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The African and the Albatross: 

Notes on the Problematic Status of the African Author, Part 1

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The African and the Albatross:  Notes on the Problematic Status of the African Author, Part 1: News

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


In the closing paragraph of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart the British District Commissioner assigned to the Igbo region where the tragic story of Okonkwo unfolds plans to write a book on his experiences. ‘Each day brought him some new material’ (1986, p. 149). He decides that this particular episode he has witnessed will make for interesting reading and that it might even warrant a whole chapter. Then he says, “Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger (ibid).”

Achebe’s allegory of colonialism works effectively because he lays bare the mind-set of the early coloniser, whose insensitivities to the density of the culture around him reduces this entire narrative to one ‘reasonable paragraph.’ His determination to ‘be firm in cutting out details’ is even more revealing. It almost seems as if Achebe was being prophetic about the nature of critiquing Africa and her people’s narratives. There is even a clue he points to in the title of the Commissioner’s planned book; ‘pacification’ is suggestive of the desire to narrow, contain, prescribe and subjugate. The description of the tribes as ‘primitive’ gives the clear impression that the people authored are not going to be of the same order as the author himself. Beyond the political aspects of the novel, Things Fall Apart powerfully signalled the problem the African ‘story’ was destined for.

When one speaks of the African author, it seems as if the two words somehow need to be conjoined, because when you speak of an author from Africa you generally need to speak of an ‘African author.’ The same is true of a narrative about Africa, even when written by someone who is not African. There is a genre of ‘African writing’ as a whole which in itself carries an air of condescension, as if all writing from Africa needs to prescribe to certain established notions of the ‘African narrative’ which, because of its relative ‘primitiveness’ and its past history connected to the imagery of the ‘Dark Continent’, is bound up in certain stereotypical limitations. There is a degree to which the African author and the African narrative suffers a kind of compression; there are forces at play acting against African writing from all sides.

In 1963, the prominent writers and critics who attended the “Conference of African Writers of English Expression” at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, attempted to grapple with the notion of what exactly defined an African writer. The conclusions were less than definitive. Obi Wali famously claimed the gathering led to ‘the dead end of African Literature’ in an essay he would subsequently pen, citing the encumbrance of English and Western imperial languages on the authenticity of the African voice. Others, including Chinua Achebe, disagreed: these languages were ultimately unifying and liberating. The debate continued, studies were undertaken.

Some fifty years later it might be assumed that there is a healthy body of writing from the continent which has been produced by a multitude of increasingly empowered (politically, socially, economically, educationally) scribes, many of whom have garnered international reputations, while others are widely known or are coming to prominence across their home territories. It appears as if publications of African narratives and studies on African texts are becoming progressively more mainstream. There is even a category of ‘celebrity-author’ which has been fashioned by marketing gurus of the publishing world in the past decade. Young, stylishly-Westernised yet subtly ethno-conscious black female authors of either direct or indirect African parentage are largely being held up as the bastions of the ‘African advance’ in championing the literary inclusion of ethnic minorities into the public domain. There is also the rise to prominence of the African ‘academic-author’ who strides the corridors of the world’s great seats of learning and is incorporated into all facets of intellectual and creative discourse. All over the developed world, publishers, critics and academics credit themselves with the belief that due recognition has been afforded to the creative voice of the African continent. And on the surface, it is true that such intentions are genuinely well-meaning.

However, my suspicion is that a slightly closer examination of the actual state of affairs reveals something approaching a façade which lacks any sustaining cogency. Underneath what is glamorised or lauded is the contentious question of whether the identity of the African writer actually encompasses his continued entrenchment as a subaltern (see Gramsci, Spivak, et al) in what is a paradoxically multicultural world. Multiculturalism, after all, is simply an in vogue catch-phrase to describe an attempt to bridge the divide of cultures, which is by definition absurd. Surely a culture only exists because it is distinct from any other? And by their nature, cultures compete in a Darwinian survival struggle which sees the more powerful exert themselves over the less for fear of their own subsumption, dilution and demise. It is for this reason that the superpower cultures have developed the political correctness movement; they wish to disguise their zeal in this veiled neo-imperial age over less dominant rivals. As I will include in my notes, I see this as a censoring apparatus. As a result we do not really know what is being said about anything, especially anything marginal, the African writer included. All established philology has shifted to less stable ground. This only contributes to my further concerns about aspects of the critical industry the African writer finds himself (a pronoun I use purely for simplicity) subjected to, producing irregularities which categorise the African author in unique and telling ways. These are issues themselves which precede any mention of the ‘compression’ he faces at all junctures, including from within his own writing locus by the socio-political forces which still act largely against his personal and artistic freedoms.

