The Legacy of the African Writers Series, 50 Years On
In the oil-lamp lit room, the father, sitting across from his British-educated son, attempts to assert his authority on a matter violently testing his faith. We can almost hear his voice tighten:
“You cannot marry the girl.”
“I said you cannot marry the girl.”
“But why, father?”
“Why? I shall tell you why. But first tell me this. Did you first find out or try to find out anything about this girl?”
“What did you find out?”
This “anything” about “this girl” (Clara, whom we do not dislike), concerns a resilient pre-colonial taboo. And on this most ancient of ancient matters—passing the family seed—unyielding traction develops. Hence, through the father, who daily rouses the family at dawn for supplication to the new deity, the contradiction wells out into the open:
“My son...I understand what you say. But this thing is deeper than you think.”
Thus, in its single-minded march, Chinua Achebe’s novel, No Longer at Ease (1963), tightens on the theme of displacement-leading-to-eventual-fall; Obi’s fall a caricature of the central leitmotif of his great-grandfather, Okonkwo’s. Obi graduates from the sly “Eh?” to a plaintive “But why, father?” before lurching for the finality of a tautology:
“But all that is going to change. In ten years things will be quite different from what they are now.”
In ten years things will be quite different. We are not reading Things Fall Apart, and since literary characters don’t know that they are literary characters, we can assume that Obi did not read Things Fall Apart either, for he is threatening his father with a calamity that Achebe’s previous novel already dramatized. In the more than half-century since Christianity gutted the world of his great-grandfather, the times that Obi predicts will come are the times in which he is already living.
Should one require a précis of Africa’s literature from the 1960s, this passage offers all the elements: Obi as Ocol, Obi as Egbo of the smart set of Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters (1965); the type populating that cache of books like spawn stranded outside the moist pool of time. Read No Longer at Ease and you have nearly covered the African Writers Series (AWS) syllabus.
To read the AWS now is to feel how much the awareness of change—things becoming quite different—struck, not only the creators of these books, but the very characters they created. Africans knew their world was going; the unease of Lawino when “Ocol is no longer in love with the old type”; time and events becoming the tyrants, the future which would bring freedom also bringing fear, sweeping village and metaphor aside. It was not paranoia. Two generations of writers and books later, we know this change has taken place when the smell of the African world so dear to Lawino no longer appears in today’s African books, when the smell of yams has been replaced with the smell of “Supreme ice cream” and freshly made “strawberry fondant.”
One imagines the excitement with which readers back then turned to the frontispiece of each new installment of the AWS. The listing of authors was flag-hoisting, a coming-into-independence for literature. As with each year, starting with Ghana’s independence in 1957, when a new flag was added to the growing forest at the United Nations headquarters, so it was with the AWS page of honor; here a writer from Cameroon has joined, there is Angola coming in, Nigeria yet again.
The AWS’s gift to literature was the introduction of a language, a climate of metaphor, a view of things not without its dynamism. Pumpkin roots, egusi soup, eneke birds, Ogun, frogs jumping in broad daylight—these burst the limits of what had been thought literarily possible, demanding attention alongside Horatio and daffodils. To a grateful continent, the series gifted a plot to plant a cultural flag; appendages no more, here is the collection of our own worldview: here our Shakespeare; here our Hard Times.
Yet even back then, the AWS’s approach was causing unease. Wole Soyinka famously refused to have the imprint publish his books, relenting on The Interpreters, but not before calling the series the “orange ghetto.” It was and remains the case that writers from Africa are necessarily “African writers,” in a way that Cees Nooteboom is not a “European writer,” and that “African writers” did and continue to resent that tag.
With hindsight, we can see that the moment of the AWS’s greatest triumph was also complicating matters for the next generation of writers. But this goes back to the manner in which colonialism played out on the continent, and how the writers interpreted it. T
echnique, the brick-and-mortar of writing, which is transferrable across time, too frequently counted for less than subject. The creation of a coherent worldview in the sort of books that miss and take nothing for granted, was brutally co-opted into a kind of protest politics, too quick to define the group in opposition to the oppressor. So for the next generation, writing a book on Africa outside of the colonial theme would require a fresh search for insights.
If it is true that writers read other writers to see how they write, it is also true that they are the most unforgiving of readers. For my generation , those born in the 1970s, the AWS was classroom text. To know how to really write, we naturally turned to the American stylists. To know about human nature, we turned to the Russians and the Japanese. It was the order of things. Ng?g? might teach you how to feel, from Achebe you learned how to integrate African ideas into your writing, and Okot p’Bitek taught you how to sound authentic. But you also needed to be wary of these subjects.
