, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 41–52

Prolegomena to the study of influence in African literature



DOI: 10.1007/s11059-010-0084-3

Cite this article as:
Ogede, O. Neohelicon (2011) 38: 41. doi:10.1007/s11059-010-0084-3


Influence is a widespread and well-documented and widely acknowledged practice in the Western literary tradition, but there has been a flat denial that it exists among African writers. The very fact that a controversy should arise at all as to whether the readership of African writing lies within Africa itself says something about how a different standard is always applied when it comes to things African. Along with fame and fortune, the perception that one’s work could ignite the creative spark for others both in one’s immediate surroundings and afar continues to provide writers worldwide the incentive to keep honoring their calling, in part, because leaving a legacy of hope and inspiration is every writer’s dream. While common sense ought to suggest that the situation of Africa cannot be any different—after all, as a familiar African proverb has it, “it takes a village to raise a child”—the notion of artistic production as a communal affair has continued to be widely thought to be inapplicable to Africa. Why has it become convenient to argue that dialogue of an indigenous nature, as a mode of creative interaction and invention, is absent in contemporary African literature? To take up that question, our argument in this essay proceeds in three interlocking steps. First is an overview of the role professional readers, literary analysts, and scholars have ascribed to literary inheritance in the development of expressive power universally. Next is an attempt to adduce reasons for the persistent regime of denial that over time has established itself firmly in discussions of African writing concerning suggestions of a preoccupation, conceived expansively as disposition, style, thematic engagement, stance, and sensibility, which an informed observer might take as emanating from inspiration of a local origin. The final section makes the case that proper identification and recognition of the conventions of this indigenous literary source would unquestionably provide the best approach to understanding contemporary African literature and stimulating admiration for the creative temper involved in its writing as the case of contemporary African literature cannot be an exception.


African influence studyIntertextuality in African literature

Poetry critic Helen Vendler, in a recent essay that one might not be incorrect to call of pre-eminent importance, “Stevens and Keats’ ‘To Autumn,” following in the steps of T. S. Eliot, considers the relationship of texts to other texts. She points out that a developing young writer’s uses of authority can take any variety of forms but influence is ubiquitous. “He may make certain implicit ‘meanings’ explicit; he may extrapolate certain possibilities to greater lengths; he may choose a detail, center on it, and turn it into an entire composition; he may alter the perspective from which the form is viewed; or he may view the phenomenon at a different moment in time.”1 As inspiration is like an osmotic process, whereby an apprentice writer can intuitively absorb what he or she reads without even noticing, the means by which a new text might spring into life are thus seemingly infinite. Instead of bowing to the voice of authority, to evolve his or her distinctive voice, the developing writer simply responds to it, and uses it in an act of creative negotiation. Thus, not only can the author under the tutelage of others combine several framing methodologies; the author can graft the appropriated corpus onto whichever genres he or she chooses. When it comes to the values of living aesthetic forms, the possibilities therefore seem endless.

Now, the relevance of this legacy notion to African literature comes to the fore once it is recognized that all literary compositions draw from a communal literary system, as T. S. Eliot argued earlier in relation to European literature in his classic essay, “Tradition and Individual Talent,” when he stated that custom commands every writer to take his or her strategic place within heritage. Eliot, validating compellingly his argument that the really fine writers in the continent house within their writing the totality of the current of the mind of Europe encapsulated in the European literary estate, illustrates that the singularity of a rising text can rarely be asserted other than by inventively reshaping the defining qualities of pre-existing forms. In wrestling with the controlling power of accumulated cultural capital, a promising young writer may, concomitantly, choose the option of imitating of one established writer alone, as the single ideal that serves as the pattern of good writing, or follow an eclectic array of literary models. What will ultimately differentiate a new text from precursor texts will be how an aspiring young author redefines the registers of his or her model texts since to compose a work is to bring about an individual modification to tradition.