While the scope of this essay can never hope to account for the entire breadth of this complex discussion, I also offer the caveat at its start that my observations are grounded principally in my perspective as a creative writer.

And as such I have always sided with the sentiment of the artist. As Dambudzo Marechera says, ‘The writer has no duty, no responsibilities, other than to his art. Art is higher than reality’ (1987, p. 103). I am also an art lover and I desire my interactions with art, as far as possible, to be personally sacred while further accommodating the fact that I am also interested in the opinions of others, and in entering into dialogue with those views. I do so because it is both futile and naïve not to be part of a larger discussion, to share in other’s opinions, especially seeing as, Sontag claims, ‘None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself’ (1966, p. 2). It is admittedly a complex arrangement of sensibilities which require ever shifting perspectives and loyalties. The writer is a reader and a scholar: the creator, the observer and the interpreter. It seems a logical coalition of practices and yet it is a paradox too; while working in union we cannot discount that to each one the other poses as something of an interloper casting its long shadow.

When I am observing art it is a preference that my experience of it should be as free as possible from any other interfering agent. If art is to ‘mean anything’ then I would far prefer I formed this meaning from what Matthew Arnold described as his ‘touchstones’ in the work of art itself than by an attempt to do so by a third party. ‘If we are thoroughly penetrated by their [the artwork’s] power, we shall find that we have acquired a sense enabling us [as] the characters of a high quality of poetry are what is expressed there. They are far better recognised by being felt in the verse of the master, than by being perused in the prose of the critic’ (Trilling, 1966, p. 310).

There are genuine moments when I believe I have experienced these ‘touchstones’, instances which are what one may generally call artistic revelations. One such moment for me occurs when listening to the closing fugue-coda of Beethoven’s 31st piano sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110 played by Alfred Brendel. Or the first development theme from the 1st movement of Schubert’s final sonata number 22 in B-flat major, D. 960 played by Evgeny Kissin. Here I have recognized for myself, with no previous reading on the subject, the search for spiritual enlightenment, the preoccupation of both composers’ own impending deaths. I have crafted interpretation from my own insular observation. Perhaps this is not so difficult to discern in a universal language such as music where an emotive register is in constant use. But likewise, watching Judi Dench recite ‘the death of Falstaff’ speech from Henry V, or reading the Holy Sonnets of John Donne or the early poetry of T.S. Eliot or the first time I saw Degas’ Young Spartans: all of these experiences of art I came across and formed meaning from without references to any critical material. Momentarily, I would be tempted to argue with Sontag in that I felt my interaction with these ‘touchstones’ was largely innocent, of my own devising and internal revelation, but then immediately I realise that the perspective from which I approach anything is also from within a specific aesthetic framework; in my case I am a white Zimbabwean, raised and educated in a replica of the British public school system, the Western tradition of ‘seeing’. Immediately, my ‘artistic revelations’ defer to the foreshadowing influence of other music, other poetry, other paintings. What any of us has learnt or been exposed to cannot easily be stripped away. The intimate communion we like to think we have with art as a high romantic notion is always informed by the repository of our acquired knowledge; the tripartite qualities of creator-observer-interpreter are forever in symbiotic motion.

