Examining Canonization in Modern African Literature – Works Cited and References
March 21, 2009
Examining Canonization in Modern African Literature
March 21, 2009
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Examining Canonization in Modern African Literature – Continued

The fauna and flora of the continent become embodiments of the thoughts of the characters expressed in literature. Wole Soyinka’s Brother Jero plays are based on the motif of the trickster tortoise, the Yoruba ajakpa. Kofi Awoonor uses the weaverbird to represent the coming of colonialists toAfrica in a very symbolic manner. The vulture has featured in Niger Delta literature, as well as the iroko in rainforest settings of African writers. The aim of such symbolism is to use known images of the environment to communicate to the African reader familiar with the reference.

Following the shared experience of culture and environment is the historical experience of the people, especially of the people’s contact with Europeans and the consequence of that encounter. First, there was slave trade in which the coastal and interior parts of the continent were ravaged by despoliation and the youths captured and shipped away. Then there was colonization in which Europe, through military might, shared Africa for economic and political exploitation. With Europe “under-developing” Africa, the continent’s people suffered and still suffer from the consequences of foreign domination and tutelage. One of the premises of colonialism was that Africans had no culture and history and so Europe had to bring it civilization. The Europeans, thus, held themselves as superior to Africans whose culture they considered inferior, uncivilized, and savage. The European notion of Africa as a tabula rasa informed the policy of assimilation pursued by Franceand Portugal in Africa. Colonialism and post-colonialism are inherent parts of the history of Western hegemony in empire-building and political and economic domination at the expense of other peoples as in Africa. African literature aims at countering the Western image of Africa in cultural and socio-political perspectives.

The Negritude writers countered the European notion of Africans as inferior by extolling pride in blackness. Works of Leopold Sedar Senghor, Birago Diop, David Diop, and others praise African values and humanity, what later generations will call ubuntu. Senghor does not only exhibit the state of innocence of pre-colonial Africa as in “Night of Sine” and “I Will Pronounce Your Name,” but also expresses in both “New York” and “Prayer to Masks” how African humanism can complement European life. In the latter poem, he writes:

For who else would teach rhythm to the world that has died of machines and cannons?

For who else should ejaculate the cry of joy, that arouses the dead and the wise in a new dawn?

Say, who else could return the memory of life to men with a torn hope?

They call us cotton heads, and coffee men, and oily men,

They call us men of death.

But we are the men of the dance whose feet only gain power when they beat the hard soil.

(Moore and Beier 233)

Senghor is using this poem and similar ones to confront the challenges of colonial history, proffering to Europeans what they lack and Africans have in abundance. He thus uses his art not only to respond to the European colonization of Africa but also to defend Africa against European racism and what that entails.

While there are several strands of Negritude, including Senghor’s romantic presentation of pre-colonial Africa as an idyllic place, there is agreement that the literary movement of the 1940s and 50s raised black consciousness in Africa and the African Diaspora, especially in the Caribbean where Leon Damas and Aime Cesaire were also pioneer exponents of Negritude.

While Francophone African intellectuals and writers used Negritude to react to European denigration of African culture, the Anglophone African writers affirmed their Africanity in their own way by showing the African personality as a human who has strengths and weaknesses. With works of Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Joyce Cary (Mister Johnson) in particular portraying African characters in stereotypical ways, African writers felt it was their duty to correct the European distortion of the African.

Chinua Achebe’s literary objective in his early works, especially in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, was to fight back the negative ideas of Africapropagated by the European colonizers and those sharing a similar imperial ideology. To the renowned Nigerian writer, “African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; . . . their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, . . they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity.” One can see Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman in the context of showing African culture and life in relative terms to the European, indirectly saying that each culture has about the same things as others and differences are only relative. In that classic play, Soyinka looks at concepts of honor and sacrifice in particular in terms of cultural relativism. Thus, African writers see themselves as defending their race and culture in the face of European/Western marginalization and denigration. In the black-white dichotomy, many African writers, especially the pioneer ones such as Senghor, Achebe, and Soyinka extol the humanity of Africa as superior to Western exploitative nature and radical individualism. Mazisi Kunene talks of this when he differentiates between material development of the Europeans and the ethical development of Africans in The Ancestors and the SacredMountain. African writers bring their race and humanity to the center of discourse, unlike the margin Africa occupies in Western discourse.

