anyumba - its presenters to the Faculty of Arts Board.

As such, it is up to the departments listed above, or the Faculty, if it feels that the move to decolonize literary studies in African Universities, beginning with and from Nairobi University, Kenya, was significant enough, to mark it through an act of remembrance.

The document called for the transformation from the then Department for the teaching of English Language and Literature – that was the primary raison d`etre of the department then - to the study of the universal academic discipline of Literature in an East African setting, both Oral and Written, albeit still taught in and through the English language, on the one hand; then similar things in and through French language, from Franco-phone Africa.

If we had envisaged the teaching of literatures written in African languages, then the point was mooted. For, apart from Kiswahili and Kikuyu, no African language was taught in the secondary school where the universities drew their students from. So until that time comes there is no point in saying Dholuo or Giriama literatures should be taught in Moi or Maseno University.

Apartheid South Africa helped preserve African languages and cultures to survive and thrive. To justify the existence of Afrikaans (their African version of Dutch) they also had to advocate the existence of other languages and cultures within the Union. Thus, in the whole of Africa, Apartheid South Africa is the only regime that promoted African languages and culture. Sometimes your enemy’s solution of his problems may also help you achieve your preferred goals.

Africa’s major colonisers – the English and the French – had spread their language, culture, and influence sufficiently deep enough to have induced African creative writers to produce literary works of appreciable merit – linguistically and technically – to merit academic study in university departments. Already then we had writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Peter Abrahams, Okot p`Bitek, and James Ngugi published in the English language category. Already we had Leopold Sedar Senghor, Ousmane Sembene, Mongo Beti, Camara Laye, Muamadu Kane, Ferdinand Oyono, and Mariama Ba from the French language category.

The above had oeuvres of high creative level. We also wanted a homely course called “East African Literature and its Cultural/Social Bases”. Literature is not written in a vacuum. And we wanted to make the connection between the societies described and from whose culture the works arose and the texts that got produced.

The major genres in which Africans had already produced significant texts, like drama, poetry, and the novel were also taught. Perhaps some of the texts we chose to use were below par. But we had to teach them anyway as negative examples. We concentrated more on the subject matter and pointed out the weakness of the text’s technical composition. This is how I dealt with Charles Mangua’s Son of Woman, then the rave of Nairobi city.

Karl Marx’s contributions in the analysis of societies, their sources of wealth and poverty, and impacts on the ordinary or working class were also studied. This was dear to Ngugi`s socialist heart.

We regarded highly other worlds’ major literary producers and their works and the vantage points from which they had observed humanity. Examples are William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Miguel Garcia, Moliere, Anton Chekhov, Ibsen, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, etc. and we made room for them in the syllabus. After all, literary studies are not only the study of an imaginative product in a language, but also the exploration and discussion of the human condition in the language of the countries of the writers:

The tragedy of King Lear and his daughters, of Oedipus and his family, of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian aristocracy, of Moliere’s laughably poignant presentations do enlarge the students’ understanding of the world, of human beings and their conditions in it. Not only that, the story is the artifact through which a writer presents the drama of life, through a tale, a parable, an allegory, or symbolic work. So looking at the story superficially gives one the entre, surface value and pleasure; the overtly presented fable and its histrionics and not the deeper meaning which requires an initiated connoisseur to interpret. The deeper meaning, the interpretation of life and life’s meaning which the author presented as Jesus would have through his parables, or Prophet Isaiah would have, through his prophecies of long ago in the Old Testament would require an Apostle Philip from the Sudan to interpret to Candaces’ financial caretakers.

To a large extent, literary works explore and present themes from philosophy’s territory through allegories and tales and symbolisms. Most times they enlarge the philosophical message, bringing out the hidden implications, updating the older perceptions and showing through a family’s sage how the philosopher’s end of the story is the beginning of an old man’s dilemma or tragedy or comedy. So perhaps creative writers operating at the level of philosophising do not only share turf but may be more philosophical having the skills to dramatise and its method of presentation and sharing the philosopher’s territory.

Regrettably, most African creative works so far are produced in the realistic mode rather than the symbolic. Within the symbolic mode of creativity at least there are Camara Laye’s Radiance of the King, and Daniachu Worku’s The Thirteenth Sun. In despair for not being understood, my Iowa Writers Workshop fellow student from Ethiopia, Daniachu Worku, might have committed suicide in his lonely Addis Ababa flat. As for Camara Laye, though he created in symbolic mode, with Clarence the main character of The Radiance of the King, a book not yet understood by most critics, he was still human enough to buy presents from Mainz for his daughters then in Paris the year we shared a room with him, 1979.

