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WHAT EVERY EDUCATED CITIZEN OF THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW IN THE 21ST CENTURY: INTRODUCTION TO AFRICAN LITERATURE—CHINUA ACHEBE’S “THINGS FALL APART.” WOLE SOYINKA’S “DEATH AND THE KING’S HORSEMAN,” J.M. COETZEE, LEOPOLD SENGHOR, NADINE GORDIMER & NAGUIB MAFOUZ —-FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
When we think of African Literature that has universal impact and importance for all people inside and outside of Africa such as to constitute part of World Literature, there are many instantly recognizable “names” in the global public imagination, including of course the Nobel Prize winners such as Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, author of “Death and the King’s Horseman,” Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee of South Africa, and the North African-Arabic contingent such as Naguib Mahfouz and perhaps Camus, as well as many African writers who have attained considerable global currency such as the late Chinua Achebe, the author of “Things Fall Apart,” Alan Paton, Ben Okri, Leopold Senghor, and many, many others.
WHAT IS AFRICAN LITERATURE?
When we go beyong these obvious “greats” and seek to identify the greater context and canon, we have a difficult threshold question to answer: “What is African Literature?” Presumably, we would want the most inclusive definition possible, but this is not easy. First of all, it is inescapable to recognize that Africa in an incredibly diverse continent, with thousands of tribes and languages, each with their own culture and history, not to speak of the many modern nation-states, with somewhat the heritage of European colonialism superimposed upon them. Here we get into the complexities that bedevil African literature as a concept that are not so problematic to many European literatures, focusing on more compact peoples united in language, geographical territory and political or ethnic unity, though even there we often encounter many of the same problems if we scratch but a little beneath the surface.
Should we include or exclude, for instance, white or colonial writers writing in or about Africa?—Arabic writers?—Writers of African hereditary, racial, and cultural origin, but displaced to other geographical regions such as Derek Walcott or Toni Morrison?—-African Writers in English or French or other non-African languages? Non-African writers writing of or about Africa—such as Conrad in the “Heart of Darkness” or Rider Hagard, or Isaak Dinisen? Afrikaans writers such as Ernst van Heerden? All these are threshold problems of large proportions.
At the base of these questions lies a deeper question: What is “Africa?” It is a large chunk of land, of course, a continent—but is “Africa” also a particular people, a particular race or a particular culture, one or more “civilization?” or a “world,”——or is it a chaos of disconnected tribes—a primordial wilderness jungle of human and pre-human heritage—an absence of civilization as some might imagine in derogation?—does it have any particular source of indigenous cohesion exclusive of its external influences from other civilizations? Is the unity of Africa only an alien illusion imposed upon it by alien cartographers looking at it from the outside, or is it a psychic unity somehow present in all its inhabitants ready to be rediscovered for the looking? Is Africa black? —or is it also white, and Khoisan, and Pygmy and Arab?—and going back to its roots from the ‘Out of Africa Theory” did Africa include all the races in their origins, even to include the whites and Asians, some remaining in part and others departing in part, some returning but all of the same mother?
But if we assume that Mother Africa would not disown any of her children that sought her, and seek for a definition that would be most inclusive we might find African Literature would include at least four broad divisions:
1) The Westerner or other non-African writer who utilizes the subject matter of Africa in a language not native to the African continent—-E.g. Conrad, Greene; and Castro Soromenho.
2) The African writer, black or white, who utilizes the subject matter of Africa, or other subject matter, in a language native to the African continent—Eg. Mofolo and Thiong’o;
3) The African writer who utilizes the subject matter of Africa, but who writes in a non-African language that has, by custom, become part of the African means of communication—-English, French, Arabic—-Achebe, Soyinka, Mahfouz, Senghor, Ba, Gordimer;
4) The Non-African writer of significant African heritage writing in any language incorporating major elements of that heritage or the subject matter of Africa—Walcott, Morrison, Aimee Cesaire, etc.
