Friday, 15 May 2009

A Response to Sigauke's Questionnaire

Over at Sigauke’s blog, there is a curious questionnaire that is interesting. Below, I have tried to respond to as many of the questions as I could. Bear in mind that I am but a tiny and inconsequential dot in the literary world.

Be that as it may, here we go:

1. What exactly is African literature?
I personally think the definition of African literature will always be a subject of debate at the end of which there will never be a consensus. Howbeit, it could be defined along the Africanity of authors and, to a lesser extent, the subject matter of the works in question. Pursuant to the afore-mentioned definition, literary work by an African writer inevitably results in African literature. The literary product of one’s writing endeavour is inherently reflective of the writer’s experience from childhood to the juncture where one’s work is put forth for public consumption.

2. Why is it called African literature? Why is it not simply literature?

This is an intractable issue that has vexed noted writers like Soyinka, Ali Mazrui and Achebe. I am happy with Chinua’s definition best captured when he said, and I paraphrase him; “An African who says he or she does not write African literature is as foolish as a man who chases after a rat escaping from his burning hut instead of trying to put out the fire.”

3. Which is the best African literature?
This is like beauty for it is in the eyes of the reader, so to speak. Anyway, what other African literature is there?

4. Who is the father, or the mother of African literature?
I have qualms ascribing metaphorical parenthood to African literature. For me it would be easier to respond were I asked to name the African writer who has inspired me the most. In that case I would say Chinua Achebe through his book Things Fall Apart.

5. Why is Chinua Achebe discussed more than Amos Tutuola or V Mudimbe?
Comparing Achebe and Tutuola boils down to a comparison between Things Fall Apart and The Palmwine Drunkard. Things Fall Apart covers a wide range of societal aspects experienced by an African community at one time or the other, namely; (i) the bitter fruits of laziness and how one’s lassitude becomes a burden for one’s descendants, (ii) fear of failure and how it can lead to self-emollition, (iii) acquisition of dignity and respect through personal achievement regardless of misfortunes of one’s parents, (iv) the importance of heeding the words of one’s elders, (v) the significance of ngozi, the penalty for shedding the blood of one’s child, adopted or otherwise, (vi) the fragility of a community when it adopts and enforces norms and mores that are too rigid and (v) the vulnerability to outside forces when a community is too inflexible and restricted by archaic dogmas.

In my opinion, Chinua Achebe succinctly captures all this, and many more, in Things Fall Apart. The book encapsulates ruin that can befall an unflinching individual and a culturally static society.

Just as the Christian hymns touched something at the core of Nwoye, so does Things Fall Apart to this man’s cultural soul. I am a Shona of the Rozvi extraction. Any work that may directly or indirectly give me an insight on fcators that may have precipitated the demise of a once mighty community is greatly welcome. Given the invariance of mankind's behaviour, especially African, Chinua Achebe’s book strikes a chord with me much more than any other book by an African writer. Things Fall Apart does, to a point, help me get a general understand how the once pre-eminent Rozvi may have fallen apart and got scattered to all four corners of the world. Would The Palmwine Drunkard help me as much? I do not think so.

Here is the caveat though; it boils down to personal literary and cultural tastes.

6. Is it still African literature if it was first written in French and was then translated into English?

Of course it ought to be.

7. Why do other African writers only write in European languages, and not the languages of their mothers?

In my opinion, it is a matter of personal choice. If the author’s primary objective is to reach a big market and sell as many books as possible, what Sarudzai Mabvakure aptly describes as bestsellerdom, simple market forces dictate writing in a language that enables the writer to attain that goal. Others write in non-African languages to reach a wider readership but a quest for personal glory is not the primary motive. There are some writers who genuinely want to share African orature, as Sigauke calls it, with those beyond the African linguistic, geographic and cultural boundaries. These two examples are at the extreme termini of the spectrum of motives and the rest fall in between. Notwithstanding the individual motives, we all get culturally richer at the end of the day.

Additionally, there are instances where an African writer writes in a “European” language because the writer’s command of one’s “mother” is comparatively too poor to enable the writer to effectively put forth his or her ideas. This is a fact that many may not be comfortable with.

Let me say that I disagree with the characterization of languages used in Africa as European. I would prefer to call them languages adopted or culturally assimilated from erstwhile colonial powers. If one is so fluent in an assimilated language to the point where one can comfortably teach, write for, and even argue before a highly learned audience that claims that language as it mother tongue, without missing a bit, I say that is no longer a foreign language. To all intents and purposes, it becomes one’s mother tongue even if it was foisted by the bashing of one’s head with the priest’s Bible or at the prodding of the barrel of a gun.

On a personal level, I am comfortable writing in Shona and English. I write in Shona out of interest whereas I write in English because of professional obligations as well as out of personal interest.

8. Is Ngugi serious?

This question presupposes that the person or people who put together this questionnaire is or are personally aware of moments where said Ngugi has behaved in such a manner as to leave people questioning his seriousness. Has he? If he has, seemingly to the satisfaction of those empanelled to put this questionnaire, it would be helpful were they to make respondents privy to the details.

9. Why does Achebe live in the United States?
I think the answer to this is simple. Achebe lives in the United States of America for the same reason some of us do not live in our villages. What is the probative value of this question, really?

10. Is all African literature post-colonial?

Not necessarily.

11. But seriously, which writers make up African literature?

All the writers who state that their literary works comprise African literature ought to fall under this category.

12. How does one read African literature: where do you begin, where do you stop? Or do you stop? Should you know African orature in order to understand the literature?

I will pass on this one.

13. Who are the readers of African literature and why?


14. What does an African writer want?

The answer will vary from writer to writer. However, if I may hazard a guess, there are some who want fame, some who want to proudly show to the rest of the world the wealth of African culture, some want to preserve part of our culture, some who want to add to the pool of African culture, and so on and so forth. All these goals, however variegated, are noble.

15. Why?

In my humble opinion, personal satisfaction may very well be at the core of the motive.