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The African and the Albatross: 

Notes on the Problematic Status of the African Author, Part 2

The African and the Albatross:  Notes on the Problematic Status of the African Author, Part 2: Latest Articles

An examination of the state of modern African writing and literature continued ...


In his lecture La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines, Jacques Derrida sets up his argument for deconstruction by referencing the wider characteristics of Lévi-Strauss’ notion of the ‘bricoleur’ (1962). As the 21st century progresses it becomes obvious that anyone occupied with critical thought and/or creative industry must surely be embracing the notion that we use what we have at our disposal, what lies around us, what has come before, what is. Essentially, newness or true originality is a fallacy. He further talks of ‘mystical’ or ‘magical thought’ which he contrasts with ‘scientific knowledge:’ “Now, the characteristic feature of mythical thought, as of ‘bricolage’ on the practical plane, is that it builds up structured sets, not directly with other structured sets but by using the remains and debris of events: … fossilised evidence of the history of an individual or a society. The relation between the diachronic and synchronic is therefore in a sense reversed. Mythical thought, that ‘bricoleur’, builds up structures by fitting together events, or rather the remains of events (Lévi-Strauss, 1962, p. 14).”

As a writer I like this notion. It suggests a more organic structuring to the way a writer sets about to compose his text. By liberating the debris around him from the ownership of the Western preserve, it also frees the writer from the constraints of what may be ‘off limits’ to him or even what has ‘predefined’ him. It provides an honourable resolution to the African writer by way of shedding the guilt of his unconscious bondage to what was founded on Western aesthetic lines. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in an essay entitled ‘The Language of African Literature’ declared that, ‘In my view language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation’ (1986). He is suggesting there is a political hold that the adoption of an imperial language has over an indigenous writer. He advocates, as Megan Behrent puts it, ‘to rid African literature of the legacy of colonialism, African writers must begin writing in their native languages’ (2008). This is an example of a writer falling victim to the subjugation of a Western ideal. Ngugi implies that by writing in a Western language, a writer automatically commences an exploration of the limits and boundaries of that language. He realises that its elasticity comes to shape the form and structure of his aesthetic. He is held ‘prisoner’ by the grasp and allure of what has ‘gone before’ or what the writer learns to replicate within the limitations of the adopted language itself. But surely the only reason that Ngugi’s writer should fall victim to this subjugation is because his mind is engaged in a political process as opposed to an organic one? In other words he perceives a foreign language as colonising force which is invasive and oppositional and which must be avoided, and not what can be assimilated or amalgamated into the tools of the author to create new possibilities in writing.

In response to Ngugi’s claims, Chinua Achebe’s position centered round the argument that: “on the whole, it [colonialism] did bring together many peoples that had previously gone their separate ways, and it gave them a language with which to talk to one another … Those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecs, with an eye on the main chance outside their countries. They are by-products of the same processes that made the new nation-states of Africa (1965, p. 344).”

What Achebe suggests, in contrast, is principally far more liberating. It implies that the author has freed himself by his very adaption to what is ‘around him’. He is the bricoleur. He uses whatever language is convenient, writing across cultures instead of within them. The ‘magical thinker’ could encompass a more legitimising way for an African author to overcome the limitations of his terrain. It points to the symbiosis between the self-cancelling acts of ‘imprisoning’ and ‘liberating’ which take place in the bricoleur’s operations: “Mystical thought for its part is imprisoned in the events and experiences which it never tires of ordering and re-ordering in its search to find them a meaning. But it also acts as a liberator by its protest against which the idea that anything can be meaningless with which science at first resigned itself to a compromise (Lévi-Strauss, 1962, p. 14).”

For academia and the idea of the ‘magical thinker’, it would seem reasonable to argue not for new theories of criticism, but for an increasing hybridization of analytical methods. As seems logical, the constant progression of multiculturalism and globalization feeds into theories of hybridity (see Bhabha, 1994; Nederveen Pieterse, 2005), and I have little doubt that the hybridization of literary theory is already very much in existence as a hermeneutical practice in the global academic arena. Everything is assembled from everything else. Nothing can possibly be totalising any longer; nothing exists in isolation. Given this positive overall heterarchical development, why does the status of the African writer largely remain confined to the margins of literary discourse? By ‘margins’ I refer to the generalisation and tendency to collate all African writers and their output into one rather crude branch of commentary.

