Decolonizing African Literature: Some of the Issues -Draft

     When I speak of African Literature I refer to African throughout the World African Community whether on the continent, in the Caribbean or elsewhere. Although as Chinweizu shows, there are African forms from which the modern African novel draws and is influenced, much of the early African Novels were written after contact with European colonization and were often written in European Languages whether that English is adapted to the Local context or imitative or English of the native Englishman(which itself is varied). From the onset Africans have been dealing with the decolonization of African Literature through their very writing process. A number of issues have arisen during the course of producing African Literature, in critiquing it and further in assessing this criticism. I will attempt to give an overview of some of these issues below:
1) Primary Audience: To whom to write and all the implications which follow this? Such questions are mediated by issues of economics as well as the socialization of the writer and her desire and value for recognition from particular communities and influences language, style, technique, subject matter, treatment etc. Writers and critics have shown their position on which is the proper and primary audience for African writers whether overtly by stating it or by the nature of their writing. Ngugi Wa Thiongo made it a point while in prison to begin to write his works of fiction in his native Gikuyu even while his works are available in English and other languages. Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” is now available in Igbo his native language after fifty years (1997) although as he has pointed out that his writing in English was also consciously fashioned to serve his purposes. Earl Lovelace, in language, in subject matter and treatment is clearly writing primarily to the Caribbean audience(then perhaps a “third world” context and then the rest of the world).  The same can be said for Erna Brodber. Earl Lovelace 2) Language: In what language should the African writer express herself? If using an European language should it be imitative (kept intact) or should it be tailored to the particular adaptation of the African community concerned. This of course comes from the very question of audience and the particular socialization and dilemmas of identity (and other issues) of the writer. This being a complex issue dealing with history, economics, marketing, politics etc has been dealt with in many works and is something which necessarily is constantly being worked out. Chinua Achebe rightly asserted that at present it is European languages which provide common means of communication among Africans in what are indeed European-formed Nations(in terms of boundaries, institutions etc), however he also notes that many things will have to happen to English in its service to African people and further that this significance of European Languages in communication among Africans need not be a permanent state of affairs. Similar can be said for Africans in the  Caribbean in that many things have indeed happened to English in service of our people here and necessarily and fortunately so.
Achebe points out in his essay The African Writer and the English Language: “So my answer to the question: Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask: Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so…The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost.” (pg 61, Morning yet on Creation Day) Morning yet on Creation Day: Essays by Chinua Achebe 3) Critiquing African work: Who has the right and ability to critique African work? What are the requirements of one who will attempt the task? Writers such as Chinweizu and Chinua Achebe have pointed to the arrogance and ignorance of European critics in their attempt to critique African works of art. One of the issues is the tendency of some European and European-influenced critics to interpret African writing (particularly the Novel) as drawing solely or primarily from the European form and therefore being judged and read based on the aesthetics of Europe. Chinweizu in his book “Toward a Decolonization of African Literature” shows that Africa did possess various forms equivalent to or at least comparable to European forms including the Novel which writers of Africa could, should and do draw from. He also explains the reasons for a significant influence of Western Critics on the nature of writing produced by some African Writers. Toward a Decolonization of African Literature by Chinweizu et al Western Critics have also been found to attempt to legislate authenticity on African works of art based on their own limited knowledge or impressions of Africa and African people. Additionally, African Literature has been subsumed by some into European traditions because they are written in European Languages. This of course has been contested by writers such as Chinweizu, Achebe, Wa Thiongo for its arrogance and its implications for how the works are to be interpreted and assessed. In talking about how its work should be assessed African writers have also engaged this conversation (of decolonizing its literature) by deciding for themselves what styles, techniques etc are admissible to their form despite the confusions or arrogance of Western and Westernized critics. There are various works of fiction which contend with this and therefore play a significant role in Decolonzing African Writing through their own self examination and practice. Names which come to mind in this regard include Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana/Senegal) Erna Brodber(Jamaica) Earl Lovelace (Trinidad and Tobago). The issue has never been isolationist as some have wrongly claimed but rather takes a position that one has the right and perhaps even a responsibility(to self) to engage the world including that of Europe from ones own perspective. Therefore Africans can approach Europe from their cultural, political, spiritual and other perspective. African people can should indeed be their centre both when engaging self and the world around them.
4) ‘Universality’ or Parochialism?: In her book Yurugu:An African-centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behaviour Dr. Marimba Ani exposes this notion of ‘Universality’ as a mere guise for European cultural arrogance to which Chinweizu concurs. Western Critics have found African Literature more pallatable and praiseworthy the more ‘Universal’ it is(of course meaning the more Western it is). This apparent tendency toward so called universality comes from what has come to be the dominant relationship Europe has formed with itself, the environment etc. As Trinidad writer Earle Lovelace points out, no one is just born into the world, we come from somewhere (paraphrased) which is our reference point for engaging the world. In African tradition the universal is approached from the particular or what is termed parochial or subjective experience. The pretense to the contrary is ignorant at best, hypocritical or exploitative and imperialistic at worst. This proves itself in the shape of what some term universalism which tends toward their particular cultural tradition masked under what seems to be neutral language. In fact I might add that it is only from a particular reference point that one can properly assess the value of Literature to a community. Not merely on technical dexterity based on a particular aesthetic (which itself may be foreign) Yurugu : An African-centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behaviour by Dr. Marimba Ani 5) Teaching Literature to Africans: Both Chinweizu(Nigeria) and Ngugi Wa Thiongo (Kenya) have approached this issue which was addressed in what came to be known as “the great Nairobi Literature debates”(1968) on the teaching of literature in universities and schools. In this debate the issue of what Literatures should be taught and in what order were addressed. Proposals came forward calling for abolition of the English department at University of Nairobi(as the medium through which literature is taught) and replacing it with something more relevant. It was put forward that:
“The English department has had a long history at this college and has built up a strong syllabus which by its study of the historic continuity of a single culture throughout the period of emergence of the modern west makes it an important companion to History to Philosophy and Religious Studies. However it is bound to become less British, more open to writing in English (American, Caribbean, African, Commonwealth) and also to continental writing for comparative purposes.”
A more damning and significant question followed
“…if there is a need for a ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’ why can’t this be African? Why can’t African culture be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relation to it (Pg 89, Decolonizing the African Mind – Ngugi wa Thiongo Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature by Ngugi Wa THiongo In discussing the teaching of African Literature, Ngugi suggested that the center and first area to be taught was African orality/orature/ oral tradition, followed by African Literature, followed by “third world” Literatures and then finally the rest of the world which would then put the European writing tradition in its proper position in relation to the African. Chinweizu proposes a similar ordering. As Ngugi points out, education is about knowledge of oneself and therefore one can see how placing another at one’s center can be debilitating, disorienting and disempowering psychologically, politically, economically and otherwise.