Therefore, the evolution of a growing young writer’s tone or preferred aesthetic form almost always proceeds as he or she navigates several compositional stages beginning with scavenging, simulating, re-mixing, enacting, replicating, and transmuting of established forms; in short, impersonation and self-fashioning. In a nutshell, because each genuinely new artistic production is a driven variation of a master-text (or master-texts, as the case may be), the creation of a new work of art (be it a novel, musical composition, painting, sculpture, poem, short story, or play) inevitably involves a simultaneous process of appropriative activity—seduction and pulling away. For a new text to come into its own it must wrestle against those within the surviving order, staking out its claim to significance by insisting upon assimilating, modifying, extending, regenerating, and redrawing the shape and spirit of the inherited forms in surprising ways.2 Implicitly, then, authentic creativity or ingenuity is thus not necessarily about the use of untried material but, rather, consists of the ability to repackage existing stocks by infusing them with new life as a new vision reacts to the old at the strategic point of creative contact—as an unseasoned writer talks back, as it were, to the text he or she is interacting with.

A significant new work, Eliot asserts, thus goes through an alchemical process of transformation in which it is made to contend with (reject outright, confirm, regenerate, or combat) the predecessor texts thematically, ideologically, and stylistically. Creativity is a revitalizing act of realignment; so, to be of lasting value, a new text alters its precursor(s) in crucial ways: for, truly to establish its distinctive vocabulary, a newly created text both reflects and refracts the parent text through a relationship of affiliation and disaffiliation, attaching and detaching itself from the extant body of works; a neophyte text defines itself. So it can fully assert its particular, defining qualities, often a new text’s causes are better served by mounting a guerrilla-type insurgency against orthodoxies as it explodes its way into existence. Conclusively, he states, whatever the writer’s primary inspirational tool kit, to give itself any claim to uniqueness, the maturing writer’s work has therefore to break out of the purely routine realm.

Eliot and Vendler are not alone. Several other Western critics, including Gilbert Highet, Alastair Fowler, W. J. Jackson Bate, Brian Vickers, and Heather Sellers, and, notably, their African counterparts Peter Nazareth and Wole Soyinka, have expressed congenial views unwaveringly placing emphasis on the determinant role of relationship to lineage in the creative venture. As in the learning of any trade generally, but particularly the building of individual original works of art, foundations that were laid in the past are among the predominant promptings that trigger the creative or critical imagination. Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson recapitulating Pliny, W. Jackson Bate carries the discussion about the influence wielded by the works of forebears a step further, arguing that it may make itself felt in a negative or limiting rather than inspirational way but it is an omnipresent factor, memorably termed by him “the burden of the past.”3 Bate, of course, follows Gilbert Highet, who, writing with specific reference to the German revolutionary writers in his 1949 study The Classical Tradition, thought that while authors “read in order to write” as no “creative writer can work on his own experience alone” there is another matter worthy of consideration. He described, for example, how “very often a new book will stimulate an author more than the day-by-day events of his life,” proceeding to acknowledge that the great writers can sometimes be so intimidating as to be no help at all to the developing author, since “the stronger the stimulus, the harder it is to receive it without being numbed. Exposed to the full power of classical poetry, many promising young writers have either been silenced or become helpless imitators. The German writers of the revolutionary period admitted the power of Greek myth and poetry; but most of them were unable to assimilate it as easily and productively as the simpler influences of folk-song and medieval romance.”4

Consequently, the weight of existing works—whether bringing nourishment or impoverishment—is so omnipresent in the production of new works, it cannot be overlooked; it is thus unreasonable to hanker futilely and desperately after an absoluteness of un-indebtedness. Alastair Fowler affirms this position when stating “very few if any of our ideas and words can be called our own. We came into the world without them, and have unconsciously taken them over from forgotten sources: parents, teachers, role models, books, and the Internet. Dante was partly aware of this: ‘Speech is what we acquire without any rule, by imitating our nurses.’”5

Heather Sellers clinches the argument about the inescapable clutch of effects bequeathed by awareness of others’ works in this way: “When you imitate, you aren’t copying or stealing. You are performing a training exercise, one that has a long and respected tradition in the arts. You of course always acknowledge the imitation. It’s against the law to take someone else’s words or ideas and pass them off as your own, and it’s embarrassing to pretend your work is original when clearly it is not.”6 Sellers adds:

You are imitating whenever you write, unconsciously. All writers are influenced by the works they have read, what they watch, what they know about literature. Stories you learned as a child are stuck in your head. Phrases and rhythms of works you read last semester lodge in your writing mind, and come out in your work. This is a good thing! Successful writers enjoy embedding subtle references to other pieces of literature in their works. We pass on, translate, adore, and keep alive the writers who influence us, consciously and unconsciously. We’re all imitating to some extent, every time we sit down to write. The more widely you read, the more texture your own writing has—artist as melting pot. If you slavishly read only one or two writers, your work may suffer from a poverty of influence. (p. 41)

Sellers reasons that it does not really matter how literary affect is absorbed—whether it is taken in on purpose or un-deliberatively. Leverage may occur in ways large or small, manifesting itself subliminally or not so subtly, but it always plays an important, even if cloaked, role in composition; its clutches are seldom entirely avoidable. A person is not necessarily stealing when imitating someone responsibly; guided copying is often a justifiably great means of coming up with the most original ideas, and is not tantamount to a lack of innovation.

