Literature, Culture and Development: The African Experience

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USAfrica BOOK CHOICE

Literature, Culture and Development: The African Experience
Author: Ihechukwu Madubuike, PhD. Reviewer: Stanley N. Macebuh, PhD.

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By the time the definitive prescriptions of Towards the Decolonization of African Literature came out in 1990, Ihechukwu Madubuike, one of the three co-authors of that book, had already achieved prominence as a cultural nationalist in his scholarly writings. Virtually all the major essays in Part 1, and the reviews in Part 2 of his book, Literature, Culture and Development: the African Experience, which we are reviewing today, were written and published in various scholarly journals, or presented at major professional conferences, at least a long decade before Towards the Decolonization was published in 1990.

For example, ‘Chinua Achebe: His Ideas on African Literature’, was first published in 1975 in Presence Africaine; ‘The African Novel in the 1970s: Basic Identity and Categorization’, came out in 1974 in the Journal, Issue; ‘Poetry and the African Revolution’ was first presented at a Conference of the Modern Languages Association of Nigeria in Jos, Plateau State, in 1978; and ‘The Role of the National Intelligentsia in Societal Development &endash; The Example of African Writers’, was almost certainly first published before 1980 (almost certainly, because the date of first publication or presentation is not stated; but the internal evidence in the essay suggests some date before 1980).

Equally, for further example, all the essays on Francophone African literature, which in my view are far more rigorous and detailed than the ones on Anglophone African literature, were also first published between 1973 and 1980. ‘The Politics of Assimilation and the Evolution of the Novel in Senegal’ first came out in African Studies Review in 1975; ‘Language and Style in the Works of Senegalese Writers’ and ‘Form, Structure and Esthetics of the Senegalese Novel’ both were first published in separate volumes of the ‘Journal of Black Studies’ in 1974; while the essay, ‘Aspects of Religion in the Senegalese Novel’ first came out in the same Journal in 1976.

In all of these essays and more, we can readily discern a tentative, but increasingly confident approach towards a definitive statement concerning what Dr. Madubuike was clearly beginning to be convinced was an inevitable linkage between a normative species of African Literature which derived from an authentic elucidation of African cultural values, and the inevitable obligation to fight, through it, for, and promote ‘African development’. Now, ‘African development’, in this context, was not to be construed merely as just a socio-economic term. It is in fact an omnibus term. It implied the cultural and psychological struggle for self-identification in reaction against silly European notions of the non-identity, if you like, of the African person. It implied the political obligation of the African writer, and the critic of his writings, to deploy their talents in support of the struggle to liberate all Africans from their colonial masters. And it also implicated a clear duty, both on the part of the creative writer and of the literary critic of his offerings, to come up with a canonical definition of the Africanness in African literature. Thus, politics, sociology, and history; anthropology, economics and mathematics, not to speak of aesthetics, structure and form, indeed every conceivable aspect of human thought and endeavour, were to be the appropriate environment within the context of which the African writer was required to operate, and within which the authentic critic of his work was to judge him.

In passing, it would seem to me, that if this summary of what Dr. Madubuike was beginning to propose that we demand of the authentic African writer is at all accurate, then we would be imposing on the African writer a burdensome obligation that no writer from any other culture in the history of the world has ever had to undertake!

But we need not dwell unduly on this observation, however, because it is obvious that by 1990, Ihechukwu Madubuike’s convictions in this regard had begun to be fleshed out, his prescriptions were becoming less dictatorial, his expectations of the African writer more modest. For in that year Chinweizu, Jemie, and Madubuike published a seminal book, Towards the Decolonization of African Literature, which purported to be a testament, a manifesto, a spectacular, iconoclastic and almost ‘patricidal’ declaration of the canons of African literature, the terms and conditions of its composition and its criticism. It was in some sense a declaration of literary independence from what its authors perceived as its hitherto slavish imitation of Western concepts of the literature. Professor Chidi Maduka, who wrote the Forward to Literature, Culture and Development, one of the books that has brought us here today, in referring to the other book published by the troika of which Dr. Madubuike was a member, simply asserts that it ‘elicited enthusiastic responses from scholars’. That is an exceptionally polite understatement.

