Examining Canonization in Modern African Literature – Continued
March 21, 2009
February 28, 2010
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Examining Canonization in Modern African Literature

With four literary Nobel laureates the past two decades or so (Wole Soyinka, Idris Mahfouz, Nadine Godimer, and J.M. Coetzee), modern African literature has reached such a world standard of respectability that deserves internal re-examination. Once a writer wins the Nobel Prize, his/her literature and the culture assume a significance that would normally not be accorded it. For this reason, it is pertinent to re-examine the modern tradition of African literature.

This essay examines the idea of an African literary canon through the creative talents of African writers and their critics. The term “canon” will be used here in its simple meaning of being “privileged,” or given special status, by a culture (Murfin and Ray 38). Broadly speaking, works that attain the status of classics and are repeatedly discussed, anthologized, or reprinted are usually said to have entered the canon. Of course, different schools of critics, especially Marxist, feminist, postcolonial, cultural, and minority ones argue that many artistic works may not enter the canon if they do not conform to the mainstream ideology. The discussion of the African literary canon will have more to do with what makes African literature generally than isolating specific texts into a superior class of its own. This essay will thus discuss the criteria for inclusion and what constitutes cultural acceptability in African literary works. Once there is a canon, it follows that there will be works outside its domain or what could be described as non-canonical works.

By inference, if literature is a cultural production, as there is a Western literary canon, so also will there be an African literary canon. Inevitably, since writers of Europe, North America (Canada and the United States), and European world peoples in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere have their literary canon as defined by critics such as Harold Bloom and others, one needs to define what is the African literary canon. This definition will be based on the African-ness or Africanity and what it constitutes in literary terms.

Africa is a geographical, political, and socio-cultural entity. For this reason the African in this essay is not limited to the racial but also covers the totality of a diverse continent. African writers are those writers that express the African sensibility in their works. This is significant as critics have been shy to address the position in African literature of non-black writers ofSouth Africa and also of Arab writers of North Africa. If Nadine Godimer has been a life-long member of the ANC and expresses the concerns of Africans, she is an African writer. There is also no doubt in my mind of the Africanity of Dennis Brutus, Breyten Breytenbach, and Athol Fugard. Brutus is popular in African literary circles, especially the African Literature Association, and for his anti-apartheid struggle. Breytenbach has suffered incarceration for his anti-apartheid views. Some dispute may arise on the African-ness of J. M. Coetzee, but he is a South African even though he currently lives inAustralia. Similarly, being Africans politically and geographically, North African writers are African despite their Arab or Muslim affiliations. Simply put, any writer who is a citizen of any African country is an African writer. It is another matter to question whether any specific African writer projects an African sensibility.

Every literary canon exists in the context of the people’s overall experience and aesthetic values. Thus, the African literary canon is related to the African experience, which has strong cultural and historical underpinnings. The question, rather the idea, of an African literary canon is one that has often been raised in controversies but not addressed head-on in its totality. Chinweizu’s “debate” with Wole Soyinka in the 1980s, the issue of the language of African literature from Benedict Vilakazi through Obi Wali in “The Dead End of African Literature” in 1963 and Ngugi wa Thiongo’s cultural crusade since the early 1980s to now, and the ongoing debate as to whether contemporary African writers, especially those living in North America and Europe, are writing more to please their Western audiences and publishers rather than their own African people they write about, are examples of discussions that touch the issue of canon in modern African literature. In addition, what constitutes the African experience forms a significant part of the canonical definition. The issues of cultural identity are also involved in this exploration. All such controversial debates contest what should be or not be part of the African literary canon, what Abiola Irele describes as “the African imagination.”

To Chinweizu, Madubuike, and Jemie, modern African literature has to be “decolonized” to be taken seriously and seen as authentically African. Many critics would quarrel with that position as essentialist, but others still wonder why modern African literature should be written mainly in the foreign languages of former European colonizers of the continent and also exhibit core features of European modernist writing. To Soyinka, the reality of Africans has to be acknowledged and the modernist impulse of Europehas to be part of the historical experience of colonization, which, for better or worse, has given rise to modern African states. The traditional mode ofAfrica before colonization can no longer stand in isolation in the face of modernity and globalization. The world is more inter-connected now than ever before because of new means of communication, rapid movements of people, new technologies, and other “scapes” that Arjun Appadurai ascribes to globalization, that make the entire world a “global village.”

