In this essay, our Founding Editor, Obinna Udenwe critically analyzes his understanding of the term, African literary tradition, and takes on the older generation of African literary scholars who denigrate contemporary authors and their works
What is African literary tradition? This question was posed to a panel of distinguished academics at a 2018 joint conference organised by the Association of Nigerian Authors in conjunction with the Alex Ekwueme-Federal University Ndufu Alike Ikwo in Ebonyi State on June 18th 2018, with the theme “Expanding Frontiers: Nigerian’s Creative Writing in the 21st Century”. This question is one that has continued to generate lots of discourse over the years, throwing up diverse opinions on:
*what is deemed the acceptable foundation and structure of this tradition?
*what decides tradition?
*and who is reshaping it?
Before the panel sat to discuss the question, Prof Isidore Diala did a great job x-raying contributions of first generation Nigerian writers towards shaping the literary sphere of their time viz-a-viz how contemporary Nigerian writers’ themes deviate from post-colonial literature that characterised the works of first generation African writers. He also highlighted how these new writings were contributing to building up a robust African literature.
The distinguished literary scholar and critic, Prof Nwachukwu Agbada was the first to respond to this question, and the learned gentleman took the stage to express what I consider an insult to contemporary literature in Nigeria. He alluded to, amongst many other things, the fact that African literary tradition was built on and strengthened by such works as those of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, and in fact writers of that generation whose works are rooted in the norms and values of Africa and the society for which they were writing for. He went ahead to say that what we see as contemporary literature addressing contemporary issues should not be classified as books building the African literary tradition. He argued that books bothering on such subject matters like sex just as books addressing LGBTQ are un-African, “as they are even against our laws”. He wondered why writers wrote on “such themes that are against our traditions and laws”. Then Prof. Agbada (who sat on the judging panel of the 2012 NLNG Nigerian Prize for Literature) released the bombshell that got me infuriated, he said,
“In 2012, a book that was going to win the NLNG Prize and in fact ended up winning the prize had many instances of sex in it. I advised that such book should not be given the prize, that doing so would set the precedence for future judges to start awarding the prize to books on sexuality. That book won the prize in 2012. In 2016, the fear I had expressed earlier in 2012 happened. This means that contemporary writers would now continue writing stories on sexuality and be awarded the NLNG Prize. . . .”
Most of his colleagues, professors of his generation concurred in their submissions while the younger professors in the hall like Prof. E. E. Sule differed. The book that Prof. Agbada alluded to was “On Black Sisters’ Street” – a modern classic on African transnational migrant sex workers in Europe – by Chika Unigwe which won the NLNG Nigerian Prize for Literature in 2012. Note that this book was hailed as an important masterpiece that ushered in a constructive and life-changing debate on migration, prostitution, sex trafficking, and sex crime at a time when these delinquencies were rampant and bringing Africa to bad light. “On Black Sisters’ Street” spurred most African nations to take action against sex trafficking, including focusing (even if for a little while) attention on trafficking of girls for prostitution – this I see as a great achievement.
Again, it is important to note that when Prof. Agbada mentioned that awarding the NLNG Prize to “On Black Sisters Street” a book on sexuality would begin the recognition of such other books in the future and mentioned the 2016 winning book, he was alluding to yet another masterpiece of international standard, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “Season of Crimson Blossoms” – it is pertinent to note here again that though on an unusual relationship between a young man and a middle aged woman old enough to be his mother, this is yet another masterpiece that masterfully employs the relevant tools and devices of a traditional story and storytelling techniques. “Season of Crimson Blossoms” is a book written in lush language, seeped in African idioms and metaphor, and with language characterised with traditional storytelling form. This and more, one must agree is what the judges saw before announcing it the winner of the prize. It is also worthy of note here that “Season of Crimsons Blossoms” focuses attention on the plight of women in the Hausa society of Northern Nigeria, the society’s patriarchal view of women and how the status of women is guided and guarded by men, who spell out what the woman should and should not do including women’s right to enjoy good sex and to make demands of it whenever they want.
