Afropolitanism and Nigerian literature: Beyond the sceptical shrugs
Globalisation had been given more verve with the introduction of World Wide Web in the last decade of the 20th century; the once surrealist idea of a global village would then become a ricocheting fact.
A few years into the new millennium, never-thought-of technological inventions like the smartphones, portable broadband internet devices, social media and the dreaded Artificial Intelligence would soon upend traditions, radicalise attitudes and create strange perspectives.
Literature, ever receptive to changing realities due to its responsive nature, would not be the same.
African literature had always been a responsive one; but it would have to respond to some other questions in the globalising world. But has it?
Afropolitanism began its intrusion into the African literary space in the early 2000s.
However, not until Taiye Selasi apprehended the concept in her seminal 2005 essay’s What is Afropolitanism /Bye Bye Barber did it have a definitive name or some form of underlying ideas.
Taiye Selasi has since become Afropolitanism’s preeminent apostle. While the concept threatened a surge of attention at its conception, the firestorm reactiveness to it has somewhat thawed its attentive hold on African literature.
Perhaps the morphological evocations of the concept was a put-off to some Afrocentric scholars. Afropolitanism is a coinage from “African” and “cosmopolitanism.”
Salami (2014) while elucidating on its morphological antecedents invokes Diogenys’ use of the terms, cosmos and polis in the classical times.
Diogenys had postulated that people did not simply belong to a single community; rather he believed that to be a citizen of the civilised world was to be a citizen of both the cosmos and the polis, that is, both the world and the city.
Afropolitanism would therefore imply a form of cosmopolitanism, a kind of global culture that celebrates according to Paul James “sociality of common political engagement among all human beings across the globe”.
The danger of such a globalising evocation would invariably be its threat to such cherished concepts as Pan-Africanism and Negritude.
Consequently, a critic of no less stature in contemporary African literature, Binyavanga Wainaina, has been in the vanguard of the “nay voices” of the concept of Afropolitanism because it is seen as less embracing and political as Pan-Africanism.
He once vehemently declared that, “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan”; and that he hoped “to rid African literary and cultural studies of the ghost of Afropolitanism.”
However, of what relevance is Pan-Africanism in the face of the fact of the fast-paced world? Falola and Essien in their work lucidly capture its (ir)relevance thus: “the ‘one-dimensional’ focus on race and racism could not sustain Pan-Africanism after the demise of colonialism, segregation, and apartheid’, leading to its steady eclipsing by diaspora studies”.
It is a historical fact that Pan-Africanism was a political movement that was tied to the decolonising efforts of the African intellectuals and politicians of the mid-twentieth century.
It was not long before it became outmoded in African literary engagements due to the expediency of the post-independence angst and disillusionment.
Therefore, to negate Afropolitanism because of its threat to Pan-Africanism in the 21st century is outright temporal fallacy.
More so, Afropolitanism is a veritable outcrop of the diasporic phenomenon. Inevitably, Afropolitanist literature is a variant of diasporic literature.
Afropolitanist literature is, therefore, the literature that embraces cosmopolitan ideas among persons and people of African descent in the era of diasporic living and globalisation. It addresses the new and emergent issues in Africa and the global sphere.
It however defers from most “normal” Afro-diasporic literature in its radical and somewhat bohemian engagements with the diasporic questions of home, identity and exilic feelings.
While “conventional” diasporic literature would highlight the homelessness of the diasporic home, identity crises, the race question and other variables of disillusionments, Afropolitanist literature normally reads as an alternative tract to those negativist variables.
Chinua Achebe once remarked that when something stands, another thing will stand beside it. This pithy wisdom by the late novelist foregrounds the validity of the alternative vision of the Afropolitanist writers.
Consequently, Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go is a prototype of an Afropolitanist novel. The text is underpinned by the ideas that Afropolitans espouse; it especially exemplifies the Afropolitanist characteristics that suffuse the seminal essay of Taiye Selasi, Afropolitanism /Bye Bye Barber.
