The Symposium on African Literature

By Radhika Mendiratta


The theme of the 64th meetup namely ‘Books by African Authors’ was a very challenging one. Beginners in the activity of reading, amateur readers and the ones who prefer to have a homogeneous collection of books may lack in the knowledge of African Literature, but students of literature, voracious readers or readers having an eclectic taste in books are able to comprehend the writings of such an incredibly diverse land. So the former needs to step beyond the mental boundaries of one’s comfort zone and begin with something which is new, different, complex because the literature is born from a place which is very complex and understanding the essence of such a work is an arduous process.
“Africa is a huge continent with a diversity of cultures and languages. Africa is not simple – often people want to simplify it, generalize it, stereotype its people, but Africa is very complex…..” writes Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist. How succinctly he expresses the truth about a land which is a vast melting pot of cultures.
The world is just starting to know Africa from all the literature which has been written about it. African literature consists of a body of traditional oral and written literature in different languages and various genres together with works written by Africans in European languages (the colonial languages – French, Portuguese and English). Oral literature spreads itself to a larger geographic area than traditional written literature.
The meetup commenced with an ardent reader and a regular member of the club introducing the gathering with an event which occurred a few years ago, it was the first time an established book publication house named ‘Penguin Book Publication House’ went to Africa to search for writers and started “The Penguin African Writers Series” which brought a new energy to the publication of African literature. It was committed to publishing both established and new voices from all over the African continent to ensure African stories reach a wider global audience. He further added that the series was started on the solid foundations laid by renowned Heinemann African Writers Series and invited young and upcoming writers to accept the challenge passed down by celebrated African authors of earlier decades to continue to explore, confront and question the realities of life in Africa through their work.
This was a beautiful introduction because the last five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light, and now the time had come for Africans to tell their own stories.
Another member presented his say on the modern African read “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe whose title is a phrase taken from the lines written by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”. The epigraph of the book is –
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” – Lines from “The Second Coming”, W.B. Yeats
He remarked, “The epigraph suggests that the literary work is set in the times of upheavals and convulsions. It is the story of a yam farmer named Okonkwo who lives during colonization of Nigeria. He struggles with the legacy of his father – a shiftless debtor fond of playing the flute – as well as the complications and contradictions that arise when white missionaries arrive in his village of Umuofia. He has explored the terrain of cultural conflict and clash, particularly the encounter between Igbo tradition and Christian doctrine. There were uprisings, social turbulence, disorder, lawlessness, war and other factors which ravaged the places in the novel. It creatively explores the relationship between the indigenous people and the missionaries, condemnation of European subjugation, pride in the African past, and hope for the continent’s independent future.”
When we read the novel, a realization dawns upon us that Chinua Achebe’s thematic concern in his work reflects his feelings of love, pride, and patriotism for his land, his intimacy and oneness with its people which asserts itself and flows with an effortless ease and elegance in his work. His sensitive treatment of the trials and tribulations, ordeals, hardships, exploitation under slavery, helplessness under the social shams and shackles, dilemmas, hypocrisy, regrets, successes and failures, sufferings, struggles, agony and woes, plight, memories which shape the lives of the African people makes the work worthy of remark, but the quality which makes the novel truly African is that it was the first novel in English which spoke from the interior of the African character, rather than portraying the African as an exotic, as the white man would see it.
The book as a whole creates for the reader such a vivid picture of Ibo life that the plot and characters are a little more than symbols representing a way of life lost irrevocably within living memory.”
We were absorbed by his felicitous description and gave him a round of applause. In the end, he, very rightfully said, “The times of evolution and transition produce rich literature”. All the members concurred with the idea.
Another member who is an avid writer delineated the glorious oral tradition of African literature which originated in the ancient times and has been evolving since then. He said, “Oral tradition, including stories, dramas, riddles, histories, myths and mythology, the folklore, folk tales, folk memory, songs, proverbs, and other expressions, is frequently employed to educate and entertain children. Oral histories, myths, and proverbs additionally serve to remind whole communities of their ancestors’ heroic deeds, their past, and the precedents for their customs and traditions. Essential to oral literature is a concern for presentation and oratory. Folktale tellers use call response techniques. Singing is a significant part of their oral tradition and a griot (praise singer) will accompany a narrative with music.”
In addition to this he spoke about the written tradition and the themes addressed in their writings. “Some of the African writings to gain attention in the West were the poignant slave narratives which described vividly the horrors of slavery and slave trade. It is the human worth of an account which makes it a rich source of historical discourse. They are the personalized narratives which faithfully depict their living conditions. They expressed in their indigenous languages their reaction against colonial repression and looked to their own past for subjects. Several writers used newspapers to air their views. The newspapers served as vehicles for expressing their nascent nationalist feelings. Their poetry not only denounced colonialism, it proudly asserted the validity of the cultures that the colonials had tried to crush. Writers such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ousmane Sembene, Kofi Awooner, Agostinho Neto, Tchicaya u tam’si, Camera Lyre, Mongo Beti, Ben Okri, Ferdinand Oyono, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek and Jacques Rabemananjara produced poetry short stories, novels, essays, and plays in European languages and shared the same themes: the clash between indigenous and colonial cultures, condemnation of European subjugation, pride in the African past, and hope for the continent’s independent future.”
This meticulous monologue was succeeded by the stories of the books such as War Child by Emmanuel Jal, Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, The Bag Ash of Timbaktu by Joshua Hammer, The River Between Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, The Miracle of Speedy Motors by Alexander Mccall Smith, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, the short story, The Ultimate Safari by Nadine Gordimer, The Rebel by Edward Camus, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of Belief by V. S. Naipul which were summarized eloquently.

These strong and engrossing descriptions were followed by the presentation of another member, who is also a special educator and a voracious reader. He touched upon the thematic concerns in South African literature and spoke with ardour, “In South Africa, the horrors of apartheid have, until the present, dominated the literature, Es’kia Mphahlele, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Dennis Brutus, J.M. Coetzee, and Miriam Tlali, all reflect in varying degrees in their writings the experience of living in a racially segregated society.”
He also emphasized in his speech the tendency of African authors to use songs in their plays to convey the essential messages. The weaving of music and incorporating other arts is another unique characteristic of African literature. The writers often weave oral conventions into their writings and pepper their characters’ speech with proverbs to communicate the intended message effectively.
The demeanor of the discussions was effervescent and all the skilled readers and curious listeners were flushed with fervor and enthusiasm as they spoke about pieces of literature which appealed to their sensibilities.
The discussions and free interchange of ideas was consciousness raising for everyone and gave us fascinating insights into the lives of people in the African subcontinent, their psychology, their vagaries, affectations, follies, foibles, eccentricities and peculiarities. We delved deep into the times from the remote past and recent history to the contemporary era, the bizarre convulsions of the land, its obscurity and strangeness, the vicissitudes and series of events in the history of the place which laid heavily on the sensitive minded people and caused a paradigm shift in their thinking which shaped their writings, gave rise to literature, thus nourishing the artistic tradition of the land.
It was indeed an enlightening experience for all of us. We felt like we were fearless sailors who had crossed the seven seas and traversed the convoluted coastline to explore and experience Africa. The ambiance of the cafeteria was brimming with the liveliness of camaraderie, we all as book lovers shared. As we exited we all carried a motherlode of material for reading and writing. . . . . .


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