We also had a course called “Literary Criticism”. I think we should have emphasized "Literary Studies: Understanding of Literary Products and Literary Discussion" which go much deeper than mere ‘criticism’. For ‘criticism’ is also the name, daily reporters of first nights at the theatre do as well as introducers of new books in the society pages of newspapers. It belittles literature if these are also accepted as serious materials for academic studies. They are cursory and superficial. Yet I understand some of our universities promote their staff to professorships through the strength of their newspaper articles.

(How many of my former students who now teach in Kenyan universities understand the new field of New Literary Theory? When I was in the University of Venda I taught it to South African students. And I was satisfied with the 5 questions you had to subject each literary theory to answer in order for it to qualify as a new literary theory. They covered most fields a work of literature is created to serve.)

But the staff we had and those we later recruited to launch the new courses did not have the credentials or the academic backgrounds that would have qualified them to teach the courses. No university in the world had taught the courses we launched. So nobody was qualified, strictly speaking, to teach our new courses or the old ones we had redesigned. Most of our staff did not know how to design courses either, having taught (or been taught) courses imported wholesale from London for the colonial university colleges all over the British Empire/Commonwealth all their life.

The result is that Nairobi University’s Department of Literature cannot even now boast of having produced more than one, and only one, fully fledged and competent discussant of literary works to a universal standard: Simon Gikandi, of the University of Michigan.

If only Simon Gikandi could be cloned! And then distributed to all Kenyan University departments of literature!

And, because of the dearth of such discussants, we have not had much light shed on our burgeoning writers’ works, or much help or guidance given to the up-coming writers in honing their skills. Because our universities departments of literature have failed to provide the leadership, young writers all over Africa are doing the best they can to become writers through projects like Femrite – Feminine Writers -- in Uganda, and Kwani? and PEN in Kenya. Literary magazines that existed in each East African University’s Literature Departments, or each capital city or those launched proudly by select publishing firms have all died out. Popular magazines have proliferated. Why there are no marriages between the glamorous and the intellectual babies I do not know.

Perhaps the Literature Departments in Eastern Africa should be made to turn over the teaching of their courses and supervision of their students to some reputable American Universities whilst their senior staff enroll for postdoctoral studies, or audits of the courses they have been teaching locally in universities like Columbia, Harvard, Yale or California?

We want to see more literary texts studied and more essays written in the undergraduate years. We want to see M.A. courses that are thoroughly taught and examined before the students do research and write their theses with at least seven tomes per course and assignments turned in every fortnight so that it is only after one has passed all the taught courses that one can one write one’s M.A. thesis. We want to see to it that our Doctoral students also do to take taught courses, again with more than seven tomes per course that they pass before they are allowed to write their dissertations.

How can one call oneself a scholar if one did not delve deeply into scholarship in his formative undergraduate years? How can one teach in a university if one did not broaden one’s outlook by taking postgraduate courses for postgraduate degrees? If one really wants to be a top-notch scholar, a reputable don, can one really succeed without rigorously studying the books by one’s peers, delve into them when they prepare articles for international conferences, or articles for referred journals? Simply put, my misgivings are that the intellectual base of most of our professors is shallow and not large. Thus they dare not attempt to send abstracts to conferences or referred journals.

With only Simon Gikandi (a graduate of the courses we had designed) to boast about, I can’t say the Literature Revolution of 1969 has lifted up the discipline called Literary Studies in East African Universities.

We had also wanted the three main civilizations of Asia then – the Indian, the Chinese and the Japanese - to be studied, when there was/were staff. As far as the introduction of Japanese literature and language is concerned, Mr. Ikeda Daichaku – a man who was in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize back then – came to Nairobi, donated some books, gave a lecture, and invited President Daniel Arap Moi to go to his university, Soka Gakkai International. There followed a period of staff exchange. I do not know if the project established the study of Japanese language and literature on a permanent basis in Nairobi University or became an on and off exchange project. Yet I would have loved to have our students study haiku, the Japanese poetry of 17 syllables. And Noh drama. Besides, in the era of femininism can’t our women novelists learn the method of presenting the goings on in state houses from the female Japanese ministers’ wives who wrote about the goings on in their State Houses? Kenya, I think, is very fertile field for this.

But, most certainly, the Chinese are doing much better now. Their Confucius Centre is a bee-hive of activities on the third floor of the College of Education Block. Good for them! I hope from introductory study of Chinese language they are delving into Chinese literature and related philosophy. After all Confucius was known more for philosophy than language use. The I Ching, and the poetry of Li Po and all those tales about dragons (read tsunami!) are pointers to how we could represent our dictators allegorically.

