Faux Storms: Niyi Osundare on Achebe, Soyinka, Biafra and fathers

Please read today’s Kabir Alabi Garba’s interview of Professor Niyi Osundare in the Guardian, (Who Begat Literature, August 9, 2013). Ugh! Just when you think that certain issues have been laid to rest, someone comes along and asks the same questions over and over again. So, Garba asks Osundare about the dust-up regarding Achebe as the Founder of African literature, Achebe’s legacy, and of course, Achebe’s controversial best-seller, There Was A Country, the last book he wrote before he passed away ( Read my thoughts on the book here).

I respect and admire Professor Osundare immensely but the interview does him a great injustice. Our newspapers have invested in mediocrity. There is a reason why the reading culture is dying in Nigeria, these newspapers are not much better than akara wrappers. This interview should have been heavily edited, grammatical challenges make this long rambling interview remarkable in its shoddiness. The responses could have used a weed whacker. I always thought Professor Osundare’s strength was in the simplicity and grace of his prose. For a while there I was sure that it was Patrick Obahiagbon venting. Let’s examine his response on the Father of Literature nonsense:

The so-called ‘debate’ rankles in its utter banality and jejuneness. It’s nothing short of an exercise in false – but mischievous – genealogy, a nauseatingly egregious time-waster. As a writer, thinker, and humanist democrat, I’m averse to all kinds of assigned, imposed hierarchies and orchestrated myths of origin… ‘Who Is the Father of African literature’?  Let us go ridiculously biblical and reframe the question: Who Begat African Literature?  Yes, it’s that ludicrous… Well if we designate somebody — whether it’s Achebe or Soyinka — as the father of African literature, who then would be the  ‘Mother of African literature’? Where, then, are the children of African literature? I think this Father designation is a manifestation of the Nigerian habit of overpraising public figures and privileging them into autocratic arrogance. This patriarchalisation is just one step short of utter deification, one of the notorious practices of Nigeria’s public life. I don’t think any author worth his/her salt would be eager to don this mantle. African literature could do without this primogenitorial distraction.” 

Why are Nigerians being berated for what they did not do? We do not stay up at night worrying about who birthed African literature. Osundare is dead wrong when he says “we have to trace the origin of this Father – designation to critics, theorists, camp followers and praise singers.” Soyinka and Osundare should take their gripe to the Nobel laureate, Professor Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, yes, South Africa, NOT Nigeria. She it was in 2007 who called Achebe the “father of modern African literature” as one of the judges to award him the Man Booker prize. Google it

The learned professors are being literal with the term ‘father.”  All over the world, Achebe is considered the father of modern African literature not because he birthed it, but because of his superhuman efforts and influence on making African literature what it is today. “Father” is a metaphor for his achievements in that field. No one has had a greater influence than Chinua Achebe on African literature, no one. No African has had a greater influence than Chinua Achebe on English literature, no one. In any case, if Osundare agrees that Achebe rejected the title, what is he protesting about? 

And this from Osundare:

“Come to think of it: Have you ever heard any Chinese talk about the ‘Father’ of Chinese literature? Any European about the ‘Father’ of European literature? Any Asian about the ‘Father’ of Asian literature?”

Well, it is news to me that we have to seek validation and approval from the West in order to deploy simple metaphors. Osundare is wrong of course. The West is the land of metaphors and grand labels. Ever heard of Virginia Woolf? Google her.

And the whole conversation about the Nobel is so embarrassing it should be beneath comment. I read contemporary literature for hours on end daily; I am in virtually all the spaces where our stories are being told. I can say that the young generation of writers does not worry itself about the Nobel or fathers and children. They are reading and writing, mostly without the support of the older generation. Many of them are writing great stuff having graduated from the broken schools the older generation bequeathed them. The best legacy that the remaining older generation can hand over to the young is to emulate what our literary father Chinua Achebe modeled all his life – a love for teaching, learning, and continuous improvement in the service of children. Who could argue with that? As an aside, I think it is interesting that Osundare does not see beyond Soyinka, Achebe, JP Clark-Bekederemo and Okigbo as “the founding quartet.” Instead he sees Flora Nwapa as a student of Achebe. Today, Africa’s female writers are giving a great middle finger to patriarchy in literature thanks to muscular prose and out of the box thinking. Writers like Chimamanda Adichie, Taiye Selasie and NoViolet Bulawayo make many of their male counterparts look like distressed typists. Good for them. To hell with patriarchy.