Benedict W. Vilakazi, as far back as 1939, lamented the fact that South African writers were writing in English and not in African indigenous languages. Very much in the manner of Chinweizu, some five decades earlier he saw African literature as literary works in African languages. He wrote:

By Bantu drama, I mean a drama written by a Bantu, for the Bantu, in a Bantu language. I do not class English or Afrikaans dramas on Bantu themes, whether these are written by Black people, I do not call them contributions to Bantu Literature. It is the same with poetry. . . I have an unshaken belief in the possibilities of Bantu languages and their literature, provided the Bantu writers themselves can learn to love their languages and use them as vehicles for thought, feeling and will. After all, the belief, resulting in literature, is a demonstration of people’s “self” where they cry: “Ego sum quod sum” [I am what I am]. That is our pride in being black, and we cannot change creation (qtd. Masilela 76).

Vilakazi also sees Bantu sensibility as different from what he describes as the Romantic sensibility of South Africans of European stock (qtd. in Masilela 75). This same idea of an African language defining African literature is to be pursued by Chinweizu et alia and Ngugi wa Thiongo later on.

Doubtless, literary works by Africans in indigenous African languages such as Ewe, Sotho, Yoruba, and Zulu are African works that have a place in the canon. So also are works of Afro-Arab literature in Ki-Swahili and Hausa. However, a people’s experience is so diverse that it is not limited to “authentic” or pristine features. The African reality is diverse and ever-changing and it is expansive enough to accommodate what Africans do in their own different ways. Hybridization inevitably occurs in the course of a people’s history, as that of Africans, and that is an integral aspect of the people’s experience. The African identity, therefore, is an ongoing process, like the African culture, and is not fixed on marble but is dynamic—it absorbs new features, even as it discards some of its own old ways. Thus literary works in non-African languages by Africans that express the African experience belong to the multifarious tradition of African literature(s).

Much as literatures in pre-colonial times are defined by the languages they are expressed or written in, European colonial adventures across the globe have made that definition of a people’s literature limited and outmoded in a postcolonial context. Chinua Achebe accepts the use of English, but attempts to indigenize it to suit the society he writes about. In fact, in his particular case, as in Things Fall Apart, the language of the colonizer becomes a potent medium of the colonized to interrogate the colonial enterprise in its political, moral, and ethical dimensions. Abiola Irele defends African writers’ use of English, which he describes as an “extra-territorial” language, since there are now many Englishes worldwide. On the other hand, the language debate, as to whether a work in English, French, or Portuguese can be “African,” appears to be playing itself out in suggestions of translations of works done by Africans in foreign languages into indigenous African languages. Furthermore, by using indigenous oral techniques to write, African writers are practicing what Abiola Irele describes as “written oral literature.”

Literature in Africa has traditionally played a transformative role in society. Satiric or abuse songs, such as the udje of Nigeria’s Urhobo people and the halo of the Ewe of Ghana and Togo, were composed to check the excesses of individuals in a communal society through insults of those breaking the communal ethos. One can say that the Yoruba ijala and the Zulu and Tswana izibongo, by praising individuals in society with the virtues of courage, generosity, and others, also stirred people to strive for such virtues. Oral narratives, especially epics such as of Sundiata, Ozidi, and Mwindo engage in stirring up a sense of heroism in individuals among their peoples. In simple folktales, the small animals outwit the big, with the animals behaving as humans in order to proffer lessons for humans in society. The mold that communality is supposed to ensure is often broken by the tricksters—tortoise, spider, hare, and hyena—that get away with unacceptable behavior in society. Thus, while there is a sense of community, there is room for the individual to be unique as long as that does not infringe negatively on others or communal harmony.

Modern African literature has imbibed many qualities of the oral tradition. Much of the writing is functional in the sense that the literary creations—poetry, fiction, and drama—aim at transforming society into a more humane one. It is for this reason of having an impact on society that Mazisi Kunene finds African literature “heavy,” compared to European literature. He told Dike Okoro in an interview in Durban, 2003, the following: “When an African writer tries to change, they’re trying to adapt to the idiom that is non-African. That is why the literature is light. They write about flowers. Beautiful flowers. Who cares? (Laughs). Who cares about beautiful flowers?”

In fact, it is those works that aim at changing the world as it is (often imperfect) and installing new values that will advance the betterment of society and individuals that can be said to be natural inheritors of the oral tradition. In the oral tradition, as in udje and halo, literature matters as individuals pay attention to the way they live and so follow cherished values so as not to be laughed at in songs. Literary works that have this attribute should contend for inclusion in the African literary canon.

