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


The idea of a World literature might have been mooted earlier than the 20th Century. However, the concept has been readily traced to the works of Wolfgang von Goethe of Germany in the first quarter of the 20th Century. From the different submissions by scholars on his life, opinions and works, it can be deduced that Goethe's concern about prevalent acrimony and wars among European and non-European nations in his lifetime combined with his firm belief in the efficacy and immense redeeming potentiality of literature to make him conceive, propose and pursue a unifying literary practice of the global communities/nations. The literature he conceived was so important that he preached that,

National literature does not mean much at present. It is time for the era of World literature and everybody must endeavour to accelerate this epoch. Goethe, 1927.

In his close study of Goethe's life and work, Birus (2017) arrived at the conclusion that the German sage wished for a literature that could unite European and non-European communities in what he describes as,

a rapid blossoming of a multitude of European and non-European literatures and the simultaneous emergence of a World literature --- mostly in English translation

Goethe seemed to have crystallized his conception and label of World Literature in the last decade of his life. That was a time when he saw that literary scholarship was

breaking through the traditional limits of occidental literature by re-evaluating popular poetry and the literature of the Middle Ages and of the Orient. Birus, 2017.

In his analysis, Birus surmises that Goethe's conception was at first based on what he earlier saw and wrote in a letter to Adolf Friedrich on 27th January, 1827, as an "ever increasing rapidity of human interaction". The global scenario then (not very unlike the global information super highways of today) was further described as a "highly turbulent epoch --- vastly facilitated by communication --- constantly spreading activities of trade and commerce".

In his generously liberal conception of World Literature, Goethe not only saw the unity of participating nations, but also the "human spirit gradually attaining the desire to participating in the more or less untrammeled intellectual trade". He, in other words, saw literature as riding on the crest of the waves of an expanding trade and communication in the world. (What is the fate of literature in our era of global information super-highway?)

Goethe also saw popular literature as a key player in the world and so enjoined that,

seek out, get to know and cherish each poet in his own language and within the specific area of his time and customs.

He noted and expressed high hopes for a World Literature that promised  to bring the English, German and French together with the hope, as he said, that "the disagreements that prevailed within one nation are smoothed out by the views and adjustments of the others". The ultimate effect of that kind of literature is immensely beneficial and may not just be,

a matter of nations being obliged to think in unison, rather, they should at least become aware of and understand each other, and, if love proves impossible, they should at least tolerate one another.

In literature in general, but specifically in the World literature of his conception, Goethe saw the germinal seed of world harmony, if not world peace. He averse that if this literature of his,

cannot be hoped to produce a general peace, it can be hoped that the inevitable conflicts will gradually become less important, that war will become less cruel and victory less arrogant. Goethe in German Romance.

That sums up Goethe's conception of World Literature in which it would have been easy, faster to locate African, or any other genre belonging to a group.  However, as with many other similar ideas by thinkers in history, the cross-current of events and prevalent socio-political ideologies have tended to pounce on, distort and appropriate them into the dominant, often imperialist, ideologies. Such has been the case with Goethe's lofty conception of World Literature, which, for many decades after his demise, was confined to only European nations and languages. For example, against the grain of what Goethe meant, especially with regard to the international character of his conception of World Literature, Werner Kraus, Professor of Romance Languages and Literature in the German Democratic Republic, defined World Literature in the following Euro-centric terms:

World literature accordingly rises above all literatures as a super literature, with its masterpieces towering above every normal horizon. World Literature thus turns into a great pandemonium in which Cervantes and Rabelais, Dante and Voltaire nod to each other.

The obvious Eurocentricism in this post-Goethe conception of World Literature seems to foreclose the possible participation of Africa and Africans in the genre. Issued in the last quarter of the 19th Century, the consequence of such an imperialist, racist thinking and pronouncement could be seen at work and perfectly reflected in the Hegelian view of Africa as a continent without history; or the regard of the region as a Tabula Rasa. Such weird thinking also reflected the 1884 Berlin rush to scramble for Africa by the Europeans; to colonize/hegemonize its populace.

As recent as 1930 for example, Courtney Hodgson, a British adventurer on the West African coast, was quoted, without reservation by Linfors, as saying,

West Africa is too crude, too brutalizing, to nourish the afflatus of a poet or the Scabies scribandi of the novelist. Linfors 2002:2

The rabid Eurocentricism did not go unobserved by discerning people such as T S Elliot who decried the rate at which non-Europeans were having European culture imposed on them in the name of World Literature. He is thus quoted as warning that.

a World culture which was simply a uniform culture would be no culture at all. We would have a humanity de-humanised. It would be a nightmare.