As for the whole Biafra business, my mother once told me, if you beat a child, you must permit the child to cry. Those who were looking for objectivity in Achebe when it comes to Biafra are guilty of not being objective. It is a shame that Osundare is just now seeing the statements regarding Awolowo. Achebe first mentioned them in 1983. Fully two-thirds of There Was A Country may be found in Achebe’s earlier works. Do the research. It was not important then perhaps because he wrote them in a Nigerian publication. Once he repeated his assertions in the (White) West it became super-important. If a truth is uttered in Nigeria, no one reads or hears it.

On Biafra and Achebe’s views, Osundare is entitled to his opinion, but let me just say I know of many writers who would like the attention There Was A Country got. They would be smiling to the bank. These are all opinions and Achebe is entitled to his. I personally believe that the roles of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Anthony Enahoro (my tribesman, yes I used the word “tribe”) in endorsing starvation as a weapon of war were despicable. And I say that with all due respect to the two great leaders. They made a mistake. Let’s acknowledge it and move on. Anything less is disingenuous.

My last word. Watch this video. It is about the Asaba massacre in which over one thousand men were systematically slaughtered by Nigerian soldiers. The man who supervised this ethnic cleansing, Murtala Muhammed is a revered Nigerian hero, our airport is named after him and Naira bills have his face on them. I am sure there are some people who call Muhammed the father of modern Nigeria. Wait, that title belongs to Chief General Olusegun Obasanjo. That is how we roll around here. SMH.

Watch and weep: The Asaba Massacre…

And in case you missed the interview in the opening paragraph, please click here…



12 thoughts on “Faux Storms: Niyi Osundare on Achebe, Soyinka, Biafra and fathers”

  1. Am really happy this article. Am a student and I have looked closely at these people they call “professors” they are human beings who have engaged in research in one very tiny area of their endeavours or field. We give them so much praise that whatever they say is right and final. I don’t envy them because the know “nothing”. Even a lay man knows that been a father of something is metaphoric. He is using grammar to deceive them.

  2. Each time I read your commentaries, any of them I come across, I smile. I see in you a person who is as blunt and open minded on serious issues as I’ll love to be. I hardly have anything to add to your thoughts, but I just want to tell you that I have no objection to the thoughts you share. And…oh…I need to tell you: my traditional African name is…IKHIDENOBEMEN. I write as Famous Isaacs for the avoidance of tribal sentiments. You know how Naija be. Also, I’ll appreciate it if you could review my book. Click here to download my eBook ONE DAY IN THE FAILING LIGHT OF DUSK. famousisaacs.blogspot.com/p/books_10.html

  3. Young man,

    Who is the father of African Literature? The focus is on Africa, not Nigeria. Well, the above article showed that your knowledge of African literature is loosely based in Nigeria. Young man, your preoccupation with Soyinka and all is becoming problematic.

    It is a disservice to Africa for Nadine Gordimer to recklessly declared Chinua Achebe as the father of African Literature.

    An FYI on African Literature:

    Scholars have identified three waves of literacy in Africa. The first occurred in Ethiopia where written works have been discovered that appeared before the earliest literatures in the Celtic and Germanic languages of Western Europe (Gerard 47). The second wave of literacy moved across Africa with the spread of Islam. Soon after the emergence of Islam in the seventh century, its believers established themselves in North Africa through a series of jihads, or holy wars. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Islam was carried into the kingdom of Ghana. The religion continued to move eastward through the nineteenth century (Owomoyela 23).

    Remnants of narrative poetry in Swahili have been recovered from as early as the eighteenth century. The poems, in epic form, describe the life of Mohammed and his exploits against Christians. In West Africa, manuscripts in Arabic verse have been dated to the fourteenth century. Several literatures, known as ajami, written in the Arabic script for non-Arabic languages have been discovered from the eighteenth century. The literatures were written in Fulani (West Africa), Hausa (northern Nigeria), and Wolof (Senegal).

    The encounter with Europe through trade relationships, missionary activities, and colonialism propelled the third wave of literacy in Africa. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, literary activity in the British colonies was conducted almost entirely in vernacular languages. Missionaries found it more useful to translate the Bible into local languages than to teach English to large numbers of Africans. This resulted in the production of hymns, morality tales, and other literatures in African languages concerned with propagating Christian values and morals. The first of these “Christian-inspired African writings” emerged in South Africa (Owomoyela 28). Thomas Mofolo studied theology at the Bible School of the Paris Evangelical Mission at Morija (in present-day Lesotho). He worked as a teacher and clerk and was a proofreader for the Morija Printing Press. The Press published his novel, Moeti Oa Bochabella (The Traveler of the East) as a serial in the newspaper Leselinyana in 1906. The novel reveals the influence of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and tells the story of Fekesi, who, tired of all of the sinfulness he sees around him, tries to find a perfect kingdom to the East. West African writers, such as Chief Fagunwa who wrote in Yoruba, produced similar works in African languages. Writers also recorded proverbs, praise-poems, and other pieces of oral literature during this period.


