The moral burden of fiction

The moral burden of fiction

This week’s piece from our group was instigated by Ike Okonta who posted a simple injunction: “Aoiri Obaigbo, keep the conversation on African literature going. Well done!”

Eric Osagie, one of the promoters of our hunt, firmly believes that Nigeria’s going round in circles, because the intellectual class has been less than sterling in charting a course for us.

We’ve made a selection of posts which address the moral responsibilities African writers cannot afford to shun. African writers should, at least, be aware of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described on TED as “The Dangers of a Single Story”.

Here’s a sample of western literature about Africans which she cited: “They are also people without heads, having their mouths and eyes in their breasts” – John Locke.

And here’s her closing remark: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. Stories can be used to dispossess people, but can also be used to empower people and repair their broken dignity.”

Pa Ikhide holds a similar view with Eric Osagie. He constantly mocks Nigerian writers for keeping quiet in the face of tyranny and sundry moral challenges in the land.

I guess that’s why he posted this on his wall a few days ago: “In the course of a writing life that has included five novels, collections of short stories and poetry, and numerous essays and lectures, Achebe has consistently argued for the right of Africans to tell their own story in their own way, and has attacked the representations of European writers. But he also did not reject European influence entirely, choosing to write not in his native Igbo but in English, a language that, as he once said, “history has forced down our throat.” In a country with several major languages and more than five hundred smaller ones, establishing a lingua franca was a practical and political necessity. For Achebe, it was also an artistic necessity—a way to give expression to the clash of civilizations that is his enduring theme.”

“At University College, Ibadan, Achebe encountered the novel Mister Johnson, by the Anglo-Irish writer Joyce Cary, who had spent time as a colonial officer in Nigeria. The book was lauded by Time as “the best novel ever written about Africa.” But Achebe, as he grew older, no longer identified with the imperialists; he was appalled by Cary’s depiction of his homeland and its people. In Cary’s portrait, the “jealous savages . . . live like mice or rats in a palace floor”; dancers are “grinning, shrieking, scowling, or with faces which seemed entirely dislocated, senseless and unhuman, like twisted bags of lard.” It was the image of blacks as “unhuman,” a standard trope of colonial literature, that Achebe recognised as particularly dangerous. “It began to dawn on me that although fiction was undoubtedly fictitious it could also be true or false, not with the truth or falsehood of a news item but as to its disinterestedness, its intention, its integrity,” he wrote later. This belief in fiction’s moral power became integral to his vision for African literature.”

“By deploying stock English phrases in unfamiliar ways, Achebe expresses his characters’ estrangement from that language. The phrases that Ezeulu uses—“be my eyes,” “bring home my share”—have no exact equivalents in Achebe’s “translation.” And how great the gap between “my spirit tells me” and “I have a hunch”! In the same essay, Achebe writes that carrying the full weight of African experience requires “a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.” Or, as he later put it, “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”

Early in the series, we asked, “What is African literature?”

This question was contentious in 1963. The debate was flagged off by the controversial essay, “Dead End of African Literature”, by the late River State’s Senator Dr. Obi Wali, who posited that literature written in European languages did not qualify to be African literature.

The writer and literary giant, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, agreed with him. While Chinua Achebe et al disagreed. Since the 1990s, most Africans agree that literature written in English could be true African literature. Where are the lines? Literature written by Africans or about Africa is rather broad. It qualifies Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Alex Haley’s Root as African literature. Where are the lines? Important questions in the minds of our children who want to write.

Three important works that would help us understand what African literature is are: Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975) by Chinua Achebe, Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976) by Wole Soyinka, and Decolonising the Mind (1986) by Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Tragic footnote: Senator Dr Obi Wali, an Ikwerre activist, was murdered and butchered in his bedroom on 26 April 1993. His body was dismembered by his assailants. One of the unresolved murders bestowed to our children. Remember Dele Giwa, Bola Ige, Funsho Williams?

Stella Ishiekwene Kpolugbo, a dean at Anchor University, responded: “This question of What African literature is keeps popping up over the decades. My humble submission: Literature written about the African continent to include its ways of life, culture and traditions peculiar to it, by Africans and lovers/haters of Africa, and of course most importantly, set in Africa.”

Aifegha Ohiosimuan Able, a poet/ civil servant, throws the gate open: “Before we even ask what qualifies as African Literature, we must first define who qualifies to be called an African Writer. What’s the criteria for judging and creating African Literature? Africa is bedevilled by conflicts of identity and as long as it prevails, there may be no answers to these posers.”

A question was raised about Okey Ndibe’s novel, Foreign Gods Inc., a novel which GQ magazine describes as follows: “A hard look at the American dream, which seems to be receding further and further into the distance these days.”

The professor is a very African son, groomed by our very own Chinua Achebe, and his indictment of greed is a story about a Nigerian. Yet, his work is described as a “New York story” and an “Everyman Immigrant” story.

Could the canon, African Literature, be approaching a dead end? Or a confluence which could absorb it? What do you think? Let’s hear your voice.

A question was posed to Ike Okonta: “How come the new poets sound alike? They don’t seem to have the distinctive voices of Okigbo, Clark and Soyinka. His response was: “Soyinka, Okigbo and Clark produced classic work. Today’s poets do not read the masters, so they are incapable of rising to the level of the masters.”

Trust my friends in the series. Uduma Kalu replies: “There’s a contradiction here.  You want to hook on to the masters and still sound distinct? Is being tied to the masters same thing as being distinct? There’s something among new poets …freshness   depthless, nor obscure.  They are distinctive, being flat, not lyrical.”

Uduma Kalu, those three were different from each other, we’re saying. I don’t want the new poets to sound like them. We’re suggesting they shouldn’t all sound alike. Ike Okonta is saying they should read more books to enable them find their unique paths. Obscurity is not being canvassed. Even if being “flat, not lyrical” is a common feature, there’s got to be a way of making them different. What do you think?

Uduma Kalu: “I don’t know the poets you are referring to. Okigbo was like Eliot until he discovered oral literature. Chimalum, Pol Ndu, Osundare, Ofeimun, Nwakanma etc., all sounded like Okigbo. I would think the new voices are more distinct than the earlier generations. But their craft is a concern.”

Let’s close with a question from this young writer, Peter Akhere: “How about some of us who fell in love with poetry, not as an academic discipline or study but purely as an art form for self-expression?

I, for one, don’t even know who I sound like most times. I just know I like to keep it simple enough for non-poets to understand.”

Let’s hear from you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s