Publishing – Ayi Kwei Armah Eloquence of the Scribes

Conclusion I have merely touched on a few of the issues concerned with Decolonizing African Literature and hope to add based on my reading and reasoning. Also I hope to learn from others who have been exposed to other perspectives on African Literature. Naturally these issues are contested and contended with everywhere Africans write or read whether overtly through discussion or through the practice of writers and the tastes of their readers. To me this represents a larger version (on the level of a people) of the double-consciousness which W. E. B Du Bois spoke of, in which the individual is caught between a proper centering in his subjective experience and with measuring up to another’s standard, in this case that of the European.
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. ..The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. …” -W.E.B Du Bois
Chinua Achebe says it as follows with particular reference to writers:
Africa has had such a fate in the world that the very adjective African can call up hideous fears of rejection. Better then to cut all the links with this homeland, this liability, and become in one giant leap the universal man. Indeed I understand the anxiety. But running away from oneself seems to me a very inadequate way of dealing with an anxiety. And if writers should opt for such escapism, who is to meet the challenge (Chinua Achebe ‘Africa and her writers’ in Morning Yet on Creation Day Pg 27)”
I would like to end on this anti-climactic note by opening up another issue. There is a false dichotomy made by some African writers undoubtedly influenced by their European cultural pond between the so called “fine arts” and the popular culture or folk culture. It is interesting that this dilemma of double-consciousness, this tugging between identity and supposed ‘universality’ (acceptability to European and audience)  also pervades our practice of the popular culture particularly the commercialized ones. Hence the situation is not much different, except that much of the popular culture is on the side of the spectrum which is closer to the ground, the common people. There has been the necessary resistance to this inner rift in various respects to retain the seeming “authenticity” which their own marketability to Europeans requires but this has been tempered by the equally influential requirement that it is not so local as to ‘unduly’ shut out the European from its consumption and patronage; better that the locals adapt to the new ‘universality’ than the European get a more intimate knowledge and respect for the local cultural context which produced the art form he would like to consume. Here as with the African literary forms European approbation is required because Europe controls the purse strings as well as the minds and spirits of some of the practitioners. Admittedly, the influence is less or different on the popular culture forms and even less on the non-commercial traditional forms which (while endangered by European economic dominance of their societies) remain on the periphery of European consumption in some senses. When these false dichotomies are done away with and these forms and others come to be properly situated in the real political/economic/cultural and other contexts they will serve fully their due role and will be seen as part of a whole as opposed to part of some hierarchy(which elevates the literary over the oral etc) which again shows symptoms of the persistent double-consciousness, the possession of African people with European spirits.
Nkrumah Ayodele Lucien May 9th, 2010
Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essay Chinua Achebe
Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of language in African Literature Ngugi Wa Thiongo
Toward The Decolonization of African Literature: Vol. 1 African Fiction and Poetry and their Critics Chinwezu et al
Growing in the Dark:Selected Essays Earl Lovelace(edited by Funso Aiyejina)
Yurugu: An African Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behaviour Mr. Marimba Ani


~ by iandiyanola on May 20, 2012.

One Response to “Decolonizing African Literature: Some of the Issues -Draft”

  1. nice!

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