“Achebe, no father of African literature — Soyinka” [Vanguard]

High Museum of Art piece, AtlantaSo I’ve been working on a piece that I thought was going to be a simple blog article highlighting my own refusal to join voices that suggest African Literature can be categorized into two head branches: Achebe versus Soyinka. This is not only wrong but downright shallow, a reductive element that I believe has roots in western thinking, as I intend to explain later on. The danger of condemning a whole continent’s literature or writing style into dichotomies is very much alive in the North American mind. Think of all the North American writing that is categorized as minimalist versus … as if writers and literary critics in the United States, in all their diversity, could be satisfactorily confined into two writing types. Sometimes I laugh at such incongruous and insalubrious labeling.

Back to African Literature, it is the same unhealthy confinement that has assumed the task of classifying the continent’s literature as Achebean or Soyinkan, going as far as asking emerging writers to identify their allegiances and fasten their masts on either ship. Incredible! What is worse is that some writers have taken it to heart and are doing exactly that. I’m not done with my piece yet, which is beginning to resemble an essay with endnotes and what not. While it waits, I came across this Soyinka interview in the Vanguard and said whoa, it hits home, and breaks the mold of being silent about the dead, or the debates worth having. Would like to know what the voices out there think.


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4 Responses to “Achebe, no father of African literature — Soyinka” [Vanguard]

  1. TJH June 1, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    The comments on Soyinka’s article are quite interesting and not in a positive sense — the discussion quickly became a Yoruba-Igbo dispute with considerable name-calling back and forth.

    I mention that to call attention to another obvious yet often over-looked fact: both Soyinka and Achebe are Nigerian writers in English. I do realize that just based population size alone, 1 out of every 6 or 7 Africans is a Nigerian — but the issue goes beyond that. Achebe and Soyinka are taught in American and UK universities as African literature in part because of the convenience factor; and Achebe taught in high schools also in part because of his seemingly simple style.

    Things Fall Apart is the one African novel that seemingly everybody reads when they study “African Literature”; and too often it is the only African novel that everybody reads. Achebe is in part what his institutional admirers in the US and UK made him — not just a primary source but too often the only source.

    Beyond that, too often African literature is reduced to Nigerian literature — one English-speaking nation in the Atlantic West comes to represent the entire continent. Moreover, if you were to attend an academic conference in the USA or UK on African literature or related topics, the majority of Africans speaking would likely be Nigerian expats or nationals. This is a credit no doubt to a proud intellectual and cultural tradition — but it also reflects again the Anglophone convenience bias of US and UK institutions.

    Literature, as the saying cynically goes, is what gets taught. Why certain writers and certain novels are promoted over others often depends upon what the institutional needs and goals are.

    Maybe African literature doesn’t need a father. Doesn’t need to be “legitimate” — whatever that means in this context. Legitimate to who? Maybe the debate over who the father might or might not be is the wrong debate to have, the wrong question to be asking.

    I believe that at times Achebe was excessively celebrated by the same people and institutions that otherwise happily ignore the diversity of African literature, voices, and actualities. May Achebe rest in peace and be respected with honor — but it is well past past the time to move on.

    • MB June 1, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

      Spot on, Tj. I also read the comments and was like, holy moly, look at folks going tribalistic [read ballistic as well] and spoiling an otherwise well-thought debate. I absolutely think that talking of a father of African Lit is really the wrong angle to take because my feminist instincts alone will start asking so where is the mother? And does that automatically make us assume that there has to be children? What if one of the parents is sterile? If not, where are the nephews, cousins, nieces, aunts and uncles? Shouldn’t we then press on with the metaphor all the way to help us analyze this limiting family tree? Already i’m at a dead end because like you said, Achebe and Soyinka aren’t “African Literature” but rather part of Anglophone Literature, if we are to dissect the label, and be a little honest. For some of us who have great respect for African Literature in other languages–think Ousmane Sembene, Mariama Ba, to mention a few Francophone writers from one country–Senegal, not to say my pals (ha!) Jose Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto (Portuguese), the Maghreb region (Mahfouz and so many others), Southern Africa that produces much Lit in Shona, Ndebele, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Dutch, Afrikaans… and East African authors in Swahili, Lingala and so on. The closest issue then might be the vision, the voice? which may touch on what’s legitimate, even challenging it, that’s how we can move on, i think. I need to finish my essay.

  2. Bev Nambozo May 23, 2013 at 3:19 am #

    Hey dear sister Mildred, Soyinka is honest and answers questions many readers of literature had. His candour is enlightening. His response to Achebe’s titles is in no way competitive but asserts a deep truth into the n eed tounderstand the political world of literature. I look forward to your essay with endnotes etc.

  3. Chris Kanyane May 22, 2013 at 11:16 pm #

    You and Chinua Achebe Mildred there is a contrast. While your message is about people struggling to find their own ground for self affirmation in the midst of surmountable difficulties Chinua Achebe’s main characters are weak and satisfied. Many thought Chinua Achebe will correct this later in old age by bringing a new book but instead his last book was “There was a country” where he was furiously waving his fist at Nigerian political leaders.

    In “No Longer at Ease” the chief character, Obi Okonkwo is a fickle wavering man who find difficulty to make up his mind, particularly in such natural basic things like marriage. Obi Okonkwo is spirited and torn apart. He finds himself in a hard place in making simple natural decision whether to marry an Osu girl or not.

    “In Arrow of God” Achebe continues with his characteristic weakness as to whether African religions are the religious equivalent of the imported religion of Christianity letting the matter hang loose providing no indication on where he stood on the matter.

    In “Man of the people” we are confronted with a petty thief who is motivated by desire to enrich his pocket at the expense of the public good.

    In “Anthills of the Savanna”, we are confronted with a character that is furious with Africa – shaking head and waving his fist on Nigeria’s politics.

    In the “Trouble with Nigeria” we hear Achebe’s opinions on what is wrong with Nigeria and how to fix it.

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