    Although Africans had been writing in Portuguese as early as 1850 and a few volumes of African writing in English and French had been published, an explosion of African writing in European languages occured in the mid-twentieth century. In the 1930s, black intellectuals from French colonies living in Paris initiated a literary movement called Negritude. Negritude emerged out of “a sudden grasp of racial identity and of cultural values” (Gerard 51) and an awareness “of the wide discrepancies which existed between the promise of the French system of assimilation and the reality” (Owomoyela 37). The movement’s founders looked to Africa to rediscover and rehabilitate the African values that had been erased by French cultural superiority. Negritude writers wrote poetry in French in which they presented African traditions and cultures as antithetical, but equal, to European culture. Out of this philosophical/literary movement came the creation of Presence Africaine by Alioune Diop in 1947. The journal, according to its founder, was an endeavor “to help define African originality and to hasten its introduction into the modern world” (Owomoyela 39). Other Negritude authors include Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, and Leon Damas.

    An African Literary Tradition

    The written literatures, novels, plays, and poems in the 1950s and 60s have been described as literatures of testimony. (See Kenneth W. Harrow’s Thresholds of Change in African Literature, Portsmouth and London: Heinemann and James Curry, 1994.) Novels such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and Flora Nwapa’s Efuru are a few of the novels that might be described as literatures of testimony. These works, in part, attempt to respond to derogatory representations of, and myths about, African culture. Frequently written in the first person, literatures of testimony are concerned with representing African reality and valorizing African culture.

    The following generation of African authors produced literatures in European languages that have been described as literatures of revolt. These texts move away from the project of recuperating and reconstructing an African past and focus on responding to, and revolting against, colonialism, neocolonialism, and corruption. These literatures are more concerned with the present realities of African life, and often represent the past negatively. As Harrow explains, “…instead of a past, a family, and a cultural background being reconstructed in positive terms, exemplary of African culture, the past is often viewed negatively, as something from which the protagonist has to escape” (84). Mariama Ba’s Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter), Birgo Diop’s L’Aventure Ambigue (Ambiguous Adventure), and Peter Abrahams’ Tell Freedom exemplify these literatures.

    The final group into which one can organize African authors is post-revolt writers. These writers move away from the use of realism and aim to develop new discourses and literary styles. They often focus on oppressive African regimes and employ an ironic style. The work of Sony Labou Tansi, Henri Lopes, Yambo Ouloguem, and Ahmadou Kourouma illustrate the style and content of post-revolt literatures.

    Women and African Literature

    African women, although receiving less notice from scholars and historians, have been producing literature alongside African men. Women oral artists and performers continue to create oral literatures, and a few examples of these texts have been included in this lesson. In the early years of the twentieth century, African women such as Lillith Kakaza, who wrote in Xhosa, Victoria Swaartboo, who wrote in Xhosa, and Violet Dube working in Zulu produced works of literature in African languages. Adelaide Casely-Hayford, born in Sierra Leone, educated in England and Germany, and married to the well-known lawyer Joseph Casely-Hayford represents the first generation of women writing in European languages. Her short story “Mista Courifer,” published in 1961, examines the collision between African and Western cultures. These women, from elite backgrounds and educated in colonial schools, began writing at about the time many of their countries gained independence. They include Mabel Dove Danquah, from the Gold Coast, Grace Ogot and Noni Jabavu of Kenya, and Flora Nwapa of Nigeria. Since the 1970s, African women have written a wide array of works that have been well received by readers and teachers of African literature. A few of these include Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, Mariama Ba, Miriam Tlali, Nafissatou Dialo, Aminata Sow Fall, Zulu Sofola, Fatima Dike, Rebeka Njau and Micere Mugo.

  4. Honestly this banter over Chinua Achiebe being d father of modern African Literature has turned one nasty storm in a tea cup and frankly speaking what big deal is it if He is the father of African literature or not? It only amounts to praise singing of a man who has done very well in his practise of telling stories more than any of his contemparies and nothing more. What is that principle that he brought into the writing of writing literature that has changed d presentation of d literary practise from what has been always been. If there be anything Achiebe did very well it was ‘showing u d story’ not telling it as many would very often do with stories. And that I most say is d mark of a seasoned writer. If u say Michael Faraday is d Father of electricty no one will dear to argue it because his discovery of d Electromagnetic principle formd d foundation for inventions in d generation of Electricity. If there is something of that nature in the Literary Arts, I do not know, please pardon me . But that there several styles of presentation in the Literary Arts is one thing I understand and I’m also aware that dis is what make one writer different form d other. It may endear him/her to the hearts of more readers than others but certainly does not make him/her d father of d literary practice. And for heaven’s sake Prose which was Achiebe’s specialty is just one area of d Literary Arts. So why then should u make him d father of them all when he was just a Don in one area. Once again I think this useless banter should stop because it is not going to add an inch to the dead man. And this struggle is only being fueled by ethnic sentiments which will achieve nothing more than give Journalists cheap headlines in d news papers. Come Nigerians lets grow up. heeeeen!

  5. Wanlahi, I taya! We say King of Reggae, nobody complains, no big giramo follows. We say father of modern History, no one tears his/her christmas dress. we say father of modern sociology, hakuna matata! We recognise the figure of speech. we recognise that the issue is not about paternity but about who made contributed that strategic steer, who provided that paradigm change priming and critical influence with watershed impact. Just mention father of African Literature, and all these learned people begin dis kine rofo rofo fight, using big big words and sophistry to conceal their underlying motives and loyalties and parading what is clear to the “poor in spirit” like me as sad exercises in pettiness. wanlahi, I taya for una.

  6. Niyi Osundare sounds confused in this interview. He was usually clear-eyed. I wonder if he has ever heard anyone call James Brown “The Godfather of Soul”? Or Michael Jackson “The King of Pop”? Did those two discover the genres? Oh, and the Chinese do indeed regard Confucius as the Father of Everything! Well, almost:) Do you still wonder why calling Achebe “The Father of African Literature” gives a section of Nigerians diarrhea? From Southern Africa, Nadine Gordimer and Nelson Mandela put Achebe on a pedestal. From East Africa, Ngugi wa Thiong’o endorsed him. From West Africa Ghanaians and their president did same. The Nigerian president, who was humiliated by Achebe’s rejection of the national ward, even licked up his pride and personally went to do Achebe a deserved honor. But from a small group of camp charlatans all we hear is, “Oh no, we also have our own King of World Literature!” Okay, no problem. Why don’t they just go ahead and keep their “King of World Literature,” for God’s sakes. Perhaps, they don’t know the difference between Africa and Nigeria. Achebe is called “The Father of African Literature.” Not Nigerian literature. Any whining Nigerian is welcome to crown his or her own King of Nigerian literature. That is, if they lack the courage to go across the border to fight all the Africans who named Achebe what he is.

  7. If you say Chinua Achebe is the father of Nigerian Prose, I think I will agree, but to beautify him as ‘the father of Nigerian or African Literature’ is nothing but sycophantic gratification which I believe Chinua Achebe will not agree with either.

  8. Sorry to say this but it seems Osundare is now a ‘mad’ Professor digging into too much research that is worrying his brains otherwise he would have avoided too much grammar in the interview.

    At the same time, there are Igbo writers who delibrately refused to intervene in this shameful accusation on a late Grandfather of African Literature unlike Ikhide.

    Osundare should stop blaming Nigerians for Achebe’s grand posthumous title bestole on him and accepted by the world at large. It was a white South Africa writer and a British writer of half Nigerian origin who gave Achebe such big titles.

    Osundare’s comments are worst than that of Wole Soyinka. He has added petrol to the controversy. Ayakata!

  9. Sorry to say this but it seems Osundare is now a ‘mad’ Professor digging into too much research that is worrying his brains otherwise he would have avoided too much grammar in the interview.

    At the same time, there are Igbo writers who deliberately refused to intervene in this shameful accusation on a late Grandfather of African Literature unlike Ikhide.

    Osundare should stop blaming Nigerians for Achebe’s grand posthumous title be stole on him and accepted by the world at large. It was a white South Africa writer and a British writer of half Nigerian origin who gave Achebe such big titles.

    Osundare’s comments are worst than that of Wole Soyinka. He has added petrol to the controversy. Ayakata!

  10. Congratulations, Ikhide! At least you flog this issue endlessly to draw attention to yourself. What more do you want to hear? That Osundare, a professor of Literature, should say that Achebe is the father of African Literature without examining the title critically? Is that what he should teach his students who ask him about literature pre-Achebe era? Why are you people crazy about this Achebe fatherhood thing? It’s almost as if the man achieved nothing if he does not wear the crown of African literature fatherhood.
    As to the whole Biafra thing, maybe you should put yourself in other people’s shoes. Yes, you can beat a child and allow the child cry but when the child begins to cry and tell lies, should you keep quiet? Did you read the part where Achebe says the whole of Nigeria hates Igbos? And that Igbos are sidelined? Should that kind of comment be allowed to pass without being challenged?
    If you have anything against Osundare and co, bring it out. Stop hiding behind Achebe.

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