Africa’s political history has a significant impact on the people’s experience and their literature. The experience of colonization placed the European metropolitan countries at the center and the African colonies at the periphery in a relationship that African writers fought against. In fact, Janheinz Jahn sees African history as paralleling modern African literature. The years of colonization, nationalist struggle, independence, post-independence, and neocolonialism have their imprint on modern African literature. The colonization afforded African writers the opportunity to question European values in their exploitation of “others.” Thus, African literature is critical of the colonial enterprise of Europeans. After World War II, many Africans, including those who fought for the liberation and freedom of Europe, demanded freedom for themselves. Leopold Sedar Senghor, who fought for the French and was a prisoner of war, was one of the African nationalists. Nationalism extolled African values, and political independence came with euphoria all over the continent. Africa was at last free of foreign domination and Africans were then in charge of their own affairs. As will be discussed later, the euphoria did not last for long.

The nation became very important in identity formations of Africans. In place of traditional ethnic groups or kingdoms, new states arose, bringing together multiethnic groups that the European powers put together for their political and economic benefit. African peoples were divided into countries irrespective of ethnicities, and countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, andUganda became multiethnic nations. A new political topography came into place with every African belonging to a specific country. With this development, the writers have a new “community” to address in their writings—their “people.” For instance, Achebe was no longer just an Igbo but a Nigerian. Similarly, Soyinka was not just Yoruba but also Nigerian, as Kofi Awoonor was not Ewe but Ghanaian, Lenrie Peters not Aku but Gambian, and Ngugi wa Thiongo not Kikuyu but Kenyan. Belonging to an ethnic group and to a nation will lead to tension in individual writers which they have to address in times of conflicts between the two “communities,” as Achebe and Ngugi had to do during the Nigerian Civil War and the Kenyan 2008 Presidential Election respectively.

In both Francophone and Anglophone Africa, writers attacked European exploitation of Africans. Works of Sembene Ousmane such as Le Mandat (The Money Order) and Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman are illustrative of the calamities brought by the West to Africa. Neocolonialism is perpetrated through contemporary Africa as in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Devil on the Cross.

In addition to reacting to European exploitation, after independence, African writers started to react to their separate African rule. As will follow, the political corruption of the emergent states and the instability resulting in coups and civil wars gave the writers materials for their art. One can say that almost all over Africa, the writers interrogated their nations in what was a reactive stance of addressing the political ineptitude of the time. Works such as Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Wole Soyinka’s Season of Anomie, Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, and many other literary texts address the writer’s nation in its political direction. With many writers cynical about their country’s direction, the literary texts are not cheerful to read with the somber visions.

Literary works immediately preceding and following political independence in Africa, between 1957 and 1968, exhibit the euphoria that would fritter away with political corruption of the leaders. Satiric writing was common in poetry and fiction by Lenrie Peters, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and others. Then from the late 60s through the 70s to the mid-80s came the decades of coups and counter-coups that brought military dictators to power. Writers ranged on the side of the people against military rule. Soyinka’s The Man Died and A Shuttle in the Crypt are examples of texts that addressed issues of military dictatorship and tyranny.

This period coincided with the Cold War between the Eastern Bloc and the West. Most of the writers were left of center. There was Marxism expressed in works, principal among them was Ngugi wa ‘Thiongo in his Petals of Blood, Devil on the Cross, and Matigari. The workers and proletariat came to the center of fictional works. In poetry, many writers, including Jared Angira and Niyi Osundare, declared themselves Marxists. However, whether declared Marxists or not, the poets of the generation that include Syl Cheney-Coker, Odia Ofeimun, Tanure Ojaide, and Femi Osofisan ranged on the side of the underprivileged and tended to concern themselves more with socio-economic issues rather than culture which formed the major preoccupation of the earlier generation of Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Kofi Awoonor, and Lenrie Peters. These “new” poets also expressed more of class conflict as they relied more on African oral traditional techniques rather than the modernists in their expression of the current African reality. Thus, Africa’s history and politics are connected.