The Indians, whose presence here is as old as the railway system, have been hesitant to have East African youth enlightened through the wisdoms of Indian sages. Though we taught Narayan’s Malgudi trilogy, and Raja Rao’s recreation of Mahatma Gandhi's impact on Indian villages and villagers, we would have wanted to study the Panchatantra and The Mahabharata too. For, the formulaic literary genre that magnified itself into the One Thousand Nights and a Night - in Arabic, to The Decameron in Italian, to The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer in English trace its genesis to Sanskritic India. Particularly the Panchatantra.

India’s drama is superb. Kalidasa’s plays gave rise to Bollywood, Bollywood gave birth to Nollywood and, perhaps, is giving birth to Riverwood right now before us in Nairobi.

Since India is known more for its religious depth, one would love to see Eastern African students taught the religious poetry in The Ramayana, The Dhammapada, and The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita (especially the Penguin translations of the last two) by the Catholic priest Juan Mascaro - and the introduction of foreigners to Indian philosophy by India’s first president, S. Radhakrishnan.

(When I was compiling Popular Culture of East Africa, Oral Literature, using materials contributed by my first year students from their cultural backgrounds, I received contributions from my Indian and Pakistani students. Unfortunately, an Indian wife to an English international publisher prevailed upon us to take those out. She thought Indians had no place in East Africa. Fortunately, some Indian(s) has/have now published a book of oral literature of the Indians of Kenya. Bravo!).

The Indians that the Europeans used to despise are now becoming rivaling threats, even to Hollywood. Yet they cling to their old culture, whereas my people from Kisumu hanker after suits and Christianity. Indians have had religions before Christ was born. Southern Indians, on top of using English, still use their ancient Indian languages and produce literatures in them that equal the products of three thousand years and more. Is it because we just quit wearing lao (animal hide) yesterday that we are so self-conscious of walking bare-chested? Yet Mahatma Gandhi won independence for India shirtless.

Taban lo Liyong University of Juba, South Sudan, 14th July 2009.

In the second part of his letter, Taban lo Liyong draws widely on African theology, the works of his compatriots - among other references – in his discussion of the reasons why the literary revolution took place. The second part also gives us more insights into the leading lights of African literature.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Are They Too Strong and Wise To Put Away?

By Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye

The other day I came upon an English poem that seemed to summarise the feelings of many people under the coalition government in Kenya. The form and vocabulary are dated, but this reminds us that similar situations and responses occur throughout history: literature is not the work of the super-sensitive bestowing enlightenment upon the masses. It is the words and images that those gifted in expression make available to those who share the same griefs, passions and bewilderment but may not have found a way to ventilate and come to terms with them.

Vikram Seth reminded us at the Storymoja Hay Festival in August 2009 that the political responsibility of writers is precisely the same as that of other citizens. Putting pen to paper does not make us wiser than anyone else. Concerned writers, concerned plumbers and concerned farmers all have a role to play. We would all wish from time to time that we had learnt to apply a tourniquet, to defuse a bomb or to detect a forgery. This is the poem which I don’t remember seeing until it was included in Michael Schmidt’s The Great Modern Poets (Quercus UK n/d):

They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,

The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:

But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own


Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

They shall not return to us, the strong me, coldly slain

In sight of help denied from day to day:

But the men who edged their agonies and, hid them in their


Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night


Never while the bars of summer hold.

But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,

Shall they thrust for high employment of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?

When the storm is ended shall we find

How softly and how swiftly they have sidled back to power

By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large


Even while they make a show of fear,

Do they call upon their debtors and take counsel with their


To confirm and re-establish each career?

Their lives can not repay us – their death could not undo-

The shame that they have laid upon our race.

But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,

Shall we leave it unabated in its place?

The poem is called “Mesopotamia 1917”, that is, it refers to a war in Iraq. The author - hold on to your seatbelt - is Rudyard Kipling. I was surprised too, though that extraneous heavy syllable at the start of each line should have given me a clue. So is Kipling commonly stereotyped as an imperialist and racist, and related through his mother to the conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin subject to the same hurts and angers as ourselves?

Evidently yes. This is what I want to examine.

Technically it is not a good poem, though not nearly as bad as “If”. Wilfred Owen’s poem about Abraham sacrificing Isaac (“The parable of the old man and the young”) indicts the old men more memorably. But Owen was killed in 1918. He did not have to live with the aftermath. Kipling, who lost his only son in battle, did. He was indeed an imperialist and a martinet, not easy to get on with. But he never held public office of any kind, was never a soldier, though much of his work relates to soldiers, Indian or English, often of the lower ranks. He never accepted any of the national honours offered to him, even the Order of the Merit and the Poet Laureateship.

