African Literature Is Doing Well

African Literature Is Doing Well

Tuesday, June 3, 2014 3:48 pm

By Tejumola Olaniyan

Let us begin with brief look at the state of African literature today. As we survey this literary landscape, we cannot but proclaim with some robust satisfaction that African literature and African cultural production are, by and large, in good health. Like lovers of literature elsewhere in the world, we have good reason to applaud the classics of a growing canon of significant works. Just look at all the popular—though typically subjective—yardsticks of measurement, such as “Africa’s Best 100 Books of the Twentieth Century” and many such lists; or the many literary awards emanating from outside Africa, or the many new literary awards and literary festivals that are now proliferating within the continent. Then travel around the continent and see the many locally published writings whose titles you won’t find anywhere in library databases or on the internet, yet. Just look at all these and we cannot but be really proud of where African literature stands today.

We are struck not only by the quantity of African literary and cultural production, but also by the range of themes, styles, genres, and media of production. In southern Africa to take only one example, we are confronted with an embarrassment of riches, to borrow the originally French expression in English. We have works written in a variety of languages including IsiZulu, Setswana, English, Afrikaans, and Sesotho among others. We have first time authors and established authors competing for prizes. Fiction in both conventional and new, previously unimaginable formats such as the mobile or cell phone novel, poetry, literary memoirs, autobiography and a wide range of verbal performance.

The preoccupation with macro-politics which predominated during the apartheid era—and which was standard in African literature generally till the 1980s—has yielded much way to a much wider range of additional themes and or totally new takes on old themes: social alienation, crime, challenges of rural living, imponderable government bureaucracy, pleasures and perils of childhood, sexuality and sexual orientation, the human and environment intersection, gendered access, opportunities, and discriminations, affirmation of the individual self against the remorseless dictates of culture and tradition, and many others.

Here and elsewhere on the continent, the cross-fertilization between and among radio, television, film, and literature has become ever more generative, with literary works crossing from one medium to another at some rapid speed. Just think of the Arab Spring, for instance, and the extensive cross-art productivity it has engendered. A different kind of cross-fertilization is also taking place between the literary and other arts as well as between popular artistic culture and an art culture that derives its value from critical aesthetic assessments rather than the old anthropological fixation with antiqueness and indigenous cultural pedigree.

This, in spite of all the enormous challenges of daily living, is the thriving, astoundingly creative artistic-imaginative landscape of Africa today. African literature, I repeat, is doing well.

So, what of our field of African literary scholarship today? By contrast, and very regretfully, I would have to say that African literary criticism, that is, literary criticism carried out by scholars who identify themselves as specialists in African literary studies, is in an anemic state at the moment. Without question, there are the typical few oases that we can identify. And more generally, we are trying very hard and have made important marks.

On the whole, though, we are very much lagging behind our literature.  In many publications specifically dedicated to examining African literature, our current preoccupations as critics have not extended far beyond those that animated discussions from the 1960s to the 1980s.  For the most part, we remain trapped in the arguments that animated conversation two decades or more ago. The critics of that generation responded creatively to those arguments and challenges to the best of their ability; it does not seem to me that we have pushed the boundaries of their thinking that much further.  Take, for example, the old question of the suspicion of theory.

All through from the practical criticism of Eldred Durosimi Jones and Dan Izevbaye, to pragmatic sociological-historical bent of Albert Gerard, Abiola Irele, Bernth Lindfors, Emmanuel Obiechina, and Isidore Okpewho, to the Marxist sociology of Molara Ogundipe and Omafume Onoge, to idiosyncratically cite just a few familiar categories and leading practitioners—all through the beginnings in early twentieth century to the 1980s, the suspicion of theory attitude was a very marginal, peripheral phenomenon. That is, until the “Bolekaja” critics of the 1980s—Chinweizu, Onwucheka Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike in their Towards the Decolonisation of African Literature—who, riding on the coattails of a dissipated American Black Power racialism, popularized the anti-theory attitude by stereotyping a certain kind of modernist work and criticism as theory in general, in opposition to a supposedly non-theoretical, non-difficult, and simple Africanness. Oyekan Owomoyela also later vigorously propagated a similar line of thinking.

The vagueness or nebulousness of their proposition caught on, such that that kind of suspicious attitude became more generalized. But at least, Chinweizu and his colleagues wrote a book that we must consider quite self-consciously theoretical, though it was to attack “theory.” Although that suspicion of theory has persisted and is sometimes worn as a badge of honor among many scholars of African literature today, there has not been a single scholarly updating of the defense of that position; only Chinweizu and co.’s book still remain as the touchstone for the attitude, even if it is not often cited as such. Again, they look much more vitally engaged with the literature and criticism of their era, and contributed much more to the vitality of the literary criticism of their era, than us to our own time today.

One result of the current situation is that the most arresting conceptual and philosophical engagements with the works of African writers today often emanate from outside our field. Widely suggestive and provocative scholarship on African writers and artists is now more frequently produced by those who have only a peripheral and tangential connection with the broader field of African literature. We find ourselves in a position where those who define the paradigms by which African cultural production will be evaluated within literary studies writ large, are from outside the specific field of African literary studies.

Thus, scholars with other areas of expertise, and with less socio-contextual familiarity with our object of study, are appropriating the literature, speaking for the literature, and defining the terms on which it will be admitted within the halls of some larger entity, whether that entity is called “world literature” as our convener, Bheki Peterson mentioned on Wednesday, or “postcolonial literature,” or “literature from the global south.” As my co-editor and I stated in our anthology of criticism and theory (African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 2007), theory informs all we do, and it does not have to be inaccessible or unreadable; aversion to theory is itself a theoretical attitude. What theory needs to do is provide us with principles that can form the basis for productive engagements with the range of African literature today.

