Heart of Arts

Rethinking African Literature, By Toyin Falola


Rethinking African Literature

Toyin Falola


(This is the interview report with a panel of African writers on August 7. For the transcripts:
YouTube: https://youtube.com/watch?v=GN6IcDGTAzE Facebook: https://fb.watch/eLOPycx-MF/)



Every culture has its agencies of cultural and information transmission, written, spoken or demonstrated through various means. At one point or the other, nearly all civilizations of the world have depended on the spoken medium to communicate their thoughts and ideas. The evolution of other means came with the innovation of technology, the earliest one being orthography itself. With the invention of writing, information preservation and exchanges changed radically. People now have the opportunity to preserve their knowledge and immortalize their ideas through the agency of the new technology―writing.

Notably, this revolutionary development began in many places simultaneously, but the character of writing differed from culture to culture. For example, the primordial African civilizations had an orthographic system, but that knowledge was not widespread. Only people who belonged to a particular group knew to decode information lurked in their writing then, but such an approach to information preservation was not embraced in some other societies. Rather than being secretive, some civilizations opened their orthography to their populace, and writing became an instrument of communication. Consequently, literature became redefined. Beyond the pedestrian definition of literature as a body of written works, the concept is associated with the process of documenting one’s worldview and cultural orientations and customs by adding some creative ideas to support the argument made in the works.

To this extent, literature became an instrument of cultural or political re-engineering that (re)conditions the people’s psychological domain for various purposes. In essence, reading some literary text can progressively change one’s ideological convictions. If used in this case, literature would be a veritable instrument for controlling a people’s mind. In some other cases, when literature documents people’s past experiences, arts, and culture, it is believed to have been used as a compass for history to give people the opportunity to connect with their past and make sense of their evolving present. After colonialism, many African writers entered into the business of writing literary works, banking on their cultural resources as the materials of their intellectual productions. Unlike the past oral communication system used with their audience, written literature gradually displaced oral literature with its peculiarities and sociological imports.

With the aggressive progression of technology in the twentieth century, the world seemed to have faced another imminent transformation of the practice of storytelling, not through writing alone this time, but through visual and virtual interaction. Technology has made it inescapable to organize the exchanges of information, cultural ideas, and intellectual creativity using the digital technology manifested in internet culture, cloud computing and technology, and ICT. Meanwhile, it is noted that African literature, which earlier on graduated from predominantly spoken form to written ones, has suffered mutilations and injuries that many scholars have sometimes suggested that some form of surgical treatment should be recommended. Some have argued that this treatment should be linguistic remodelling, where the African language would be used as the means of the interface in writing. But African languages are numerous, and using several of them would betray its political mission (to challenge the hegemon), particularly as it was a response not to the Africans but to the controlling imperialists. This phase of African literature passed, but the challenges remain—African literary writers battle with this when education moves from the physical to the virtual world. To be relevant in that evolution, their literature must shift to reflect this.

Suppose African literature continues to make meaning to the people and connect with the rising generation whose lifestyle revolves around the internet and the ICT. In that case, writers must come to terms with writing and use the available medium to transfer their information. We should not make a hasty conclusion that because global literature has evolved from what it used to be to what it is today and Africans are gradually incorporating their literary productions into these systems, the problems lurking around African literature have suddenly disappeared. More problems can be imagined; the problems have been redefined and have become deadlier than before. For example, this conclusion is triggered by the awareness that there are challenges with accurately containing the cultural traditions and expressions that people want to make and the challenge of semiotic inadequacies that literature expressed in another language would bring. These problems do not disappear; they have been recreated into the current system that humans now operate with. The gravity of their challenge in the survival of African literature would be understood when one realizes that the younger generation has no preferences other than the internet, and their access to information stored there would mean they will be re-engineered in some ways.

Consider that the cartoon field is another potent literary mine that scholars are mining in contemporary times. Meanwhile, in some ways, cartoons represent a collapse of cultural ideas built into a technological system for consumption. African children, as innocent as they are, become active foragers of the internet, and social media, among others, to seek cartoons that will provide them with relaxation and knowledge. Cartoon stories are generally similar to the Afrocentric storytelling of the pre-colonial time when aged people arranged willing audiences and began to relay important messages to them. Through stories, these children were introduced to their society’s philosophical, cultural and ideological bloodstream, where they accessed a body of information and then used it to build their intellectual system. This practice has been remodelled into the internet, and the narrator of these stories is, in most cases, not the African aged that used to dish out knowledge to their people. It is the western narrators who build narratives that will condition the minds of readers and make them Western in orientation. The children will become enablers of colonization because they were exposed predominantly to cultural ideas that were not African. To challenge this, African literature deserves a rethinking.