This becomes more complex when we use such an acquired knowledge to observe and interpret the art and culture (or creations) of an exotic people. And this explains why Achebe’s British District Commissioner, surveying the scene of Okonkwo’s body dangling from a tree, is unable to appreciate the scope of tragedy which has beset the once great warrior and his people. He is ‘seeing’ the events from his perspective, reading into it with his British mentality of civilisation, and crucially failing to interpret or critique the true nature of what has transpired; there is a disconnect which exposes the futility of bearing witness to a scenario which exists beyond his framework of knowledge. It may be argued that this example is a little crude because this specific novel is set in the nineteenth century, during the time of the ‘great British queen’, when knowledge about Africa was elemental and when narratives such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness influenced perceptions. Of course times have changed and a substantive re-evaluation of Africa has taken place in the era of post-colonialism and multiculturalism. African art and culture intersects European art and culture in ways which are far more synthesised, but simply because one’s way of seeing Africa has become more empathetic does not necessarily mean one is ‘seeing Africa’. There are still intractable issues which prevent the ‘touchstones’ of African art being genuinely accessed and experienced. Perhaps such barriers exist as a way for one culture to protect its integrity and sovereignty from the subsumption of another more vociferous one; maybe an American is simply never meant to truly experience Japanese customs and traditions in a way which can ever be completely revelatory and incandescent because the American aesthetic sensibility, presumptive and protective like all cultures of its own superiority, will always act against this transparency as a preventive measure? This even happens within the racial, social and provincial dynamics of distinct cultures themselves: I am an African and ashamed to say I am unable much of the time to experience real understanding and perceive the absolute truth of much indigenous African art; my upbringing and the framework in which I operate seems to preclude this. To better aid my understanding of African art, I need to be informed by an external interpreter, I rely on an explanation.

On this basis it starts to become problematic when we begin to lean too heavily on the help of the external interpreter (the critic and the scholar) in aiding us towards meaning if we are unable to reach these revelatory touchstones independently. For if we search for meaning in the interpretations of others, the peripheral presence of the critic begins to supplant the Arnoldian virtues of allowing the work of art its transcendental power. There is a diminishing effect which begins to dull the radiance of art’s function as an incantatory, magical experience. In this sense, the nature of the critic begins to resemble someone who is constantly accumulating authority over someone else’s observations. The more he pronounces, the more he expands his sphere of influence, the more likely his views are to becoming considered definitive. And the further away from the ‘experience’ of art we become. He therefore has the ability to redefine the very nature of the objects he has assessed in his own recreation of meaning. The practice of criticism is wholly justifiable because the critic ‘as interpreter’ is like all of us firstly an observer who comes upon a new artwork with fresh eyes, and he seeks to visualise his own meaning anew every time, constantly refreshing and adding to his opinions. He may reference these opinions by forming analogies to other works of art he has amassed in his extensive knowledge base, but he still needs to adjudge a new piece of art with something of a ‘clean slate’, always allowing (and yearning) for the possibility that what lies before him is not just mimesis of other artworks, but something which is wholly original, genre subversive or ground-breaking. The critic, I suspect, always wants to proclaim the new even if he is repeatedly disappointed.

We must consider that the critic is often an artist as well or at the very least has intimate knowledge of the creative process, so there is a bilateral union between the approach to proclaim a meaning and the creative process itself. Criticism of course often takes on the form of high art too. Just a few examples of the masterpieces of literary criticism confirms this: Aristotle’s Poetics, Horace’s Art of Poetry, Samuel Johnson’s On Fiction, John Stuart Will’s What is Poetry, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Virginia Woolf’s, The Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own, or Orwell’s Why I Write. Of course the list is considerable, almost inexhaustible. These texts all demonstrate the beauty of critical expression in writing which itself constitutes every much an artistic creation as more ‘creative’ forms of literature. Such a critic is a wordsmith too and so normally sympathetic to the artist’s dilemmas and limitations, joining with him as a comrade of a kind who knows both the highs and lows of art’s creative potential and in his assessment can temper his pronouncements with a sense of mutual understanding for the artist’s efforts. Plus, what he says is often a conservative compromise in order to promote the validity of art itself, a grand order to which creator, observer and interpreter must all jointly champion if the currency of their intellectual and artistic wellbeing is to hold its societal value.

At the same time criticism is a function derived from one of the essential aspects of human intelligence. We practice criticism because one of the instinctive propellants of civilisation is the need to nurture the continuation of discourse. At a primitive level, I suppose we grapple constantly with the existential question of how to occupy time and how to stimulate our cognitive abilities while doing so. The critic, like everyone, is simply busy at work serving this function in his own way and we are likely to listen to him because it is in our best interests to enter the discussion and to both receive and reject his ideas as stimulus for our own generative imagination. In its simplicity, criticism is the ordering and intellectualisation of opinion which no one can deny is organically an apt and vital use of our mental resources. It is therefore ridiculous to lay the cause of the African author’s (or indeed any author’s) problems at the feet of the critic insofar as we can establish that the role of criticism is essential in the discussion and propagation of art. What tends to become less tenable, though, is the manner in which criticism is practiced, the proponent behind the opinion which is comparable to the role of author behind the idea. We cannot strip these acts of the actors who bring them into existence; examining the human agenda at play here is what begins to interfere with the legitimacy of the action undertaken.