Many African literary works deal with subjects that in the Western canon will be described as “extra-literary,” suggesting that they should not be legitimate concerns of writers. However, what is “extra-literary” to the Western critic is intrinsic to the African writer, who, because of the historical predicament and tradition, draws materials from the socio-political happenings around him or her. For this reason, many literary works in all the genres criticize political corruption, tyranny of leaders, excessive materialism of the elite, and others meant to ridicule and, by so doing, eliminate the negative habits of society are also natural heirs of the African oral traditions of literature.

Many African literary works fall into the satiric corpus of laughing at follies and foibles of individuals and society to change them for the better. Examples are plentiful, but it suffices to mention a few. Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters, for instance, attacks the vulgar materialism of Nigerian politicians of that time, as Achebe’s Man of the People. Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino ridicules Africans who were copying Western lifestyles without discrimination as shown in the lampooning of both Ocol and his girlfriend Clementina, while portraying the culturally nationalistic Lawino in a positive manner. Much of modern African poetry is critical of political corruption as in Niyi Osundare’s Songs of the Marketplace and Tanure Ojaide’s The Fate of Vultures.

African writers condemn the exploitation of the common people (as in Syl Cheney-Coker’s “Peasants”) and other negative practices. There is the effort on the parts of writers to promote humanity and sensitivity to others. Works that condemn apartheid in South Africa in the form of poetry such as Dennis Brutus’s Sirens, Knuckles, Boots, fiction such as Peter Abraham’s Tell Freedom and Alex La Guma’s A Walk in the Night, memoir such as Bloke Modisane’s Blame Me on History, and drama as Athol Fugard’s  Sizwe Bansi Is Dead are functional works meant to eliminate the inhuman socio-political system of apartheid. It is thus very understandable that there is a lot of protest in modern African literature—against colonialism, racism, apartheid, political corruption, class distinction, and injustice, among others. Modern African literature is a literature that responds to the people’s plight, feelings, and aspirations.

The cultural identity of modern African literature is a major consideration in establishing a canon for its texts. Culture involves a shared experience of belief systems, worldview, traditions, and aesthetic standards. One can observe certain aspects of cultural identity in modern African literature, especially the novel, even though written in English, French, or Portuguese, foreign European languages. As expressed in Poetic Imagination in Black Africa, these cultural qualities include the utilitarian function of the literature, social cohesion, the ethical/moral nature of African civilization, defense of African culture, African mystical life, ideas of law and order, peculiar attitude to time and space, and special use of folklore and language, especially of proverbs. Let me highlight some aspects of the cultural identity exhibited in modern African literature.

African literary works tend to be functional and not just art for art’s sake. A few examples will illustrate the didactic tendency of African creative works. The “adequate revolution” that Chinua Achebe espouses is “to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement” (44). And he teaches fellow Africans “that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them” (45). To Mariama Ba, her mission as a female writer is to attack “the archaic practices, traditions and customs that are not a real part of our precious cultural heritage.” Ngugi and Ken Saro-Wiwa are also clearly didactic in both Devil on the Cross and Lemona’s Tale respectively. In Ngugi’s novel, the Gicaandi Player tells Waringa’s story so that other young women will learn from her story and avoid her mistakes. Saro-Wiwa’s Lemona’s Tale is meant for young beautiful but uneducated women to learn from her plight. While many literary works are openly didactic, others are more subtle in their methods.

The sense of community holds strongly in the African society. A cardinal point in understanding the African view of humankind is the belief that “I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am” (Mbiti 108-109). Mazisi Kunene is of the view that “the earliest act of civilization was . . . the establishment of a cooperative, interactive, human community.”  He adds:

The idea of integrating the artist’s vision within a broad social experience becomes a normal and natural process that does not require rules of application. Both the philosophic and artistic worlds fuse to produce a discipline that aims at affirming the social purpose of all expressions of human life. In short, the ideal of social solidarity is projected (xvi).

Modern African literature, while dealing with individuals as characters, tends to focus on the entire society. In many works, the hero or protagonist is diffused in many characters. Examples of such works include Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters with five major characters, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Petals of Blood with three major characters, Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannahwith multiple major characters, and Tsitsi Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions with two major adolescent female characters. There are many characters of equal force and the focus appears to be more on society rather that a single protagonist, a characteristic that reinforces the communal nature of traditional African societies. In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, though a major character, is not the hero of the narrative but rather the entire Umuofia community whose balanced values he fails to embody.