To have not experienced colonialism first hand is to fail to fully engage with the great majority of these books, for their transfer into general human experience is limited. Yet they had set the template by which the African writer was to be read. It was not immediately clear at the time to a schoolboy that the thrust of literature in the classroom was prescriptive, that it was indoctrination into a certain worldview. But with growing awareness, it became clear that those in my generation who would become writers tended to avoid the AWS.
The decline in productivity that began for African literature in the 1970s can also be seen as a search for another way of seeing, for it is in this decade that we see greater experiments with technique, shifts in philosophy, and the emergence of individual styles. The dogma that built up, which made it risky to critique the AWS, helped little. What you disliked about the AWS might be understandable, but that thing went deeper than you thought.
The intermediary generation of writers who wanted to marry the girl called technique, was asked how much he had found out about her background. Such a marriage could only produce “a sick book; sick with the sick- ness...of the human condition”—as Achebe said memorably of Armah. But the notoriety of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1969), meanwhile, arose not so much from what Armah was talking about as from how he talked about it. Kojo Lang’s inexorably paced prose is a valuable suggestion on how to see everything, a useful guide to avoid being particularistic.
In another ten years, the next generation of African writers was to look, not back to the 1960s, but across the Atlantic, for it was not simply that magical realism was in vogue, but that in impressive ways, the affinities of Africa and Latin America made clear that the answers lay elsewhere.
And yet, if the 1980s were mostly barren, the 1990s might not have existed at all, which was not the same for the early 2000s, for the generation of writers born in the 1970s has doubtlessly formulated its own philosophy, if not amalgamated so much from everywhere. Prose more than subject is what propels the new Kenyan writers Binyavanga Wainaina and Yvonne Owuor. In Wainaina’s new book, One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011), we find psychological accuracy and engagement of the kind not seen since Soyinka. In Owuor’s prose, grace and sinew combine as if her sentences were tracing the pirouettes of a dancer. Both give reflexivity to the African character, freeing it from social context by activating the psychological dimension neglected by too many within the AWS. In a way, the essential liberation, as Reggae musicians say, is mental.
On the other side of the continent came the sterling success of Chimamanda Adichie, with whom the new generation will doubtless be identified, just as Achebe was with the old. Her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), is an important riposte to the writers of the 1960s. The courage with which Adichie confronts ethnicity, the one topic the AWS generation pretended did not exist, has perhaps broken the most urgent taboo of African literature.
The decline the literature suffered from the 1970s through to the end of the century was perhaps inevitable, and while one might question the true literariness of the work that AWS elevated, the series remains the single most important record of a pan-African transition. While the new writer’s relationship to it is difficult, there is no denying that the older generation had access to an Africa that was fast disappearing. The 1960s generation was there to record it. It must have been quite something to have evoked the feel of carved, worn wood, the aroma of cashew nuts in hot ash, of walking barefoot in a ripe banana grove, to have had the privilege of penning the soul-snaring lines of Wole Soyinka. It may not have been deliberate to evoke that world, but how many suspected that metaphor would be one of the victims of change?
A parallel story builds up when you follow the transition of metaphor and motif from old to new African writing, to trace how the “very” in Obi’s “Lagos is a very big place” punctuates rapt wonder at the new city, to the characters of Igoni Barrett’s short stories who barely notice the city. No longer outsiders to Lagos, Barrett’s characters’ concerns are dental hygiene and the efficiency of the bus service: Lagos domiciled, Umuofia the curious outpost, villages to which Adichie’s Kambili and Jaja now travel in a Mercedes to experience the strangeness of pre-modern ways.
The greater struggle for the new writer has been, as Gerald Gaylard described, not only the “freeing of energies from the draconian grip of colonialism,” but also liberation from “opposition to it.” With inexorable cruelty, Ocol’s worldview triumphed over Lawino’s. But a fondness for the tone and feel of the bygone era that the AWS captured, which won’t come back, lingers on, like doting on an uncle who can’t open his e-mail, but was a zestful swinger in his day.
This is an extract from a longer essay published as ‘But Why, Father?: Looking back on the Legacy of the African Writers Series, Fifty Years on On’ in Transition 106. We thank Transition and Indiana University Press for permission to reproduce the material.
AK Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and literary commentator and critic. He has been an art writer since 1996 and in this capacity, wrote for The East African newspaper as well as edited the art website, AfricanColours.org. He has just completed work on his first work of fiction. He has previously worked as literary editor at the Kenyan literary publisher, Kwani?