Literature, for the culture that it essentially is, is unique and should be conceded as a unique endowment to a people. It cannot be otherwise. In this regard, it constitutes a people's idiosyncrasy of which Edward Wilmot Blyden says,

a sacred gift, given for some divine purpose to be sacredly cherished and patiently unfolded. Blyden, p2


Early African literature was as global as any could be. But, largely due to the character of subsequent interaction with a second wave of non- African people from the middle of the 16th Century, the continent of Africa and the people were  degraded and devalued. For example, an experience of the West African tropical climate on the coast may explain Hodgson's unfortunate racist remark about a whole territory in 1930. Unknown to Hodgson, it was in the year in which he uttered those uncharitable words, 1930, that talented West Africans in the interior published books of stories plays and poems which are today's Classics in Hausa studies. The pioneer works of Abubakar Imam, Tafawa Balewa, Abukar Tinau and a couple of others under the tutorship of a British Colonial officer, Rupert East, are excellent literary pieces by any global standard. What standard was Hodgson using to adjudge a whole region as incapable of producing a poem or novel? And, it is the same West African coastal areas that in subsequent years produced Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe to further belie Hodgson's jaundiced statements.

When it is a question of culture and inherent values, Africa and Africans, especially the latter, can be seen to have conceded so much after its contact with Western Europe. Didn't pre-colonial Africa have things to show, to be proud off? Achebe laboured to educate his African readers that Africans did not hear of civilization from the white man. Africa had abiding dignity and inherent nobility as evident in Achebe's portrayal of people like Ezeulu in Arrow of God and the well thought out trends of social, political and economic events in life in the novels. But, Achebe's stories may be faulted as mere fiction. What of these quoted words of Lord Macaulay in his report about a visit to Africa read to the British Parliament on 2/2/1835:

I have travelled across the length and breadth of Africa. I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country.

Macaulay’s submission above about his physical visit to West Africa which is part of Africa Hodgson reported on and which also informed Hegel to write that "Civilization started in the East and ended in the West --- Africa has no place in History". The irreparable damage such statements caused for Africans could not be undone even with Hegel's subsequent phrase which says "except for what came to dark Africa from the East"; nor by the subsequent knowledge Africans have had to the effect that Europe itself fed from the same Eastern civilization.

Agysimba (Jahn's other name for it) or Negro Black Africa, has been unique in its experience in the world. It had hosted several African regions and Arab-Asian peoples for many decades prior to the invasion of the region by Western Europe. Unlike many global regions and communities, Negro Africa had a rigorous experience of hosting others as described by Blyden (1888):

Three streams of influences have always penetrated into negroland: one from Egypt, through Nubia, to Bornu, to Hausa; another from Abyssinia, to Yoruba and Ashanti; the third from the Babary states across the desert to Timbucktoo.

Before 1500 AD Africa had had many years in interaction with other peoples. In his documentation of these historic links, Jahn (1966) speculates that the possibility was there to suggest that Juan Latino (the Latin medium poet) and Alfonso Alvares (Portuguese’s medium poet) might have had their predecessor in form of Afro-Asian or Afro-Greek poets.

Those were no mean poets! They were world-class poets as could be found. The Afro-Arab poet Al-Shaddad Al-Absy was one of the Seven Golden Poets of Arabia. His unique Romance writings formed the model of Don Quixote’s and other European Classics.


In his ANA Inaugural Speech in June 1981, Achebe identified one major reason why writers need an association. Writers and their career forever needed protection in matters of "contracts, copyright, translation, royalty negotiation", he said.  He observed that by nature writers, whom he described as "refractory individuals", are not readily inclined to groups and groupings, are often difficult to drag into and made to remain under one umbrella. It is partly because of this that writers are not the best of friends with governments. Achebe elaborates:

Writers are by instinct and (one may add experience) somewhat skeptical of governments. We fear them even when they bear gifts; even when their gifts are channeled through innocuous-seeming parastatals like the National Council for Arts & Culture. This skepticism is healthy and appropriate. ANA Review, 2016, pxii

But, writers need a stronger body beyond their individual selves, an association, to assure them of a conducive environment to enable the society to protect them and protect itself as well. For, Achebe opines, the greatest possible social protection comes with a more enlightened and informed society. In Nigeria, the need for more free, performing writers is greater as, Achebe lamented, ignorance had twined and twisted its tentacles in the populace to the extent that we the citizens were to blame: "so prodigious is our ignorance of ourselves and the things that belong to our peace.". Achebe's prescient diagnosis foresaw what we are witnessing today in form of the emergence of three dangerous forms of fanaticisms which he said writers should come together to fight. These are Religious fanaticism, political fanaticism and tribal fanaticism. 

