Re: Achebe’s Influence on African Literature

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.

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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

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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 🙂

FF

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12 thoughts on “Re: Achebe’s Influence on African Literature

  1. I can certainly relate with this –» “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.”

    Most disheartening for me, recently, has to be how recycled the immigrant story in ‘Americanah’ was. Seemed like something I had read (don’t remember the titles now though) and lived.

    On the side, my siblings think I’m obsessed with you/your blog. Its always “DoublEph!….” whenever I receive the email alert from the blog.

    The bit about apprenticeships was very insightful too. (Y)

  2. To understand the works of the African writers, You also have to look at their backgrounds… Rittlemeyer to me narrowed the scope of African Literature too much!
    She makes no mention of one of the greatest Nigerian writers to me; Cyprian Ekwensi, a pharmacist. Elechi Amadi might also not have been mainstream but his books were loved.
    As you guys observed, what Chinua had (which was responsible for his sales and popularity if you ask me) was the simplicity of his writing… Everyday english

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  4. Unfortunately, I cannot read her review in entirety – but perhaps I have read enough. One point I do strongly agree with is the obsession of writers of black heritage (even Toni Morrison is guilty) with the white male, ‘western civilisation’ or something of that ilk. The examples are pervasive not even worth going through. This also includes the visual arts…the list is endless. Why this is the case I think is evident – its a rebellion in my view of being swallowed up by something else or an expression of something in that direction.

    Now, in terms of writing styles personally I do not prefer Soyinka’s works. But I do prefer Achebe’s works though the ‘hardcore’ literally critics might say the prose is simplistic, I regard it getting to the essence very quickly. Soyinka’s works are pretentious and long winded. There is a proverb among the Edo people that goes like: “if you have nothing to say, you may observe that the sky is sooo high”. That is, it’s pointless to describe how high the sky is unless it’s VERY relevant to the story – but we all know this already. Hence I can see why some might consider it more sophisticated – western literature and Soyinka’s works. They are okay to read but the yardstick of measurement here is tilted to the western style – pretentious. This is about style.

    On Content Achebe might be stale or obsessed with certain subjects but he is as guilty as all others. Ben Okri’s famished road was very good in breaking out of all that I agree. Amos Tutuola was also GREAT! But whatever anyone wants to say go ahead and do so. I find western literature – a vast majority quite vexing because they go on and on about irrelevant points. Of course because its the dominant culture everyone must be held to this but you knew this already.

    To sum, I believe writing style is a no brainer if you want to spend half of the book describing the $%&*^$% tree more grease to your elbow but I since got it in the first paragraph what you were talking about. In terms of content, EVERYONE needs to get past this obsession with the ‘West or Western Culture’ whatever that means and write stories about something else.

  5. It’s certainly easier to read Rittelmeyer and note where her sentiments support one’s thoughts and where there is some divergence than to get to a point where one is fully aware of how narrow the range of one’s reading in African literature must be to say things like Anglophone Africans don’t do very much humour in their literature. Whatever happened to Soyinka (yes, Soyinka), Lo Liyong, Beti, Saro-Wiwa, Mwangi, Enahoro, Nwaubani, Bazanye, Ehikhamenor etc., etc.?

    Can we just agree that we are all biased by our own particular interests? And not that alone, but by a whole host of social factors. My own personal bias makes me wonder what kind of person singles out Okri’s work for being different but dismisses Tutuola so abusively, being totally oblivious to Tutuola’s unmistakable influence on Okri.

    Man! I’d like to ask that person why it is that although James Joyce cannot be held up as an example of decent grammar – whatever that means – he’s the high priest of modernist fiction while Tutuola is what, what was that again? And, Joyce can dig deep into Greek mythology and be adjudged cerebral but all that can be said for Tutuola, for reaching deep into the Yoruba mythic consciousness and working that material with his fantastic imagination, is that he should have written in Yoruba.

    The self-evident truth used to be that all black people look alike, now I see we’ve progressed to the point where it is well-known that most contemporary African fiction reads alike. That would mean Billy Kahora reads like Stanley Kenani, right? Or is it Mamle Kabu that reads like Henrietta Rose-Innes?

    As for the Rittelmeyers of this world, it is one thing to acknowledge that Achebe was a fine practitioner of what is loosely termed ‘Social Realism’, it is another thing to claim that all African writers who do social realism have been influenced and continue to be influenced by Achebe, that latter claim would be insupportable, little wonder her essay is long on cant and short on evidence of a Pan-African comparative study. To go so far as to claim all African literature, not just those done in the ‘Social Realism’ mode, is cast in the mould of Achebe is to reveal herself for the snake oil saleswoman that she is.

  6. Certainly, I prefer a biased comparison of Finnegan’s Wake and The Palmwine Drinkard to gratuitous abuse of Tutuola and the Houseboy Theory.
    And, I don’t see what’s refreshing in rehashing the Ogbuefi of African Literature premise with the minor twist of basing the bashing of Achebe and denial of the diversity of African writing in English on that.
    Should we say because Sowell and Rittelmeyer are Americans and are aligned in some of their political views that Sowell’s influence on Rittelmeyer has been so restrictive as to stunt her intellectual growth? Where does anyone get off claiming because Achebe and Armah are Africans and are aligned in some of their political views Achebe’s influence on Armah has been so restrictive as to stunt Armah’s artistic growth?
    Assuming such a person has read Achebe and Armah at all, I can only conclude they are a ‘shitbag’.
    Like you said, I have strong biases.

  7. I learnt about this blog though this article (https://aguntasolo.com/2014/04/15/an-open-letter-to-ngozi-okonjo-iweala-and-olusegun-aganga) – I am impressed by the quality of the writing and also the quality of the responses on this page. Keep up the good work.

    On the matter at hand, Chinua Achebe remains my #1 African writer – the simplicity of his style is amazing. There is a saying that if you can’t put it simply, you don’t understand well anyways.

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