It is impossible to divorce the critic from his criticism in the same manner as we cannot really achieve much by denouncing entirely the writer from his writing. Criticism is a human science, not a scientific science, if that makes any sense. We always need to appreciate that the individual human entity driving the critical mind is by far the most potent influence in its determinations. Any human endeavour is essentially a competition and both within literary theory and in the practice of letters in general, this competitive nature is what drives the participants at play. It is this very oppositional necessity which accounts for any contribution by a writer to the history of literary theory or literary creativity. This is because in order to progress the debate further, to constitute a significant contribution which does not at once perish under the accusation of being derivation, pastiche, parody or copy, each participant must continually establish opposing and controverting positions. One critic must disagree with another, either entirely or by degrees in range either from miniscule to substantial, because to agree absolutely would be to instantly extinguish his own role as a contributor in the continuation of discourse. Only by disagreeing, in whatever minute set of variations, is he able to make a significant contribution, an ‘addition’. The same is true of the creative writer: his text must vary significantly to any other if he is to avoid suffering the accusations levelled against the plagiarist, the imitator or the mimic. In a perverse sense it is this negativity, this constant need to oppose and contradict, which fuels literary productivity. But it also implies that the interpreter, just like the creator, is actively on the lookout for fresh material which he can set up in oppositional relation to material he has already engaged with.

There are also limitations to the range of language at the critic’s disposal. As far back as 1868, William James said, ‘We cannot put the experience of art into language. This would be a translation, a verbal foray of an incommensurate order that would violate the very reason we seek out the special realm of art in the first place’ (Perry, 1935, p. 255). James captures an interesting dilemma: how would you begin to express in any sentient manner the composition of Keats’ 1819 odes? It is almost as redundant as attempting to describe in language the precise qualities of that late Beethoven piano sonata. Or to capture in words what only exists visually in Degas’ depiction of ancient Spartans. What benefit does it serve except in an attempt to create an eloquent description of a form which is essentially ineffable? More recently, McGilchrist has further expressed this futility: ‘criticism cannot handle the work of art, the “object” that is independent, unique, evolved, organic, concrete. If criticism abstracts from the work a meaning or a structure, the unique incarnation, in which alone the work exists, and which the critic begins by trying to illuminate, simply dissolves’ (1982, p. 19).

Accepting of this limitation, of the impossible task he must eventually reconcile with, the critic inevitably begins to focus on off-shoots of the artwork itself which are tangential substitutes for what simply cannot be matched or achieved in language: ‘Criticism is increasingly apt to address itself to the commentaries of others rather than to literature itself. We see our authors refracted through theories of literature which effectively make us and our own views more important than the subjects we set out to discover’ (1982, p. 21).  This last statement – ‘effectively makes us and our views more important’ – is a disconcerting notion, especially if we apply this to the providence of a niche art form, such as African writing, one already locked in a struggle to be critiqued in neutral, independent terms. Does it need to be ‘refracted through theories of literature’ simply because the theory applied to decipher it cannot directly address the artwork itself? The more this somewhat dislocated attempt to grapple with the restrictions of language continually manifests and collapses, there is also the possibility in the meantime that, ‘criticism generates a panoply of texts that compete with literature, and hence it obliges us to traffic incessantly in secondary languages wholly removed from art’ (Cain, 1988, p. 35). There is the hypothetical possibility this can be avoided, as Cain goes on to points out: “One solution to this problem might be to commune with the classics in solitude and never presume to impart a word about them. Speaking that first word would be a great mistake, for it would set off the spin of analysis and commentary, trigger comparisons of one’s own interpretation with those proposed by others, and foster efforts to adjudicate interpretive discord by mustering relevant knowledge (1988, p. 35).”

However, to engage in this monastic sense of disciplined discretion would be counter to the purposes of continuing a discourse which sustains our very civilisation; every critic is a talker, as is every writer or artist. It would also condemn the experience of the artwork to one exclusive individual, whereas the point of art is surely to create a communal platform to showcase the human experience, to share and co-author meaning as a collective body, just as reception theory suggests (see Jauss, Hall, Fish, et al)?

