Conjunctions of Impulse in the African Literary Imagination


Harry Garuba

The University of Capetown, Capetown South Africa

Copyright © 2003 by Harry Garuba, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Irele, F. Abiola. The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 296pp + xxi. ISBN 0-19-508618-X; ISN 0-19-508619-8 (paper).

  1. The African Imagination brings together a collection of Abiola Irele's essays that have appeared in various journals and books in the period from 1981 to 1995. The essays in this book thus present us with a fine selection of the author's critical and theoretical reflections since 1981, when his earlier book, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology, was first published by Heinemann. This earlier book which has since become a landmark critical text in African literary studies may be said to have set the stage for this new one. That book -- in its engagement with the literature and letters of Africa -- was concerned with defining a tradition of African literary expression and intellectual production within the context of the African/Black experience of western modernity, slavery and colonialism. In the various essays in that volume, the author explores the new subjectivities and identities that have evolved from that experience, particularly as they have been inscribed in the literature and ideology. There is a very real sense in which this new book may be said to be a continuation of the work begun in the earlier work. Not only does Irele make the explicit link in the preface, the readings that he provides of individual authors and texts show a gesturing beyond just textual elucidation to uncovering the enabling histories and structures which generate these texts. In short, the project here moves beyond simply registering the African experience in literature and ideology to capturing the fundamental lineaments around which this experience coheres as a unified field of cultural expression. Hence the provocative title of the book.

  2. The first essay, "The African Imagination" -- which also provides the general title of the book -- connects this work with the defining impulses that characterized the earlier book and sets the tone for the wider ranging ruminations of the present. Beginning with the first fumbling attempts by various critics and scholars to define an African literature, philosophy or structure of mind in the 1950s and 1960s, Irele notes that the term African literature "carries with it a particular ambiguity of reference in its present and common usage" (5). The inadequacies of the term "literature" in its conventional associations with a literate tradition, a particular language and a specific nation are shown up when dealing with African literature. In the specific instance of African literature, not only is there a sense of unease occasioned by the use of this term with reference to the vast body of oral traditions, there is also "the disjunction between language and literature" and the "misfit" between literature and nation. And these, being as they are, the conjunctions that have become naturalized and stabilized in literary studies, the instance of African literature invariably invites a rethink of them. As a way of avoiding the limited perspectives of this conventional usage and it connotations, the author proposes the term the African imagination which he modestly describes as "a conjunction of impulses that have been given a unified expression in a body of literary texts" (4) across languages, nations, and the oral and written mediums. The essays thus attempt to articulate this "conjunction of impulses" and to offer proof of this unity of expression in the thematic preoccupations and "rhetorical strategies" deployed in this body of texts, without the limiting perspectives of writing, language or nationality.

  3. The essays in this book can be broadly divided into two groups: those dealing with the major critical and conceptual issues and debates that have defined the field of African literary studies and those focused on studies of individual authors and/or of specific works. Thus the first four chapters concentrate on exploring questions of orality and writing, the language debate, and dimensions of African discourse while the next four chapters focus on individual authors and specific texts such as Amadou Hampaté Bâ's The Fortunes of Wangarin, Ahmadou Kourouma's Monné, outrages et défis, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, and Edward Kamau Brathwaite's Masks. The ninth chapter deals with the poems and plays of John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo and the book ends with a survey chapter on the new realism in African fiction. From this rendering of the issues, texts and authors examined in this book, it is obvious that this work ranges through the defining questions and debates and the canonical texts and authors which have become central to the tradition of modern African literature and its articulations in the African diaspora. And it explores these in literary works in both English and French, the language divide which often makes texts produced in the one language inaccessible to their counterparts in other parts of Africa who work in the other language. By affirming the fundamental unity of these texts which exist in different languages and even continents, the author highlights the similarity of their discursive provenance.

  4. Abiola Irele brings to this job a formidable array of credentials, professional and personal. Not only does his remarkable fluency in French and English and his professional training in literary studies give him a command of the two literatures in the original, his knowledge of the Yoruba language and its oral and written traditions of literary expression further place him in a position to access different literary cultures simultaneously without recourse to the mediation of translations. Added to this is his deep familiarity with the texts and authors who have played a major role in the evolution of modern African literature. From his student days at the University College, Ibadan in the late 1950s and early 1960s, where he edited the student journal The Horn which was hugely instrumental to the emergence of English literary expression in Nigeria to his professional life as critic and teacher of African literature, he has been highly influential -- as participant, proselytizer, critic/theorist -- in the development of a system of criteria for reading this literature and in its subsequent canonization. These advantages are particularly displayed in his reading of individual texts which may be seen as illustrations of the more general ideas he develops in the book. These readings, closely focused on the texts as they are, also provide something of a discursive history that underlines their significance. And it is perhaps this insistence on reading the texts as part of a larger history, the insistence on placing them as it were within the field of a specific discursive formation that gives this book it enduring value.