Without fail, influence constantly gives rise to a special creative moment when an established text (or texts) and new ideas come together in innovative ways. Nonetheless, it is easy to understand why many writers carefully and scrupulously keep their sources hidden. Writers hardly ever want to lift the veil on their compositional strategies; few of them want to give away their tricks to their competitors. Many authors either show complete disavowal of influence or attempt to keep literary borrowing wrapped within the secrecy of their individual lives; all writers want the matter of obligation shrouded or concealed in the works themselves. If debt is negotiated in notoriously unexpected ways, taking all forms and shapes, idiosyncratic, private, and unpredictable, why seek to put it all out in the open, they ask. Influence attribution, source study, and even plagiarism charges, may intrigue and engross researchers; but neither of these things is among creative authors’ most palatable subjects. It is pretty apparent that authors’ repudiation of things taken on loan demonstrates just how explosive the matter of relations between writers is.

Literary alliance is a slippery subject to pin down because writers work hard to cover their tracks. They try to keep out of their readers’ sight key compositional methods or building blocks; pirated material is the part the most likely to be suppressed. For this reason, throughout history, the tracing of the outlines of the renewal brought about by creative continuity has remained an intriguing subject. But, as anyone could expect of a subject as touchy and demanding as literary debt, scholars have rarely come at it through more than broad brush strokes. In light of the labor, sentiments, and subterranean activities implicated in it—how easily emotions can run high over this matter—it is not surprising that drawing the fine lines is not always an achievable goal in the practice of tracking literary padding; there are bound to be various untraceable elements.

Within the context of this protean difficulty involved in the business of delineating literary affinity, the work of veteran African literary scholar Peter Nazareth draws its singular appeal, especially the diligence with which he has unpacked the complex impacts brought to bear on Ayi Kwei Armah by Alex La Guma.7 From a thorough and intricate discussion of the conventional properties of fiction, such as “story, plot, theme, character, structure, rhythm, metaphor, and, most of all, words” (p. 154), Nazareth reaches the relatively novel conclusion that even a work as seemingly innovative as Armah’s iconoclastic novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1967) is really a substantial re-writing of another African classic—La Guma’s novella A Walk in the Night (1962).

A Walk in the Night and The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born both take the journey motif as their organizing principle of structure, Nazareth argues. A Walk in the Night opens in the dark of night with “a trackless tram… a trolley bus… a vehicle that does not know where it is going,” from which an “angry young man jumps out, unheeding of the shouts and curses of the traffic,” while events in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born start off with a decrepit bus “when it is dark, but this time it is the darkness of dawn” (p. 154). Nazareth next traces the unusually close resemblance in the uses of scavenging creatures as controlling images (the cockroach in La Guma’s A Walk in the Night and the Chichidodo bird in Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born) as well as characters and their surroundings, with the main focus on how both protagonists are placed in locations with unthinking bodies—populations that hardly seem to “spend time thinking” although “it has been estimated that around 50,000 thoughts flash through” an average person’s head each day (p. 155).

In the hostile environments in which they find themselves, Nazareth argues, Mike (in La Guma’s A Walk in the Night) and the man, and, to a lesser extent, his teacher (in Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born) are the only thinking beings who express the belief that “it is imperative to find out what one has been placed on this earth to do, and one can only acquire this awareness through thinking” (p. 155). Forced into roles not of their own will, each deals thoughtfully with existential questions about the deeper meaning of life: La Guma has Mike face the question of “what it means to be a man” and “Armah extends La Guma’s notion that a word has a deeper meaning than what we assume” (p. 157).

There is a central distinguishing trait, however: though both characters aspire to attain the vision of the ideal, the man in Armah’s novel strives to reach it through political struggle—as opposed to Mike’s utopian dream to will it into existence in La Guma’s text. But, serving as a common source of revitalizing energy in both texts, is music: “La Guma is drawing on the resources of the blues not only because they deal with hurtful situations but also because they transform one’s response to situations. Armah takes the music further into Africa; and unlike Mike, the man pays attention” (p. 162).