Involved in the historical experience of Africa and concomitant with colonialism was the introduction of Christianity to Africa. While Christianity might have been brought to parts of Egypt and Ethiopia very early on in the history of that religion, and Portugal had made missionary incursions centuries earlier into Benin and Kongo kingdoms, it was colonialism that became the vanguard of Christian expansion in Africa. This new religion became one of the major faiths of Africans and brought with it new beliefs, icons, and socio-cultural ways, ranging from worship to marriage. Christianity, as pitched by the colonialists, was a more civilized religion than anything Africans had had, since theirs were denigrated as worshiping heathen gods in fetish practices. Christianity was an inescapable part of Westernization, and African writers would react to it in diverse ways.

African writers, especially the poets, the Congolese Tchicaya U’Tamsi, the Nigerian Christopher Okigbo, and the Sierra Leonean Syl Cheney-Coker, copiously use Christian motifs of a suffering Christ and other rituals and symbolisms of Christianity, particularly of the Catholic Church. Christ becomes the sacrificial hero, who endures the “sins” of society and is immolated to give better life to his people. While Cheney-Coker may not be a church-going person, still he uses the image of Christ to express his Creole origin and his individual circumstances in his society in Concerto for an Exile. It is interesting to note that in Cheney-Coker’s poetry “his persona combines the contradictory attitude of condemning Christ and Christianity while at the same time seeing himself as Christ” (Ojaide and Obi 149). He feels betrayed, as Christ was, in love, his Creole ancestry, and the mistreatment of people in his country and throughout the world; hence he exhorts his betrayers:

Oh! Nail me to my cross, the two thieves also, I am they

my three deaths, one for myself, one for my people,

and one for Sierra Leone (10).

In Cheney-Coker’s poetic work, “The mask of Christ is used by the poet for secular motives—to save the lives of his people as in Christopher Okigbo, not to save their souls” (Ojaide and Obi 150).

Thus, Christianity may be alien in origin, but it has become a religion embraced by millions of Africans who fashion their lifestyles on its tenets. Many African writers, especially the poets, tend to be critical of Christianity because of its association with slave trade and colonialism.

Integral to Africa’s historical experience is the absorption of some European intellectual trends of the time. This has to do with the arrival of modernism in African literature. With writing, as we know it today, coming with colonialism to Africa, the pathway to literary modernism was created for the African writer even before starting to write. Modernism, or, for that matter, modernity, in Africa is a borrowed, and some would say acquired, outfit through the happenstance of European colonization and domination of Africa through politics, economic exploitation, socio-cultural assimilation, military might, and other hegemonic strategies for their benefit from the 19th century and is still ongoing in the 21st century in different guises. African modernity involves historical, political, and intellectual transformation, occasioned by the European encounter, from the traditional to “new” ways. As described by Octavio Paz, “The new is not exactly the modern, unless it carries a double explosive charge: the negation of the past and the affirmation of something different” (qtd. in Masilela 4). One can say that European modernity has, in many ways, fashioned African modernity.

Modernism (or modernity) goes with many assumptions—literacy, democracy, etc. that fit well with the state of the European world at the time of its origin between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century that coincided with the onset of colonialism in Africa. On the literary level, the works of T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pounds, W.B. Yeats, and Gerald Manley Hopkins, among others, illustrate the modernist spirit that resulted in difficult, obscure, allusive, and fragmented ideas manifested in poetry. Modernism demands some intellectual basis for creativity, as seen from the literary works of Europe from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s. Its focus on form, difficulty, obscurity, and fragmentation (of the psyche are alien to mainstream traditional African poetry. However, absorbed into poetic writing as done by Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka at different points of their poetic careers, modernist techniques become tools used to express the multifarious modern African experience as lived or perceived by the writers. As a result of its very nature, modernism has given rise in African literature to a high-brow, elitist, ivory-tower orientation to creative works in, for Soyinka, The Interpreters and the Idanre poems. The bulk of Okigbo’s early poetry, especially Labyrinths, belongs to the modernist impulse as borrowed by African writers. To deny that modernism is a European, albeit Western, concept is to miss the point of its source, inspiration, and intellectual basis.

