Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing
Author of You’re Not a Country, Africa!
(Remarks at the Anglophone-Francophone Cultural Conversations Panel Convened by the African Studies Program and the Department of Comparative Literature, Penn State University, February 27, 2013)
First things first. I want to thank the usual suspects for inviting me back home to give a talk. For those of you who are new members of the Penn State community in this audience, I use the word home because this is where it all began – I mean my career – amidst wonderful colleagues and under the exceptional mentorship of Professor Carey Eckhardt, my Chair in the Department of Comparative Literature, and Professor Thomas Hale who, at the time, was Chair of the French Department. Since I left to join other wonderful colleagues in another wonderful Department at Carleton University in Canada, every return to Penn State, for me, is an answer to the call of home, to the summon of origins. Penn State does to me what “the call of the river nun” does to the poet, Gabriel Okara, in his famous poem of the same title:
I hear your call!
I hear it far away;
I hear it break the circle of these crouching hills.
I want to view your face again and feel your cold embrace;
or at your brim to set myself and inhale your breath;
or like the trees, to watch my mirrored self unfold and span my days with song from the lips of dawn.
I hear your lapping call!
I hear it coming through; invoking the ghost of a child listening, where river birds hail your silver-surfaced flow.
That’s the river nun for Okara, that’s Penn State for me. Let me also ask this audience to join me in wishing Professor Eckhardt a wonderful birthday. Because she is present here, most of you may not have even suspected that it’s her birthday today! And while you are at it, you may also want to wish me a happy birthday. When my head obeyed the marching orders of my feet in the direction of Penn State after my doctoral degree, little did I know that I was coming to work and bond with a Chair whose birthday I share and who has been so instrumental to my development as a scholar. Yes, Carey Eckhardt and I were born the same day. Not the same year o!
I have modelled my title on a title and a concept. Everyone here, I’m sure, is familiar with the movie, The Hunt for Red October. That is where the hunt in my title comes from, given the resonance that the hunt for that elusive Russian submarine has for my own idea of a similar hunt for a particular kind of conversation across borders within the ranks of Anglophone African literary and cultural intellection. Francophonism, I presume, oozes a whiff of the familiar for all of us here, given its immediate evocation of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s atavistic struggle to rid African letters of the “parasite” (his word) he calls Europhonism.
I don’t need to belabour the meaning of that concept – Europhonism – for an audience such as this. Suffice it to say that if Europhonism, as coined and deployed by Ngugi, encompasses the entire corpus of modern African literatures produced in the language of the colonizer, it stands to reason that the concept must have component parts known as Anglophonism, Lusophonism, and, of course, Francophonism. To remain faithful to the theme of this panel, I have decided to focus only on the history of encounters, discoveries, and contact zones between Anglophonism and Francophonism. I will frame Anglophone African literature’s quest for a conversation with the Francophone text as the story of a hunt, not unlike the hunt for red October.
Although the coming into consciousness of the literary other across the iron curtain of language – the so-called Anglophone-Francophone divide – was a mutual process, I have decided to look at just one side of the story in a necessarily inexhaustive manner, while hoping that my talking point would lead to a fuller examination of both sides of the coin when we get to Q and A. For instance, since I will be addressing the conversations from the perspective of the Anglophones, I will not be talking about the journal, Présence Africaine, by far the most significant contribution to cross-border conversations in African literatures.
Luckily, my brother and colleague, Professor Ken Harrow is here. Ken and I have been having wonderful and productive conversations in recent years so it’s a good thing you have invited both of us to this panel. We have agreed to a division of labour. I will take us down memory lane and bring things up to the beginning of the third generation phenomenon in African writing. Ken will take over and flesh things out while also paying attention to Nollywood. My approach in this exercise is part literary history, part anecdote, and part theory. In other words, I am going to be touching various parts of the body of an elephant like Bernth Lindfors’s proverbial blind men, hoping that the various parts will come together seamlessly to give us a window into Anglophone African literature’s discovery of and conversations with her Francophone African counterpart across generations.