If Peter Nazareth is an excellent choice of traveling guide for anyone in need of the company of someone who knows his way around influence study, this is largely based on the force of his independent thinking. But his analysis also draws a part of its credibility from how it has usefully expanded a line of argument first ventured by Wole Soyinka in his book Myth, Literature, and the African World. In that sublime piece of literary criticism, the Nigerian Nobel Laureate provides ample evidence of how the great or near-great texts of African literature present endless points of entry into writing for others. Pointing specifically to the canonical African handling of labor in fiction, for instance, Soyinka shows how the example of Ousmane Sembene’s God’s Bit of Wood taught others such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o’ in Petals of Blood and Ayi Kwei Armah in The Healers to use sketches of the laboring working-class people’s struggles and victories as a viable approach to historical fiction. The longer one looks at Ousmane’s classic, Soyinka declares, the clearer it becomes that it has turned out to be a work with an uncommonly enduring, haunting power—one whose literary specters hover all over works by writers who go on to utilize the design of the parent text as an effective organizing literary principle of plot construction. As a text in the forefront of the movement for literary recurrence, Soyinka declares God’s Bits of Wood to be nothing short of epochal in its inspirational effects.8

Anyone embarking on a study of influence in African literature can generally enlist the support of Soyinka and Nazareth. As is common with writers elsewhere, in addition to taking their sense of form, technique, temper, themes, and attitudes from each other, many African writers also share identical elements of style relating to vocabulary, sentence structure, sound patterns, and other linguistic permutations.9 Crafted in sharp, subtle, and finely nuanced prose styles that court attention with rare and absorbing combinations of scholarly erudition and analytical force, lucidity, and succinctness, the arguments pioneered by Soyinka (and expanded upon by Nazareth) all display the art of a superb close reader of documents with a refined manner of presenting intricate interpretations of texts. Soyinka and Nazareth employ lively and witty styles that are truly riveting into the bargain; the fine analyses by both authors have striking implications for the exploration of influence in African literature because each keeps a steady eye on the lines in which debt almost always shows up in creative writing; together, their studies serve to illustrate that not only do students and scholars of influence in African literature no longer have to negotiate every single hurdle, every faltering step, which the pioneers undertook when the field of influence studies was still groping for a direction. Students and scholars of the burden of the past in African literature now have surer footpaths to traverse, brighter lamps to light their way, and better tools to make them stronger researchers.

The concept of local filiations may, at first, appear inapplicable to African literature; but contrary to the prevailing popular stereotype that African writers do tend to ignore each other, author dialogues in Africa cut across different parts of the spectrum. At cross purposes to any impression that only African women writers read each other’s works, for example, it is clear that male and women writers do read each other’s works and many of them have proven to be consummate practitioners of imitation. African writers—testing the artificial boundaries of colonization, tongue, gender, ethnicity, political ideology, and of Western public opinion—have long been holding literary dialogues, in addition to maintaining other forms of cultural contact. When one sets aside conventional biases and undefended conclusions, and dispassionately examines the evidence, it really should be obvious that mutual collaboration is inevitable, for even the rudimentary demands of schooling, for instance, so make many African writers required reading all over the continent it is very unlikely any of them could successfully overlook the others’ works. Indeed, were they so inclined, few are the African writers who can look away from each other’s works. Therefore, as has been proven quite decisively, with respect to African women’s writing from different geopolitical and linguistic regions of the continent, by Anglophone Cameroonian feminist scholar, Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi, the claim that African authors’ mutual indifference is more striking when they do not share the same colonizer is really nothing more than a cliché.10

The persistence of these untenable theories about the immanent disunity of Africans is one illustration of the never-ending trend of irrationality that Abbenyi’s compatriot Achille Mbembe has associated with Western thinking on Africa. In opening his vibrant book On the Postcolony, Mbembe observes that “Speaking rationally about Africa is not something that has ever come naturally,” wondering aloud, with obvious irritation and exasperation, how “It is for all the world as if the most radical critique of the most obtuse and cynical prejudices about Africa were made against the background of an impossibility, the impossibility of getting over and done” with it; and why it is that “the African human experience constantly appears in the discourse of our times as an experience that can only be understood through a negative interpretation (emphasis original). Africa is never seen as possessing things and attributes properly part of ‘human nature’. Or, when it is, its things and attributes are generally of lesser value, little importance, and poor quality.”11 Mbembe ascribes to this peculiar endless pattern of over-the-top prejudices a woeful outcome: “It is this elementariness and primitiveness that makes Africa the world par excellence of all that is incomplete, mutilated, and unfinished, its history reduced to a series of setbacks of nature in its quest for humankind.”12