It was Frantz Fanon who said in 1961 in The Wretched of the Earth that “Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.” It seems to me that our current crop of writers, so-called “third generation,” have, in the multi-sided capaciousness of their explorations of contemporary Africa in the world and the world in Africa and their own place in that circulation, it seems to me that they have discovered a historic mission and are fulfilling it by pushing the boundaries of what Africa is and what we could think in relation to Africa. The question now is: When is African literary criticism going to catch up with its literature?

And what is the role of the ALA in all this?

The ALA is an association of scholars, but it is an association of scholars that has been unafraid to wade into treacherous political waters in the past. When Dennis Brutus of blessed memory, then in exile in the United States, urged us to take a stand on apartheid at a time when battles were raging for an and against divestment with companies doing business with the apartheid government, the ALA voted to take a stand. Let me seize the opportunity to pay tribute to the leadership and membership of ALA at the time and their willingness to be not only witnesses but also participants in making history happen wherever they happened to be located.

We are, as I said, an association of scholars. This means that in addition to a willingness to act on matters of politics, we must exhibit a similar readiness to act on matters of scholarship. We in the ALA, who have been so willing to confront political challenges head on, ought not to cower with fear when faced with challenges of an intellectual order. In this second decade of the twenty-first century, the danger that we face as an association is one of growing intellectual irrelevance in the expanding discourse on our literature. We cannot allow this to happen. 

Difficult as it may be, I would like to issue a call for the ALA to invest its energies in the production of a critical discourse that is adequate to the task of assessing a stylistically and thematically diverse output that is now African literature. We are called upon, not only to promote our writers, but also the critical discourse that we generate in relation to the work of those writers. In order to do this effectively however, the critical discourse must exhibit the inventiveness, sophisticated imagination, and adventure that we see in the creative writing itself.

The critical discourse that we develop cannot be built on an ignorance of, or non-engagement with, other discourses being produced around the work of literature and art in other traditions. Literature and criticism are locally inspired but are also very global institutions, simultaneously continental and transcontinental. In any case, as intellectuals and middle class, we travel across borders all the time; there is no reason for us to expect the most relevant ideas about a text to be found only within borders. To further imprint our expertise on this critical discourse, we as members of the ALA will need to incentivize ourselves by offering appropriate rewards and recognition for those who contribute to extending the critical apparatus which frames our approach to literature.

We have at all times been willing and eager to welcome creative writers in our midst. We have given due recognition. Indeed, the first prizes created by the ALA were prizes awarded to creative writers on the one hand, and cultural activists on the other. Though the ALA was founded in 1975, it was not until last year, 2013, that we first adopted the idea of awards for published scholarship. So, for forty years, an association of scholars did not have any system of rewards for scholarship. But, better late than never; we now have three awards for published scholarship, and, with your determination, the sky is the limit.

I understand that the focus on developing an appropriate critical and theoretical discourse presents some practical problems of access for many of our colleagues working in certain parts of the African continent. We cannot be so heavily infatuated with developing theory and critical discourse that we fail to acknowledge the material conditions which favor scholars working in certain contexts and disable scholars working in other contexts.

Let me remind you all of some of the priorities I outlined in my statement for election to the position of vice-president. These priorities remain germane as ever.

My tenure as president is for me an opportunity to work in consolidating ALA’s position as one of the most important institutions invested in all scholarly matters pertaining to African literature, African arts, and cultural production. As President, I will focus on three principal areas that I am convinced we need to work more on to make our Association meet the challenges of the near future.

First, a re-energized membership drive. African literature is making wider appearance on college course lists abroad, even if taught in many instances by those only partly immersed in the field. The effect on increasing student interest has been significant. We need to reach out not just to the traditional categories of recruitment targets such as graduate students and teachers primarily in the field, but also to those only peripherally so at the moment. Above all, it is high time we attract back many of our leading scholars who have, for one reason or the other, drifted away from the association over the past years. We need their wealth of insight, experience, and prestige now more than ever before.

Second, we need to ramp up our mentoring of graduate students and junior scholars. This is not simply because of the truthful cliché that “they are the future of the organization.” That reason would suffice just to make the ALA survive. But ALA needs to not just survive but also thrive competently and in the front ranks of literary studies today. In addition to creating nurturing intersections in which students, junior and senior scholars learn from one another (on criticism, pedagogy, etc.) in a multidirectional manner, I envision mentoring as also including research and publishing collaborations, as well strategic sharing of opportunities and advice on where to publish. The goal is that we in the ALA make much wider publication appearance everywhere but especially more on the pages of leading journals and on the list of leading presses. Again, as Vice Chancellor Adam Habib so perceptively articulated the African challenge today, we must be simultaneously locally relevant and at the same time globally competitive. The benefits will be both individual professional advancement and the advancement of the collective profile of our organization.

Third, we have over the years done very well both individually and collectively in donating books to universities in Africa. Given the ever- increasing cost of books as well as of transcontinental postage, and the fact that donated books are more often than not years old, it is time to explore additional approaches, such as journals and books in pdf format, for instance. Some presses are already selling those on cds; they are much cheaper to buy and to mail. Let us open a formal conversation on this and other resource support measures.

I want to end by once again thanking our convener and the many hosts and sponsors. I thank you the entire membership for the confidence you reposed in me and I look forward for more of your support during my tenure. Please re-dedicate yourselves to the ALA by paying your annual dues promptly, and by inviting potential members to join the organization. Easter celebration, for instance, is around the corner, give ALA annual memberships as gifts to professional friends and colleagues.

Thank you for attending this conference and I wish you all safe travels back to your various destinations. Our next conference is June 3-6, 2015, at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. I look forward to seeing all of you and many more, there.

It is play time now, so let’s dance!

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