AFRICAN LITERATURE AND AFRICAN ORATURE
In addition to these categorical problems, we also have the complication of the interface and relationship of the signal forms of language itself—namely the relationship of written Literature to, what we might term Oral Literature or, for want of a better term, “Orature.” For here the special problem of Africa, really a universal problem rather than a merely African problem, however, raises its head——namely, how can we take account of “Literature” amoung the thousands of African languages which had no writing or system of writing prior to colonization, and if, as we assume, their cultural genius and wisdom in the absence of a written language was transmitted by oral forms in an oral cultural tradition, then how do we integrate that reality into our concept of “World Literature,” whatever that brave new concept might prove to be? We might think of this as a special African problem, but it is really a universal one, since, by anthropological conjecture, all branches of the human family were without writing during most of their evolution and history, minimally for at least sixty-four or five of the last seventy-thousand years, and almost assuredly such works as the Iliad and Odyssey, the Chinese Book of Songs and parts of the Bible began as oral compositions before being recorded in written form in later centuries.
EAST AND CENTRAL AFRICAN LITERATURE
But if we set aside those deeper questions for a short moment, and just take a panoramic tour-de-horizon around the continent of the recent era to get a broad overview of some of the strong writers who, either now or in the oncoming generation may rise to the level of global interest then we could say, first, in the broad area of East and Central African Literature we have strong candidates in Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya, novelist, short-story and essayist—author of such works as “Weep Not, Child,” and “A Grain of Wheat;” then we could include Nuruddin Farah of Somalia, Okot p’Bitek of Uganda, Shaaban Robert of Tanzania,and Tchicaya u Tam’si of the Congo.
SOUTHERN AFRICAN LITERATURE
Then if we survey Southern African Literature, we would need to include Thomas Mofolo of Basutoland, novelist and author of “Chaka the Zulu,” and of course the greats Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, plus many others such as Alan Paton, Peter Abrahams, Solomon T Plaatze, Ezekiel Mphahlele. Other important South African writers are A.C. Jordan, H.I.E. Dhlomo, B.W. Vilakazi, Alex la Guma, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi and Noni Jabavu—a woman writer of the Xhosha people, as well as Dennis Brutus and Alfred Hutchinson.
WEST AFRICAN LITERATURE
If we then turn to West African Literature, we have a rich offering led off by the Nigerian greats Wole Soyinka, author of “Death and the King’s Horseman,” “The Swamp Dwellers” and “Mandela’s Earth,” and Chinua Achebe with “Things Fall Apart.” We are also blessed with a host of near-great and to-be-great such as Amos Tutola of Nigeria, Cyprian Ekwensi, Flora Nwapa, Elechi Amadi, Buchi Emecheta, and Ben Okri and some of the younger writers: Okigbo, Aig-Imoukhuede, Ekwere, and Echeruo.
Outside Nigeria there would also be Lenrie Peters of Gambia, George Awoonor-Willians, Efua Theodora Sutherland, Kweel Brew and Ellis Ayftey Komey, William Conton, Syl-Cheney Coker of Sierra Leone, Kofi Anyidoho of Ghana, and Mariama Ba, Ousame Sembene and Cheik Allou Ndao of Senegal.
NORTH AFRICAN LITERATURE
Stramgely enough, North African Literature is, by one of those inexplicable sleights of hand of the historical human misimagination, not considered to be “African,” but is usually included under the head of “Arabic & Islamic Literature,” just as “Europe” is somewhat artificially segregated into a separate “continent” apart from the Eurasia. Were it to reclaim its rightful place in Africa, this literature would undoubtedly include such great writers as Naguib Mafouz, the Nobel Prize laureate from Egypt, as well as his fellow Nobel laureate Albert Camus, of Algerian origin, amoungst many others.
SCOPE AND DEVELOPMENT OF AFRICAN LITERATURE
In the widest definition, African Literature would include works in the most diverse languages: in English—Achebe, Soyinka, etc; French—Birago Diop, Gide, Kessel, Malonga, Oyono; in German—Kurt Heuser; in Danish—Buchholz and Dinesen; multiple African native languages—Mofolo and Thiong’o; in the English of South Africans—Gordimer, Paton; and in Afrikaans—Nuthall Fula and Ernst van Heerden.