The fact is the African writer is constantly being dissolved from the dynamics of his profession; he is forced to separate away from the modalities of the writing enterprise. If the modern writer has established himself as the prototypical bricoleur it is because as time progresses it has become ritually opportunistic to constantly assemble the artefacts of his locus in an interpretative transferral of the relationship between object and signification into a reassembled product of textual density and meaning. As a novelist myself, I have been working with ‘bricolage’, however unconsciously, for as long as I have been writing. As the South African writer, Sindiwe Magona, has eloquently said: ‘Writers are artists. Artists create. But to create does not mean making something, anything, from nothing. Like the bird knits her nest from leaves, twigs, grass, and all sorts of flotsam and jetsam she finds all around, the writer uses bits and pieces of the life that abounds all around her’ (2015). It is obvious that I construct the framework of my plots from what is assembled around me. I collect the detritus of what I can mentally encompass, be those the fragments of my own empirical reality, snippets of what I have read, viewed, listened, absorbed or what has otherwise made an impression on me, parts of an instinctive knowledge of my surroundings and the society I inhabit, or just morsels of wisdom gleaned from interacting with ‘life’ in general. From all of this comes the construction of what I write, in my own re-ordered form contributing my own ‘addition’ to the already massive corpus of writing. I ought to be intent because while ‘imprisoned’ to this process of re-ordering, as Lévi-Strauss puts it, I am equally ‘liberated’ by forging ‘meaning’ out of the process itself.

Here, then, is the problem with Achebe’s argument and the vindication for Ngugi’s: Achebe’s call on African writers to adopt the former imperial languages of their homelands means that, in comparison to the Western writer continually imprisoning and liberating himself in the act of bricolage, the African writer is instead constantly recaptured in something approaching the liminality of his writing experience. He is trapped in the ambiguous nature of the act of bricolage he is undertaking. The African author Achebe talks of exists in a binary mode – ethnically African and yet of Western literary sensibility. In the writing act of assembling and re-ordering the events of his African existence, (whether he is in Africa or writing outside it), his persona is set to suffer the dissolution of identity as he transitions from ethnocentrism to cultural relativism. This leads to a risk of exposure, as Turner argues, ‘if liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it potentially can be seen as a period of scrutiny for central values and axioms of the culture where it occurs’ (1969, p. 81). For the African writer the extraction and assemblage of his material is rooted in the ‘normal modes of social action’ which surround him, or by nature what is Afrocentric. Even if he is not resident in Africa, he is an antecedent to his work, he is ‘marked’ permanently as African. And yet as the material undergoes a ‘withdrawal’ from these very roots and transfigures into the idiom of a foreign form, ‘standing at the threshold’, the author in turn becomes trapped in the middle-ground between these changing ‘rituals.’ In such situations, ‘the very structure of society is temporarily suspended’ (Turner, 1969, p. 156) and in this Neverland, the author once again finds himself open to the dangers of heightened scrutiny because the subject of ‘what’ an African author is writing is always accompanied by questions of ‘where’ he has written it from. This ‘what’ and this ‘where’ when combined form a conspiracy because the nature of the ‘where’ is of a sensitive origin. ‘Communities’ of African writers who are subject to this kind of liminality cannot avoid crossing this ‘no man’s land’ in the process and developing their own ‘internal social structure’ (see Homans, 1979). For our purposes we may define this ‘internal social structure’ as the modern idiom of the ‘African novel’ which has established its very own identity, a specific genre in the publishing industry, garnering some attention, both positive and negative. But for all the positives that this has brought, there is also the danger that, ‘liminal situations can be, and in actual fact in the modern era, rather quite different: periods of uncertainty, anguish, even existential fear: a facing of the abyss in the void’ (Horvath, 2013).

Much of Africa is living through what Karl Jaspers terms the ‘axial age’ where societies and their writers are going through an ‘in-between period between two structured world-views and between two rounds of empire building’ (Thomassen, 2006) or between what we can define as the periods of colonialism and neo-colonialism. While this should give rise to ‘an age of creativity’ there is also potentially the emergence of ‘self-proclaimed ceremony masters’ who arrive in the absence of a ‘ceremony master’ who has ‘gone through the process before and that can lead people out of it.’ In this instance Thomassen argues that liminal situations can become dangerous because these ‘self-proclaimed ceremony masters assume leadership positions and attempt to perpetuate liminality and by emptying the liminal moment of real creativity, turning it into a scene of mimetic rivalry’ (2009, p. 22). If we apply this anthropological theory to our community of African writers, we have what approximates the nature of dissenting views which were put forward by the likes of Wali, Ngugi, Achebe, et al, at the 1963 African writers conference in Uganda. All were fine exponents of the craft in their own right, all exceptional minds, but also, one senses, grappling for the concrete definition of a concept which was innately beyond them because they were themselves within this liminal transition, undertaking it without any foregoers who had navigated the space within the transition. In a sense it might be argued that they were themselves jeopardising the potential for creativity by perpetuating and prolonging the debate on what constituted an authentic African voice. The process became stagnant, endlessly mimetic. In turn it has become mired in the complexities of the post-colonial question itself, the tentacles of which spread out now in all directions through the new millennium, subjecting the very African writer they were intent on creating all those decades ago to an ongoing process of what I would describe as ‘compression.’

