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African literature, the english language and the nation – Part 1

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This essay is three-pronged: ‘African literature’, ‘the English language’ and ‘the nation’.

I intend to be conscious of these key terms as I go along without promising I would be fair to all of them.

The very first thing to say about ‘African literature,’ which we now take for granted did not come to us on a platter.

The idea of a ‘literature’ specifically ‘African’ took some of our Western friends a while to accept, that is if all of them are now comfortable with the nomenclature.

I have not forgotten what Wole Soyinka said some of his colleagues on the staff of Cambridge University while he was there on sabbatical thought of African Literature as they did not “believe in any such mythical beast as ‘African literature’”.

Whether these colleagues of his specifically used the term, ‘mythical beast’ or Soyinka himself did, he being a wordsmith, African literature today has become a behemoth of a sort, quite frightening in its expansive coverage, the lands it has travelled to and got itself implanted and its achievements.

Fortunately, this mythical beast is an ‘imaginary beast’ on land unlike William Golding’s ‘imaginary beast from water’ and ‘imaginary beast from air’ which confused Ralph, Jack, Piggy, Simon and the twins, Samneric and left them doubtful of one another.
African Literature

One of the early controversies concerning African literature is its definition. What is African literature? This question used to matter but recently the question is no longer asked as many issues have come under it.

As the question is no longer asked, is its debate laid to rest? Like all literary arguments, their interrogation blows open and after a while they subside with no one winning and the problem raised remaining philosophically undetermined.

Apart from ‘What is African literature’ being a favourite examination question in those days, it was also a popular issue at the early literary conferences in Africa.

As early as 1963, at the “Conference on African Literature and the Universities” held at both the University of Dakar and Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, one of the critical papers presented there was the one by T.R.M Creighton entitled “An Attempt to Define African Literature” in which he classified as African literature “any work in which an African setting is authentically handled or to which experiences which originate in Africa are integral”.

By this definition works written by white writers like Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard, Doris Lessing and Alan Paton were included as part of African writing while those of Joseph Conrad and Graham Green were excluded.

Lewis Nkosi attacks the notion of ‘authentic handling’ as it is not a precise expression and wonders if Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King (1965) novel which “leans so hard on fable and fantasy” would qualify whereas Out of Africa (1937) by Karen Blixen, a Danish baroness was in Nkosi’s opinion “unquestionably authentic in the way that some books by native Africans are not”.

In a 1963 iconoclastic essay by Obi Wali entitled, “The Dead end of African Literature”, the author’s criterion for African literature is language.

According to him, “the uncritical acceptance” of English and French as the medium of educated African writing is “misdirected” and “has no chance of advancing African literature and culture.”

For African literature to be truly African, it “must be written in African languages”.

In 1968, at another forum, Wali was to say: “It is impossible to mix African and European writings, and label the mixture, African literature.

It just must have to be one or the other”[sic]. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o was to exemplify the Wali paradigm by resorting to writing in Gikuyu, his native language.

However, other notable African writers are yet to accept the Ngugi approach. Chinua Achebe never accepted to do what Ngugi did.

As early as 1964, a year after the Wali diatribe, at the University of Ghana, Achebe justified the African writer’s use of the metropolitan languages of Europe, insisting that as world languages, writing in them “is certainly a great advantage”.

As he put it, “those of us who inherited the English may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance… let us not in rejecting the evil, throw out the good with it.

Africa, says Achebe, is not one culture, but many cultures. And each of these cultures is expressed in a distinct language of its own.

But then the problems of intercommunication for now can only be ameliorated by the use of the foreign languages, modified to suit their new habitation. Achebe thus argues:

“The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. (“The African Writer” 61)

In his book, Muntu (1961), Janheinz Jahn, the German Africanist writer and thinker, concerned with the word, ‘African’ has traced its application to virtually half of the world, the space he calls “neo-African” lands (268-69).

In other words, it was to be problematic for African literature if its definition geographically were to be taken into account.

Efforts to define African literature on the basis of racial, historical, social and political affinities failed as well as there were one or two trajectories on each occasion which weakened such definitions.

Both D.I. Nwoga’s ‘outsiders looking in’ and ‘insiders looking out’ would fail, particularly as a brand of African literature is now being brewed in the West, at the instance of African writers residing in America and Europe with a baggage of what they left with from home and what they now experience or encounter in these foreign lands.

Thus we may not be arguing on firm ground if we still insist, like Nwoga did in the 1960s that an African creating in England belongs to African literature while an Englishman writing in Africa belongs to English literature.

D.S. Izevbaye identifies two factors in the definition of African literature: extrinsic and intrinsic factors. Extrinsic factors were the means by which theorists tried to show how far the term ‘African’ could be stretched.