Looking back historically, we have also the rediscovery of some of the oral epics dating back over the last thousand years, such as the Mali “Legend of Sundiata,” “The Ozidi” and “The Mwindo.” The oral tradition has been strongly present in modern literature—as in the Kikuyu songs incorporated in the Kenyan plays of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Acholi oral poem structure incorporated in the “Song of Iowino,” by p’Bitek and in the speech and oral proverbs present in Achebe’s great novel, “Things Fall Apart.”
After decolonization, the growth of African national literatures, as well as a Pan-African literature began to take shape, led by figures such as Soyinka, Achebe, Sembene, Okri, Thiong’o, p’Bitek, and Jacques Rabemannanjara. Important contributions were made by such writers as Duro Lapido, Yambo Oulougem with “Le Devoir de Violence,” and Ayi Kwie. They were largely writing in the global colonial languages and on themes such as the clash of the colonial and indigenous cultures, condemnation of racialism and imperial subjugation, pride in African heritage and hope for the future under independence and social transformation.
In the apartheid era, a strong literature reflected the trials and contradictions of life under that regime with the rise of writers such as Gordimer, Coetzee, Paton, Brutus, Bessie Head and Miriam Tlali, all addressing, along with universal themes, the problems of life across the racial divide.
CHINUA ACHEBE AND “THINGS FALL APART”
The late Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) Nigerian poet, novelist and professor, was perhaps the first African writer to win global recognition and acclaim, particularly through his novel “Things Fall Apart,” published in 1958,recognized as one of the first substantial novels to present the world of traditional African tribal society to the world through African eyes and sensibilities. It is the tragic story of a Nigerian yam farmer and tribal leader Okonkwo, who, ashamed of his weak and unsuccessful father sets out to prove himself strong, successful and respected in his tribe. Several disasters, however, undo his acheivement. First, out of fear of showing weakness, he participates in the ritual murder of a captive boy whom he had raised as a son, a misdeed that causes his banishment for several years. Next, upon his return to his villiage he finds the white men and their religion Christianity have made inroads into the ancient tribal traditions and he acts rashly with inflexible reactionary excess, killing an official of the white government to defend tribal tradition. Having don so, he calls for all-out war against the intruders, buts finds that the people have changed their mindset and are not willing to fight. After his arrest he kills himself, an act which tragically erases all the honor he has strived for. “Things Fall Apart” thus depicts the collision of colonial and Christian culture and traditional tribal culture. Implicitly, in significant part it is the inflexible rigidity of Okonkwo and the tribal tradition and their inability to adapt to change dooms them to tragedy.
Achebe later would serve as a professor in newly independent Nigeria until being caught up in the Nigerian-Biafran civil war in which his own tribe, the Igbo, suffered defeat in their attempt to secede. He then alternated between periods of exile due to his criticism of the corruption of the Nigerian government, and periods of return to Nigeria until his death this year.
WOLE SOYINKA, AFRICA’S FIRST NOBEL LAUREATE AND AUTHOR OF “DEATH AND THE KING’S HORSEMAN”
Wole Soyinka (born 1934) is a Nigerian writer and poet, notable especially as a playwright and the author of the play “Death and the King’s Horseman.” He was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first person in Africa to be so honoured. Soyinka has strongly criticised many Nigerian military dictators, especially late General Sanni Abacha, as well as other political tyrannies, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Much of his writing has been concerned with “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it.” He criticised Leopold Senghor’s Négritude movement as a nostalgic and indiscriminate glorification of the black African past that ignores the potential benefits of modernisation. “A tiger does not shout its tigritude,” he declared, “it acts.”
Evading a death sentence proclaimed by the dictator Abacha and living abroad, mainly in the United States, he was a professor first at Cornell,then at Emory. With civilian rule restored to Nigeria in 1999, Soyinka returned to his nation. He has also taught at the universities of Oxford, Harvard and Yale.