African writers have also been responding to the impact of migration and globalization on their people and continent. Ecological and environmental matters, sometimes arising from the actions of multinational companies, are at the core of Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness on the ecology of the coastal part of South Africa and Tanure Ojaide’s The Activist and The Tale of the Harmattan on the environmental degradation of the oil-rich Niger Delta area of Nigeria. A major conflict in Mda’s The Heart of Redness is conserving nature and maintaining culture versus development in the forms of electricity, tourism, and casinos. The argument of the Believers appears stronger as they can maintain their culture and still have cultural tourism and also electricity through solar energy. In Mda’s viewpoint, one can sensibly conserve nature and culture and still be progressive.

In recent times, there has been discussion about the direction of contemporary African literature, especially the direction the literature is taking in light of the fact that many of Africa’s leading writers now live in the West and the problem arising from the foreign publishers bringing out texts that conform to their notion of “African” literature, which is usually a distorted Western view of Africa. The relevant question is, Is any writing with an African setting African literature? Are African writers living in North America and Western Europe writing about the continent different from Joseph Conrad of The Nigger of the Narcissus and Heart of Darkness, Graham Greene of The Heart of the Matter, and Joyce Cary of Mister Johnson? If Conrad was in a ship that might have sailed by the African coast and Cary was a colonial officer in Northern Nigeria, are “Africans” who travel to Africa to gain experience to write books much different? Recent works such as Chris Abani’s GraceLand and Uzodinma Iweala’s Beast of No Nation come to mind. Abani’s language and perception of the Nigerian society have been criticized as not reflective of the reality of the society portrayed. Similarly, Iweala’s portrayal of the child-soldier, a Western obsession of the time, is seen as more to please a Western audience than to reflect Africa’s reality. The naïve language of the child-soldier, Agu, reflects neither his Igbo origin nor the general Nigerian identity.

Many African writers in North America and Europe appear to be less culturally inhibited and write about what writers in their new environments deal with. Calixthe Beyala, based in France, has addressed sex and sexuality in a very explicit manner in some of her writings. Many Nigerian writers based in the United States such as Tess Onwueme, Chris Abani, and Iweala have homosexual and lesbian characters in their works. In her recent novel set on the Nigerian Civil War, Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has many episodes describing sex in that time of desperation and suffering. Nigerian writers based at home do not seem to be fascinated by sex and sexuality, which the foreign-based writers are not inhibited to write about because of the liberal environments in which they find themselves.

Writing specifically of South African literature, but reflective of this phenomenon in the continent’s literature, Gugu Hlongwane writes: “The point being advanced here is that the Western gaze influences not only how some South Africans write, but also who is elevated as the modern interpreter who will be palatable for Westerners” (5). Also many of the African writers getting published in North America and Europe are barely read in their home countries where these books are very expensive because of Africa’s current economic plight. The argument, whether African writers specially selected to be published in the West are African and represent African experience, since the content and style of their works are geared towards foreign markets and readers, is thus at the core of the ongoing contestation of the African literary canon. There is the implication that the unfettered works of African writers in the continent published there without Western editorial selection or others living in the West but often bypassed and so published by small presses represent true African literature. With cosmopolitanism and globalization, at a time when many people feel it no longer matters where you live, some may find the argument of an African literary canon as unnecessary or passé in the postmodern world in which we find ourselves. However, if literature remains a cultural production, one expects it to reflect the experience, values, and aesthetic considerations of the people who are supposed to own it.

The position of contemporary African writers living (and writing) in the Continent in the literary canon debate has become less significant as the writers in the West tend to steal the spotlight with the advantage of big publishers, promotion in the media, and money involved. Most African writers winning international literary prizes tend to be living in the West, and one can count so many of them—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Calixthe Beyala, Zakes Mda, Sefi Atta, Helen Oyeyemi, and others. These writers abroad have their works reviewed by the New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and other prestigious papers, magazines, and journals in the West. At the same time, despite globalization, the poor communication network within Africa does not allow the widespread flow of new books within the continent. Rather, each country has a sense of its writers, who are barely known outside that country even within Africa.