The African writer today is a compressed entity. Yes, he creates from what lies about him in the vast junk yard of the modern age, just like everyone else, but his options are restricted. He cannot allow himself to be contained within the limitations of his environ because the nature of his survival (this existential anguish and fear Horvath talks of) rests in navigating the transition between the disappearing nature of the very material from which he can re-order and reassemble new meaning and the expanding nature of the colossus of detritus which lies where his liminal experience is directing him: the ever growing globalised landscape. For the purist, Ngugi, African languages are disappearing or else are becoming marginalised, therefore pressurising more writers to adopt a medium accessible to a fair readership: this itself constitutes a liminal transition within the activities of the bricoleur. When the African writer transitions between a first language and a second one, there is of course not just the action of linguistic transfer, but the abandonment of one culture for another. I suspect Ngugi realised that the African writer writing in the language of his tongue is immediately out of sight of any critic who is not himself a speaker of this same language. He is safe from the politics of addressing the nature of the would-be critic’s identity. The liminal problems and the issue of what constitutes the legitimacy of the ‘addition’ the critic is about to make to the work at hand are largely if not entirely removed. The real risk to the African author, however, is in making a leap between languages and between cultures, which Achebe anticipated was an inevitable necessity. The exposure he risks when he makes this transition factors into the ‘compression’ he becomes openly subject to.


Why is the African writer ‘compressed’? It seems a disingenuous term. Despite this exposure he faces, and the increasing pressure to transition between cultures, there is also the question of the author’s integrity; towards himself and his craft. One of the duties of a writer is to ensure he maintains control over the scripting of his text. Without this autonomy, the role of the author is surely compromised, reduced to endure the function of transcriber of someone else’s narrative. As Foucault says, in Qu'est-ce qu'un auteur?, writing is ‘a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears’ (1969, p. 206). Without being able to eradicate himself in the folding legitimacy of his own creation, a writer’s function becomes that of a phony or a fraud; he lacks creative integrity. In the capitalist macrocosm, it is true there is the writer who is a paid scribe, whose agenda is aligned with the commercialism attributed to his time and skill: this is fair enough, an acceptable trade. But there is also the writer for whom writing a text is more reconciled to the author’s (once) traditional role of, as J. M Coetzee has described it, a ‘sage.’ Although this is no longer the case in modern societies where literacy levels dilute the high esteem of the writer, one fundamental problem arises when an author finds himself marginalised by the socio-political environment of his day, when the ‘space’ into which he can ‘disappear’ becomes increasingly diminished by the nuances and vagaries of the social reality which surrounds him. For the African writer this can be paradoxically both fluid and stringent. It is ambitiously progressive towards Western normative practices, yet mired in staunch nationalist traditionalism; a binary scenario in which the legitimacy of the ‘writing subject’ is severely challenged and threatened.

Ideally, and perhaps contrary to the egotism which motivates many a modern author, a writer who takes pride in this ‘writing integrity’ ultimately desires to be removed from the text he has scripted. Editors always talk of ‘authorial intrusion’ and warn writers when this becomes too implicit in a manuscript, for example, when the writer’s agenda starts to become too obvious in the narrative. And yes, while the author is always present in his work to some degree, and some writing is singularly and legitimately only about the writer, in actual fact once presented to the reader, the transmission of the text should exist is its own dimensional singularity, it should feel of itself only. It should be propelled along by a progressively linear automation which is exclusive of the reader’s preoccupation with whoever authored it and especially spared the author’s extraneous intrusion – whether by reputational magnitude or extra-text explanation (by way of interviews, panel discussions, correspondence) – into the reading process. And as Barthes points out this has not been possible since the ‘production’ of the modern author at the end of the middle-ages, since the ‘explanation of the work is always sought in the man who has produced it, as if, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, it was always finally the voice of one and the same person, the author, which delivered his “confidence” (1967, p. 2). Interestingly, in very recent times, this is not so apparent in the Western publishing industry and the advent of e-publishing, where the sheer volume of published material released annually has served to somewhat strip the author of the degree to which his name has an entrenched relationship to the generality of his text.