“Death and The King’s Horseman” builds upon a true story to focus on the character of Elesin, the King’s Horseman of the title. According to a Yoruba tradition, the death of a chief must be followed by the ritual suicide of the chief’s horseman, because the horseman’s spirit is essential to helping the chief’s spirit ascend to the afterlife. Otherwise, the chief’s spirit will wander the earth and bring harm to the Yoruba people.
The first half of the play documents the process of this ritual, with the potent, life-loving figure Elesin living out his final day in celebration before the ritual process begins. At the last minute the local British colonial ruler, Simon Pilkings, intervenes, the suicide being viewed as barbaric and illegal by the British authorities. The result for the community is catastrophic, as the breaking of the ritual means the disruption of the cosmic order of the universe and thus the well-being and future of the collectivity is in doubt. As the action unfolds, the community blames Elesin as much as Pilkings, accusing him of being too attached to the earth to fulfill his spiritual obligations.
Events lead to tragedy when Elesin’s son, Olunde, who has returned to Nigeria from studying medicine in Europe, takes on the responsibility of his father and commits ritual suicide in his place so as to restore the honour of his family and the order of the universe. Consequently, Elesin kills himself, condemning his soul to a degraded existence in the next world. In addition, the dialogue of the natives suggests that this may have been insufficient and that the world is now “adrift in the void.”
J.M. COETZEE—2003 SOUTH AFRICAN NOBEL PRIZE WINNER
J. M. Coetzee (b.1940) is a South African-Afrikaaner novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature in which the Swedish Academy stated that Coetzee “in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider. Coetzee has been described as “inarguably the most celebrated and decorated” living writer in the Anglosphere, and was an active anti-apartheid spokesman. His most famous works include “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “In the Heart of the Country.
NADINE GORDIMER—SOUTH AFRICAN NOBEL PRIZE WINNER
Nadine Gordimer (b.1923) is a South African writer, political activist and recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature, for which she was cited as a woman “who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity”.
Gordimer’s writing has long dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. Under apartheid, works such as “July’s People” were banned. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned, and in HIV/AIDS causes.
NAGUIB MAFOUZ—EGYPTIAN NOBEL PRIZE WINNER
Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was the celebrated Egyptian writer who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. He is regarded as one of the foremost contemporary writers of Arabic and African literature, to explore themes of existentialism. He published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts, and five plays over a 70-year career, many of which have been made into Egyptian and foreign films.
Like many Egyptian writers and intellectuals, Mahfouz was on an Islamic fundamentalist “death list.” He defended Salman Rushdie after Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwah condemned Rushdie to death in 1989, supporting his freedom of expression but also criticizing his “Satanic Verses” as “insulting” to Islam. His most celebrated work is “The Cairo Trilogy” of the 1950’s consisting of “Palace Walk,” “Palace of Desire,” and “Sugar Street,” set the parts of Cairo where he grew up,depicting the life of the patriarch el-Sayyed Ahmed Abdel Gawad and his family over three generations.
SPIRITUS MUNDI AND AFRICAN LITERATURE
My own work, “Spiritus Mundi” the contemporary epic of social activism depicting the lives and loves of global activists for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly for global democracy, draws heavily on themes and sources from African Literature. In Book II, the Yoruba mythical hero Ogun is one of those, along with protagonist Sartorius, Goethe and the Chinese Monkey King, to embark on a mythic Quest to avert WWIII and avoid destrution of the planet in nuclear Aramegeddon. A fictional African writer Wole Obatala discourses on the nature of African Literature and several chapters focus on the honeymoon trip of Sartorius and his wife Eva from Kenya to Johannisburg. The protagonists travel to Midrand, South Africa to advocate creation of the United Nations Parliamentary Assembly before the Pan-African Parliament, which in real life has endorsed the program.
World Literature Forum invites you to check out the great African masterpieces of World Literature, and also the contemporary epic novel Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard. For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:
For Discussions on World Literature and n Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…
World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG
Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved