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Celebrating D.O. Fagunwa: Aspects of African and world literary history


The success of the artist – Yoruba artist particularly – is best gauged by how he mediates culture through his art and how the instances of such mediation become artefact and are themselves set as culture. With D.O. Fagunwa, a third paradigm appears in which the artist is made into a persona in the mold of the work (or characters) he created. Let me return to this later. The canonicity of those five novels – Ogboju Ode, Igbo Olodumare, Ireke Onibudo, Irinkerindo, and Adiitu Olodumare – written by D.O. Fagunwa does not derive from their depth of constructing and deconstructing culture alone, but how these novels have coalesced into a myth that is now very popular with a public, many of whom do not know, and have not read, Fagunwa. I personally came by this possibility of the writer’s power to permeate, from a remove, the consciousness of those who have never read him during my research into a narrative performance culture among the Yoruba hunters.

In the context of the given that D.O. Fagunwa as an idea offers more tremendous critical possibilities than the attention paid to it yet, Celebrating D.O. Fagunwa: Aspects of African and Literary World History attempts a remedial task of doing, in one volume, as many as possible readings of Fagunwa’s work. A constellation of seventeen cultural exegetes from across four generations opens multiple windows to understanding Fagunwa from such areas as literature, theatre, religion, gender, visual art, translation and zoology. The diversity, according to the editors, was ensured through specifically soliciting contributions from the authors for the conference preliminary to the publication. What impelled this move was the new understanding that Fagunwa “has implications beyond the boundaries of literature and extends into philosophy, anthropology, sociology, religion, gender, and contemporary mythmaking processes” (xxix).

In the foreword, Wole Soyinka – dramatist, poet and translator of two of Fagunwa’s novels – reveals two dimensions of Fagunwa’s vision: (1) the anti-anthropocentric philosophy which undoes the hitherto advertised man-lord-of-the-earth view, and (2) disappearance of hero-villain moral cleavage, hitherto considered patent in view of Fagunwa’s preachifying narrative frills. The first dimension, of course, twins conveniently with Soyinka’s own idea that man should reconsider the arrogant ontological assumption that he is God or God’s image in view of his long history of guilt. In Fagunwa, there is an unbanishable awareness of the Other, contesting man’s claim to lordship over creation. The second dimension, arising from the first, deconstructs the definite good-versus-bad polarity through moderation of character traits: there are no heroes or villains in the very absolute sense.

Literary critic and teacher Dan Izevbaye, in the first chapter of the collection, reveals that Fagunwa’s expressive medium and strategy are at once limiting and enabling. The grim consequence of Fagunwa’s Yoruba medium is that he was occluded from non-Yoruba audience for a long time and literary critic did not pay him the attention commensurate to his art.

But in sharp contrast to the postcolonial nationalist tenor of the literary production of the better part of last century, Fagunwa elected a strategic voice, appropriated from the indigenous past, tempered in the modern present, and prefiguring the future. Whereas the writings, especially of Europhone medium, of that time are characterized by cultural nationalist fervor, Fagunwa adopted persuasion. His narrative voice and strategy not only compel audiences of Christian, Moslem and traditional African backgrounds, they also factor future audience into the loop. Karin Barber enlarges the discussion on audience reach in the next chapter: “[Fagunwa] looked towards an audience that expanded in concentric tiers…, an audience that could include all Yorubas, all Africans, all black people and all of human kind, and which could encompass future generations as well as… present-day readers” (23). Specifically, she calls attention to the originality of Fagunwa’s imagination, especially in the context of an assumption that the writer is but a mere scribal legatee of “existing oral traditions” (19). Apart from the very catholic sources – indigenous and exotic – from which he draws his materials, Fagunwa’s work markedly diverges from the literary mainstream of the time in its varying placement of the scribe between the narrator and the audience, use of oratory, and multiple deployments of inserted written texts. Now what all these have guaranteed for the narrative, according to Barber, is that they create limitless interpretive possibilities.

Poet Niyi Osundare contemplates the possible motive of Fagunwa’s choice of Yoruba medium. The audacity of that choice is best appreciated in the context of the ascendancy of Western values and the fact that Fagunwa had the capacity to write equally in English, and indeed more “correctly” than Tutuola. Osundare adduces convincingly that the English language lacks the expressive capacity to bear the accurate imports of many of Fagunwa’s signs. Indeed, as noted earlier, names of characters and places evolved in his work have become contemporary usages, sometimes by people who have not read Fagunwa. But more penetrating than that is the imprint of Fagunwa on other artists from Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri to Hubert Ogunde, Kola Ogunmola and Duro Ladipo. Dele Layiwola, in his exploration of Fagunwa’s use of language, especially as it relates to synchronic and diachronic application, controverts the popular charge that Fagunwa’s plots sometimes lapse into tiresome rambling. Layiwola refrains from calling Ogboju Ode a novel because it represents an alternative in which the Yoruba narrative nuances are privileged over the Western standards. And the critic who are used to looking for these standards are put off by Fagunwa’s expressive uncanniness. In sum, it is the performative deployment of language modeled after traditional elocution that stretches Fagunwa’s narrative to the point of becoming a non-novel, and that is its strength.

The hunter among the Yoruba is considered to be a good student of the nature and behaviours of animals. Zoologist Tola Badejo shows that Fagunwa is as versed in this regard as the hunter whose voice he appropriated in his first novel. One after the other, Badejo matches each instance of Fagunwa’s understanding of wildlife with an established zoological fact. Badejo’s reading has additional implication for the issue of language earlier raised by Osundare and Layiwola. He points out that Soyinka in his translation of Ogboju Ode struggles with the problem of adequately imaging the wildlife in English whereas Fagunwa’s own understanding of it has been commendably keen.

Extant interpretations are somewhat unified in the notion that D.O. Fagunwa privileges Christianity over the indigenous Yoruba spirituality. Jacob K. Olupona reexamines this formation in the volume’s seventh chapter. In his consideration of actions and events relating to spirituality and worship, Olupona says that Fagunwa’s treatment of them conforms with the protocol of indigenous Yoruba spirituality. This relates to “Yoruba interest in traditions that work, their abhorrence for doctrinal conflicts and their refusal to be dogmatically confined to one religious tradition” (99). In specific instances that the protagonists of Ogboju Ode are shown as communicating with the supernatural, the acts are inscribed as asa (custom/tradition), not esin (religion). And this raises again the question relating to the later as a category not only signifying fracture, but as an item introduced to the Yoruba mind in the wake of orthodox Christian and Moslem monologic narratives.

At the foreground of a critical trend that considers Fagunwa’s use of the scribal narrative intermediary as signing supersession of writing over orality, Akin Adesokan argues differently that “the creation of a scribe not only allows Fagunwa to work as cultural translator, mediating between orality and literacy,…it also enables several other innovations which collectively shape his oeuvre” (116). Rather than see orality and writing as epochal successive stages in the history of cultural signification, Adesokan points us to elements that speak to interrelation, not succession: if Akara-ogun is considered the last of the non-lettered order, how do we explain his grandfather Akowediran whose name denotes a pedigree of the literate? Fagunwa’s engagement with the two media is, therefore, best appreciated as art, not an ideological category.

Prima facie, Fagunwa’s stories valorize heroism, and a number of exegetes have pointed this out. However, Adeleke Adeeko probes further to show an internal contradiction in which significant aspects of the narratives undercut that otherwise apparent “male-patterned view of the world” (152). In spite of a system of value that minimizes them, women show up in the stories to help or thwart the protagonists decisively, or feature significantly in the mosaic of realities that defines the world of each of the novels. Arinpe Adejumo reasons differently that Fagunwa’s attitude to gender and representation of women is ambivalent: “Ero Fagunwa lori obinrin dabi atori. Bi o ti n lo siwaju, bee lo n lo seyin(191).” Yes, the article jolts the reader in its unapologetic Yoruba Ponbele. Combining Feminist, Womanist and Motherist models, Arinpe argues that, at once, Fagunwa stereotypes women in accordance with the reigning patriarchal assumptions of his time, and conversely subverts those assumptions through inversion of traditionally gendered character traits; for example, it is the man that nags while the woman placates him. In the overall awareness of sexuality, there is a prescience of some of the most animating subjects of gender discourse today: marriage, single parenthood, homosexuality, asexuality et cetera.

A thematically solitary but immensely significant article by Tejumola Olaniyan points to an unbrobed aspect of Fagunwa’s work: the illustrations. This unit of the work as media artefacts constitutes the tenderfoot reader’s threshold of induction to Fagunwa. This is the Fagunwa that most readers – including Olaniyan – read before they read Fagunwa. But Olaniyan’s preliminary notes tempt us with research challenges than provide exhaustive narrative yet. There are startling insights relating to the identities of the illustrators and Fagunwa’s marvelous anticipation of illustration as an important expressive form, as there are conundrums relating to provenance of the illustrations and identity of the artists.

Just like the terrifying wild that he wrote into being, Fagunwa’s work beckons to the daring: “come, translate me at your own peril.” From Wole Soyinka to Olu Obafemi, attempts to translate Fagunwa to other languages and media have been at best ingenious in their own right but unavoidably marred in many respects. This concern has been raised at different points in this volume. Pamela O. Smith, Olu Obafemi, Gbemisola Adeoti and Femi Osofisan, in the last four chapters, examine the complexity. Smith, the first translator of Igbo Olodumare, though as a Ph.D. work, describes the process of reproducing the sounds and images of Fagunwa’s world in English, relying on her knowledge of the Yoruba culture from which the narrative was evolved and her familiarity with the structure and peculiarities of the target language. Gbemisola Adeoti assesses the gains of the translations in terms of introducing Fagunwa to the non-Yoruba-speaking audience, but he echoes the old concern about the impossibility of getting the vintage Fagunwa feel from a translation, especially when you consider that certain Yoruba items are left untranslated and only glossed. But the most humbling challenge of translation yet, according to Femi Osofisan, comes from adapting the work for the stage. Theatrical equivalents of those characters and landscapes produced from untrammeled imagination become difficult or even undoable considering that unlike Fagunwa, the dramaturge is moderated by the limitations of space and time.

Like many other great men who have made myths or caused myths to be made about them – Jesus of Nazareth, Nelson Mandela, Obafemi Awolowo – Fagunwa as an idea has transcended the realm of exactitude. The well-meaning intervention of Mrs Elizabeth Fagunwa in Appendix I, giving authoritative details of the last moments of D.O. Fagunwa, unfortunately, will have to contest with parallel narratives: the one about Fagunwa on vacation with Mammy Water and the one that says Aaja (Whirwind) took him away and many others that are yet to be made. This is where, beyond the allure of a concentration of eloquent exegetes, the importance of Celebrating D.O. Fagunwa lies: for Fagunwa, there is no possibility of textual closure.

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