There are so many books released and the market flooded with so many derivatives aiming to capitalise on commercially profitable genres and sub-genres, that often the dominance of the author as a prefiguration in the reading experience becomes significantly less intrusive. Names become less distinctive, more ubiquitous and commercially contrived in appearance to the consumer, they blend in with similar sounding others, and in addition, due to market forces, the average author is seldom ‘toured’ and promoted as a public figure these days to the extent they were even a decade ago. It should be possible then for the force of the image conveyed by the ‘author-personality’ to disappear marginally from view and largely from the imposition he inflicts on his reader, leaving more centralised attention to fall on the parameters of the text alone. While this ‘secularization,’ as Barthes goes on to call it, does not occur in several obvious instances (when one picks up a writing figure as lauded as Cormac McCarthy, for example, the discerning reader is generally scrutinizing both text and author as if one is continually the subtext of the other), at least the author and his text are not further subjected to what amounts to a ‘hyper-reading’ of the kind undertaken by the vanguards of the post-colony or, in the case of black African writing, the pseudo-sympathetic political correctness of a morally considerate Western reader who is post-colonially, self-consciously ‘aware’. While any criticism is entirely valid, my argument is that once ‘marked out’ for his ethnicity and nationality, such a writer is institutionally subject to an ‘audit of intent’ to a degree which renders the ideal separation of author and text almost impossible. It hampers the author’s ability to create the Foucauldian space into which he can constantly disappear or eradicate himself from his own discourse.

While McCarthy is undoubtedly subjected to such a ‘hyper-reading’ by certain scholars and devotees, any conclusions reached by such hypercriticism, even if questioning of certain aspects, are usually determined to be critically benign. McCarthy’s relation to the provinces of his text is of no great or tangible sensitivity; socially, politically or otherwise. The American terrain is the ‘land of the free’ with an enshrined First Amendment. Even historically it has an established independence, long enough for it to become – at least to the modern literary-commercial reader – detached from its colonial past and the modalities of its own post-colonial passage. This is not to say that an American novel does not contain subject sensitive material, far from it, but that the disclosure and subsequent assimilation of this material into the milieu of mainstream debate is localised and critically processed by the internalising of participating genres within the American literary corpus. In addition, it helps that McCarthy’s critics are normally fellow Americans; this in itself dilutes the sensitivities of the hyper-reading.

Even an antagonistically precocious writer, someone, for example, like Michel Houellebecq, long considered the enfant terrible of French letters and someone who, perhaps unlike McCarthy (et al), has deliberately and intentionally positioned himself as a provocateur culturel, inviting and subsequently revelling in accusations levelled at him of calculated misogyny and the incitement of religious intolerance, is granted cultural, artistic and critical asylum, no doubt under the auspices of the French ideal of Liberté. While his work proves divisive this seems only to further mobilise defensive positions in favour of his established right to continue producing it because he is a Western citizen writing from within the Western world, another practitioner of an ‘internalised’ industry. Granted it is a cliché, but Voltaire’s maxim is apt: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Of course the examples of the United States and France merely serve to highlight two literary ‘markets’ historically far more removed from the respective eras of colonisation and revolution, whereas Africa is still ultra-sensitive to the receptivity of its imperial legacy, its multiple liberation struggles and how to grapple with its post-colonial existential reality: reconstruction, nation forging, the principles and practices (and limitations) of democracy and overall reconstitution. Its scars are relatively shallow, works of art that emerge have the ability to open old wounds. The relative newness of these emergent discourses justify this close scrutiny of a critical appraisal for the pertinent reason that they are presently of fresh historiographic importance. Childs and Williams, quoting Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, suggests that imperialism is ‘a word and an idea today so controversial, so fraught with all sorts of questions, doubts, polemics and ideological premises as nearly to resist use altogether.’ They then go on to say, ‘we would argue that it is precisely because the term has been, and still is, used in a variety of (often contradictory) ways, and because the phenomenon to which it relates is of such magnitude in world history, that it is important both to retain the term and to debate and clarify its usage’ (1997, p. 6). The attention of the reader and critic’s lens on Africa is further magnified due to the protean dynamic which sees it levitating between the question of the duration and constitution of its post-colonial status counterbalanced with the stark immediacy with which it needs to focalise on the advent of a sweeping neo-colonial reality (see Tiffin, et al). As Childs and Williams further state, ‘in the face of the enormity and global impact of colonialism, calls to move on to topics other than the (post) colonial era can only seem hasty; indeed if … the overall framework is one of imperialist expansion, it is difficult to see what a responsible moving-on would involve, caught up as we are in imperialism’s unfolding dynamic’ (1997, p. 10).

With attention focused on the continent, the African writer in general, regardless of ethnicity, suffers from this kind of ‘hyper-reading’ and this is worth examining for the problematic status it saddles African writing with in a universal context; one of sad generalisation, gratuitous summation and overburdening questions of identity and authenticity. It must be considered that the majority of readers of an African narrative are not erstwhile scholars or academics with a truly critical bent. We now need to refer to the ‘reader’ of the text in more academically humble if in no less equal and relevant terms. I am talking of the commercial literary reader, the general reader like myself, the consumer of any manner of narratives: fiction and non-fiction books, articles or documentary news items.

In her article Stop pigeonholing African writer Taiye Selasi, begins by asking, ‘Why must writers from Africa always bear the burden of representing their continent? They should be granted artistic freedom, as other authors are. The most scathing critique of the African writer is not that she is insufficiently talented, but that she is insufficiently African.’ For Selasi, born in London, raised in Massachusetts, of a Ghanaian father and Nigerian mother, and therefore a true representative of modern multiculturalism, this is a pertinent question, especially as she is on record as saying she ‘doesn’t believe there is such a thing as “African literature.”’ This refusal to label literary genres becomes more germane when one considers the volume of writers of African origin who are working from Western bases, fully immersed in the cultures and literary-aesthetic sensibilities of their adopted countries, writing material which is often rooted in the African immigrant experience abroad or even very insightful cross-pollinated homogenisations of both African and Western cultural content, and yet are still subject to the same prescriptive ‘pigeonholing’ which Selasi is critical of. She continues, ‘when I warn against grouping African writers together, it is not because I lack pride in the continent’s literary tradition, but rather that I am conscious of the West’s tradition of essentialising African subjects.’

This ‘essentialising’ (see Spivak’s essentialism) fosters my suggestion that any discourse derived from an African author is automatically and systemically subjected to a kind of perverse (and all too paradoxically limiting) ‘hyper-reading.’ An example comes in Helon Habila’s review of Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel, We Need New Names, where he derides what he calls the tendency for African writers ‘of “performing Africa” for the world.’ This, he immediately clarifies, is to: “inundate one’s writing with images and symbols and allusions that evoke, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, pity and fear, but not in a real tragic sense, more in a CNN, Western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense. We are talking child soldiers, genocide, child prostitution, female genital mutilation, political violence, police brutality, dictatorships, predatory preachers, dead bodies on the roadside. The result, for the reader, isn’t always catharsis, as Aristotle suggested, but its direct opposite: a sort of creeping horror that leads to a desensitisation to the reality being represented.”

Is this writing a ‘fair representation of the existential realities of Africa, or is it just “Caine-prize aesthetic” that has emerged in a vacuum created by the judges and the publishers and agents?’ he then asks. The problem is that by immediately situating Bulawayo in the context of such reductive Hobbesian oversimplifications, Habila himself is guilty of demarcating the critical territory into which any African narrative must reside by littering its surface with the same monomaniacal signifiers which denote the very headline representation of Africa he protests. Further on is another example: ‘There is a palpable anxiety to cover every “African” topic; almost as if the writer had a checklist made from the morning’s news on Africa.’ This sort of grandiose statement burdens the author under review with a two-fold dilemma: it deprives Bulawayo of the individual validity of her text by presupposing and proclaiming that an overarching prototype of stereotypical negatives is the default template to which not she specifically writes to, but a whole corpus of African literature to which she automatically (by no specific personal agreement but by simple culturally marked ethnicity) belongs. The specificity of both author and text as being something original and intrinsic to an intimately defined textual objective is stripped away by such a brash ‘hyper-reading’. The author once again clearly fails to ‘disappear;’ instead appearing as a signified object. Secondly, the callous collectiveness of the review in general diminishes the very possibilities of the novel as a literary form itself. Bulawayo’s fine, multi-layered, sensitive and insightful book will always be read as a discourse on Zimbabwe’s socio-political landscape with all its attendant horrors and nightmares, the kind of generic descriptions Habila preconceives for us, which he merely points out, but which already prescribe many a Western reader’s imagination of Africa as one borderless, mono-cultural, mono-political land mass. What the novel should be read for – a testament of the life, trials and tribulations or otherwise of a set of independent fictional characters in a culturally diverse nation – comes only secondly. This demeans the African novel by lowering the value-systems by which artistic works are critiqued. By focalising attention of the African novel as a centrepiece, seemingly a kind of generic veneer glosses over it which seems to deny relevant individual critical application. Again, the opposite is true of the Western author spared such an inquisition on ethnocentric grounds. Ian McEwan’s novels are read primarily for the presentation of the characters; being set in London or being British himself is of no more significance than a novel by Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith or Martin Amis. Freed of these defining parameters, he and his fellow Brits are permitted to operate, spared a prejudicial critic’s ‘pigeonholing’ or ‘essentialising,’ on an arguably higher artistic plane, the merits of which they are duly accorded, the burdens duly avoided.