Francophonism came to global reckoning ahead of its counterpart, Anglophonism. I am thinking of Négritude galloping to European recognition and canonicity after its discovery by André Breton and Jean-Paul Sartre and in the ambience of recognition afforded the Negro-African text by René Maran’s winning of the Prix Goncourt in 1921. However, contact zones emerged as soon as Anglophonism found her voice decades later. Sadly, the rich tapestry of Anglophonic voyages of discovery into Francophonism is always overshadowed by the story, so often told, of a foundational hostility. Everyone coming to the subject of how Anglophone African literatures discovered and processed the alterity of the Francophonic text always automatically thinks of Wole Soyinka’s famed outburst about the tiger and the tigritude. In essence, Anglophone Africa is said to have fired the first shot in what is then dressed up as an intractable sibling rivalry underwritten by the invisible leash of the coloniality – especially on the Francophone side.
Those persuaded by the thesis that Anglophonism rode to its first meeting place with Francophonism in an armoured tank love to present Eskia Mpahlele’s well-known hostility to Negritude as the younger brother of Soyinka’s foundational hostility. You will recall that Mpahlele was so vocal in his critique of Negritude in the 60s that he was eventually forced to defend himself against charges of “hindering or frustrating the protest literature of negritude its mission”. Hence, in his 1963 essay entitled, “On Negritude in Literature”, Mpahlele avers that his hostility to that Francophonic body of work is based on the fact that:
“Too much of the poetry inspired by it romanticizes Africa-as a symbol of innocence, purity, and artless primitiveness. I feel insulted when some people imply that Africa is not also a violent continent. I am a violent person and proud of it because it is often a healthy human state of mind; someday I’m going to plunder, rape, set things on fire, I’m going to cut somebody’s throat; I’m going to subvert a government; I’m going to organize a coup d’etat; yes, I’m going to oppress my own people; I’m going to hunt the rich fat black men who bully the small weak black men and destroy them; I’m going to become a capitalist, and woe to all who cross my path or who want to be my servants or chauffeurs and so on; I’m going to lead a breakaway church there is money in it; I’m going to attack the black bourgeoisie while I cultivate a garden, rear dogs and parrots; listen to jazz and classics, read “culture”, and so on. Yes, I’m going to organize a strike. Don’t you know that sometimes I kill to the rhythm of drums and cut the sinews of a baby to cure it of paralysis? This is only a dramatization of what Africa can do and is doing. The image of Africa consists of all these, and others. And negritude poetry pretends that they do not constitute the image and leaves them out. So we are told only half-often even a falsified half-of the story of Africa. Sheer romanticism that fails to see the large landscape of the personality of the African makes bad poetry. The omission of these elements of a continent in turmoil reflects a defective poetic vision. The greatest of Leopold Sedar Senghor is that which portrays in himself the meeting point of Europe and Africa. This is realistic and honest and a most meaningful symbol of Africa: an ambivalent continent searching for equilibrium. This synthesis of Europe and Africa does not necessarily reject the negro-ness of the African.”
I am smiling as I read this long quote because Mpahlele reminds me so much of his contemporary incarnate, the Nigerian literary and cultural critic, Ikhide Ikheloa, whose reputation as the “Area Fada” of contemporary Nigerian letters is soaring. This is the sort of irreverent spanking Ikhide would have given Negritude were he a participant in the Anglophone hunt for Francophonism in the 1960s and 1970s. Beyond these hostilities, however, the picture is actually neater and speaks of an Anglophonic spirit of curiosity mediated initially by the cultural hand of Europe. I am thinking of the roles played by the likes of Ulli Beier, Gerald Moore, and Janheiz Jahn in initiating a conversation by breaking linguistic boundaries to bring Negritude poetry into the world and consciousness of the literary generation they worked with in Anglophone Africa, notably Nigeria.
Significantly, the journal in which this conversation started bore no other name than Black Orpheus, Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous baptismal name for Negritude poetics. We can get into the nature of these initial conversations during our discussions. Suffice it to say that Soyinka, Mpahlele, and their generation owe their awareness of Negritude poetry largely to the translations and commentary of these pioneering European Africanists. Jahn’s Muntu, for instance, contains an exploratory section on Négritude and Surrealism and Negritude and Expressionism that were very useful for the Anglophone literati and culturati in the 1960s. And no one can forget the impact of Beier’s and Moore’s 1963 The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry in terms of the conversations it initiated between the major continental traditions in European languages: Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone.