Even so, despite offering some startlingly sassy and sensible readings in the same context, considering that in the rest of his book Mbembe proceeds to walk readers through some of the absurd behaviors of Africans that appear to lend credence to many of the idiosyncratic Western ideas about their continent such as the flagrant display of naked power by the political leaders and the fawning servility of the citizens that encourages it, it is apparent that he places the burden of accountability for the excesses relating to the image of their continent squarely on the shoulders of Africans themselves.13 When one comes, specifically, to the reasons for the persistence of attitudes that flatly rule out the possibility of local sources of affiliation for African writers, there is no doubt that Eileen Julien’s even-handed discussion is one of the most nuanced accounts of the epistemic culture that dominates Western scholarship on Africa.14 She postulates that industrialized nations’ sense of self-importance is excessive and the enduring prejudices toward Africa owe their staying power primarily to an obsessive craving on the part of the people of developed economies of the global North for exclusive control of bragging rights on ideas and values. It is to defend their claim to be the sole begetter of ideas and values, to guard their patent rights, Julien says, that the materially wealthy nations feel and act upon a compulsive need to strip Africa of historical presence. “With respect to the question of intertextuality, a Eurocentric press and academy are quick to point out in Latin American, Asian, or African arts the influence, borrowings, and adaptations of genres and media originating in the West”; but “hybrid forms emanating from the ‘margins’ are typically read not as appropriations, interrogations, extensions of their predecessors, as would be if the borrowing operated in the other direction, but as derivations, imitations with local color (see footnote 14).”

For anyone wondering why people in the industrially advanced world have set the stakes so high regarding ownership claims to native genius, Julien points out that they are particularly desperate to corner the market on ideas so as to establish a hierarchical order in which the Other is safely placed at the bottom. Hence the industrialized nations portray “appropriations, interrogations, and extensions of their predecessors” and “the presence of any such forms or media” among the Other as constitutive of “an indisputable paternity” that represents “the incontrovertible triumph of Western modernity (see footnote 14).” Taking issue with these theories, which claim paternity rights for the industrialized societies on ideas and inventions, Julien asks for a rethinking of the terms of Western perceptions of other cultures; in this regard, Julien’s position (and Mbembe’s) echoes the implicit warning made by Abiola Irele that the colonizers always strive to attain their “self-affirmation as the unique source of human and spiritual values” by denying other cultural groupings’ claims to civilization.15

As an alternative to the Eurocentric paradigms—that is, the outlook of viewing cultural phenomena through a Western lens—Mbembe, Irele, and Julien proffer a means of access to African reality aware of the limitations of seeing through non-African eyes. Those wishing to contribute meaningfully to African studies, they counsel, require methods of perceiving that are purged of their ethnic arrogance and thus refuse to subject the evidence to the influence of narrow, settled beliefs. For them, therefore, not only would one be limited by a failure to acquire a cultural basis for understanding one’s subject. As relates to Africa specifically, failing to set all the evidence before one as a researcher is a reflection of a limitation of perception and of method rather than of subject matter. Prospects for understanding the legacies of the cultural energies Africans have both drawn from one another and radiated beyond the shores of their continent will vastly improve if one approaches the subject with an attitude bereft of the barrage of prevailing stereotypes.