There is perhaps a more anthropologically sinister argument to be made for both the traditional and current treatment of the African novel by Western critics along the lines of a unisex form of ‘epistemic violence’ (see Spivak, 1988, p. 76, Foucault, 1965, p. 251, 262, 269). In The Invention of Africa – Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge, Mudimbe insists that sequential depictions of Africa have been the subject of a ‘long illustration of an epistemological ethnocentrism’ (1988, p. 15), by which I read ‘Western belief of superiority,’ and quotes Baudrilland, 1972, to note, ‘it seems to me that “a process of aesthetization” took place from the eighteenth century’ (1988, p. 10) in the perceptive ordering of how Africa has been ‘invented’ in the eyes of ‘the Same,’ (phenomenological jargon for ‘the West’). It would seem that this notion of the Same or the West ‘speak about neither Africa nor Africans, but rather justify the process of inventing and conquering a continent and naming its ‘primitiveness’ or ‘disorder,’ as well as the subsequent means of its exploitation and methods for its ‘regeneration’ (1988, p. 20). Further to this, Ricoeur mentions: “When we discover that there are several cultures instead of just one and consequently at the time when we acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly, be it illusory or real, we are threatened with destruction by our own discovery. Suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, that we ourselves are an “other” among others. All meaning and every goal having disappeared, it becomes possible to wander through civilizations as if through vestiges and ruins (1965, p. 278).”

This could be applied in modern terms to the ways in which inscriptions of African ‘disorder’ and ‘primitiveness’ are well codified in the public domain; the very list of clichéd narrative markers Habila points to and the ‘essentialising of African subjects’ against which Selasi argues. As Ricoeur suggests, the reason they remain a functional part of foreign perceptions about Africa and contribute to the manner in which African discourses are read and deciphered could well rest in the underlying humanistic fear that breaking down barriers and dissolving preconceived notions threatens the super-powered stability of Western cultural identity itself. Its axis risks being tilted if ‘it becomes possible that there are just others,’ that they themselves are ‘an “other” among others.’ When art is ranked alongside art unequivocally, when a true and egalitarian universalism takes place, it is inevitable that dilution occurs, an anodyne rationalisation of all cultural critiquing becomes institutional; a risk becomes apparent to the specific idiomatic minutia of an established heritage’s cultural identity. For these reasons, an explanation is provided for the compulsive indexing, labelling and segmentalization of how art and culture continues to be presented, exhibited, edited, curated, marketed and consumed.

Despite the diversification of several of the world’s peoples and cultures, the notion of the ‘Us-and-Them’ binary of social relations (Said, 1978) remains perversely applicable. Perhaps due to the very conscious awareness of the insensitivity which has become ingrained alongside this anthropologic fear (as a type of latent survival tactic), we now have a situation where the platitudes of political correctness (employed for the agenda of needing to ‘do good’ by minorities, including the ‘developing world’) has forced a complete rotation in tonal and adjectival descriptors of African culture. The former condescension shown towards ‘primitive art’ from the colonies, or ‘uncivilised behaviour’ from ‘darkest Africa’ has now been aggressively revisited and the semantic inscriptions reconfigured in the philology of various post-colonial theories from which this science of ‘political correctness’ originates. We are right back where we started, a palimpsestic condition whereby, for example, the term ‘guerrilla warfare’ with its metaphoric connotations of the barbaric, animalistic and uncivilized, can be substituted for the politically correct euphemism ‘liberation struggle’ which is merely a sanitised substitution of one term for another which yet still somehow manages, in the toxic silent subtext which dominates cultural relations, to denote the hegemonic overtones of the ‘Same’ subjugating of the ‘Other’s’ experience; a separation of ‘our’ reality as opposed ‘theirs;’ ‘We’ as opposed to ‘Them.’ There is no real sense, then, that political correctness produces any beneficial homogenization, of genuine global acculturation as far as literary criticism goes.

As we further know (see Greer, 1971, and Pinker, 1994), the production of euphemisms is a dead-ended cycle, granting no real sense of an established theoretical permanence to the lexicology used to analyse any discourse itself subjected to these applied euphemistic sensitivities. As the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests, the very structure of the language used (in this case of critiquing African literature which we have established is problematically and terminally euphemistic) will inevitably affect its speaker or reader’s analytic and cognitive prowess. It seems to me that what has almost become an endemic psycho-maniacal conformism over the need to assimilate this new language of social ‘niceties’ has really resulted in a kind of underhand prohibition on the writing, comprehending and assimilating of the truth about Africa at all. This brand of hypercriticism has therefore altered its descriptive labels but failed to adjust its paradigms. Binyavanga Wainaina’s scathingly satirical essay How to Write about Africa perfectly captures both the absurdity and frustrations of having African writing continually being the subject of a marginalising and restricting globalised readership. In Habila’s review of Bulawayo he says, ‘writing is an incestuous business: style feeds on style, especially if that particular style has proven itself capable of winning prizes and book deals and celebrity’ and Wainaina highlights this notion by intentionally mocking the stereotypically mono-dimensional simplicity with which this stylisation of the African subject has been endlessly over-replicated: “Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi,’ ‘Congo’, ‘Nile,’ ‘Big’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone.’ Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans. Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An Ak-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress. In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions.”