Therefore, it is shameful that academics like Prof. Nwachukwu Agbada and his likes seem not to understand that the make-up of great literature isn’t just in the thematic and literary form of the book in discourse – as defined by their perceptions of what is African – but in the technicalities employed by the author in terms of the use of voice and language, symbolism and imagery as well as the sophistication of the characters with regard to their believability, and the ability of the reader to see themselves in the characters. Any attempt to deny contemporary writers the right to experiment with everyday theme that have become their reality and with various literary forms, limits their potential to write about mind-blowing subjects in such a way that they appear not to have been written before, ever.
It is views such as those expressed by Prof Agbada and echoed by professors of his generation in that conference that has continued to wriggle blood out of African literature, by not just making it shallow but its appreciation very limited. To discuss African literary tradition, one must first of all understand what a tradition is in terms of literature. The aesthetic meaning that a “tradition” is cultures and/or values passed on from one generation to the next does not expressly clearly define tradition or the concept of a tradition in its entirety. The word tradition is derived from the Latin word ‘tradere’ meaning “to hand across”. However in its Latin and Greek derivative forms, the word ‘tradere’ can also be used to mean “the surrendering of things not acceptable”. So to hand down some chains of norms, behaviours, values and activities over time and the deviation from all or part of them could also enhance the setting up and nurturing of a tradition. To explain that tradition evolves and takes various forms is to flog a dead horse. The ability of every “activity”, “norm”, “value”, or what have you to metamorphose into various forms as it is moved from one generation to the other is the fundamental catalyst behind these taking root finally as a tradition. So, if a particular society’s literature, as an expression of tradition expands from a particular age, evolves and metamorphoses into very many other forms, it becomes a revered and recognised tradition morphing into a canon.
Before delving into my response to Prof. Nwachukwu Agbada and his colleagues, it is important we understand that what is today known as American literature is an ever evolving growth from an oral form (much like every other region’s literature) to a period (– the 1580s to 1700s –) populated by the narratives of the early European conquerors of the North American continent like Edward Taylor, John Winthrop, Mary Rowlandson, who in 1676 was kidnapped and taken hostage by native American Indians and upon her release wrote about her experience in “A Narrative of The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson”. She saw the Indians as “fiends, roaring lions and savage bears”. Writings produced by early Anglo settlers told the story of Americans much as the story of Africa was told through the eyes of Anglo conquerors, such as works of Joseph Conrad, Mungo Park and their likes. There is the Literature of Revolution from around 1735 up until 1820 when many Americans began delving into telling their own stories including exploring autobiographical writings viz Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, including Thomas Paine (though an Englishman but became a “powerful voice of revolution in America”), and writers like Sarah Morton with writings contributing to political discourse at the time, while writings on slavery, black experience and race were important and still remain part of the works that shaped American literature. In 19th century American literature, The Age of Realism, one would find more Americans, Emily Dickinson, with her evocative poems, Henry James and Mark Twain – men and women – taking on bold subjects and appearing on the literary scene with diverse themes. Writers like Mary Austin, Henry James, even Theodore Roosevelt and indeed many more used their writings to engage in debates cutting across cultural questions of “Americanization” to the political debates of “immigration”, “freedom” “human rights” and the controversial issues of the place of the blacks in American society. These writings up until now and most importantly, the writings of T. S Eliot in the 20th century, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Flannery O’Connor and Achebe’s friend, John Updike and many more who at the time of their existence addressed issues that were important and relevant to their society at that time helped shape what we now know to be American literature. Succinctly one would say that writers have responded to happenings in their society at every era or point-in-time they found themselves – think short stories like Kate Chopin’s Desiree’s Baby (1893), Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery (1948), Eudora Welty’s Petrified Man (1941), Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man (1952) and Flannery O’Connor’s, evocative piece, Good Country People (1955), Joyce Carol Oates’ Where Are You Coming From, Where Are you Going (1966), and most recently, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Sexy (1999 ) to mention just a few.