The admonition by Mbembe, Irele, and Julien could be seen, appropriately, as a legitimate way to warn researchers against the dangers of an all too familiar pathology: the fact that many come to all things African with certain expectations, while the West passes itself off as the sphere with the sole rights of culture. The notion of the endemic prevalence of conflicts is an example of such preconceptions that all too often have taken hold of the imagination of Western observers of African affairs. The Western exposition of African degeneracy has, unsurprisingly, revealed the limits of presumption—indeed of self-importance—in the gathering of empirical knowledge about Africa. What is intrinsically disquieting about the myths of an inherent African internecine state is not only that the charges of characteristic African unrest frequently feed on and call into service isolated cases of dispute among African writers. More troubling is this: though clearly isolated cases, the instances of disagreement that are all too often used to defend and propagate myths of native-born misunderstandings among African writers, such as the Achebe–Armah ideological skirmishes,16 the Armah–Senghor rift,17 and even the Soyinka–Clark (Bekederemo) literary altercation,18 are commonly touted as the norm. The disconnected occurrences of wrangling pale in comparison to the thorough-going collaborative efforts that have facilitated the work of many African writers, and thus are far from justifying the sweepingly negative conclusions, but the exaggerated claims of contention are all too often propagated by people with little knowledge of African realities, and who, paradoxically, ignore the contradictory evidence entirely in order to avoid having to account for facts that might cause them to change their positions.

Coming, as they do, in the long tradition of the comforting old stories of Africa, these modern mystifications once again serve the interests of those with a natural inclination to exaggerate the notion of the immanent disunity of Africans. There is a long history of Africa being seen in uncomplimentary ways, which makes the challenge of combating the preconceived notions all the greater. Those who make ignorance of the African subject their way of life will not give up their inclinations so easily because old habits die hard; groups habituated to picturing Africa’s blight in terms that submit it to the power of magnification—openly or hideously to promote their own needs to prove and reinforce a sense of their inherent superiority—are the least likely to give up the comforting desire to hold on to old habits in perpetuity. Clearly, breaking these old habits is going to be pretty difficult.

The myths of innate African rivalry are more correctly viewed as extensions of the old ideas of the purported rule of darkness, the blank darkness that is customarily invoked and propagated by the West in writing about Africa. The claims of unruly African passion fall squarely within the category of myths that are used routinely by colonizers to justify atrocities against native or tribal peoples. The old concept of African tribal warlords squabbling among themselves for territorial dominance and, therefore, by implication, in desperate need of European protection against themselves, can be seen to have evolved and mutated into that of the contemporary African intellectual elite now jostling uncontrollably for exclusive jurisdiction over limited but powerful creative enclaves.

The contest over who manages the image of Africa is a refraction of the international competition involving cultural capital, history, economic power, and the jealousy of trade; shattering the centuries-old argument that intolerance of one another is so rife among African writers that it is their very life and soul will pave the way for a new image of Africa that will lead to deeper cross-cultural understandings. The occasion requires all hands to be on deck so that the highest quality knowledge from and about African culture and history can emerge. In that fight to achieve an authentic representation of Africa—one that captures the true attributes of the peoples of the continent—Africans themselves must of course play a key role. They can least afford to abdicate the responsibility to take a hand in their own image-production because, as Achebe has warned us in a graphic metaphoric proverb, the consequences of such a failure would be dire: “A man who does not lick his lips, can he blame the harmattan for drying them?”19 Here, Achebe’s image of the harmattan, the dry, dusty wind of the West African coast, in reference to the hostility of what he has christened colonialist criticism bears out the festering menace it poses, and heightens the urgency with which it demands to be contained.

With the framework of superstition within which it operates; its intransigence, unaccommodating nature, dismissive attitude toward the other; and its tendency to arrogantly arrogate to itself the exclusive right to define its Other; it seems obvious that no one really comes out the better for the ascendancy of colonialist criticism: neither its perpetrators, whose knowledge of their subject it does not advance; nor its target, whose true picture it distorts.20 Even such a seemingly harmless study as Griswold’s with the expressed objective to demonstrate what is second nature to creative writers in Nigeria and the contexts in which they work by taking the country’s literary history as an illustrative example of how a collective biography of a generation of writers and the habits of their readers can show the values as well as the developing challenges of their age turns out not as appears. While the author profiles and plot details of scores of novels and novellas are elegantly written, with a great display of comprehensiveness in the pool of textual evidence deployed in the reading of individual texts and pamphlets, the study opens the author to criticism with slanted views which distort significant historical and social facts. Following glowing tributes paid to Nigerian writers for their valiant persistence in times of severe economic hardships brought about by the massive devaluation of their local currency, for instance, the suggestion that “Nigeria lacks book clubs” gives rise to speculation that this is the case because “Its postal service is too prone to theft for book clubs to be feasible even if there were a demand for them—and adequate libraries—but more important, it lacks outlets for mass retailing” (p. 86). As anyone who has more than a casual familiarity with Nigeria can testify, however, all three claims, especially the unfounded allegations about the endemic state of book piracy in Nigeria, are inventions of the imagination. In normal academic circles, a scholar would provide documentation for this sort of information; throughout the book, however, no attempt is made to reveal the source of such important disclosures. It could be surmised that the author never bothered with scrupulous source acknowledgement, or never cared to obtain the correct facts, because the subject needs no defense in light of Nigeria’s already well-established reputation as a bastion of corruption.