John Mbiti also says that “the whole psychic atmosphere of African village life is filled with belief in . . . mystical power” (197). This continues today through the embrace of traditional religion and practices and Pentecostal Christianity, which emphasizes defeating demons and principalities than preparing to go to heaven as the regular Western Christianity does. The belief in gods and mystical phenomena is strong in African literature. There are gods invoked in many African literary works. Also there is a sense of mystery expressed as in Zulu Sofola’s Wedlock of the Gods and in Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine in which a beautiful lady is dedicated to the gods and woe betide the man who marries her. Many African writers portray characters and actions that defy scientific reality and operate in extraterrestrial planes. Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Starbook derive from this tradition. Of course, the much touted magical realism of Latin America most likely originated in Africa with actions which defy physical observable reality.

The African idea of law and order can best be seen at play in a literary work like Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, where Elesin has to will himself to die before the burial of the dead Oba so that he will not have to interfere with the rule of succession. On the African concept of land, it is sacred and dedicated to the ancestors. In Weep Not, Child, “Any man who had land was considered rich,” and is poor if he has no land but has cars and jet planes (22). African literary works that express these mainstream beliefs can be considered belonging to the literary canon.

Modern African literature is highly infused with folklore. The oral traditions of Africa originated from the earliest history of the people and have continued to evolve according to the conditions of the times. As John J. Olivier notes, the myths and legends developed over thousands of years and have been influenced by mass migrations. Thus, as people settled in new places, new stories were created to explain the origins of their ruling class and the society’s structure (Olivier 15). Many African writers incorporate folktales into their works, whether it is in poetry as in Jack Mapanje, in fiction as in Chinua Achebe and Ngugi, and drama as in Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan. The folktale, as of the tortoise in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, becomes symbolic of the story’s protagonist, Okonkwo, who achieves greatness by initially borrowing yams to plant and later not waiting for a communal decision on what to do as a clan. Of course, like the tortoise, Okonkwo can be said to be self-centered rather than deferring to the communal interests of Umuofia.

The use of language in African literature appears unique because of the peculiar circumstances of African history and the nature of its indigenous languages. That Africans write in English, French, and Portuguese does not make their language European. Most African writers, especially of the first, second, and third generations, spoke their own mother tongues before learning the European official languages at school. In fact, there are many Africans who spoke two or more languages before acquiring any of the European languages of their countries. Once these African writers begin to use the adopted language, they tend to inform it with their native tongues. For instance, the writings of Wole Soyinka are informed by Yoruba, while those of Chinua Achebe are informed by Igbo, Kofi Awoonor’s by Ewe, and Ngugi wa Thiongo’s by Gikuyu. These tonal African languages have their own syntax and folklore, which become subtexts in, for instance, the English that the writers use. A reading of Death and the King’s Horseman, Things Fall Apart, “Song of Sorrow,” and Petals of Blood, without taking into consideration the African language settings of the respective texts, would lead to missing much of the meaning of the works. As Abiola Irele puts it in The African Imagination, “The effort to achieve a formal correspondence between the writer’s African references and the European language he or she employs has, as one of its objectives, the achievement of a distinctiveness of idiom within the borrowed tongue by an infusion of the European language with the tonality of African speech patterns” (57). Irele sees “orality as a matrix of the African imagination” (58), incorporated into modern African literature through “transliteration, transfer, reinterpretation, and transposition” (58). Language, after all, carries the thought and experience of a people.

It is significant that many modern African writers, especially the poets, are highly learned in the folklores of their peoples. Kofi Anyidoho studied his Ghanaian Ewe folklore, as Tanure Ojaide has researched on Nigeria’s Urhobo udje songs, and Jack Mapanje in Malawi’s Chewa folktales. The Ethiopian Nega Mezlekia, author of The God Who Begat a Jackal, has full grasp of his people’s folklore. Similarly, South African Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness is replete with Xhosa folklore. Other writers such as the young Yoruba-speaking Akeem Lasisi and Remi-Raji have full grasp of their indigenous folklore.

Many African writers have gone to the extent of writing poetry, plays, and stories by anglicizing their local languages or indigenizing English. Kofi Anyindoho’s “Tsitsa” does this in Ewe-izing “teacher,” “college,” “trousers,” and “English,” among so many words of the poem. Kojo Laing has also tried to use Akan words as if English. Gabriel Okara’s novel, The Voice, is written in a language which is a transliteration of Izon (also spelt Ijo) into English.

The frequent use of proverbs by African writers, especially in fiction and drama, gives a unique flavor to African literature. The proverb, a traditional speech trope, validates what the writer aims at conveying. Chinua Achebe seems to have used proverbs the most of modern African writers. These proverbs give a distinctive cultural identity to modern African literature.