  5. In "Orality, Literacy, and African Literature," "African Letters: The Making of a Tradition," and "Dimensions of African Discourse" -- the second, third and fourth chapters -- Irele provides us with a historical and theoretical account of the evolution of African discourse. "The most striking aspect of African discourse," he says, "is of course its character as a movement of contestation" (68). And from this emerges its "strongly articulated sense of historical grievance" (69). Constructed therefore as a counterdiscourse -- at least in its beginnings -- it has had to create its own space within the "field of tension" generated by the binaries of racist/ colonialist discourses. The figures of representation thus bear the marks of this struggle for representation. And nowhere more so than in the tropes of imaginative literature. The essays develop this argument by elaborating first upon the paradigm of orality which he believes "stands as the fundamental reference of discourse and of the imaginative mode in Africa" (11). And he examines this not only in relation to writing but also in relation to the use of European languages by African writers. As he states it:
    The double relation of modern African writers represents something of a dilemma, which stems from the apparent disjunction that separates their creative activity and effort from their material and language, between what is given as signified and the constraints of the signifier. . . . Formulated differently, the problem of the African writer employing a European language is how to write an oral culture. (16)
    Here he may well completed this by saying: how to write an oral culture in the language of another culture. For this is the fuller question that he foregrounds.

  6. The studies of individual authors that follow try to explore this "tension between a register of experience and its expression," (86) to use his own apt description of Hampaté Bâ's work. His account of this author's career and his reading of The Fortunes of Wangarin delves into these issues of orality and writing, language and literary traditions, illuminating these tensions and highlighting the ways in which the author navigates them. In the next chapter, Irele expands the focus by exploring the connections between narrative, history and the African imagination. This chapter begins with an interesting personal narrative on how History was taught as a school subject n the Lagos High School he attended. He remembers the difference between this and the teaching of other subjects because History was taught by way of narrative and performance, with the teacher telling the story and acting out the parts of the various personae. This provides him with an opening into the nature of traditional historiography and its intimate connection with the oral traditions of story telling and performance. This chapter links up more directly in my opinion with the chapter on Edward Kamau Brathwaite where issues of history and narrative are examined in relation to the African diasporic experience. Brathwaite's Masks provides the occasion and text for this analysis of the significance of Africa in the Caribbean imagination and this poet's own journeys of historical and narrative rediscovery.

  7. For some reason I am yet to discern in the arrangement of the sequence of the essays, there is an intervening chapter on Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart before the Brathwaite piece. This chapter is a veritable tour de force. I will not attempt to deform the subtlety and sophistication of Irele's reading of the crisis of cultural memory in this novel by attempting to summarize it. Suffice it to say that this essay closes in upon that part of the novel often ignored by critics so relentlessly focused on its agenda of anti-colonial cultural nationalism. It deals with what the novel says to "us" -- as Africans -- rather than what it says to "them." In spite of the continuing hegemony of the "writing back" paradigm, I believe the time has come for the kind of reading that Irele provides here. The issues explored in this chapter are more directly connected with those highlighted in the final chapter on the new realism in African fiction. This final chapter looks at the novels of Kofi Awooner, Ayi Kwei Armah, Sembene Ousmane, Yambo Ouologeum, Wole Soyinka and Mongo Beti as new parables of the African condition. In short, the crisis of cultural memory which Achebe explores in Things Fall Apart becomes a full blown crisis of generalized disillusionment with the "fruits" of independence in these later novels.

  8. But then again there is an intervening chapter of the poetry and plays of J.P. Clark-Bekederemo before the essay on the new realism. As literary criticism, literary history, and a spice of social history, this essay which was first published as an introduction to the volume of Clark-Bekederemo's collected works can hardly be surpassed. It evokes the immediate pre- and post-independence period in Nigeria and the atmosphere of excitement and challenge which the students and the nation at large experienced. Irele account of Clark-Bekederemo's creative struggle within a "new" language for a new idiom to express his experience and vision is as informing as it is intellectually stimulating.

  9. A remarkable consistency of vision and objective runs through these essays, so much so that as we move from one piece to the next, it appears as if they were all written as part of a single overarching project. Rather than read these as separate essays on different subjects written and published over a period of time, a more rewarding approach would be to read them as a sustained mediation upon on the question of a postcolonial African modernity and subjectivity and how this has been registered in the imaginative literature of Africa and the Black diaspora. For this is precisely the objective that this book attempts to engage with. In this kind of reading, the phenomenon of literature becomes testimonial in two differing but related senses. First, as testifying to a historical experience which serves as the referent of representation; and second, as a mode of signification, which deploys the codes and tropes of representation and verbal expression specific to a particular culture, place and history. Put differently, the literature not only testifies to a history in the conventional thematic, mimetic sense but also to a discursive formation manifested in a series of signifying practices authorized by specific institutions. Irele's book gives a reading of the literature of Africa and the Black diaspora that is sensitive to these dimensions of the literary imagination in Africa.

  10. As a rule, I approach books bearing titles such as this -- for example, "the African mind," "the African crisis," "the African condition" as so on ---with a large dose of skepticism. Not only do I feel immediately alarmed by the essentialism which inheres in these titles but I am also alerted to the naïve homogenizing tendencies which such texts often spout in the name of theorizing. In several of them, exoticization and grandstanding displace critical analysis and theory. Abiola Irele's The African Imagination is welcome exception to this rule. This exceptional quality is evidenced not only in the rigor of his analysis but also in the depth of his historicization of the material and his close attention to the specificities of time, place and culture. In spite of his modest description of what he refers to in his use of this loaded title, this is a book most deserving of such a title.

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