Hence, what really appears to interest author Griswold with regard to this matter is to simply confirm Nigeria’s well-established profile as among the world’s most corrupt countries, where efforts to raise literacy amongst its citizens were doomed from the start. This objective is realized by adding one and one and arriving at a logical mathematical answer. But, in this case, it turns out to be an imaginary construction—though it seems the point has been made, and few readers might really care about how the claims advanced stack up with the actual Nigerian social reality. Similarly, despite the virtual absence of rural electrification in the country, an indefensible claim is pressed that in Nigeria “as in many places in the non-Western world, the pre-modern exists cheek by jowl with the postmodern.” This is followed by the statement, “Television programs with names like Tales by the Moonlight feature actors as storytellers and listeners in traditional village settings” and “People who have lived their lives in a single village learn an emotional repertoire from Indian films on television and photo-magazines modeled on the Latin American fotonovelas” (p. 118). Again, contrary to scholarly expectation, no single village setting where all of these things allegedly happened is identified. It proves difficult for these claims to be defended exactly because, quite simply, such villages do not exist.

And so, once again, in the postcolonial, as in the pre-independence time, the objects of colonialist criticism should never retreat from but rather must step up and get on board the project to reclaim their right to self-definition. Instead of folding their arms to watch helplessly or complain lamely about the unchanging way in which their continent is made a clean slate, the blank space, onto which others freely write whatever pleases them—and onto which these same groups project their fears and anxieties about the Other—writers from once colonized territories like Africa should participate vigorously in the activity of self-presentation because, like their social life, the creative impulse there is not what it is made out to be. To acknowledge this is not to open or join a polemic against foreign models of perception or creativity per se but rather to recognize that among the obstacles to understanding a people or a phenomenon, prejudice and presumption are perhaps the most intractable. Simply to adopt Western theoretical models and apply them willy-nilly to African affairs, without taking account of the distinctness of the African situation and altering the theories that one does borrow relevantly, i.e., by particularizing them, is to be not merely trite and trivial but actually deluded.

The issue of how things African are viewed is complicated by some Africans’ beginning to accept how they are seen by others, which in turn magnifies the challenges African writers face in their struggle to strip themselves of dominant popular stereotypes depicting them as subjects who perpetually imitate literary standards set in Metropolitan centers of the world far removed from African mental and psychological habitations. While receptivity toward external resources is not to be rejected or excoriated just for the sake of censorious lampooning, at the same time, to aspire more to be promoters of literary norms that evolve naturally out of their uniquely local milieus than emulators of imported norms is for African authors to stake a claim for their dignity and self-respect. It has been noted by the troika of Chinweizu, Jemie, and Madubuike in their influential study of the aesthetic and ideological orientations of African literature Toward the Decolonization of African Literature that the more local and specific a writer can get in recreating a lived human experience the more original he or she can be, and the more such a writer can pull apart by delivering a masterpiece that not only configures a world that is extensively and richly documented but one that offers an interpretation of experience that simultaneously establishes its difference from other regimes of existence elsewhere. As Chinweizu, Jemie, and Madubuike go on to make crystal clear in the same germinal book, the route to the universal is usually paved with asphalt of a local kind, because the more a work treats of specific places, events, times, and individuals the more it makes the experience real and so makes it universal.21

It is true that many African authors have seldom been entirely forthright in disclosing their real sources; but, then, writers from elsewhere have never been voluble, or willing to tell everything, about themselves and their inspiration. It would seem that to continue to stress the issue of rivalry of African authors, despite evidence to the contrary, is therefore, in a way, to make every effort not to make the most of what we do know: the demonstrable aesthetic links between their works. With all of the staggering details of the nature of African creative writings increasingly being thrust into the limelight, never before have the windows for viewing anew the ordering of creative impulses in contemporary African literature been unlocked quite like they are now; there could hardly be a moment more auspicious than now to take stock of the literary links in African letters. This is truly a time of an unprecedented explosion of knowledge—archival, aesthetic, sociological, and political—about the African creative imagination. African literary study has built up such an impressive momentum that, whether just entering the field or an established expert, we can now stand back and reflect upon the monumental research output.