Though it could be seen as a postcolonial phenomenon, the use of Pidgin English has become an African language experience that some of the writers employ in their works. It started from coastal areas of Africa as a means of communication between the foreign sailors and the local communities as inFreetown, Sierra Leone, and Sapele, Nigeria. Pidgin English, like French patois in Francophone areas, grew over decades of urbanization in the twentieth century to become the major means of communication, in fact, the lingua franca, of common people.

Pidgin English has been used to write fiction as Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Soja Boy, which is described as “rotten English.” Many pidgin poems have been written in Nigeria, as by Aig Imoukuede and Ezenwa Ohaeto. In “I Wan Bi President,” Ohaeto expresses the plight of the underclass that the President is spared from:

I wan bi President

if food no dey market I no worry

if dem say price don rise I no go worry

if salary no come on time I no go worry

if petrol dey cost too much I no go worry

if sanitation exercise dey I no go worry

if na religion trouble dey I no go worry (Ojaide and Sallah 183).

Pidgin English, for the most cases, serves as a comic medium to undermine and ridicule accepted but unethical values of the society.

The use of Pidgin, Creole, and the indigenizing of European language words are forms of linguistic experimentation in the creative process of the postcolonial societies of Africa. Works done through these media are attempts to arrive at what language best suits the writer’s mission and can best articulate artistically the message desired. The works in Pidgin English also express the African reality.

At the crux of traditional African literature is its orality. Abiola Irele observes in the African imagination “a conscious reference to a matrix of expression whose ultimate foundation is the oral mode” (21). Africans, in their writings, have to switch from the traditional mode of the spoken word to the modern one of writing. It is interesting that there is a good amount of written works in some African languages, especially in Yoruba, Hausa, Ki-Swahili, and Somali.  However, in terms of historical time, African languages have only recently started to be written, a postcolonial experience. The point is that while written, African literature still carries much of its traditional orality in many forms such as the use of repetition, songs, narrative modes, and chant-like rhythms, among other features. Often there is tension between the oral (often popular culture) and the modern written (often elitist) resulting in the synthesis of the two into a unique artistic mode. One can observe that modern African poetry tends to be more performative in mode than reflective, a distinction that comes out when one listens to an African poet and a Western (American or British) poet read at the same forum. This mediation of writing by orality has become a significant mark of modern African literature. No good African literature, therefore, can afford to ignore the reality of the known tradition of orality employed in a creative manner in writing. This has led Abiola Irele to assert that “the problem of the African writer employing a European language is how to write an oral culture” (16). He adds that “what gives interest to the literary situation today in Africa is the way our written literature, in both the indigenous languages and the European languages, enacts a dialectic between orality and literacy” (38).

Since literature is a cultural production, it only follows that a people’s narratives, poetry, and drama should be an expression of their culture’s artistic disposition at its highest level. Failing to reflect this cultural identity will fall short of the aesthetic, which is culturally conditioned. In fact, the canon of a people’s literature grows from its cultural ideals. It is not surprising therefore that Obotunde Ijemere, a British, writes with that penname to be seen as a Nigerian Yoruba in order to validate his cultural immersion in the African people’s artistic production. The notion of a literary canon admits of some essentialism, since working out of a different, albeit foreign, cultural background will not fit into some specific cultural view of the literature. John Haynes, also a British writer in Nigeria, had to take a Hausa name while in Zaria to pass for a Nigerian in his poetic writing in his quest for African acceptance.

The African environment provides the setting, source of images, and symbolism for the African experience expressed in the literary works. The evocation of the landscape provides the literary work a concrete setting that defines it as African. African rivers, forests, and mountains, among others, appear in literary works. The river, for instance, is the home of Mami Wata, the water-maid or Olokun by a Yoruba name that pervades the poetry of many African writers such as J.P. Clark, Christopher Okigbo, and Onookome Okome, among many poets. The weather is also evoked as in David Rubadiri’s “An African Thunderstorm.”



  1. iheoma says:

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  2. Waheb FERACHE says:

    I found this literay article so useful, indeed. I appreciate this. Many thanks.

  3. yohana says:

    what u say no doubt.l owe u my hand-shake for doing it very productively,and essentially for African literary critics.

  4. A very good analysis of the african canons of literature. Could these be the characteristics of what defines african literature?

  5. This is a very perfect piece which will be a good citation point for me as I take a core university course title “Modern African Literature”.

  6. Ayidu Charles says:

    Thanks a great deal prof….I’m from The University of Ibadan. Your article came in handy!

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