The benefits of moulding the African child this way are manifold. The information acquired and stored at their tender age will always be with them for a very long time. They will continue to navigate their existence with the information they have taken in during their formative years. In essence, getting them to understand African philosophical leanings, religious identities, cultural traditions, moral values, and collective virtues will help them develop a permanent ideological base that will help them when they meet different cultural perspectives in the future. There is the possibility that Africans have continued to distance themselves from the cultural inheritance in the understanding that they are weak and perhaps subordinate to others. However, the perspective will not remain the same if they are worked on earlier than imagined.

Meanwhile, the literature of a people continues to prove itself as the best instrument with which they can redesign their lives. Access to the culture through technology will have a multiplier effect on the people and their political existentialism. For instance, they will be able to develop inventions on the internet that are useful to reveal other aspects of African culture to the world while simultaneously influencing world affairs in some ways. All these are inherent advantages that underlie rethinking the literature.

Beyond the transformation of written literature into the digital one is the understanding that writers of African narratives should challenge the status quo with their works. Writers across all generations have different epistemic battles that they must engage in so that the African identity will not die. There was a time the Empire wrote back to the European imperialists to correct the erroneous notions about the African people and their cultural inclinations. During that time, the collective attention of writers was drawn to the exploration of various African civilizations and cultures for proper documentation. It appeared during the period that a chunk of the history and great efforts of the pre-colonial African people have been displaced, distorted by false narratives, or lost completely in some cases. Therefore, continuing to listen to the perspectives of the colonizers about their identity was similar to watching serial assassins subjecting one’s relatives to homicidal adventures.

Apart from the emotional problems one would get from that experience, the psychological consequences cannot be overemphasized. In essence, the period experienced the surge of literary activities that wrestled and won the freedom to existence that Africans would later enjoy. Interestingly, the contemporary generation has a different assignment. The writer in the African context is naturally saddled with the responsibility of seeking to renegotiate African identity through their works as they have suffered untold injuries and severe injustices in the hands of external visitors. Despite this glaring responsibility, the quest for economic and financial stability also cuts in the way of excellently discharging their duties to the motherland.

By dwelling essentially on the diaspora experiences, these writers sometimes find themselves in the murky water of using the West as the nucleus of their writing. This unavoidably leaves the African people, culture, concern, agitations, and cause to be left unattended or given minimum attention. Meanwhile, helpless African culture suffers from the vestiges of corruption and humanitarian atrocities perpetrated, if not exclusively by their bad leaders, but also in collaboration with foreign companies. Problems continue in their countries while writers pick topics that suit Western literary markets to satisfy the urge for capitalist culture at the detriment of the in-house Africans undergoing pestilence, poverty, pensive violence, and violation of unknown magnitude.

Here, some scholars have come up with the idea of disruptive narratives. This is an evolving concept that depicts the employment of narratives to inspire social changes and revolutions by producing works that reveal social injustices and political ineffectiveness that have fostered poverty and diseases of an unknown kind; narratives that empower the people by identifying the underlying greatness in coming together for the restoration of social justice and values; and narratives that educate people about their fundamental responsibilities and the rights that come with them. All of these are ways contemporary literary writers are considering rethinking African literature.

One can logically ask where or how African writers fit in. The layers of undemocratic challenges facing African people come first from their intellectual deficit about the histories and cultures of their forebears, which would otherwise have given them the materials with which they could structure a strong civilization. The problems facing the people are not unconnected to the fact that culturally, they are gradually becoming orphans, making them powerless to construct social bonds that can be used to repudiate all social immoralities that have plagued the continent.

Technology is a great addition to the world, but Africans’ addiction to it brings cultural entrapment. And then we ask, in all of these, what is the role of a critic, or in a more defined form, what makes the writer different from the critic? Writers are the gifted individuals who gather resources together, process and transform them into abstract products ready for intellectual consumption. They refine these resources by sifting out the ones considered harmful for consumption by the people. However, there has been a surge of African writers as there are limitless cultural and ideological resources from which they can draw for their creative enterprise. They have continued to forage into the past African epistemological terrain, ontological reality and moral principles as the base of their works.

