Notes on Writing from Within
From the beginning it was fashionable to be profoundly engaged with native lands, to write about lands claimed by colonialism and being reclaimed by pan-Africanism. The earliest manifesto was one of commitment and of sheer conviction, that literature was a pulsating force in the soul of young African nations. This was the sort of manifesto that was written in 1948 by the West African Society:
No people can achieve greatness without a literature of their own. Their thoughts, their aspirations and achievements, their history, their art and culture-patterns, in fact, their whole story, must be recorded in a way that they feel to be their own and that the world may recognize as distinctive. The African theme calls for African writers.1
The call was for witness-literature, writers as scribes, recorders, testifiers of their time. There was a preoccupation—to claim the African theme. To present in a fairly objective manner narratives of their native lands, the writers were left to define the limits of this theme, to push the boundaries of imagination, to rely on oral lore and written accounts.
This is the critic Anna Clark’s declaration,
The questions confronted by the independence generation of writers still reverberate today, not only for writers, but also readers, publishers, literary critics, translators, technologists, and booksellers. The literary experiments continue.
And Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o:
Writers must continue to be advocates for the expansion of the democratic space. For there cannot be democracy for writers where there is no democracy for all. And this reality, my friends, is not specific in any generation…
What is the extent of this need, this need to write the continent, the nation? Many decades after, these writers nurtured in the early 1960s have become, like it or not, the voices of their nation. As an example, Nigeria—because of its large population—demands big brother status. Nigerian writers, in becoming voices of their nation, wrote books that attempted to understand the trouble with their country, turned down national honors, held short-term offices in government, signed petitions against fuel hikes, went into exile when their lives became endangered.
That the need to write the nation echoes, even to this day, is evident in Chinua Achebe’s understanding. For if there is any African writer in recent months who has succeeded in causing a furor about nation-writing, it is the octogenarian. He writes:
As a writer I believe that it is fundamentally important, indeed essential to our humanity, to ask the hard questions, in order to better understand ourselves and our neighbors. Where there is justification for further investigation, justice should be served.
Hard questions. Understand ourselves. The extent of the need to write the nation becomes the extent to which hard questions can be asked, to which headaches about neighborliness can be caused.
But, what are the right “hard questions?”
The opening paragraph to Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958)
Salman Rushdie writes:
Beware the writer who sets himself or herself up as the voice of a nation. This includes nations of race, gender, sexual orientation, elective affinity. This is the New Behalfism. Beware behalfies!
The New Behalfism demands uplift, accentuates the positive, offers stirring moral instruction. It abhors the tragic sense of life. Seeing literature as inescapably political, it substitutes political values for literary ones. It is the murder of thought. Beware!
Then Helon Habila, in his introduction to The Granta Book of the African Short Story, writes of a post-nationalist generation, one “inaugurated” when the poet and novelist Dambudzo Marechera famously stated: “If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.” Habila’s proposition, which he puts forward in Granta introduction, is that a post-nationalist generation is aspirational:
I see this new generation as having the best potential to liberate itself from the often predictable, almost obligatory obsession of the African writer with the nation and with national politics, an obsession that at times has been beneficial to African writing, but more often has been restrictive and confining to the writer’s ambition.
The hard questions. What is the meaning and range of post-nationalist writing? If the writer seeks to write in a manner that transcends the politics of nation, what sort of “politics” become demanded? And what, even, is “national politics?” There is something to be scared of, and that is the danger of new stereotypes, the “aspiration” to rid African literature of all its political subtleties in opposition to the obsession with the nation.
The Nigerian writer and playwright Rotimi Babatunde recently argued in a Facebook thread that a writer can have dual personalities: the persona that is a citizen and the persona that is a writer. And that being a citizen, even a citizen whose politics is despicable, does not automatically render the writer’s writing “contaminated.” Or the fact that a writer is politically progressive does not automatically make his or her writing admirable. This is the strand in this argument that tasks us with understanding whether apolitical writing is even possible, and makes it pertinent to stage the problem at another level—how may a person write as a citizen in a way that includes but transcends politics? What difference would it have made if Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country was written as a novel, not a personal history? What difference?
What is the situation of “home grown” writing on the continent today? Again, one should—must—warn that no assertion accommodates continent-wide nuances. What does it mean to write in Nigeria, to be published in Nigeria, to be read in Nigeria? What does it mean to do the same in South Africa? In Ghana? Somalia? The logic is simple: against the backdrop of an emerging literary order calibrated by the Internet, in which many emerging writers are finding their voice, what does it mean to be a Nigerian, or even an African, writer?
Returning to the obsession of the writer with national politics, we find that the “obsession,” really, might not be with national politics, but with a frontierlessness of sorts, the writer’s aspiration to universality. Understandably, there is a desire to, as they say, plant one’s feet in a place with eyes all over the world. So, in Rushdie’s words, “In the best writing, however, a map of a nation will also turn out to be a map of the world.”
What themes can African writers of today choose that will make their localities universal locations? It is difficult to say—we should all be wary of theme-choosing. But, it could be that the stories that don the garb of African modernity, the realities of being in Africa today, the whole range of factors that distinguishes a person residing in an African country from a person living in Asia, or South America, or Europe are the themes that should necessarily preoccupy writers in Africa today.
An anthology like the one Habila edited could take as its departure point the theme of post-nationalism because of the similarities in the collected stories. Yet, it is dangerous to be sequestered in a post-national space, as it was dangerous to a writer’s ambition to be restricted by the sensibilities of national politics. The only ambition that exists now in this generation of multifaceted sensibilities is to write, and write well, and figure out through literature the perplexing idea of becoming.
Augusto Roa Bastos, in his sublime novel I the Supreme (Yo el Supremo, 1974) writes,
There [have] to be words in our language that [have] a voice. Free space. A memory of their own. Words that subsisted alone, that brought place with them. A place. Their place. Their own material. A space where the word can happen the way an event does.
Proposing an exotic relationship with language, and proposing that African writers understand that their responsibility is to, quite ambitiously, gird themselves with an afro-imagination.
Given the situation of home grown writing on the continent today, especially in Nigeria, there is the tendency to say, as so many people do, “Nigerians don’t read.” Of course, it is a convenient excuse. But we can also say the chance to read is limited. There is a dearth of national libraries, few publishers, poor distribution systems, and significantly high rates of illiteracy.
One has to re-frame how the problem is posed, not merely because it is getting repetitive to groan about the death of the African Writers Series and other related publications, and the disappearance of foreign publishers from home soil, but because to do nothing but blame the present on the past is to prepare for a similar, failed future.
Our task is to imagine a future of African writing inspired by the work being done by writers based in their home countries. This sort of future would be contemplated when we attempt to determine the impact of magazines being published on the Web, hundreds of Facebook groups being formed, brave publishers taking up the cost of showcasing the work of new writers, literary festivals organized in oil-rich towns, book readings being organized in small halls nationwide. It will include the testimonials of writers winning the Caine Prize while based in Nigerian cities, accomplished “diasporan” writers signing up with indigenous publishing firms.
The moral, then, is that, although the work to be done is enormous, and government support for the arts is still a luxurious daydream, the work is being done, and micro-structures are emerging.
As we struggle to figure out the shape of our dilemma, as Africans and lovers of words and language, we will produce work that is truly representative of our perplexities.
January 23, 2013
1. In Bernth Lindfors. Early Nigerian Literature (Ibadan, Nigeria: Caltop, 2002).