Regarding the evolution of American literature, the editors of Volume E of The Norton Anthology of American Literature explains that,
“. . . in such a turbulent half century (2007 – 1945), American literature also encompassed a great deal of change. Not surprisingly, during this period many important writers re-examined both what literature is meant to accomplish and how to accomplish it. Conflicts between conformity and individuality, tradition and innovation, stability and disruption characterized the literature of the period as they also shaped the historical and cultural milieu. Just as people in the first two decades following World War II addressed themselves to taking material advantage of the extensive gains won by the global victory, so writers sought to capitalize on the successes of a previous literary generation. Cultural homogeneity was an ideal during the 1950s, patriotically so in terms of building up the foundation of American society to resist and contain Communism, materialistically so when it came to enjoying the benefits of Capitalism. This ideal of homogeneity led many writers to assume that a single work – short story, novel, poem, or play – could represent the experiences of an entire people, that a common national essence lay beneath distinctions of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or region. . . .”
The same explanation could be made for African literature, which have in its own way tried to respond to events within the period or era of its existence. Books such as Things Fall Apart (1958), Arrow of God (1964), The River Between (1965), Two Thousand Seasons (1973), Bessie Head’s A Bewitched Crossroads (1984) and some of Naguib Mahfouz’s works, notably The Cairo trilogy – on the life of an Egyptian family living in Cairo during British occupation of Egypt, were responses to the west’s view of Africa’s cultures, values and norms. A Man of the People, The Man Died, Anthills of the Savannah, Arrows of Rain etc were responses to the despotic regime in Africa at the time. Sunset at Dawn (1976), Survive the Peace (1976), Sleepwalking Land (1992) by Mia Couto, were books written to poke at the fabrics of the civil wars. Further down the lane, one would find that third generation Nigerian writers have also tried to respond to events around various periods of their existence, think between 1999 to 2007: Allah is Not Obliged (2000), Waiting for an Angel (2000), Yellow – Yellow (2006) , The Madam (2006). 2007 to 2016 – Oil on Water (2010), Americanah (2013), On Black Sisters’ Street (2011), Satans & Shaitans (2014), Born on a Tuesday (2015), Seasons of Crimsons Blossom (2015), A Gheko’s Farewell (2017), etc. Today while Africa is fast embracing science and all its diversities, writers are responding with science fiction with stories of our history and values whilst others are responding with magical realism with traces to both the past and future, think, Who Fears Death (2010), Children of Blood and Bones (2018), What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky (2017), Ancient Words (2018) a dystopian fiction by Jayne Bauling published in The Village Square Journal, etc.
If American literature had shied away from telling about the African American experience, the white American experience dealing with blacks, black consciousness, the American revolution, slavery, the world wars and more, how would we have had the entire countless body of diverse works that we place side by side and study as American literature? To dare posit that works written by say Donald Baltheme – who experimented with the short story form beautifully and can be said to have “abandoned not only traditional forms but also the forms that characterized modernist fiction” – cannot be classified as stories that helped to build the American literary tradition or that D. H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover added nothing to American literature because it addresses sexuality (an argument the likes of the learned Prof. Agbada could appropriate for contemporary African books and stories) is a betrayal of our evolving identity, to say the least.
A few years ago, Mukoma Wa Ngugi wrote a preface for the anthology “Voices From My Clan” which we edited together. He had this to say about African literary tradition:
“There is the theory of literary tradition. And there is the architecture, the brick and mortar; of a literary tradition. The critic, who deals with the theory of literary traditions through criticism, is in a symbiotic relationship with literature. That is, the writer and the critic contribute building blocks into what later becomes the literary tradition. At same time, friends (think of patrons) and enemies (think of the dictatorships that have banned books, or inspired novels such as A Man of the People and memoirs such as A Man Died) of literature also contribute to the tradition. But without the hardworking architects that nurture writing and writers from the first to the last word, a literary tradition can only be hollow”.
Mukoma would go further to explain that it is not just stories that build a literary tradition, but institutions such as literary awards and prizes, festivals, workshops, journals, and magazines – they are the building blocks without which the foundation is useless. So if stories are the foundation of a literary tradition and writers/cum critics add building blocks to this foundation, it is sad then that unlike in other regions of the world, we find some African scholars striving to ensure that blocks made of modern materials and moulded using modern techniques to respond to contemporary adversities in the environment where this structure is located are sieved out.