Some of such ideals as embracive humanity, cosmopolitanism, cultural hybrids, excellent erudition, academic successes, flexible and fluid attachment to “home”, right to self-definition are deftly worked into Selasi’s first published novel, Ghana Must Go.
It is very important to note that the novel is human-centred as the author tries to deemphasize socio-political problems which have always underpinned earlier migrant texts.
Consequently, the novel explores the migrant personal experiences, their growth, and other make-up of their humanity.
Moreover the “Otherness” identitythat earlier migrant texts seem to wittingly or unwittingly subscribe to is replaced by a “willingness to critique and celebrate the parts of Africa that mean most to them (Afropolitans)” (Selasi, 2005).
It is in this light that contrary to expected reflection of a rustic, agrarian and simple African continent, Selasi emphasises the different countries in Africa that are well developed and urban.
In Ghana Must Go, when Taiwo visits Nigeria, “She’d laugh to herself that first evening in Lagos, in the car passing streets that made Brookline look broke…(42)”.
In the same vein, Kehinde observes that “Lagos…was not as he pictured, not luscious, the tropics, bright yellow and green. It was grey, urban grey, the sky smoggy and muted and clogged with tall buildings… (167)”.
Furthermore, the characters in the novel are extremely cosmopolitan and this is soon reflected in their attitudes to life, in their interpersonal relationships and world views.
The eldest characters, Fola and Kweku exhibit a great sense of excellent acculturative tendencies in the way they are quickly adapted to their new homes when they first arrive for studies in the United States.
This trait is soon passed on to their children who are especially extremely cosmopolitan. Fola and Kweku fit into the description of Selasi’s forerunners of the Afropolitans. She says in What is Afropolitan:
It isn’t hard to trace our genealogy. Starting in the 60’s, young, gifted and broke left Africa in pursuit of higher education and happiness abroad…between 1975 and 1985 the number shot to 40,000 and then doubled again in 1987….
Unsurprisingly, the most popular destinations for these emigrants included Canada, Britain, and the United States…
More so, Kweku’s and Fola’s four children will go on to reflect Selasi’s Afropolitanist ideal offspring of the emigrants described in the foregoing quoted passage. Olu, Taiye, Kehinde and Sadie are like Selasian Afropolitans, who are, “at a law firm/ Chem. lab/Jazz lounge near you…matching our parents in number of degrees, and/or achieving things our people in the grand sense of it only dreamed of (529)”.
Furthermore, the Sai’s offspring are emblematic of the Afropolitan individuals whom: were you to ask any of these beautify, brown-skinned people that basic question _ ‘where are you from?’- you’d get no single answer…this one lives in London but was raised in Toronto and born in Accra… ‘Home’ for this lot is many things: where they are from; where they go for vacation; where they went to school; where they live (or live this year)…they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many. (Selasi, 2005).
Also, cultural hybridity is an integral marker of an Afropolitanist text. This is extremely reflected in Ghana Must Go. Taiye Selasi (2005) describes cultural hybrids, in her essay, thus: “some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g Ghanaian Canadian, Nigerian Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos. Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English…we understand some indigenous tongue.”.
Their ease and comfort in two or more cultures reflects and foregrounds their Afropolitaness. Many of the characters consequently predictably speak more than one language. They are proficient in the English, Yoruba, Twi and Mandarin languages.
Furthermore, some of the characters, especially the ladies, display a sense of cultural plurality in their sartorial choices.
On many occasions, Fola combines African dressing with western. Also for Taiwo, she will often blend the two cultures she is affiliated with when she dresses.
Consequently when she goes to interview Dean Rudd for the Law Review magazine, she goes clad in, ‘In blue velvet blazer, dress cum dashiki; the tongue in cheek dress code, half devil-may-care, quarter Yoruba priestess , quarter prim British school girl, her upsweep locks dripping tendrils…(130).”
