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Decolonisation of African literature

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Recently, one of my granddaughters, Chimwenwe, went to Enugu in eastern Nigeria to attend a seminar and brought me a book with the title Towards Decolonisation of African Literature. Its authors are all highly educated men with doctorate degrees from America’s Ivy League universities. Their names are Chinweizu, Onwu Chekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Madubuike.

Dr Atieno Odhiambo of university of Nairobi introduces the book at the back cover thus: “This very original volume is a stinging critique of some of the dominant trends in contemporary African literature and literary criticism. It subjects neo-colonial literary criticism typified by such experts as Gerald Toore, Charles Larsen, Adrian, Roscoe, Eustace Palmer and Wole Soyinka.”

The book is well-researched on African authors. Its combative tone is recognised by its authors. Its polemic is directed against European critique of African literature and such Africans as seen to have internalised European culture. There will be many who will agree with the authors but here and there a few will register caveats. The book is highly emotional.

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We will look at some of the criticisms which have aroused the authors’ indignation.

African novels are said to suffer from inadequate description, or inadequate characterisation, motivation, psychology and depth or from unrealistic and awkward dialogue or from the alleged conception and handling of time and space.

This criticism suggests that all African writers show the same weakness while all Western or European writers show none of these weaknesses. This is not correct; such insinuations are made by people who have never written great novels of their own. Those Western people who have written extensively speak differently.

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One of the criticisms of African novels is that too many of them are autobiographical. Compare this with what W. Somerset Maugham wrote in The Summing Up.

“The novelist constructs a public world out of his own private world and gives to the character of his fancy, a sensitiveness, a power of reflection and an emotional capacity which are peculiar to himself.” Maugham says in his greatest novel Of Human Bondage fact and fiction are so mingled that it is difficult to say which is which.

Spare description and weak characterisation may be discerned in the tales called “Arabian Nights” and yet the stories and their suspense have captivated the world since they were translated from Arabic to other languages.

The three authors regard the definition given to African Literature by Western critiques as “imperialistic bourgeois” and must be dismissed out of hand as spurious and as problems for the imperialists not for Africans. There is jingoism in this challenge, “the term novel should, strictly speaking, be used genetically for all extended fictional for prose narrative treating of any bourgeois reality whose subject matter is man in any bourgeois society and the term European novel or Western novel should be routinely applied to novels which treat of European or western bourgeois reality.” Is there no universal humanity on which novels can be based?

Here is where a fellow African like the writer of this article may find it difficult to agree in toto with what the three wise men of the West Coast of Africa are up to. The term bourgeois as spread by writers on communism has come to mean a few people who own the means of production such as factories, banks, farms while the majority own nothing but their labour and are exploited by the few.

This scenario is very recent in the history of mankind. It has to do with the advent of industrialisation.

Does this mean that before division of society into bourgeois and proletariat no novel was ever written? Many historians of the novel say Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote was the prototype of the European novel. To what extent did it owe its birth to the bourgeois society in Spain if there was such a thing?

The most famous African novel Things Fall Apart describes Igbo life before industrialisation in Nigeria. Too much ideology pan-Africanism and racism have tainted this otherwise masterpiece of literary exposition.

I found the authors’ retelling of the Great Race most appealing. With slight variation, I heard the story from my uncle when I was a child of 10. This suggests that there is something common in African mythology.

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