To cement the validity of Wainaina’s cynicism, there is the added economic burden which feeds into this ‘prohibition’ and places the African writer in a precarious position of dependence on the Western donor as the all-round sponsor, financier and patron of ‘third-world’ literature. ‘Success for an African writer still depends on the West,’ writes Aboabi Tricia Nwaubani in her opinion piece African Books for Western Eyes. ‘We are telling only the stories that foreigners allow us to tell. Publishers in New York and London decide which of us to offer contracts, which of our stories to present to the world. American and British judges decide which of us to award accolades, and subsequent sales and fame.’ The problem the African writer faces is therefore not only the limiting arena of intellectualization imposed on him, but also the exclusion of the African individual himself in the industry of his own produce. ‘Local writers without some Western seal of approval are automatically perceived as inferior,’ Nwaubani continues. ‘Even when an African writer finds acclaim in the West and sees his book reimported to his home country, local readership can be severely limited … here in my country, where online shopping is still an esoteric venture, my book is available at only a few bookstores in highbrow areas.’ In short, ‘the struggling local publishing industry is unable to make books available and affordable.’

This is largely true across the continent, a notable exception being South Africa which has a thriving publishing industry, at least comparative to the rest of the continent. Twenty-five years ago, the conclusion of Zell’s research described Africa ‘as largely a bookless society’ (1990, pp. 12 - 27). In the interim there were signs of significant progress, but according to a recent report commissioned by the German organisations Frankfurt Buchmesse and the Goethe Institut, ‘the situation has changed again; many of the programmes and initiatives started in the 1990s have stopped or have become dormant. It is now exceptionally difficult to find publications released after 2003, which might be an indicator of reduced interest’ (Bӧcker, 2012, p. 68). Although there are a number of innovative attempts to invigorate the book industry, the report points to a more sobering reality on the ground. Continuing logistical barriers frustrate both publisher and reader. Financial constraints in book production and the cost of accessing material remains beyond the reach of most African citizens. Even with the increasing shift to online content or e-publications, internet usage via network coverage remains expensive and sporadic, power outages hamper accessibility and so on. Such economic marginalisation negates the strides made in Africa’s literacy levels, depriving able readers the chance to access substantive literary material.

In my home country of Zimbabwe, literacy levels are, according to UNESCO’s estimates, standing at 83.6% but there is a very depressed and limited publishing and book retail sector. High literacy levels produce good writers, but ironically there are almost no local readers of their work. A fellow Zimbabwean, Stanley Nyamafukudza, once remarked, ‘one of the best ways to hide information in Zimbabwe is to publish it in a book’ (2005). The few houses in operation (Weaver Press, for example, or ‘amaBooks) produce some excellent material but their output per annum is tiny and the antiquated printing presses are inefficient resulting in their finished products being unaffordable to the average Zimbabwean and in no way able to compare with the quality of larger publishers. In essence, they are unable to compete. Indeed, it is cheaper for the few formal booksellers to import titles from the leading publishing houses abroad and still sell them on at a price that no local publisher can afford to match or undercut. Even then, the retail market for books is inconsequential; the preserve of probably less than the 1% of the population affluent enough to afford them. Second hand books are traded on the informal ‘flea market’ stalls at cheaper prices, but there are rarely any African authors to be found amongst the piles dominated by the self-help titles, romance, thriller and fantasy genres favoured by mainstream foreign readerships and mimicked here.

The void created by this absence of African publishers and an African readership translates into a state of indentured bondage for the African writer to his foreign publisher and subsequently to the fancies of his foreign readership. As Nwaubani goes on to say, ‘All this combined can make African readers feel that African literature exists not for them, but for Western eyes.’ In addition, there is the difficult question of how to navigate the issue of editorship. ‘There is also a limit,’ Nwaubani continues, ‘to how well even the most conscientious editor in New York can oversee an African story, and ensure its authenticity shines forth.’ There are some aspects of portraying African life that ‘an editor in New York has no way of knowing.’ While foreign publishers should rightly be lauded for their commitment in adding an increasing number of African voices to their lists in recent years and striving to give buoyancy to African literature in general, the discrepancy between the knowledge makeup of an editor raised and educated in a Western country and that of a writer raised and educated in Africa must remain, at some level, incongruent. The editor, no matter how unobtrusive he determines to make himself, remains (certainly in the commercial houses) a subordinate of the publisher and deferential thereto, and while ‘responsible editorship, that is, an editorship characterised by responsibility towards the generalised other in the field, implies opening our culture toward the future, toward its own development, toward greater solidarity, inherently a collective phenomenon’ (Roth, 2006), in this case the reality of the commercial ‘business model’ is always likely to supersede that of the philosophical. There is an established aesthetic sensibility which requires general conformation in the editing and publishing of a ‘book’: structure, form, semantic considerations, syntax, and most crucially, subject-matter and ‘readability.’ All of this criteria, even in subtle ways, places an uneasy and unbridgeable distance between the originality of the African voice and its final presentation to its consumer. 