He is often characterised by a partial quotation from The Ballad of East and West.

* “Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”,

rather than the lines that follow:

“But there is neither East or West, border nor breed nor birth,

When two brave men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.”

James Fenton has drawn on his rhythms and idioms to familiarise readers with the conflicts and issues of the later twentieth century.

(“Tiananmen is broad and clean

And you can’t tell/where the dead have been

And you can’t tell/when they’ll come again.

They’ll come again/to Tiananmen.”)

Having a common enemy does not necessarily – or optimally - lead to total consensus. “Many there be that desire peace, but few that desire the things that make for peace.” We should like to heal the nation but retain our professional jealousies and generation gaps, our dubious title deeds and high pollution rates. Not everyone would welcome a society where having a baby or having a car was permitted only to those showing prudence, foresight and responsibility in everyday life.

Protagonists on both sides in any war commonly pray for victory, write poems and produce moving graphic images on similar themes. Popular tunes echo on both sides of the lines with different words. So, Plaatje punctuates his account his visit to London during WWI to protest against discriminatory changes in South African land law with snatches of soldiers’ songs like It’s a long way to Tipperary in Zulu, Xhosa and Ndebele. It was one way of linking two sets of readers. We cannot afford to ignore those who from another point of view genuinely seek for justice.

The classic example of this understanding is Yeats’s Easter 1916 about the gallant but unsuccessful Dublin rising of that year.

This other man I had dreamed

A drunken vainglorious lout.

He had done most bitter wrong

To some who are near my heart.

But I number him in the song

He, too, has been changed in turn,

Transformed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

We do not face disaster cold as concerned citizens the day riots break out. There are plenty of poems about Burnt Forest and Ennosupukia, about Mboya and J.M. and Ouko. We used to read them out on Torture Day or Heroes Day, weep a bit and feel better but we failed to put two and two together. Disaster management does not start after the worst has happened but before- like when glass-fronted buildings, for instance, are built in an earthquake zone. The American Embassy bombings would have caused fewer casualties if we had been taught at school,to shield eyes in nay explosion.Good sense provided voluntary ferry service to hospitals and an information desk at Uhuru Park. By the time the tsunami occurred, we had one of the best early warning systems around the Indian Ocean. Disaster does not have a sudden ending either. You get used to restrictions during a real war.

When the shooting stops there are new constraints – to behave normally towards the airman whose burnt face is disfigured with skin grafts, the released prisoner of war who does not feel safe without a snack hidden in his pocket “just in case”, the refugee who cannot bear to return to town where no one known to her survives. And, like Kipling, to contemplate a regime change which he could not have imagined ten years earlier.

When I represented publishers , I remember showing a new book to a scientist in Makerere just after peace had returned to Uganda in 1981. He stared at me wild-eyed.

“But this ought to have been my book. It duplicates all the research I have been doing while we were cut off from the outside world.”

We shall never know how many lifetimes of work are destroyed or set aside in violent times. We now have the techniques to preserve them – at that time the Makerere Institute of Computer Science was operating without a computer – but have instead used these to intimidate and misinform.

Like the unknown to the hungry

We were once the hope of the generation

Promise of the bumper harvest

As Jared Angira puts it in Hope of Tomorrow (Lament of the silent, Nairobi: EAEP 2004) 127f.)

We were the icebox

To dissolve violence

And melt hatred

Into concord….

I once met Michael Schmidt at a London book fair and requested him to consider some of my poems for his Carcanet Press. He demurred, since he said, African poetry was only politics. At my insistence he did read them and admitted there was poetry but it would not be of interest to his readers. The readers were, I believe, Mexican as well as British. But many years have passed and Schmidt refers to poetry as “the language of accrual” (op.cit.p.5) – each re-reading adds something to our understanding. His new anthology inevitably includes some politics.

But when so many died, so many and at such speed

There were no cities waiting for the victims.

They unscrewed to name plates from the shattered doorways.

And carried them away with the coffins.

(‘James Fenton, “A German Requiem” p.221)

The pen may conceivably be mightier than the sword but it is also frequently two edged. The drum, the bugle and the bagpipe may call to battle but they only do good if the strategy and the target are rationally laid out. All of us have lived with anger and I am sure I am not the only one who has held back poems that might do more harm than good until some equilibrium has been reached. The object is not to relieve our feelings but to restore order to society…. “The dead shall not return to us”. “But shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?”

Friday, July 24, 2009

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.