Discourse | Issues In The Evaluation Of Contemporary African Literature (Part I) By Prof. Saleh Abdu | The Arts-Muse Fair

Issues In The Evaluation Of Contemporary African Literature  


Prof. Saleh Abdu.


Like the stated theme of this year's ANA International Convention, although shorter, my chosen topic is broad and is designed to proffer a wide, instead of deep and argumentative, posture. This relieves me of engaging in hard and tortuous textual exegesis in the usually bent and twisted critical parlance to uphold a line of argument. Not pursuing any of today's sub-themes, I set out to explore and by so doing remind you, by highlighting, of some historical epochs and extant signposts in preceding critical evaluation of African literature. All these are presented as a prelude to assessing African literature (with)in (the comity of) World Literature(s).

I hope my paper will serve sufficiently to bring to the fore of today's discourse the healthy inevitability of heterogeny in matters of global cultural discourse and the likely misplaced fallacy of homogeny or equality against which Aristotle cautioned when he said,

The greatest act of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal

So, my paper strives to reveal the uniqueness of African literature from its inception; to suggest the difficulty of judging it like any other in the world, and to solicit for it a more appropriate, sympathetic assessment paradigm.

The paper will be punctuated by questions and posers instead of any conclusions about the issues raised.
For this purpose, the paper x-rays the key concepts of the Convention's stated theme including Canon, Prizes, Borders, but, most especially, African literatures (with its plural 's') and World Literature (in its single grandeur).


Seen from the perspective of literature as a cultural practice, each of the three terms which feature in the Convention theme (Canons, Prizes, Borders) constitutes a limit and so indicates a set of limitations. For, each is a subjective construct meant to simultaneously include and exclude. This is so even though the term Canon in its use today still bears the semi-sacred, semi-spirituality of its Biblical origin. For, in literary discourse today, we know that the Canon is established and jealously guarded by a clique of secular, even irreverent self-serving members of the literati, without any written objectives or criteria as a guide. Often, the decision to include or exclude a text in the Canon vary and vacilitate across epochs and geography. For example, P W Shelly, the Romantic British poet, and John Donne, the Metaphysical poet, were for sometime not in the Canon of English literature.

I was not taught Amos Tutuola as a Undergraduate in the English degree program. But, by the time I started teaching African literature to University students in the early 80s, The Palmwine Drinkard was on the syllabus and many students were thrilled by its 'Yoruba English'. With the recent changes in the University curricula today, especially the inclusion of Popular culture as a respectable genre, soon other texts hitherto not patronized, such as James Hardley Chase and similar other crime and sensational thrillers will be unquestioned subjects  of dissection and analysis in the English undergrad class. For, the selection and establishment of the secular canon does not seem to have a set of written or immutable criteria. Not so with Prizes.

Most literary prizes on offer today tend to be awarded on the basis of some(-times written) set of culture-specific criteria. Some, however, operate with undisclosed, even suspect criteria and motive. It is reported, for example that William Wordsworth only conditionally accepted the British Poet Laureate in his time. Jean Paul Sarte was said to value more his individuality and freedom from institutional establishment when he rejected the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature. So, often, Prizes tend to have strings attached, perhaps the more prestigious the longer and tighter the string.


CANONS, PRIZES AND BOUNDARIES: AFRICAN WRITERS AND WRITINGS IN WORLD LITERATURE, the theme of this year's ANA International conference, throws an equal challenge to writers, critics and sponsors of African literature and the literary arts in general. It simultaneously seems to ask questions such as, Is African Literature parochial/provincial? Is it appropriately valued/assessed/rewarded? What is the current/actual status of African literature in (the comity of) World Literature(s)? While these important questions are being asked and their answers contemplated, it is my belief that we are all aware of how Literature, as the product of human imagination and encoder, generator and perpetuator of culture, is fast losing grounds to 21st Century predilection and preoccupation with the social media and the digital culture. For, while Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilee and Albert Einstein are continuously succeeded by many Alfred Nobels, Steven Hawkins with their strings of distant illuminations, constructions-destructions, comfort, bred by constant inventions, comparatively less and less are seen, heard and felt of Plato, Aristotle, Donne, Shakespeare and Wordsworth - well known erstwhile vanguards of humanity.

In this age, perhaps more than in any preceding epoch, elders, whose traditional task it is to educate, instruct and groom the young ones into a future built on the past and present traditions, upon which they (the youth) are expected to build and improve, are finding themselves and their knowledge and expertise of minimal, if not doubtful, relevance to contemporary dispensation. Admittedly, the passage across the digital-divide has been wrought with waves of shock across many other spaces and spheres of human life to the extent that some of its groundbreaking achievements may not appear to be properly acknowledged.

The latter are many and countless. But, collectively they seem oriented toward making human beings more efficient, more comfortable, to work faster, be more accurate and exact. But, taking only comfortability for analysis, can it be said that 21st Century man is any way more comfortable than, say, the man of the 19th Century? Yes, the new man of today maybe faster, more accurate in calculating the target to attack in a thousand kilometer range. But, things like comfort, confidence, and many other core human attributes, thrive best in a cultured, not fast or speedy, society.