Kenyan journalist Evan Mwangi has written that, ‘In moves that may appear fraudulent to Africans, the publishing outlets in the West seem to be out to create their own version of African literature, which academic institutions take up and canonise as “African literature” even if nobody in Africa reads these writers.’ However, because of the reliance on the patronage of the Western publisher, he further comments that, ‘unlike the classical African literature or works in indigenous languages, this new brand of writing will never criticise the West openly. You’re not likely to encounter negatively drawn white characters. White people are the saviours of the world, protecting Africans from fellow Africans. Even foundational African writers – Leopold Sadar Senghor, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Amos Tutola – are all inventions of the West, published and canonised in European and American metropolises before being exported back to Africa as the quintessential of African writers,’ and he concludes, ‘Therefore, it would be advisable to read the new African writing in conversation with works produced in Africa, especially those in indigenous languages, to avoid a skewed image of the continent and its peoples.’

One of the reasons this dichotomy exists between the desire and intent of African writers and the expectations of their foreign readers rests with the populism of what historian Thomas Laqueur calls ‘the sentimental narrative’ (Wilson, 2011). He writes that, ‘in the eighteenth century, the ethical subject was democratised; more and more people came to believe it was their obligation to ameliorate and prevent wrongdoing to others.’ In his critique of ‘the sentimental narrative,’ Moore records: “Superficially, it seems humane, a good-hearted response to the impoverished and their plight. But it also objectifies the sufferers it nominally empowers – people with pain to ameliorate, against whom wrongdoings are to be presented, on whose behalf this compassion is to be invested. However many noble or real or useful things that investment may bring, it also flatters us, by affirming our own righteousness (2012).”

This ‘mobilization of empathy’ (see Wilson and Brown, 2011) is what motivates readers towards the types of narratives which editors fashion and curate in the large publishing houses, the lists of which ‘foster and nurture’ (to use a favourite staple descriptor of the industry) many of the more prominent African writers. I use the term ‘nurture and foster’ not necessarily in the paternal sense it is intended to evoke; perhaps ‘oversee and direct’ may be more accurate. To reach this targeted end-point of assimilation by as wide a readership as can be encountered, a domino-effect of successive compromises on the authenticity of the text has already occurred, triggered off at the submission point of the text’s manuscript from an aspirant figure to an authoritative one, from a submissive to a dominant; an unpublished writer to a publishing editor. The dynamics of this relationship are even more severely strained, and the writer even further compressed, when we take into account the equally submissive position the editor himself is subject to when answerable to the dictates of the sales and marketing personnel, who in the totality of the capitalist enterprise to which publishing belongs, wield executive authority second only to that of the ultimate demi-god: the consumer, the customer, the book buyer.

And what the book buyer wants, the book buyer shall have. The functions of consumerism dictate that there are always going to be aspects of manipulation to any given product in accordance with market demands and that the niche sectors of the market are often strictly regulated due to the very specialisation of their nature in relation to their consumer’s wants and desires. It could be easily argued that to a Western publisher, an African catalogue is certainly such a niche corner and, according to Moore, this suggests it is especially regulated because, ‘virtually any story can be sold more easily if set in a “war-torn” country.’ In turn this regulation is driven by media forces. Moore adds: “in American newspapers and on American TV, Africans remain objects – of violence, of poverty, of disease, and ultimately of our own compassion. Like the abolitionists’ stories of the Jamaican slave revolt, our compassion narratives ultimately are not about the people on whose name they are told. They are about us. We like these stories because at some level, we already know them, and because they tell us we are caring, and potentially powerful, people (2012).”

It is not my intention to use so broad and cynical a set of notions and examples to denigrate an important industry, and doubtless there are an endless array of micro-dynamics at play at all stages within each scenario, as well as many examples which would illustrate instances which are at variance with my generalisations. However, my point is to emphasise a series of disadvantages which the writer of an African narrative faces and which challenge the composite legitimacy of the African voice, all of which are philosophically problematic, all of which strip away at the writer’s ability of ‘creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears’ and where the writing is the writing in its complete and inviolate isolation. Unfortunately, such an elegantly proposed lebensphilosophie suffers immediate futility: it would seem the lot of the African scribe is one of systemic subversion.


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©Neal Hovelmeier (Ian Holding), 2020

The African and the Albatross:  Notes on the Problematic Status of the African Author, Part 2: Text
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