THE FATE OF AFRICAN LITERATURE

The article below has been previously published in National Mirror Newspapers, months ago

By Uzezi Ekere

African literature is going through dangerous times, regardless of the new discoveries of writers. The problems – publishing firms, bad quality of books, badly written scripts, poor reading culture, no recognition for writers etc - that have been spoken on about why literature seem to be bowing out of the stage, hangs still, dangerously, above all the stakeholders. Conferences have been held to find a lasting solution, but none seem to be forth coming. New writers have emerged to continue from where the older generation stopped, but the names and popularity of the older generation steals the day. Non Governmental Organizations have entered the stage to act their parts, still, African literature refuse to rise to its glory of the old days. And now, it seems that the time has come, when everyone who is concerned about the literature industry, sits down, and plan the way forward.

Just recently, in the city of Lagos, literature was the center of attraction, when another writer with a worthy work of literature, won an award, and made news. But unfortunately, like it always happen, the news will fade away to be replaced by nonentities, as literature gets shoved into the background.

Literature is our right. Maybe the government should be educated on this fact. Because what literature does for a nation, cannot be compared with any other thing. As Prof. Niyi Osundare once said, “What Achebe and Soyinka has done for the Nigerian image, a thousand diplomats cannot do, a thousands presidents in Aso Rock cannot do, unfortunately how are they recognized?”

Charity begins at home. If at home, our literature is suffering, how then is it faring in the Western world? African literature in the global setting isn’t as rosy as it used to be or as people want others to believe. In as much as Africa and Nigeria does have a place in the international literary scene, well recognized - according to Adewale Maja Pearce who said in a chat with National Mirror that Nigeria is still there.; “Nigeria is known and very well respected in the international literary scene” - its literature is suffering because the attention it is generating, is not enough to give Africa any hope.

When Osundare spoke on how the West treats literature that comes out of Africa, he wished that the question had been put to him twenty, or twenty-five years earlier.
“I would have been more enthusiastic about it, because in recent lectures I’ve given in the West, I’ve asked this question – why the west is losing interest in Africa literature/culture, and I remember particularly a lecture I gave in Harare, Zimbabwe about three years ago, and if I can remember properly, my topic was African literature in the global setting. And I have to say in a non flattery way that interest of the West in African literature is shrinking because of the situation in Africa. Poverty doesn’t sell books; the condition of Africa is terrible. AIDS, war in Somalia, the anomy in Sierra Leon, and until recently, restlessness in Liberia, the pogrom in Rwanda, the debilitating genocide in Daffur, all these have given African such a heavy footed kind of bad press, so rather than read of Africa, people pity Africa, people are tired of Africa. Africa seems to be the misery of the world. Anytime Africa is mentioned, it is with children having flies all around the mouth, or dead bodies lying all over. Only few people want to read literature from places like that, because they feel they have seen all they want to know about Africa on TV. Africa today is bad news; that is why countries in Asia have taken over. I meet people (colleagues) from this region during reading engagement and I know people buy their books a lot. When you hear of their technology wonder, you will want to see how these wonders reflect in their literature. Somehow, something prepares you for reading that literature. Nothing prepares you for reading African literature. The years immediately after independence, the struggles we were experiencing, the political experimentation and all, prepared people for African literature; it seemed something was always happening.”

Should it be true that the West have lost interest in African literature, what then does that spell for the industry a lot of people are trying to lift?

The stakeholders probably understand this situation and that might be part of the reason why they come together to conference and find a solution to these huge problems.

Over the years, conferences are organized in Africa and the theme of these conferences had not been very far from relating to Nigeria, Africa, and its literature, and issues relating to it.

Most recent of these conferences, is the ALA conference in Ghana, and before that, the ICALEL conference in Calabar, and coming up soon, is another conference, an international colloquium on twenty years after the Nobel prize: literature governance and development in Africa, which the Association of Nigerian Authors ANA is organizing. It will feature big shots in both the Nigerian and African literature scene.

With literature gathering so much attention, would it then be right to assume that Nigerian and African literature is indeed in trouble? How long would it take the world and Africans to award recognition to our new writers when names like Soyinka and Achebe, Ngugi, Armah etc, still carry the light away from the writers of this generation who are trying to carry the flag of continuity. More problems for African and Nigerian literature, if all the West sees is African literature of that day. With today’s literature, how is it accepted?

Tom Inyambri, a member of the organizing committee of ICALEL said that the answer to literature being in trouble, could be both ways. “It is just normal for healthy people to come together to conference,” he said on the conferences on literature. “It is normal for scholars in a particular region, who have that kind of fellowship, kingship to gather once in a while, to conference as the name implies, on issues that bothers them, on issues that interest them, not really because it is in trouble. But there is a sense where we could say it is in trouble, if you have to consider the problems of publishing and reading and writers not having the kind of attention the older generation had. I think that problem has to be addressed. It has to be made an issue, has to be problematised to see that there is continuity, because if there is no continuity, there’s no society. Who will discuss this generation, if not a conference of people who have an interest in the generation? So, on the one hand it has some problems, on the other hand, it is an interest for kins and kings.”

These problems have to be solved. “I’ve met people from the West that are ready to embrace literature from Africa, if the literature is well presented and circulated,” Osundare said. “One other serious problem is collapse of publishing, not just in Africa, but in the world over. Soyinka and Achebe, Ngugi, Ayi Kwei Armah became very famous because their works were distributed by multinationals publishing firms. Heinemann, Longman, Oxford, University Press, Evan, Macmillan etc, had branches all over the world and whatever book they published got known throughout the world. And most of these companies have stopped publishing African literature. The few publishing firms we have though are doing well, though they don’t have the reach.
African Book Collectors, ABC, as it is called is doing a lot of work, I wish it had more money and support, because it does not only make books published in Africa available to the rest of the world, it also make sure that the idea that generated those books also follow these books by organizing intellectual theme everywhere. Now when we talk about the reception of African writers and literature in the West, we have to qualify it a little bit. Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Atta, Helon Habila etc, have done a lot to popularize African literature, yes, I have to pay them their due respect, but this is not enough. If you have to compare those four titles with hundred that are being published here at home alone, you will know that it is really not enough. So a lot of work has to be done to make them
(1) acceptable
(2) sellable
(3) readable
(4) keepable
(5) Truly international.

From the side of the writer, don’t just rush your work off to press. On the side of the publisher, make sure you can vouch for the quality of the book you are turning out, and it’s a book you can hold anywhere in the world and say yes, this is a book that was published in Nigeria, Africa. Nobody wants to buy trash.”

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