So someone dug up this rather interesting piece by Helen Rittelmeyer on how Chinua Achebe influenced and continues to influence African literature till today. If only for originality, it’s a very refreshing take on something I have strong biases about.
Be sure to click on the link above and read the whole thing.
Anyway, was discussing it via email with a couple of friends and one of them – let’s call her Omo Baba Printer – sent me her comments. With her permission, I am sharing them here. There’s also a cameo by another friend of mine – let’s call him Omo Baba Ibadan.
Omo Baba Printer: Well, I think it is a very interesting article. Rare to read something this original and well thought through. However, I’d say I’m only in agreement with about 60% of it.
a remarkable distinction to bestow on an author who published his first novel in 1958 and his last novel (bar one late-in-life flop) in 1966, and who in the last decades of his life published little apart from a handful of essay collections and a meandering war memoir. –
OBP:True. I own all of Achebe’s work and while Things Fall Apart is great. The rest of his novels feel quite same-y in terms of themes and a bit mediocre. They are not bad novels, but there’s nothing special about them. One of them is a bit funny – Man of the People, but I’d never recommend the other books particularly highly.
the American novel has evolved through a multitude of vogues and phases while the Anglophone African novel has, for the most part, remained as it was when Achebe launched it: unremarkable in its prose, flat in its characterization, anti-Western in its politics, and preoccupied with the confrontation between tradition and modernity.
OBP: True. One issue I have with African novels is how relentlessly depressing they are. But this is another good point. Everything is about how African tradition is fighting Western modernism. We are so obsessed by it, it is unreal. It’s like nothing else is going on in our lives other than this battle. There is almost always a white character who is patronising and doesn’t really get the culture and either gets his comeuppance or is taught how to understand us by a helpful native – that’s if he or she isn’t just presented as a total shitbag. Achebe is really awful with this. His white female characters are quite misogynistically written. He clearly felt that white women were whores and African women purer or more chaste. Unfortunate.
My non-African partner has read more global literature especially non-Western novels than I, and we had this discussion. He said for much contemporary African fiction, when he reads one it’s like he’s reading the same story over and over, almost in the same way we remember a time every Naija movie was about polygamous households.
Unless you break out of the genre, and go to stuff like Ben Okri.
It was a deliberate collaboration between Achebe, his publishers, and Western multiculturalists that made it that way, to serve the personal interests of the first two parties and the political interests of the third.
OBP: False. I am always sceptical when I read about these conspiracy theories. People simply do not sit down in offices and plot how to infiltrate the recommended reading of the general public, or genocide, subjugation of Ndigbo, 9/11, etc. It’s just not how bad things happen. They are more by accident than by design. I agree that this may be the end result, but I doubt that it was deliberate.
Aguntasolo: I definitely agree with this. Indeed, if the Francophone writers turned out the way the author claims, it almost certainly wasnt the intention of the French. It just happened.
OBP: I think a lot of what this writer is saying is biased by their own particular interests.
They are clearly the sort of person who likes to read Salman Rushdie or even Will Self.
Such a person will look down on Achebe and prefer a Soyinka (who I believe to be completely inaccessible to the general population anywhere in the world) Clearly only someone who liked the “highbrow” would claim Teju Cole was the best known African author in America and not Chimamanda Adichie who does not even get a mention. Cole’s writing is just completely different, so evidently there is more than one type of fiction but for a continent of 1 billion people, this is simply nowhere near enough.
But she is definitely right that Soyinka is easily the more cerebral of the two – but he has a Nobel Prize in Literature to show for it, so wrong to say he is not as well known. Those who like highbrow know Soyinka, the majority who need easier novels will prefer Achebe. Simples. Achebe has simply catered to the mass market while Soyinka is doing luxury writing.
Interestingly the writer talks about Francophone African authors who to be fair I don’t believe I have ever come across. This is sad. There should be more translations. But Africans are bad at linking up with each other in so many ways – trade, road networks and now I realise in literature too. I’ve read more by Russian authors than French African ones because Europeans have made the efforts we have not to translate each other’s works.
The reviewer also claims Anglophone Africans don’t do humour. We definitely do, just not very much. E.g. Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is quite funny. But we don’t do humour consciously. The subtlety in African humour is fast appearing to be a lost art. Certainly I know there is a lot of humour in Yoruba language and Yoruba literature, but it may not translate well.
The other influential tastemakers were the literary reviewers, and they too brought certain expectations to African literature which proved restrictive. Early reviews had praised Things Fall Apart for being “an authentic native document, guileless and unsophisticated” (New York Herald Tribune) and “written neither up nor down” (Times Literary Supplement). The stubborn identification of “authentic” with “guileless and unsophisticated” led to a perverse situation where simplistic but bad African writing was considered more praiseworthy than anything that seemed to be, as the TLS put it, written up. –
OBP: Two words: Amos Tutuola.
I read Tutuola I got the sense it had been published in the same way someone would publish a book because a monkey had written. Wasn’t any good and well below the level expected of a feted author… but wait… A MONKEY wrote it!
Omo Baba Ibadan: A bit harsh on Amos Tutuola. The guy was a house boy and told an interesting story in a simple and unique style. His abilities were limited and he made the best of it. I don’t think anyone holds him as an example of cerebral writing of even decent grammar and certainly not a great author. He was simply a guy who told an interesting story.
OBP: He should have written in Yoruba. I didn’t think the story was that interesting. Couldn’t even finish it. Is it harsh? Probably, but nobody writing like that would get published today. It now just remains as an example of “primitive African writing”. I don’t like it
I thought that was worth sharing. I have removed the normal £1/comment charge so its free to comment on this post if you want to 🙂