I always like to think that this is what set the tone for the monumental work of cultural translation and literary conversation that Abiola Irele did in the 1960s. He almost single-handedly commenced the tradition of serious Anglophonic exegeses of the Francophonic text with his essay, “A Defence of Negritude” (1964). Now, why would a contemporary of Soyinka, Achebe, Okigbo, and JP Clark need to mount a defence of Negritude in the charged atmosphere of the sixties? And in whose court was Irele defending Negritude? Let’s hear Irele out:
“While the concept of negritude has met with considerable success in French intellectual circles, though not without inspiring some controversy among certain French African elements, it has met with either suspicion or open hostility (and even ridicule) among English-speaking Africans. Much of this attitude arises, I believe, from grave misconceptions about the real aims of the movement in general, and in some cases, from prejudice and complete lack of knowledge. It is in this respect that the recent separate publication of Sartre’s preface in an English translation comes as a welcome move.”
Nobody, I believe, should be surprised that Irele went ahead to publish two seminal essays in 1965, “Negritude: Literature and Ideology,” and “Negritude or Black Cultural Nationalism”, to reduce his Anglophone contemporaries’ ignorance of the concept, increase the love, and enhance the conversation. Irele’s efforts – and the antecedent efforts of the Europeans – paid off. Subsequent anthologies of African poetry, this time edited by African literati, included selections from the Negritude corpus, complete with very helpful introductions for an Anglophonic audience. I am thinking, in particular, of Donatus Ibe Nwoga’s West African Verse, the text from which generations of Anglophone West African school kids, including yours truly, learnt to chant, “Africa my Africa/Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs” in our pre-teenage and teenage years. Oh how we loved the intensity of:
The blood of your sweat
The sweat of your toil
The toil of slavery
The slavery of your children
We would turn it into music! In 1975, the hostile Wole Soyinka eventually allowed Senghor, Birago Diop, and David Diop to proclaim their tigritude to their hearts’ content in his edited volume, Poems of Black Africa.There is also A Selection of African Poetry (1976) edited by K.E. Senanu and Theo Vincent.
Since we are talking of the 1960s and 1970s, it is perhaps a good idea to mention the fact that the Anglophone hunt for Francophonism in the era was equally very productive at the level of thought. Anglophone African writers and intellectuals discovered and deployed Francophonic radical thought and intellection with considerable vigour. Frantz Fanon inspired generations of Anglophone African intellectuals, especially the neo-Marxist writers and literary scholars of the 1960s – 1980s. Think of the essayistic careers of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Eskia Mpahlele, Femi Osofisan, Bode Sowande, Niyi Osundare, Biodun Jeyifo. Through Fanon, the Anglophone world would also encounter his teacher, the Césaire of Discourse on Colonialism. Down the road, the Anglophones, especially those who trained in North American English Departments, would also discover the Edouard Glissant of Caribbean Discourse.
We could spend time talking about Anglophone discoveries of Francophonism in other genres – the novel, drama, and even music – but I’d like to talk about a doubly neglected genre: the short story. I did say that part of this presentation would be anecdotal. In the late 1990s, I made trips to South Africa on a Fellowship offered by the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS). My research mandate was to study the attention paid to Francophone African Literatures in the curricula of select South African Universities. You can see that I’ve been involved in these literary conversations between Anglophone and Francophone Africa for a while. Here was France recruiting a Nigerian to go to South Africa and examine the health of Francophone African literatures in that post-Apartheid clime. During my visits to South Africa, I got the opportunity to meet many South African writers and formed lasting friendships. One of them was the novelist and poet, Stephen Gray. Stephen at the time was always complaining about the lack of attention to the short story in both the creative and critical aspects of African literatures. “Look at Nadine Gordimer”, he would exclaim, “She is always represented as a novelist. Nobody seems to remember that half her career is that of a short story writer.”
Stephen wasn’t just agonizing, he was organizing. He had proposed and was working with Picador on a book of African Stories. He had received original stories from some of the continent’s best writers: Ama Ata Aidoo, Nuruddin Farah, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Yvonne Vera and so many others. But he wasn’t satisfied. One day, over lunch at his house in Crown Mines, Johannesburg, he complained to me about a second problem. According to Stephen, super-imposed on the marginalization of the short story is a second problem: a complete lack of conversation between the short stories of Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone Africa. He was going to help overcome that problem by creating a common universe for stories from these traditions. “You’ll have to translate one of my French entries to English,” says Stephen, “a fantastic story by the Moroccan writer, Lotfi Akalay.” I acquiesced.