What is sad is that while young, contemporary African writers and scholars agree with Prof. Mukoma wa Ngugi’s idea about how to make the African literary tradition grow ie – creating works that are diverse, rich and seeped in various many other literary forms, many of our older scholars of the first generation – those who the famous critic Ikhide Ikheloa calls “gatekeepers” of African literature disagree and like he rightly posited in a recent article,
“. . .over five decades after colonialism, African literature is still defined by its glorious past” in that article, Ikhide goes further, as if bearing the likes of distinguished Prof. Agbada in mind to say,
“. . .in classrooms, at least judging from anecdotal evidence, there seems to be little innovation on the parts of those who teach literature. Professors of African literature are stuck in a 20th century paradigm; teaching ancient scrolls, and beholden to the West and her Eurocentric standards”.
To them – the likes of Prof. Nwachukwu Agbada – African literature ended with Things Fall Apart, Weep Not Child, Labyrinth and many other works of Okigbo, Soyinka, Owoonor and the rest. It is because of this thinking that Nigerian professors still teach Achebe, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Dickens, Fagunwa and Tutuola to students of Nigerian literary studies without enlightening them to the idea that in Africa a writer like Lauren Beukes exists, that a young poet called Warsan Shire uses words to challenge held societal values and norms.
A few years ago, while on transit to Enugu, I was in the same bus with two students of English and Literature at the famous University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The young lady and gentleman had not studied any contemporary works aside the books of Dickens, Hemingway, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okigbo and Achebe – It was a shame discussing with them.
That tradition evolves and become stronger is not in doubt – what is in discourse here is the unbelievable fact that most scholars wants to sieve out writers’ response to modernity as unworthy of being part of this tradition. Some years ago, it was the tradition of a certain community in my state, Ebonyi, for a man to allow his friend bed his wife as long as the friend asked for his permission and the wife liked the friend too. The friend and the wife could build a relationship lasting forever and no one saw anything wrong with it but today, in this same community, people are attacked violently for the simple crime of placing a hand on the shoulder of another man’s wife. In a part of Benue State it is widely believed that some time ago, a man could present his wife as a welcome gift to a revered visitor. The wife saw nothing wrong with this, but today this is abhorred. Worthy of note is the killing of twins in many parts of Africa in the past. These and more are cultural norms that have evolved over time to present a broader, more robust, accommodating and acceptable cultures as people changed alongside the wider world. Therefore, to develop a literary canon – a “centrally important and eminently valuable great or classic works which all educated members of a given community find authentic and should read” we should also not forget that “judgement of what is important and valuable do undergo changes, and as the number of literary works continues to grow due to new works the canon itself is also subject to revisions”.
So it is therefore shallow minded to think that a certain cult of academics would gate-keep African literature, against the interest of a greater number. This cult of old academics read and re-read, year in and out the works of their generation of writers; they discuss them in conferences as if they were written yesterday, they quote poems by Shakespeare, Elizabeth Pope, Homer, Okigbo, Clark and Niyi Osundare in workshops, classrooms, essays and more as if poetry began and died with those men.
This mentality has taken root in the enigma that is the Nigerian Prize for Literature sponsored by the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Limited (NLNG), which has continued to generate discourse and criticism for years. Many younger critics have argued that the board of the prize be reshuffled to reflect younger minds that would inject in the needed vive seen in other smaller but better organized prizes like the Etisalat Prize for Literature, the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize and the Caine Prize. If prizes and awards contribute to building a literary tradition like Prof. Mukoma wa Ngugi pointed out, is it not right to say that the foundation of the tradition should be encouraged to become as diverse as possible? Why has the NLNG continued for years to sieve out or ignore genre fiction – science fiction, magical realism, crime, romance etc? We live in a world run by science and technology; it is therefore foolhardy to expect that the muse would not drive writers into exploring the magic behind science and its relations to man, it is also disturbing to think that writers would not write about crime whereas they are attacked every day, in their homes, places of work and worship while they watch on the television as their countrymen are bombed and left to die by terrorists. It is equally laughable to write off genre fiction as “childish literature” as expressed by the older generation of African literary critics while promoting only narrative literary fiction and un-experimental poems. Why are these old professors not reading contemporary literature? Is it because of the “African” idea that the climax of academic pursuit is the professorial position and once attained one need not stress oneself reading or researching anymore?