Today Nigeria has been diagnosed as a state on the brink of failure; a state stalked by homebred, self-inflicted malaise: Hausaphobia, Igbophobia and Yorubaphobia. One of the recent prescriptions for the nation's condition has been the recommendation of the invention of a New Tribe by some of our intellectuals.  Elimination of the mutual fear and distrust across the Nigerian old tribes would do the magic of inventing a new from the old tribe. ANA, from inception in 1981, was charged with the task of banishing ignorance, especially ignorance of one another, by Achebe, who emphatically added that Nigerians needed to know "what belong to our peace".

But, has the government of Nigeria given the writers the recognition, the protection to write freely? Has the society encouraged and ensured full participation by all citizens in reading the written books? How much have the writers themselves done to make their stories more accessible, more relevant?

Before closing this paper, I need to say something about one of ANA's oversight in its operations all these years. This is no other than literature in indigenous Nigerian languages. In the Inaugural address in 1981, Achebe opened and closed his address with glowing tributes to Abubakar Imam who died shortly before the inauguration of ANA, an event which he was to attend. Achebe said he had been looking forward to meeting Imam whom he had never met beyond his writings, and someone who reminded him of Fagunwa and Peter Nwana, two Yoruba and Igbo language writers, respectively. That ANA's take-off agenda had a strong element of indigenous language literature drive can be gleaned from Achebe's last remark about the late Imam:

"One last word. When I said in my opening remarks that I had particularly looked forward to the participation at this convention of the late Abubakar Imam, what I had in mind was that his presence would have given a powerful and venerable indication on a new emphasis on, or even awareness of, literature in indigenous Nigerian languages. There are, however, I am glad to say, other writers here today who will represent in our deliberations the crucial interest of our native tongues, and who will display at the poetry reading tomorrow some of the literary harvest already gathered in the prosecution of that interest." pXiv 

How much honour has ANA given to this wish by Achebe?

Perhaps much has been done. But, much more needs to be done.


ANA has been working for the past thirty-six years and the results are modest. Indeed as Denja  (2015) avers "We already have a place in World Literature with great writers such as Achebe, Soyinka, Lark and several other younger writers following in their footsteps". But, that is not a reason enough for ANA to rest on its oars. When the tune changes, as it clearly has in recent years, especially with the prevalence of the digital glitz, the dancer must learn new dancing steps.

I would love to share in the belief that no award "confers any excellence on a piece of writing, it only acknowledges the presence of merit in a given writing based on the criteria governing such an award" as a good diagnosis of literary prizes and prizing. I however, while commending ANA for the literary awards it has instituted since 1981, like to request the association to consider working towards achieving the following:

1. Persuading  the Government, through the Minister of Culture and the National Council of Art and Culture to institute National Poetry Merit Award to last of 5 years.
2. To encourage state Governors and Local Government Chair/men and women to to also institute literary prizes in the schools under their purview.
3. Visit and seek audience with members of the legislature for a sensitization session on promoting reading and literary production/activity in their constituencies. 

Finally, on the place of African literature in World Literature, I wish to advise writers to strive to write good literature, which easily comes with faith in what they do with a dose of fidelity to their cultural base. It is not only that 'Literature does not grow in a vacuum', the fact is that it cannot thrive and luxuriate in an inauthentic, or borrowed culture. This means as writers we must immerse ourselves into our, and not other’s culture, and cultural practices. World recognition is easier built on home recognition, and, as Denja (2015:26) also sagely says," cultural authenticity is very important in the creative sphere because that may be all a writer has to contribute to world literature"



Being text of Keynote Address and the 36th ANA International Convention Professor Saleh Abdu of Fegderal University, Kashere Currently on Sabbatical as Dean, School of Postgraduate Studies, Gombe Satate University at Benue State University, Makurdi on 26th - 28th October, 2017