On a pragmatic level there are naturally other human agendas at play. The critic or theorist by his very nature (even if he intends his critique to be celebratory) must hone in on the created object with some ardour because this is the raw material of his industry; he instinctively covets it, he must claim ownership if he is to engage with it purposefully. He cannot help but take possession of the text utterly and wholly because only in the intensity and thoroughness of his observation of it can he begin to establish the opposing line of positions on which his legitimate entry into functioning criticism rests. In this sense the critic is a more pronounced interpreter than the average reader/observer because whereas someone who reads a text casually is likely to read it for cognitive stimulation (a ‘gleaner’), a critic must actively commence a response which itself is likely to take the form of a ‘text on a text’ (as such he is a ‘marker’). Of course both acts are not passive because the original text is designed to entice a response, but while a ‘gleaner’ can afford to discard his response should he wish once his reading experience is complete, a critic can never do so because it would render his own objectives in generating criticism futile. The result, even though it may be unintentional, immediately forces the text to become reductive as opposed to operative, closed and not open. I argue this to stress that a completed object of art is aesthetically self-contained; it needs no further expansion, it is in itself essentially, exquisitely finite. By being what it is, is to be ‘open’ to the multiple impressions it will make on its observer. Being subjected to external criticism, especially that which is explicitly demarcated by the critic’s need to generate his response, increasingly ‘closes’ down the possibility for the more passive recipient to form these impressions in direct relation to the object itself, free and independent of the pronouncements which now potentially lie between object and observer, metaphorically ‘muddying the ground.’ And when the critic’s ‘writing on the writing’ enters into being, it has subsumed the writing on which it is written, forever changing it because the authoritative critic’s pronouncements in the public arena are in themselves adhesively redefining and influentially polymorphic. This is common in even the most glaring ways: we observe critic’s by-lines on the posters of movies, or as part of a book’s blurb, and even though these are commercial marketing tools, there is still a level to which the observer has been influenced by the critic even before his own observation has taken place; his own interpretation has been interfered with, no matter how minimally or cynically. In effect, the text invariably buckles under the force being brought to bear on it by the critic’s oversight: elaborations, explanations, interpretations and intellectualisations. The critic intercedes into the territory of what we have established is the real proprietor and true designator of the text; the neutral reader or passive observer.


So far all of this ranks the writer and critic in culturally and ethnically non-defining terms; we have considered them to be amorphous and near parochial equals. There are no real concerns or objections posed when both writer and critic are, for example, middle aged white men from Texas. But when we start to disrupt the levels of equality between participating actors, what happens? Suddenly we are dealing with disparities between social classes, ethnic groups, political ideologies, genders, sexual identities and other dynamics. If we are to enter into a discussion alongside the critic, we now need to redeploy our thinking to incorporate Marxist, post-colonial, feminist, queer theories and so on. The issue of criticism ceases to be essentially between text and critic, but about the socio-political divides between them. As Cain says: “Criticism does not mean philological exegesis or sustained inquiry; in fact, it doesn’t appear to mean exegesis of inquiry at all. It exists to unify social groups, endorse the views and values of the nation, and consolidate the Western cultural tradition. Criticism, for these men, never means asking “why”. Rather, it reaffirms a sense of who they are and what they hold in common (1988, p. 46).”

Suddenly, the question of ‘who’ the critic is in relation to the writer becomes itself a definition of the criticism, formed as it is from the critic’s personal ideology. It invites the question: is anyone qualified to critique anyone else? It seems as if there is a long established history of discord in the critical community between various players jostling for authority; a constant vetting process by which a critic establishes either their ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ status. When applied to the realm of African writing, we see immediate tensions begin to surface. As Garritano, writing about the feminist critiquing of African texts, says:  “The tenor of the dialogue becomes more cacophonous as feminist critics debate who can be thought of as an insider, who should be relegated to the stance of an outsider, and how does one’s insider/outsider status influence not only the reading one constructs of the African text, but the legitimacy awarded the reading by the scholarly community (2000, p. 50).”