If the current state of African literary scholarship offers any single crucial insight, however, it is that, in order for a more compendious understanding of the field to emerge, intertextuality must take a more central stage rather than the passing nod which it currently enjoys. The contours of the field have been expanding and need to continue doing so; more concentrated energies should be expended in expanding the field even further to include the inspirations of forebears immediate and distant. Since all the evidence is increasingly suggesting the contrary, to continue stressing how African writers fight only serves a purpose of evasion. Constructing a reliable knowledge base on Africa is going to be anything but simple. Specifically, any new research initiative on Africa wishing to point the way to a new understanding will encompass new attitudes, beliefs, and feelings without which it is impossible to come to real knowledge of the particulars of how literary works are made there. What is needed is clearly a stubborn pursuit of appropriate conceptual frameworks of analysis. For example, the figure of the imitative African writer, dependent upon Western sources for creative inspiration, is all-pervading in conceptions of African literature; but missing in the discourse is the highly potent force of influence of an indigenous African origin. Tapping into this source of creativity will require stimulation of a mindset that is ready to deal with a very potent impediment to research on intertextual relations in African literature: the issue of the apparent crisis of confidence which makes many African writers eager to conceal their real sources of inspiration.


Vendler (2003).


Eliot (1975).


Jackson Bate (1970).


Highet (1985).


Fowler (2006). For an opposing purist theory of literary production, see Steiner (2000), for instance, which strives to establish a distinction between invention and creation and tags as “inventors” those who seize upon present material, and as “creators” those who make something out of nothing, a hair-splitting exercise.


Sellers (2007).


Nazareth (2002). By contrast, see a pioneering essay, “Plagiarism and Authentic Creativity in West Africa” (Research in African Literatures 6.1 [1975]: 32–39) by Nigerian literary critic Donatus Ibe Nwoga.


For details, see Soyinka (1976).


Compare Brian Vicker’s richly informative study, offering a synthesis of the stages through which authorship studies of Elizabethan drama over the last century have passed. In that study, Vickers breaks down the stages as follows: “The first involved the identification of passages in anonymous or co-authored plays that closely echoed known work by one or more dramatists. This method considers longer verbal collocations, not single words or short phrases, and works best when it can show parallels of thought and attitude, in addition to verbal parallels. The second stage was the realization that different writers have different preferences within frequently recurring linguistic features: the use of contractions (‘em, ‘ee, ‘tis), choice of alternative spellings (while or whiles), variant verb forms (has or hath, does or doth), or favourite exclamations (pish, phew). These usages could be located in a text, and systematically investigated, sometimes revealing clear differences. Variations in verse form could also be identified and tabulated. The third stage grew out of this, locating linguistic features—such as ‘function words’ (to, of, the), or the words beginning and/or ending sentences or speeches—and submitting them to detailed statistical analysis. All three approaches are independently valid, but the most satisfying results are obtained when their results support each other” (Vickers 1996).


To move ahead with her project, Gender in African Women’s Writing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi had, in her own words, defiantly “to refuse to maintain a dichotomy or promote the splintering of African literature into linguistic camps reinforcing the false notion that these literatures are inherently different, for a number of reasons” (p. x).


Mbembe (2001).


Ibid., pp. 1–2.


In Mbembe’s willingness to acknowledge the persistence of negative images of Africa, but not without responsibility being shared between Africa and the West, there is ground to compare his ambivalence to the blaming of hapless victims of crimes for calling their plights upon themselves.


Julien (1999).


See Irele (2001).


For details on this, see Achebe (1975) and Ayi Kwei Armah’s response in “Armah’s Celebration of Silence,” Concord [Lagos] (August 12, 1987): 11–12.


See Ayi Kwei Armah’s (1967) essays “African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific?” and “Battle for the Mind of Africa” (1987).


For more details, see King (1993).


See Chinua Achebe, “Colonialist Criticism,” Morning Yet On Creation Day, p. 28.


For a recent example, see Griswold (2000).


There is of course a fine line between realistic self-portraiture on the one hand and self-caricature instigated by self-loathing on the other; this is nowhere made more conspicuous than by Achille Mbembe’s (2001) hugely successful On the Postcolony.


Copyright information

© Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, Hungary 2011