So why are old professors not reading contemporary authors? I asked Prof. Agbada this question at the ANA – AE-FUNAI Conference after he perhaps unwittingly derided the two works that won the NLNG Prize in 2012 and 2016. I also told the audience that the problem facing African politics and governance of recycling old, tired, unproductive politicians is the same problem facing African literature – where old professors areinvited to conferences to sit together on a panel to discuss and scale what should be admitted into the almighty tag of “African literature” and what should not. I noted that the same problem plagued prizes which were created to enhance and build the African literary tradition. I also reiterated that it was a shame that the older generation of professors would stick to only books and writers of their generation and the thematic issues they address, but denigrate contemporary writers and their works, announcing them unworthy of recognition because “they address sexuality and LGBTQ”. I asked Prof. Nwachukwu Agbada if he had read Nnedi Okoroafor’s “Zarah the Windseeker” or “Who Fears Death”; if he had read Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone” and other contemporary books on magical realism. I told him that the African literary tradition would only grow if his generation stopped gate-keeping African literature and accepted the role books in other genres must play. Most importantly I wondered aloud why young professors like E. E Sule cannot be on the NLNG board or judging panel.
In conclusion, it is important that the older generation of African literature professors understand that one, two or three trees can never make a forest. It is the coming together of all the various diverse literary forms and expressions in all their sub-forms and divisions that truly make up African literature and would build it to a lasting and impressive tradition that can be truly studied and critiqued. In this regard, we need the older generation to understand the importance of the contributions the contemporary writers are making and to realise that tomorrow’s literary canon is today’s contemporary literature. They need to appreciate that never in the history of African literature have we had young people who are not just writing but going out of their way to establish, fund, and manage institutions to sustain the African literary tradition – a feat only a few older generation of writers ever attempted. Therefore these writers need to be read by these professors, critiqued, reviewed and taught in classes. To ignore the present class of contemporary African writers and write-off genre fiction is to subject African literary tradition to the same fate suffered by African culture, which was arrested by the European colonial masters in her prime, molested, and allowed to bleed to death.
- The Norton Anthology of American Literature (1979), Vol. A, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
- The Norton Anthology of American Literature (2007) Vol. E, Seventh Edition, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
- Voices From My Clan (2012), South Africa: Black Letter Media Ltd.
- Concise Anthology of American Literature (1985), Second Edition, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
- Prentice Hall Literature (1989), New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc.
- Literature & the Writing Process, sixth edition (2002), New Jersey: Prentice Hall
- Literary Tradition (Literacle.com) – (https://literacle.com/literary-tradition/)
- Ikhide Ikeloa, Pa Ikhide, blog (www.xokigbo.com)
- Ikhide Ikheloa, Nigeria: Literature and the State of the Restless Muse in the 21st Century – Praxis Magazine (http://praxismagazineonline.com/nigeria-literature-and-the-state-of-the-restless-muse-in-the-21st-century/ )
- Literature and Tradition: (https://btk.ppke.hu/uploads/articles/135505/file/introduction/satellite/literature_and_tradition.html)
- Dele Meiji Fatunla, 50 Books by African Men That Everyone Should Read, Pub. By: Whats on Africa (http://whatsonafrica.org/soa-while-back-ahead-of-africa-writes-in-collaboration-with-the-bookshy-bloggers-zahrah-nessbit-ahmed-we-publish-a-list-of-25-books-by-african-women-that-everyone-should-read/
All thoughts expressed in this essay are entirely those of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial team of The Village Square Journal. To respond to this essay, email us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: Earlier, this article wrongly mentioned that Prof. Nwachukwu Agbada sits on the NLNG Nigerian Prize for Literature advisory board, but this has been corrected to reflect that he only served on the judging panel in 2012, the year Chika Unigwe’s “On Black Sisters’ Street” won.
*Obinna Udenwe is the Founding Editor of The Village Square Journal