We have seen how Janheinz Jahn tried to trace the African origins of parts of the world and how he ended up incorporating more than a substantial part of the universe. That was in an attempt to use geography as a criterion.

Of course this could not hold up to scrutiny. Race also as a measure equally could not be a useful criterion in a world that remains racially complex.

Which was why Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate and South African writer of Jewish extraction, defines African writing as that done in any language by Africans themselves and by others of whatever skin colour who share the experience and who have what she calls the “Africa-centred consciousness”.

What constitutes an ‘Africa-centred consciousness’?

An intrinsic standard is the factor of ‘Africanness’ of a literary work. This led critics to search in a work for mythical structures and exotic content.

The probe often denoted a form of primitivism and snow-balled into source-hunting. Many African writers became uncomfortable when criticism turned into a detective activity.

More importantly, each African work was traced to the European tradition of writing without which it could not be declared as a great or classic piece of writing.

The search for the European connection in Armah’s work led to the literary combat between Armah and the African-American critic named Charles Larson.

So exasperated was Armah about Larson’s nature of source-hunting that he described it as ‘larsony’ or “fiction as criticism of fiction.”

The concept of ‘Africanness’, particularly in terms of language, remains problematic since African languages would in turn include Krio, Afrikaans and Pidgin.

How far does one go with these linguistic offshoots in Africa, products of both native languages, literature and the metropolitan languages imported into the continent? There is also the thematic principle as an intrinsic factor.

The earliest studies of African literature had to do with ‘the-image-of-Africa’ pursuits, pioneered by such African critics as Eldred Jones (see for instance, his “Washing the Ethiop White: The African in English Poetry 16th – 18th Century” 1969).

The books by Echeruo on Joyce Cary (1973) and Joseph Conrad (1978) respectively; G.D. Killam (Africa in English Fiction 1968); and E.C. Nwezeh (Africa in French and German Fiction 1978) belong here.

May we add Achebe’s essay on Conrad (“An Image of Africa” 1977) and the numerous PhD tomes on image studies in African literature, probably spurred on by Jones’ 1969 essay.

Izevbaye’s definition of African literature is worthy of attention: “Equiano writing in the eighteenth-century and Fagunwa writing in the twentieth…” and probably Adichie writing in the twenty-first century!

As if he knew Ngugi would later return to Gikuyu, his first language, Izevbaye cautions against splitting hair over language because “when an African vernacular does emerge as the language of African literature, the literature will be taught in that language”.

While a definition such as Izevbaye’s is not fault-free, it at least recognizes the literature of the Diaspora as a component of African literature.

We may not end this discourse on African literature without bringing in the so-called Troika, that is Chinweizu and his co-writers.

The trio consider as African literature “works done for African audiences, by Africans and in African languages, whether these works are oral or written.”

Thus for them, African literature as a concept must fulfil four criteria: primary audience; the cultural and national consciousness expressed in the work; the nationality of the writer; and the language in which the work is done.

By this definition, the works of Athol Fugard and André Brink meet the Troika’s conditions whereas Joyce Cary, especially in his Mister Johnson, fails their acid test.

Allied to the problem of delineating what African literature is and those who are ‘qualified’ to practise it, is the issue of how and who should criticise it.

The anger which the ‘novels about Africa’ provoked found itself in the criticism of African literature by foreigners.

Since the language of African literature was largely European, white critics invaded it with the intention perhaps of dictating the critical standards based on European culture and praxes. Mudimbe’s question seems to paint in bold relief the situation faced by African indigenous critics:

“What serious theory could support the fantastic liberties of our investigations in African literature, if at least, on the one hand we do not agree on the urgency of analyzing the conditions of existence of this literature; and on the other we do not accept the hypothesis that present-day African criticism might not be an African practice at all? (64)”

Thus the literature moved from being doubted as a literature of its own with an autonomous existence, hence the notion of a ‘mythical beast’, to being cornered by foreign critics who saw it as a variety of ecriture they could exercise authority over in spite of the fact that it bore or propagated a different world-view.

These fortune hunters in African literature were those Achebe referred to as ‘colonialist critics’.

In this essay, “Colonialist Criticism” (Morning Yet 3-18), Achebe compares the attitude of the colonialist critic to that of the famous French German theologian and philosopher, Albert Schweitzer, who declared that all men were his brothers, but the African was his junior brother!

The colonialist critic is equally patronizing and sees the African writer as “somewhat unfinished European who with patient guidance will grow up one day and write like every European” (3).

• Nwachukwu-Agbada is a professor of Lit


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