The great literary divide

Charles Larson has been writing on African literature for over 30 years, his first book, The Emergence of African Fiction, blowing up a storm of controversy when it appeared in 1972.

Based on research, and on interviews with dozens of writers and publishers, his new work turns on the fundamental paradox that while African writers “have left an indelible mark on the continent’s psyche as well as on the international literary scene”, they “inhabit a world devoid of privilege and advantage”. This recognition is sustained throughout the book; “becoming a writer in Africa involves overcoming challenges and negotiating pitfalls rarely encountered by the West”.

Some of the shortcomings of Larson’s earlier work are visible here. A chapter on the creative writers’ choice of language rounds up the familiar arguments (rehearsed again recently in the Mail & Guardian by Sipho Seepe), but is pretty thin when it comes to probing matters of audience, social psychology, the oral or written interface. These questions constitute a minefield because we are talking about something so central to human being: all the more reason to tread carefully.

A copy editor could have dealt with bloopers such as repeated references to Ali Mazrui as Mazuri. And there are too many shallow or inaccurate observations such as that South African writers returned “to their beloved land [in the 1990s] only to realise that their entire careers had been built on attacking apartheid. Once the system was dead, there was little to write about”.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of fine, attractively presented material in this book. Larson’s account of the value of African literature is passionate and he is genuinely perturbed by the unequal relations that exist between African writers and their Western — and sometimes African — publishers and critics (disarmingly, he acknowledges “I am aware that I am regarded as part of the problem”).

The first chapter, on the indignities suffered by Amos Tutuola, author of The Palm Wine Drinkard, might at first glance seem the most narrowly academic. The tale it tells, though, of neglect, derogatory criticism and shenanigans over the sale of manuscripts, keys into accounts that follow the contemporary scene. Among luminaries who come out badly in the Tutuola affair are the Walt Disney corporation and various Nigerian scholars, who weren’t backward in coming forward to enrich themselves under the Babangida and Abacha regimes.

A richly documented chapter deals with the relationship between African writers and their often unreliable and/or cash-strapped publishers. Beleagured on all sides, Nigerian author Sanya Osha refers grimly to “the death of the author”. And South African Agnes Sam records responses to her attempt get an experimental novel into print: “One publisher’s representative asserted very firmly that black women [should] write autobiographically.”

There are extended case studies of the experience of, among others, Yvonne Vera, Veronique Tadjo, Cyprian Ekwensi and a heart-wrenching account of the Liberian author Simileh M Corder.

In the following chapter on publishing, perhaps the most striking section comes when Larson contrasts the respective book scenes and markets of Africa and India, noting that in 1996 for one American dollar an Indian child could buy seven books.

A chapter on state oppression, censorship and harassment, focuses especially on South Africa, Malawi, Guinea (the case of Camara Laye) and Nigeria (Wole Soyinka and Ken Saro-Wiwa). Especially thoughtful here is the section on exile, which tackles the tricky question of the distinction between voluntarism and coercion.

A closing section sets out practical suggestions for establishing a pan-African publishing house. All in all, The Ordeal of the African Writer is a valuable manual documenting burning issues that confront the African writer.

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