For its status as the agent for encoding, expressing and representing man's affections, spirituality and identity, the cultural sphere is, above all, the victim of this wave of visceral changes. Important as the former are in our lives, the 21st Century ethos has  tended to privilege other, contesting attributes and pursuits of man such as  the glamorous, the comfortable and material benefits to the extent that, to be successful and productive, man must be like a machine - fast, accurate, efficient, exact. 21st Century man has lost confidence in himself and all his effort and achievement are measured - marked scored and graded - by machine and mechanistic principles and devices. Many scholars have rightly posed the question as to what this trend portends: man has unwittingly reduced himself to servicing of and serving his inventions. In one of his memorable poems on the effect of the rise of industrialization and urbanization on central London in 18th Century, Wordsworth laments of "what man has done to fellow man".

What does this spell in/for the future of literature? What can writers/Writers Association do? The publishers, distributors, literary agents, readers and critics may join hands with the writers to re-position African literature in World literature; but, is the increasingly digitalized world according literature a fair or equitable space?


In its general and specialized conception, literature can be said to be and understood as the story or narrative in man's life. In this regard, by its function and what man should know and expect of it, literature, as story, is fully represented by Prof Kerr(2007) as,

"It is the story that conveys all our gains, all our failures, all we hold dear and all we condemn. To convey this to the next generation is the only way we can keep going and keep alive as people. Therefore, story is like the genes that are transferred to create the new being. It is far more important than anything else"

Is it because literature is misunderstood that it has become a pariah of the vocations in our world today? Yet, literature issues from man's basic impulse to make sense of the environment he finds himself; to secure sanity and security, to develop composure and self-confidence, which will enable him to dream and realize his dreams. This impulse is as basic as it is protean, and so it manifests itself in a variety of metaphoric representations in human preoccupations. Perhaps the most ubiquitous and overlooked manifestation of the literary impulse in man is in all instances of the use of  language whose metaphoric essence is often eclipsed by its daily use and ubiquity in our life.

We need to know, as Clabourgh (2014) explains, that "even the most faithful account of an event is made up in the sense that it is filtered through the eyes, feelings, beliefs and memories of one person". So, inevitable elements of a make up (fiction, untruth - metaphor) are always, actually there in every instance of language use, whether verbal or semiotic (communication in/by signs). This assertion automatically includes the scientific world with its seemingly irrefutable claim to 'the truth'. Like the arts, the scientific world also uses signs to represent ideas. The numbers, figures and diagrams all represent things other than themselves. Thus, science and art have the same character of modus operendi. That is why, in his investigation of the mathematical dimension of life, Ossaman (in Obafemi op cit) avers that,

Though the light of science and the light of art are inseparable and the same, their bearers speak different languages and only the best among them understand that they are engaged in the enterprise Robert Ossaman, Mathematical Exploration of the Universe Cited in Obafemi op cit

Of course, in a more academic sense, literature is further distinguished as "writings that come from the imagination or writing that isn't factual. It's the very fine art of making things up in the most attractive, apt and convincing way possible. It is the telling of lies in order to reveal illuminating and dark truths about the world and our place in it " Clabourgh 2014: Pix

Except in the schools and academia, for the purpose of studies, dissection and examination, literature conceived and produced as fiction has suffered and is suffering globally, consequent to man's predilection for science and technology. Even in the schools, and especially in the academia, the introduction and subsequent preponderance of theories in literary studies in the 20th Century have tended to erode the affective and pleasurable attributes in fiction. Indeed, Mikhail Bakhtin, one of the gurus of literary theory, is known to have insisted that literary studies requires "area other than literature" and that, of the literary critic and his subject,

"his specialty is not to be a specialist; conversely, an interest in literature is perhaps a requirement for specialization in the human sciences  Cited in Obafemi, op cit

For man, the 20th Century experience in all spheres has revealed evermore a yawning lacuna, which the failing prevalence of literature has brought to the fore. Democracy may have gained grounds in many communities. The paradox of modern man's pursuit of democracy amid his simultaneous suppression of the Humanities subjects in the school has been sufficiently highlighted by Nussbaum (2010). But, this gain is threatened by the resurgence of negative, 'uncultured', proclivity.  In this regard, the need for literature's cruciality in an age at the brink of losing its humanity is highlighted by Prof Olu Obafemi in these words:

"Literature should keep abreast of the space-scientific age, the computer and telescopic revolution, and from it unearth the essence of man and  purge him of racist centric canons and impositions" Prof Olu Obafemi.
The trend of neglect of literature is such that in almost all schools across the world, among the elite and the masses, the story of readers negative attitude is the constant. Dana Gioia, Poet Laureate of California, and a lecturer has this to say