To the general critical community, the African writer immediately becomes categorised as an anomaly whose participation in the intercourse between writer and critic requires special consideration. (I use the term ‘anomaly’ with due consideration, although I presume this designation would apply to any writer writing from the position of the ‘subaltern’ or what is commonly referred to as ‘the Other.’) His entry produces the need for reconsideration because when you add the African writer to the mix you are unavoidably (for there are historiographical issues at play) redefining the argument of levels of equality between writer and critic. The African critic Obioma Nnaemeka, for example, scolds Susan Andrade for ‘citing Bakhtin, Jameson, Foucault, Cixous, Spivak and other ‘greats’ all over Igbo novels without having read Emmanuel Obiechina, Donatus Nwega, Romanus Egudu, Michael Echeruo and Juliet Okonkwo’ (1994, p. 96). Garritano claims that ‘Andrade, according to Nnaemeka, demonstrates her outsider status by using postmodern theory instead of the theory by African critics’ (2000, p. 50). And the reason Nnaemeka believes criticism of African writing belongs to the ‘insider’ or proponent of African theory is: “to redeem the creative work of African women writers from the ‘distorted interpretations of feminist critics … so long as feminist critics of African literature insist on substituting high falutin verbiage for serious engagements with the cultural and material conditions that prevail in African literary texts, they will continue to produce irrelevancies and misrepresentations (1994, p. 81).”

Clearly we have walked into a full scale disagreement. The question of ‘what has been added’ by the critic, and what constitutes the ‘addition’, and even ‘who is the critic, what are his (or in these cases her) origins, what are his epistemological leanings?’ becomes pertinent. It would be logical to suggest that if necessitated, African writing is critiqued by African critics according to African theory. But this is self-defeating and serves only to supress the buoyancy of the African text on the world stage. In reality, Western critics far out-number their African counterparts and of course they are perfectly entitled to engage with African writing should they wish to do so; art benefits by being a game played amongst universal participants. However, we have now also entered into the sensitive realm of post-colonial theory.


But let us defer for the time being. Another question which puzzles me, like that of the chicken and the egg, is which comes first – the act of writing or the theory pertaining to it? Does every 21st century writer, a constituent of the inter-connective world with its near universal access to information, write with the knowledge that what he writes rests within an established critical plane of consciousness? Or is this deduction far too simplistic? For example, is using a basic metaphor suggestive of the author’s interplay with the critical analysis beyond the imagery it will give rise to? Or could using a metaphor exist entirely in the isolated idiomatic range of the writer’s indigenous existence? Can a writer write allegorically without knowledge of what constitutes allegory, even if his technical vocabulary is differential to that of established ‘theory’ (i.e. Western theoretical discourse)? Or are both writing metaphorically and allegorically undefined functions of the writing act itself? Are they part of the writer’s intuition, of a naturally occurring instinct, of pure cognitive origin, universally generative, on its own bearing no relation to any diachronic theoretical basis? This supports Nnaemeka’s claim of the ‘irrelevances and misrepresentations’ we risk if there is an intrinsic separation between the writer’s knowledge of literary functions and that of his critic’s, if the two are approaching the task of writing from diametrically opposed positions and knowledge bases. On what valid basis may the Western scholar critique the African writer when the scholar’s methodology of criticism most probably rests in assessing the writing product as a process of successive comparative relations to his already pre-existing Western knowledge index? Can apples in all fairness be compared with pears?

What of the African writer who writes (as most increasingly do) from within the parameters of a Western literary aesthetic, or what we could call the ‘traditional form’? What if a Zambian writer were to pen a novel about life on the copper mines of Solwezi? Perhaps about the rivalry between the dominant Kaonde tribe and the two smaller tribes of the Lunda and Luvale within the town’s mining operations? Maybe there are rival mines, Kanashani Mine and Lumwana Mine, operated by First Quantum Minerals and Equinox Minerals respectively. The novel is written in English, with a third-person chronologically linear narrative separating into traditional chapters with the close of each typically rising to a note of tension, intrigue or piquant remark, ending on a certain well-pitched cadence, encouraging the reader to ‘read on.’ The syntax is conventionally in the English mode and the diction is straight-forward with the occasional inflection of traditional vernacular infused alongside the technical jargon of the mining industry, etc. The writer is well-read, well-educated and reasonably well-travelled. He intends his novel to be a satire on the mining world, an oblique commentary about the exploitation of Zambia’s resources (including its labour) by the overseas conglomerates, maybe even a veiled allegory on neo-colonialism. He also works out of the country’s capital, Lusaka, and most of his information about Solwezi is, like mine, and I would imagine many others, extracted from ready-made online sources such as Wikipedia.