That other book, Towards the Decolonization of African Literature descended on the canvass of often agitated disputations concerning African literature like a bomb. It was the most mature rendition of a doctrine of authenticity in African literature whose spirited articulation attracted as much denunciation as it elicited approval. Dr. Madubuike, in his own Introduction to Literature, Culture and Development: The African Experience makes reference to a typical denunciatory response from scholars of African Literature to the categorical pronouncements of that other book. Professor Charles Nnolim, referring to the troika’s book, Towards the Decolonization, states in part, and I quote, ‘The one flaw in the troika’s impressive logic is the blind argument &endash; with extreme bad manners, and with dogmatic certainty &endash; that the end of all African Art, all African Literature and its attendant criticism, is simple recognition of and adherence to our African heritage. The total pursuit of cultural nationalism at the expense of form and structure is the maggot that squirms at the core of their otherwise valid assertions’. A powerful complaint indeed.

I do not propose here to reopen the often quite bellicose debate on that book, even though I do confess to an indelible sentimental affection for it, if only because some of it was put together by the three gentlemen of the troika in my apartment outside New York City in the mid-70s. It is sufficient to state only, that the seeds of the affirmations in Towards the Decolonization are already evident in the instincts alive and operating in the essays and reviews, written much earlier, that make up the collection in the book, Literature, Culture and Development, which we are reviewing now. This is so much so, that it is possible to argue that both books are of the same family tree.

But about the same period during which he was labouring in the vineyard of such scholarly endeavour, Dr. Madubuike was, it seems, equally, if not even more enthusiastically engaged in another line of activity which most ordinary mortals would have adjudged to be inherently antithetical, but which his theoretical posture rendered almost mandatory. Between 1973 and 1994, he was at various times a legislator in a state House of Assembly, a Commissioner in a state government, a federal Minister of Education (which makes some sense), and a federal Minister of Health (which does not make any sense whatsoever!). During the same 20-year period, he had, as the essays and reviews in Literature, Culture and Development clearly illustrate, and in addition to the burden of teaching in various institutions of higher learning, summoned up sufficient presence of mind, and the discipline to churn out most of the essays contained in the book we are reviewing here.

Clearly, therefore, he discovered no difficulty during this period in reconciling his scholarly exertions with working up an impressive career as a public official. Indeed, it would be quite plausible to argue that he saw his own life, the manner in which he appears to have succeeded in comfortably blending the life of contemplation with the life of hands-on engagement in public affairs, as an ideal state of being, as the appropriate posture for the committed African writer or critic. This conclusion, it seems to me, would provide for us a useful enough explanation for his apparent contempt for intellectuals of a certain sort.

It explains why, along, it seems, with Chinua Achebe, and save for Leopold Sedar Senghor, for whom he appears to have a special regard, he does not have much to say in favour of those he refers to as ‘establishment intellectuals’ in Africa; and again, in tandem with Achebe, he almost celebrates the fact that no African country has ever been foolish enough to hand over its government exclusively to university professors! Apart from the mellifluous music of his poetry, he does not care much for the early Christopher Okigbo, whose obtuseness and obscurity and foreignness he decries. But he at least implicitly admires Okigbo’s later work, if only because the unease that we encounter therein leads him, Okigbo, logically, to the war front, where he dies, in a presumably perfect merging of the artistic sensibility and the impulse toward action in favour of freedom. Dr. Madubuike is rather ambivalent about Soyinka, whose dramatic seizure of a radio station in Ibadan he recalls with admiration; but he is equally quite unhappy with much of his prose and poetry, which he describes as ‘hermitic’, meaning obtuse and obscure.

He obviously admires Achebe to no end, but since Achebe is not famous for any recorded dramatic interventions of the Okigbo type, or even of the Soyinka type, we must locate this admiration in the subtlety of Achebe’s literary interventions on the side of Soyinka’s own concern with ‘the problem of self-apprehension’, and not in any effort that Achebe has made to prove himself at the same time a visionary and a warrior.