Those living and writing outside Africa seem therefore to be defining the canon rather than those writing in Africa with access to only the less financially viable homegrown publishers. In fact, many of the writers in the continent are helpless and desperate for good-quality publishers and often send their works outside to be considered for publication in the West. With the exception of South African publishing, which is far more advanced than in other African countries, the poor editorial staff, poor quality of books, and the weak distribution network of the African publishers keep many of the published works from circulating outside their regions of publication. When many of these books go abroad through the African Books Collective based in Oxford, UK, and distributed by Michigan State University Press in Detroit,USA, they circulate outside the mainstream’s major bookstores. In the face of globalization, the African literary canon is suffering the inability of the cultural home (Africa) to define itself and so surrenders its identity to others to define in the editorial rooms of Western publishers caring more for the capital to be gained by giving their own audience what they want to read about Africa.

The establishment of a tradition and the inter-textuality that goes with it are related to the establishment of a canon. While there is the inter-textuality of indigenous folklore and writing in the form of folktales used in poetry, drama, and fiction that easily conjure in one’s mind certain modes of behavior as of the tortoise, spider, and hyena, among others, it is the connectedness of the writing tradition that gives the readers/audience a sense of continuity. Younger writers seem to be referring to their elders’ works to validate their own standing in their individual country’s or continent’s legacy.

Zakes Mda of South Africa in The Heart of Redness echoes Achebe of both Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Similarly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her Purple Hibiscus reminds readers of Achebe’s constant reference to an Igbo proverb that where one thing stands, another can also stand in the characters of opposing types of Catholics, priests, and siblings. Of course, the folktale of the tortoise that Pa Nnukwu tells is a variant of Achebe’s in Things Fall Apart. In drama, Femi Osofisan has consciously rewritten J.P. Clark’s play, The Raft, in Another Raft. In poetry, Christopher Okigbo’s influence runs in poets from his native Nigeria to Malawi and South Africa. In many countries, there appears to be heirs to older poets as Kofi Anyidoho to Kofi Awoonor in Ghana and Tijan M. Sallah to Lenrie Peters in The Gambia.

There appears an observable lack of connection between the older and younger writers in the case of South African literature. This is understandable in the sense that the children of free South Africa are different from the two earlier generations of the H.I.E. Dhlomo-Benedict Vilakazi and the anti-apartheid generation of Dennis Brutus-Peter Abraham. With the burden of apartheid lifted, younger writers are thrust into a postmodern and global world in which all of a sudden race issues and being South African do not matter a lot. In any case, on the whole there appears to be a tradition of African literature that is being nurtured by the creative spirit of older writers.

One cannot conclude the discussion of a literary or artistic canon without a thorough examination of the aesthetics involved. Traditional and modern Africans and their artists have their established concept of the purpose of literature. They also have their notions of beauty and artistic merit when judging a specific literary text. Whether among oral or written texts, Africans have standards and principles for judging cultural productions,  what Emory Elliott describes as “the systems of values” (5). African literary aesthetic also has to do with critical evaluation and making “selections and judgments from among an abundant array of texts” (Elliott 5). It is from the expectations of readers that a people’s literature can establish its canon. Audiences challenge the writers to certain standards. Works that advance their cherished values and are consonant with the highest aspirations of African peoples and done artistically are those that can enter the canon under discussion.

It goes without saying that since literature is a cultural production and is dynamic like the culture that carries it, the notion of an African literary canon is fluid and not cast in stone. The canon is not calcified, but evolving within the shared experiences of Africans, rooted in their known reality, and forever tapping into their changing consciousness. However, despite the diversity and the expanding content and style of modern African literature arising from the dynamic experience of the people and continent, African literature will remain that literature that responds to the concerns and expresses the sensibility and aspirations and ideals of African people in a form and manner that they see as part of their living reality.



    I have read your critique on contemporary African literature but I would request you to shed more light on the recent African writers writing away from home .We very much know that a number of the are victims of cultural shock but still they are writing about Africa. An example is Ken Kamoche and his short story collection A Fragile Hope.


  3. Austine says:

    can u please give me a comprehensive information on the the portrayal of dictatorship in Nigerian literature.

  4. regis says:

    you did not write about how the elitist movement affected african literature

  5. Ishaya Birma Elisha says:

    I have read your long time written critique on Modern African Literature,but Prof,in Nigeria,i guess the literary works are preoccupied by the microcosmic day-to-day prevalent issues of corruption,violence,etc.I want to be down to earth,is it a literary portraiture when the current issues are scathe,satirically?Because I am more of a satirical poet.

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