Clearly the modus operandi, structure, stylization and aesthetic sensibility of this writer is indicative of someone working in the Western literary tradition, i.e. the established conventional form of what is considered to be the modern novel. To commence work on his text is in fact to continue a ‘dialogue’ with an established critical practice. There is a ‘following on,’ a clear and established lineage which derives from the author’s knowledge of his craft, knowledge he has ameliorated from and now shares in with his Western (or even worldly) counterparts, part of the globalising and unifying of all knowledge systems. After all, we know perfectly well that artistic traditions are not hermetically sealed or mutually exclusive of each other; they exchange influences or borrow elements from one another. However, it is clear through the language and structure of this particular novel, that its writer has been influenced by other novels in the ‘traditional form.’ And despite this leaning towards the tenants of the Western ideal, the reality is that an African writer will have produced an African narrative; the adjectival bondage is unavoidable because the author is the ultimate figure of the text, standing outside it as its antecedent (see Foucault, 1969, p. 205). For in any forthcoming dialogue associated with the text, once transferred into the possession of the reader or the critic, its classification as an object authored by an African will be firmly established. The one could not possibly be extricated from the other. Even if the identity of the author as this antecedent presence was removed, if the text were anonymous, it would still be of African subject matter and attract attention as an ‘African object’. This is the same kind of interest an African craft work receives, such as a carving or a sandstone sculpture, because as an artefact in the mould of a ‘foreign, exotic aesthetic’ it garners the appeal of a ‘curiosity;’ it is marked as an item of especial interest because, in the register of post-colonial studies, its ‘otherness’ stands outside the dominion of ‘the Same’ (see Mudimbe, 1988, pg. 12). 

The truth is that in the literary public domain, an African text is paradoxically analogous to the African artefact: despite being of Western conventional form, it lies inside the circumference of what I would call the ‘zone of Western conspicuousness.’ It does not amalgamate seamlessly within a level of comparative obscurity with other texts of similar convention, of which there are literally thousands upon thousands, but rather it is forced to stand at their centre as a figure of attention. The critic can now step forward and commence his operations because what lies before him is conventionally recognizable as a novel in the traditional sense of the word, and is legitimately ripe for his critiquing, yet one that has been specifically flagged for his notice. The problem is that while the African author and his work remain hemmed into this ‘zone of conspicuousness’, both he and the work remain vulnerable to the ‘additions’ which the critical industry will append. This asserts that any work by an African author in English (or any other imperial language) and written in ‘conventional’ form must be considered as belonging to English letters as a whole and can be scrutinised accordingly (see, Roscoe, 1971). But as Udofia argues, ‘implicit in this statement is the argument that whatever is not written in an African language is not African literature and whatever is written in a European language is an appendage to European literature’ (2015). Our Zambian novelist is effectively trapped in a ‘Catch-22’ scenario: either way disenfranchised.

Or is this all fanciful conjecture, lacking practicality? Would it be simpler to say that this Zambian author, despite his ethnicity, has simply written a ‘modern novel’ which the modern critic will assess? Is the African novel in the literary world market really that conspicuous? Indeed, this question of which came first – the convention or the text, the theory or the practice – may in today’s age seem redundant, without resolve, or even absurd, but it bothers me because if one were to follow the other, there is the insinuation that no writing and no criticism of that writing (or alternatively no critical basis from which writing is derived) is independent of any external paradigm. All writing belongs to other writing. Or all writing is from other writing; an act of extension, deferring continually to a homogenised theory of ‘writing’ which itself originates in the writing function. The reason this aporia has puzzled me is because it implies the subjugation of a writer, that he is essentially enslaved to the influences of his writing’s antecedents.


Achebe, C. (1986). Things Fall Apart. Johannesburg: Heinemann Educational Publishers.

Cain, W. (1988). Notes towarda a History of Anti-Criticism. New Literary History, Vol. 20, No. 1, Critical Reconsiderations, 33-48.

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©Neal Hovelmeier (Ian Holding), 2020

The African and the Albatross:  Notes on the Problematic Status of the African Author, Part 1: Text
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