To that extent, some African writers fit into the definition of creative writers whose works are inspired by the almost unending histories of their forebears and the great exploits that usually stand them out, among others. Their contemporary stories are tailored along the foundational ideals, principles, and knowledge handed down with a semiotic intelligence. Thus, one can take African fictional work and begin to draw out interpretations irrespective of the generation in question. Writers are seen as intelligent creators who have the vision of their community imposed as surveillance on their creativity, guiding them in the process of their artful engagement. However, the critic at the end of the rope interprets the work of arts using theoretical understanding and suppositions as the compass for interpretative engagements. These theories are an accumulation of ideas or sets of them that explain observed facts or situations. Although the professional assignment of the critic and the writer differs in this context, both of them appear to indulge in deep intellectual gymnastics. A critic’s interpretation is thus different from a layman’s reading, underscored by the fact that they use different interrogation techniques from other people.

In African literature, there has been controversy about the importance of a critic using Western theoretical understanding and knowledge to interpret African literature. The argument is that if theories are a set of ideas that explain a phenomenon, how can European facts or phenomena that differ in character and approach to African experience be adequate in interpreting the African narrative and, by implication, the African world? To understand the beauty of this argument, one cannot but look at the composition, the thematic, the epistemic, and the soul of African literature and see how glaringly different they are from their Western counterparts.

In addition, the critic, as opposed to the writer, has the opportunity to get rewarded even in schools and institutions. In many universities, they are employed as faculty members who take students through academic engagements to increase their intellectual values. It, therefore, opens the writers to the destructive hands of politics. Apart from the possibility of insufficient reinforcement for producing intellectually stimulating narratives, the writer may not attract much attention to be employed in corporate organizations for their skills. The logic in that situation is denied its voice as people find nothing bad in having writers relegated to the background as opposed to the critics who use their works. Therefore, when we talk about rethinking literature, we must accommodate thoughts and conversations that address these issues. For instance, some have argued that the writers place themselves at a vulnerable point when they fail to capitalize on their skills as their income sources. They can deliberately withhold their intellectual property if the necessary bodies do not recognize them. The underlying problems in this thinking are numerous, including the fact that the writer is a writer because they are motivated by the action of writing. In other words, they choose that trajectory to fulfil their potential. Critics perform differently as they give meaning to works already perfected by the writers.

At a grand level, rethinking African literature without reconsidering the language of expression would amount to a fruitless engagement frustrated by the unwillingness to address critical issues. Language is central to the propagation of literature. Apart from being the instrument through which writers send information to their audience, it facilitates understanding of what is being transferred from writers to the world. Notably, the current global community has seen the brutal hands of globalization occasioned by the imperialists’ continued determination to promote and enhance capitalism. Extending one’s economic and political domination to others a few centuries ago led to the large-scale imposition of colonial languages to the world, where colonies were forced to embrace respective language reservations. They continued in the assimilation of the Western languages and their culture, which brought about the postcolonial extension of this extant domination.

African languages have been subjected to the pressure of every kind. Apart from being considered inadequate and unwanted in handing down the information and knowledge of its epistemic environment, they are also derided based on their international acceptability. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the African writers have been compelled to write in the language of their colonizers for one reason or the other. So, if we are considering rethinking African literature, the place of language deserves respect in that conversation. In the distant and proximal history, African scholars have engaged in this controversial debate where leading African creative writers hold an opposing side of the intellectual debate. Some concede that colonial languages can be domesticated and, in some situations, redacted. The ones in this category believe they are themselves products of postcolonial knot and were exposed to only the colonial languages in their development process. It would, therefore, be as counter-productive as it is impractical to use a language for which one lacks the necessary professionalism to pass across their messages.

Furthermore, their ambition to correct the erroneous impression of the West would be immediately frustrated when they wrote in a language their targets do not understand. In other words, the West would be barely convinced (although I am confused as to understand the logic in convincing the West in the first place) of the intellectual capacity of the African people. Those on the other side argue that writing in the colonial language alienates the people from the resources from which writing is drawn. It begs the question if the focus that compelled the African people to write back to the West is still the dominant focus of their texts today.

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