In 2000, The Picador Book of African Stories, edited by Stephen Gray, was published. Given the background I have provided about Stephen’s Anglophonic hunt for Francophonism and Lusophonism, you should not be surprised by this statement in his introduction to the volume:
“From the first I was determined that this Picador Book should not – as some recent anthologies of African writing have done – give the impression that all the literature in the continent worth reading is really written in English, with perhaps the odd translation attached. Only nineteen out of forty pieces were originally written in English, a fair proportion. French, being my reading language, I have always been able to keep abreast of French-language developments, and have convinced a team of translators to make rare, choice texts in French which I feel should not be overlooked available in English (in all thirteen pieces derive from the Francophone African world).”
Shortly after the publication of the book by Picador, one member of Stephen’s team of translators, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, was surprised to receive a cheque of one hundred pounds from the publisher for the translation role he played in Stephen Gray’s hunt for Francophonism! You can see that the financial aspect of my own participation in the Anglophone-Francophone literary conversation mirrors the story of Africa in a funny way. First, the French send me to South Africa to see if African literatures written in their language is being properly taught in that country’s Universities. In South Africa, I get involved in a project for which I am paid in the currency of the Queen of England. Those are the sinewy hands of Britain and France in Africa’s cultural work but, trust me, imperialism was nowhere near my mind when I got that cheque!
I am having to make a lot of shifts because of time constraint. Mentioning the year two thousand allows me to make another huge leap into what has been happening in terms of the Anglophone search for Francophonism. Although the phenomenon that is generally known as third-generation African writing was a phenomenon of the 1990s, it was discovered in the West and canonized only after members of that generation began to win international literary prizes. The Caine Prize was inaugurated and brought Helon Habila, Binyavanga Wainaina and Monica Arac de Nyeko to reckoning. Chris Abani got his break in the United States and so did Teju Cole. Chimamanda Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Lola Shoneyin all got their respective breaks. In Francophone Africa, a new generation emerged: Calixthe Beyala, Abdourahman Ali Waberi, Bessora, Alain Mabanckou, Kossi Efoui, Leonora Miano, Fatou Diome, and so many others.
I’ve heard many critical descriptions of this generation. For the Anglophones, I’ve co-edited refereed journals calling them the third generation; I’ve heard some use the term “post-Uhuru writers” for the East Africans; I’ve heard post-Apartheid for the South Africans. It’s a good thing that my very good friend, Gabeba Baderoon is here. She can tell us about her post-Apartheid contemporaries later. On the Francophone side of the divide, those writing Africa in my generation are known as “migritude writers” or, as my friend, Abdourahman Waberi describes them in a famous essay, “the children of the postcolony.”
In my opinion, it is now possible to talk of waves with third generation writing, especially in Nigeria. There is a sense in which the poets who blazed the trail in the 1980s-1990s cannot easily be lumped with the current twitter generation. I am thinking of a certain temporal and aesthetic distance between Chiedu Ezeanah, Toyin Adewale Nduka, Ogaga Ifowodo, Afam Akeh, Uche Nduka, Obu Udeozo, Olu Oguibe, Remi Raji, Amatoritsero Ede, Nduka Otiono on the one hand and much newer kids on the block such as Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Richard Ali, Eghosa Imasuen, Ukamaka Olisakwe Evelyn, Sylva Nze Ifedigbo, and Chinyere Iwuala Obasi on the other hand.
How do these waves of third generation writers handle Francophonic alterity? Alas, the news is not so good. I cannot point to anything close to the active hunt for Francophonism and the cross-border discourses which characterised the Soyinka era. This is strange considering the fact that the new writers inhabit the borderless world of social media and the blogosphere. Beyond the Anglophonic provincialism of too many of my peers in contemporary Nigerian writing for whom African literature starts in Lagos and ends in Johannesburg via Nsukka, Ibadan, and Nairobi, I can point to patterns of awareness of our Francophone contemporaries by particular writers who are inspired to invest in literary knowledges across Africa’s colonial language borders. For instance, Chuma Nwokolo, author of The Ghost of Sani Abacha, has taken Francophonic content extremely seriously for his ezine, African Writing, and would often consult me on Francophone writing during production period of particular issues.