 "I worry about my students, so many of whom are so preoccupied with social media and digital entertainment that they lack the contemplative space to develop  their inner lives"  4th October, 2017 The Catholic World Report

African Literature(s) and Writing(s)

The appellation 'African Literature' in the Conference theme, especially its plural 's', side by side with 'World Literature' (not World Literatures), inevitably recalls the reluctance, if not outright rejection by the Western world, which forerunners of the concept, such as Wole Soyinka, encountered in the UK back in the middle of the 20th Century. Although the concept 'African Literature' has come to stay and to be widely accepted and used, one wonders if there is something left out or not included in its referential scope each time the plural 's' is added to the name. For example, the very good American-based journal Research in African Literatures has the tendency, each time I think about its title, to make me ponder on its implication side by side with the journal titled World Englishes. While in the case of the latter, it is assumed, in fact it is well known, that the concept is predicated against the existence of an English English; the former has no such background underpinning it. Or, so it seems. And, despite the prevalence of its use to designate degree courses and programs in Universities across the world, the appellation 'African Literature' (without the plural 's') seems to clumsily compromise Africa's different languages-literature - including European colonial and ethnic indigenous linguistic medium texts. So, are there many literatures today - as many as there are languages in use - in/of Africa, or is there one complex African literature? With what prize or losses do we accept either of the two options? Or, can we have our cake and eat it.


Despite their importance and helpful use by scholars, labels, especially for cultural constructs, continue to feature inaccuracies of representation, which inevitably inhere in them. How much sense is there in continental or national literatures? For example, despite the sub-continent's geographical uniqueness, one can still ask, how Australian is Australian Literature? And, European, American, Literatures? Because literature is a free and freeing enterprise, truly creative writers have tended to abhor designations that limit and align them to finite contractions in form of continents, nation-states and regions. When in 1966, just a year to his sad demise, Christopher Okigbo was awarded the prize for The Best African Poet in Dakar, he was reported to have declined with the remark that he was simply 'a Poet'. Yet, it can be asserted, with little contradiction whatsoever that Christopher Okigbo was of full African descent. For, the stand-alone existence of the continents can be said to be incontestable by virtue of boundaries of the great waters - Pacific and Atlantic.

Yet, creative citizens of the different continents can and do rightly regard themselves and their works as super or supra continental. Was or wasn't Okigbo making a lot of sense when he said he was not (merely) an African poet? More recently in 2013, Starvans, in a submission on American literature had a course to asseverate the point that "the only true country a writer can claim is the language in which he writes" Starvans, 2013.  ANA, the association is conceived in form of a Nigerian literature. What is inalienably unique about ANA-generated or ANA-sponsored texts? Beyond the setting and the personae of ANA literature, both of which can be replicated with ease in Niger, Benin of Ghana, what is Nigerian about the books produced by ANA writers? 


The concept 'African Literature' in the academics has been traditionally seen and explored as a complex, multi-lingual, multi-cultural phenomenon historically spread across the continents. Ancient writings in Amharic and the Egyptian Hieroglyphics which may have preceded all subsequent genres and which seemed to have been confined to the African continent, do not feature prominently on University syllabi except perhaps as passing topics in the class. The accessible roots of African literature for scholars in the field has always been texts written in Arabic and some in modern European languages. In this regard, the poetry of Antar bn Shaddad al-Absy in Arabic, those of Alfonso Alvares in Portuguese, those of Juan Latino in Latin and Phylis Wheatly in English have been sufficiently documented and do serve as pointers to the cosmopolitan, as against any provincial assumptions of African literature.

Both bn Shaddad (who proudly paraded his surname 'al-Absy' or from Abyssinia - the Arabic name for Ethiopia) and Wheatley, (the proud 'Ethiope'of her poems) exhibit with pride their African origin. As for their impact on, and early status in, the so called 'World literature' we only need to know that despite systematic suppression and refusal to acknowledge them, literary historians and scholars have written to point out that Cervante, of Don Quixote fame and other Romance writers of the time, were indebted to the Antar Romance which dominated literature writing in the 5th - 7th AD and was passed on to Europe through Andalusia or Spain by Muslim-Arab scholars. It is also in scholarly records how, for example, Shakespeare's play, Orthello, was heavily informed by Muhammad al-Hassan al-Wazez or Leo Africanus' life and writings, which had so much African ethos. Before his fated journey to Europe and subsequent capture by pirates and life in the Vatican where he wrote several pieces some of which the young Shakespeare must have read, Leo Africanus was in Bornu, the Chad Basin and in Kano where he wrote a treatise on leadership for the then Kano Emir. Early African writers, if not African literature must have been the most cosmopolitan in their vision and literary production/practice.


This being text of Keynote Address at the 36th ANA International Convention by Professor Saleh Abdu of Federal University, Kashere, Nigeria. Currently on Sabbatical as Dean, School of Postgraduate Studies, Gombe State University, Nigeria.

The second and concluding part will be published soon.