22 Jan

The question has risen several times if what we read and what Africans themselves publish can be considered genuine African literature. There are several schools of thought when it comes to the issue of categorizing literary works.

My first attraction to literature was that ‘‘it’s simply literature’’; its origins never interested me. I’ve read American books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Arabian poetry like The Rubayya of Omar Khayyam, European books like Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and they all captivated me and stirred up various emotions within me. I first read William Shakespeare’s plays when I was nine; The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and a host of others. All these books, at the time, were just books and stories to me.

Thinking back, now that I’ve picked up a pen to write, my mind goes back to several popular debates on what is considered genuine African literature and should African books written in foreign languages be considered authentic. Chinua Achebe’s books were written in English language and he is popularly referred to as ‘‘The Father of African Literature’’. Beyond the seeming vanity of titles that bloats a man’s ego, Chinua Achebe was really a great story teller and he gave a good defence for his choice of English language as a means of writing his novels. The same applies to Wole Soyinka. Everyone has a good reason for doing something. However, I am forced to think differently. Language is the conveyor of thought and a French man instinctively thinks in French and when trying to get his point to an audience, the French language is naturally the first choice guaranteed to deliver his message with the intended precision but let’s assume he has an English speaking audience that doesn’t understand French, he has to convey his message in English but no matter how learned he is in the English language, he’ll miss some of the rhetorics, puns and pictures he intended to put in his audience. As much as we can not do without publishing our literary works in English language, I’ve often wondered why Nigerian and African writers seem to have totally abandoned the use of the native language for full publication. Apart from being a conveyor of art, language is a conveyor of culture. Take a man’s tongue and you’ve taken his means of ever being fully understood, his personality. Drawing from the words of the famous Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘‘the best way to imprison a people is to write their story and begin it with secondly’’. Africans are writing their own stories but habitually beginning it with secondly(the second language). That’s why I believe Onyeka Nwelue may have a point when he said ‘‘Things fall Apart was the worst story to come out of Africa’’. It was a great story and a great writing but it set a precedence of writing that is putting the continent in slavery. Shakespeare’s writings in English language forms a major means through which the English language became a dominant literary force but several other languages have not been totally crippled by it because the writers wrote in their native languages (check Le Monde’s list of the 100 best books of the 20th century and the 100 best books of all time by the world library) and had the translations made into English for English audiences. African languages make up about 60% of the world’s fastest disappearing languages and nobody attributes it to the fact that we’ve stopped telling our stories with our own tongue. J. P. Sartre, contrasting poetry in French by Frenchmen and Africans, had this to say:

It is almost impossible for our poets (African) to realign themselves with popular tradition. Ten centuries of erudite poetry separate them from it. And, further, the folkloric inspiration is dried up: at most we could merely contrive a sterile facsimile.

Even Wole Soyinka could not match D.O. Fagunwa’s imagery when he rewrote Fagunwa’s novel, Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale written in Yoruba language, he had to coin a new English semblance for the title as, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons. . So the next time you pick a book off the shelves by a writer of African origin, ask yourself, Is it really African literature? Because you can never know the man’s innermost mind except through his tongue.


Posted by on 22/01/2014 in Uncategorized


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  1. livelytwist

    20/02/2014 at 2:37 pm

    This is interesting. In a country with several languages, with English being the official language, I speak of Nigeria, what is African literature? True, it is hard to translate stories from an African language to English, without losing some its essence, but the reverse is true also.

    Colonisation and the language it introduced, English, is a bonafide part of our history; English is part of who we are, in my opinion. In a country with plurality of languages, English is what enables us keep building our Tower of Babel. So, I will talk (write) about Oduduwa, queen Idia, and Mungo Park and Lord Lugard, because they are my history, in the language of my day.

    Should we limit the definition of African literature on the basis of language? I, for one, would have missed out on the African literature of other tribes. Or should content not have an equal or bigger say?

    And if we are concerned that our languages are disappearing, should we have developed “wazobia” a construction as foreign as English? Or should emphasis be placed on learning local languages in homes, communities, and schools?

    I enjoy reading “African” literature in English. I like it when the authors describe our eccentricities and smatter their sentences with local languages and pidgin, the way that people on the street talk.

    Language is dynamic and it is currency. I heard that “smart” people are already learning Chinese for it is the language of the future 🙂

    This comment, competing with your blog post in length, could have been longer if I wrote it in an African language, proverbs et al. Bear with me?


    • Tito Tobi

      20/02/2014 at 4:32 pm

      Will like to read those proverbs…lol. The thought is simply the promotion of our languages…I wrote a couple of poems in Yoruba and in translation, I felt some juices were lost.Then I recalled some of Fagunwa’s literature and Soyinka’s translation and the differences. Then I wrote this piece. I promised afterwards that maybe all my writings will be in 2 languages. And Yes, we can’t really relegate the importance of English language. It’s one of the brands left on us by the colonialists and it’s a unifying language for us…..but a Nigerian ignoring Igbo and writing in Chinese?……He needs to see me for a knowledge of his past before going futuristic.



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