In a word, I find in the essays and reviews and opinion pieces contained in this book, Literature, Culture and Development: The African Experience, a certain unexplained ambiguity, or even confusion. We cannot all be like the author who has brought us all here, who is at once poet, scholar, politician and critic. But our not being as composite as he is does not in any way diminish our significance as citizens entitled to engage in hopefully meaningful work, from the perspective of each person’s particular calling. What, for instance, precisely distinguishes the creative writer, be he novelist, poet or playwright, from the professional philosopher, or the social activist? What differentiates Chinua Achebe from Gani Fawehinmi, J. P. Clark from Raph Uwazurike of MASSOB, or Chimamanda Adichie, the author of A Purple Hibiscus, from Jomo Gbomo of The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta., MEND? All of them, I dare say, are deeply committed to explorations of what, according to Dr. Madubuike, Wole Soyinka describes as ‘the problem of self- apprehension’. All are, each presumably in their own way, cultural nationalists, determined to explore the limits and necessities of freedom and self-determination, .all only different in the methods and instruments they choose. But even so, they are all individuals, not composite persons. Achebe and Clark and Adichie are creative writers, while Fawehinmi and Uwazurike and Jomo Gbomo are social activists. All of them are possessed of significant talent, and contribute, each in his own way, to the richness, expansiveness and flexibility of our culture. It would obviously be unreasonable to insist that Gani become a poet or novelist in order to convince us of the genuineness of his equally creative preoccupations; just as one would hardly require that Achebe present himself at the barricades so as to become a more accomplished writer.

Having said all this, it is appropriate that I draw attention to the meticulousness with which Dr. Madubuike has sought to delineate the Francophone predicament which, it would appear, is far more complex than our predicament in the English speaking countries of Africa. Each of us, the francophone and the anglophone, has historically had to contend against colonialism and its evils, not the least of which was the attempt to deny us of our specific African humanity. But, by the author’s very careful account of the difference between the nature and objective of British colonialism, as against the French variant of the same evil, it appears that while France, in the beginning, was quite willing to admit a proportion, no matter how small, of its African subjects into full, undifferentiated French citizenship; the British evidently never had any such romantic ideas even of notional equality with their colonial subjects.

Ironically, and mercifully therefore, the process by which Anglophone Africans finally re-asserted their humanity turned out to be far less psychologically traumatic than that by which francophone Africa came to its own ultimate self-realization.

It is through Dr. Madubuike’s careful explanation of this phenomenon in his essays that we begin to fully understand why Leopold Sedar Senghor became the apostle of Negritude, and why Wole Soyinka concluded that he saw no need for the tiger in him to proclaim its tigritude. Anglophone Africa was never ‘assimilated’, and therefore did not have the burden of negotiating the intermediate state of alienation caused by assimilation on its return journey to self-realization. Not so francophone Africa and the Caribbean. I do not know of any Anglophone African writer who ever deluded himself into thinking that he could be an Englishman just by writing in excellent English. But by Dr. Madubuike’s account, it appears there were numerous francophone writers who actually believed they were Frenchmen just because they wrote in the most sophisticated Parisian French.

Furthermore, through this book, Literature, Culture and Development: the African Experience, we begin to discover how important it is not to prescribe universalist characteristics in Literature, or any other sphere of activity for that matter, for a continent as vast as Africa without a sufficiently representative sampling of the offerings from the continent. In the author’s review, for instance, of Professor Obiechina’s study, Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel, Dr. Madubuike makes the commonsense point that you do not publish a study of 17 novels, all of them written in English, 15 of them by Nigerian writers, and two by Ghanaian writers, and call it a study of the West African novel. In response to which observation I add the equally elementary point that you are unlikely to be able to do a sensible description of a francophone novel, or a lusophone one, unless you are literate in the French or Portuguese language. Dr. Madubuike’s success in his comparative studies of African writing derives its significance and authority precisely from this fact, that he is articulate in French as much as in English.

To conclude, the book under review is significant, for many reasons. It provides a reliable record of a historic controversy over what is African literature, what should be its objectives, and how the critic of it may approach the task of elucidating it. That controversy has died down in the course of time, but it was through it that we all began to come to a more ecumenical or inclusive understanding of the ends of art in general, and of African art and literature in particular. The book is significant, also, because it presents to us the process by which its author came to his understanding of his own role, as writer, poet, scholar, critic, and man of public affairs. And finally, it is significant because it contains a rich offering of incisive and authoritative analyses of a large number of poems, novels, and plays. It is a worthy effort, and I commend it to you.

•Dr. Macebuh, founding managing director of The Guardian newspaper and The Post Express newspaper (both in Lagos), also served as communications adviser to former president of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. This book may be able to enlighten the public about the unknown side of African art and literature. We may be familiar with African influences on world music, food, and fashion, but not all of us are aware that there is so much more than that. So kudos to Dr. Ihechukwu Madubuike for writing this significant book!

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