Just as Selasi has reflected in her 2005 essay, “the whole scene speaks of the Cultural Hybrid…”
Although it may appear from the foregoing that Selasi has merely created a utopic and somewhat quixotic ambience for her characters and this may not necessarily be accurately reflective of the migrant conditions, it must be stated however that she does not obviate the possibilities of the “diasporic challenges” that are pervasive in earlier migrant texts.
The immigrant experience is not depicted as an all-together unchallenging position. In fact, Ghana Must Go depicts characteristically migrant challenges, but engages with them in a quintessential Afropolitanist way.
What are essentially given premium in the novel, which could be read as a counter-discourse to the grand discourse in migrant texts in African literature, is the need for a definitive sense of self definition, an unwavering feeling of belongingness and the fortitude to stake one’sown possession of space in the diaspora.
In her kind of authorial comment placed in the mouth of one the characters of the studied text, Selasi remarks through Olu on the dilemma confronting the African immigrants in the diaspora:
You live your whole life in this world, these world, and you know what they think of you, you know what they see. You say you are African and you want to excuse it, explain because I am smart …you say ancient Africa and everyone thinks irrelevant. Dusty irrelevant. Lost. You wish you didn’t give a shit, but somehow you do…you fear what they think but don’t say (305).
The quest to rise above the stereotype and unfortunate baggage that come with being an African immigrant are what drive Kweku and Fola into excellence.
They also strive to give the best to their children in order for them to have a favourable template that will propel them to float above the African sordid story.
It is in this light that there is subtle distinction created by Selasi between the Kweku Sai and Fola Sai on the one and their children on the other hand representing the New Diaspora and Afropolitans respectively.
While the earlier migrants like Kweku and Fola crave a return migration for some ray of hope when their shield against the African stereotypical story falls, that is, their occupational and marital success, Selasi, through the Sai’s children, rejects that kind of defeatist escape when the ships are down. Olu thinks of his father thus:
The man came from nothing; he struggled, I know. I want to be proud of him. Of all he accomplished. I can’t. I hate him for hurting my mother, for leaving, for dying, I hate for dying alone (306).
Kweku’s defeatist refusal to find succour in his adopted diasporic home leaves him wretched and projects his sudden demise in his Ghanaian home.
His children consequently are shocked and disappointed in his easy succumb to the western constructed defeatist paradigm for African immigrants.
More so, Fola, who flees Africa to find a home in the West, returns to Ghana when faced with another challenge.
Selasi’s plank of argument in the novel is that it behoves the immigrantto remain undaunted and convinced that they belong and have a place in the world, however such places in the world.
In her moving scene at the end of the novel, Kweku’s apparition appears and tells Fola, “We were immigrants. Immigrants leave, cowards”. Let them learn how to stay (317)”.
In conclusion, Afropolitanism represents a new breath of life in the Afro-diasporic literature in particular and African literature in general.
Its relevance is at once predicated on its currency in this increasingly changing world. Afropolitanism also can be engaged in the light of the question of who an African writer is.
This has definitely been a thorny and never resolved question in the African literary discourse.
Some of the other issues that have dominated the African literary space over the years are increasingly being confronted with some other questions in this globalising century – Afropolitanism is one such question.
The Afropolitanist question needs to be engaged and not just shrugged off for its daring and bohemian stance. It deserves more critical engagement instead of the dismissively condescending shrug that has been given to it by some scholars and writers alike who feel it grates on their intellectual nerves or who feel perturbed for its globalist inclination.
Globalism is a fact of the 21st century. African literature must address this.
• Idowu, a freelance critic, read English at the University of Ibadan.
NOTE: “The Guardian Literary Series (GLS), which focuses on Nigerian Literature is published fortnightly. Essays of between 2500 and 5000 words should be sent to the series editor Sunny Awhefeada at email@example.com”