Lola Shoneyin’s interest in our Francophone contemporaries goes all the way back to our Ibadan years in the mid-1990s. She would go through my vast library of Francophone novels, making me tell her about Beyala, Mabanckou, Waberi and a host of others and yearning for English translations. Today, that nascent interest has morphed into active engagement. The author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives counts Francophone writers – including Mabanckou – in her list of friends. Come November 2013, Shoneyin will be organizing a major book festival in Nigeria and she’s is paying considerable attention to Anglophone-Francophone conversations. Yours truly is billed to mount the stage with Alain Mabanckou at the event.
What I am saying is that the nature of the conversation has changed with the new generation of African writers on both sides of the language divide. While the writers in question have migrated en masse to social media, tweeting, Facebooking, and running very active blogs, that very medium fosters borderless co-presence more than it fosters serious conversation. Soyinka, Mpahlele, and others in their generation actively engaged Négritude and discoursed it. We cannot speak of that level of engagement of migritude by the new generation despite the increasing availability of migritude novels and commentary in English. The Francophones are just as guilty of provincialism. As far as I know, Abdourahman Waberi and Patrice Nganang are among the very few who engage the works and discourses of their contemporaries in Anglophone Africa. Waberi has even featured yours truly in his blog after the Penguin Prize.
As far as conversations go, generational ezines fare generally better than blogs on both sides. Saraba Magazine, African Writing and other Anglophonic ezines pay some attention to Francophone material. Africultures, the famous internet age successor of Présence Africaine in the Francophone world, also pays the occasional attention to Anglophonic material. However, popular blogs by prominent literati on both sides create universes of Anglophonism and Francophonism respectively. Ikhide Ikheloa’s blog is doing incredible work for new African writing but it basks and waltzes in its Anglophonic non-attention to the other half of the continent’s literature, even in English translation. Apart from the already-cited Waberi who invests a lot in Anglophonic knowledges, the novelists Kangni Alem and Bessora run very popular blogs. Both blogs, like Ikhide’s on the Anglophone side, are monuments to Francophonic literary navel gazing.
Perhaps the privileging of social media co-presence over cross-border conversations is due in part to insufficient effort of cultural translation? If Abiola Irele robustly and relentlessly carried Négritude across to the Anglophone literati, who, in my generation, is doing the same for migritude today? Perhaps those of us with one leg in each world, Anglophone and Francophone, ought to do more carrying across work? Perhaps we need to try harder to sustain the example of Abiola Irele? Perhaps somebody like me needs to return to the role I played for my generation in the Lagos-Ibadan axis of Nigerian letters in the 1990s?
Week after week, as a Special Guest Critic of the defunct Post Express Literary Supplement (PELS) edited by Nduka Otiono, I reviewed Francophone African novels, translated major interviews of Francophone African writers, wrote op-eds on burning issues in the Francophone African literary world, such as the Calixthe Beyala plagiariasm-of-Ben-Okri scandal, all for the consumption of my contemporaries. Sometimes, publications such as Glendora Review would lure me away from PELS and ask for reflections on current trends in Francophone African literatures. Sometimes, Odia Ofeimun, Harry Garuba, Akin Adesokan, Ogaga Ifowodo, Charles Ogu, Chiedu Ezeanah, Sola Olorunyomi, Nduka Otiono – folks I teased and taunted as one-legged writers because of the missing Francophone leg – would ask me to write about specific issues they wanted to know about the Francophone world.
I don’t do this kind of work anymore. I just do my thing. Abiola Irele still does. As recently as 2010, he published The Negritude Moment. This is what I mean by our failure to sustain his example. Is anybody doing this kind of cultural translation work for the wave of Nigerian writing represented by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Richard Ugbede Ali, Eghosa Imasuen, Olisakwe Ukamaka Evelyn, Sylva Nze Ifedigbo, and Chinyere Iwuala Obasi? I don’t know. Are these writers evolving in a world with sufficient inflatus for cross-border conversations? I don’t know. Shall we wake up one day to piquant and irreverent opinions about the Francophonic literary world on Ikhide Ikheloa’s blog? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.