LITERATURE AND ETHNICITY: Is literature shaped by the cultural contexts of the authors?
Being keynote address presented in Port Harcourt , Rivers State by CHINUA ACHEBE at the 2011 Garden City Literary Festival
ETHNICITY is a somewhat problematic word. The great American anthropologist and poet, Stanley Diamond, used such words as ethnic with complete and disarming respect, unlike most of us.
Our use tends to be coloured by guilt, condescension, or just awkwardness because this word and others in its category have suffered from cultural and racial politics and the politics of scholarship.
I looked up the word ethnic in my daughter’s Random House College Dictionary. It had five definitions as follows:
1) pertaining to or characteristic of a people, especially a speech or culture group
2) referring to the origin, classification, characteristics etc. of such groups
3) pertaining to non-Christians
4) belonging to or deriving from the cultural, racial, religious or linguistic traditions of a people or country especially a ‘primitive’ one: ethnic dances
5) U.S. a member of an ethnic group especially one belonging to a minority group that is not part of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition.
This is clearly a word loaded with problems. Being the keynote speaker I could not evade drawing attention to this. Being first has its drawbacks. An Igbo children’s chant says that the child who walks in front is the eye that spots evil spirits, the child in the rear has twisted fingers (I don’t know why!); the middle child is the happy one.
Having spotted this evil spirit I shall simply step aside to the edge of the pathway and let it pass. I shall use ethnicity in the way I know Stanley [Diamond] intended it. I shall use it to mean those elements of history and culture which distinguish one group of people from their fellows. Put a little differently, ethnicity would comprise all those significant qualities of a people’s character – qualities of mind and behavior which they acquired in their long struggle to domesticate the wilderness and make it their world; their physical and spiritual landscape.
We are talking then about deep, not surface issues; we are not talking about this morning’s gossip but about matters which reach back to the beginnings of a people as a people. We are talking about their earliest memories which they consider important and wish to preserve and so recount in well-chosen, pleasing and memorable language. Finally we are talking also about the beginnings of literature. That is what ethnicity suggests to me.
Needless to say that these origins did not involve pen and paper or their ancestors of clay and papyrus. We may imagine some ancient poets making fun of those of their guild who were adopting the new-fangled habit of reading from heavy clay tablets intended for royal edicts and land measurements. This may be no idle imagination. Several years ago I had invited a seventy-year old illiterate minstrel to recite his epic poetry at the University of Nigeria. His story of the exploits of the hero, Emeka Okoye, began, to everyone’s surprise, with paper playing a singularly sinister role.
Paper floating down from the sky one morning carried a commandment from the demi-god Enunyilimba prohibiting the eating or drinking of anything, however, small for seven markets or twenty eight days. The reason: this demi-god was going to feast above for one month and all the inhabitants of the world below must, therefore, honour him with starvation, on pain of instant death!
The notion of oral performance as serious literature is still received with suspicion or reluctance in many quarters, or at best perceived as a form that ended long ago, perhaps in the age of Homer. But that is far from the truth. The Somali, a pastoral/nomadic people in the Horn of Africa must be accounted among the world’s most poetic people. Their life is permeated by the composition and recital of poetry ranging from simple domestic discourse about the superiority of the camel over goats and cows to the intense anti-colonial poetry directed against the British; the Italians and the Ethiopians.
Sayyid Muhammad Abdille Hasan whom the British called the “Mad Mullah” is revered to this day not only because of his twenty-year struggle against three colonial powers, but primarily as the greatest poet in the Somali language. Now this language was first written down as recently as 1972. It is important that we admit the category of oral literature with respect in this literary festival or else we shall have little to talk about beside already very-well-talked-about matters. For myself I am taking my bearing from oral literature.
During the European Middle Ages a succession of empires rose and fell in the West African grasslands or the Sahel. One of the most remarkable among these empires was Mali as remarkable as its founder, Sundiata. Islam had penetrated into this part of Africa for at least one thousand years and had slowly superseded the indigenous African polytheistic religions.
The creation story which I will now tell you quite obviously predates the coming of Islam to Mali:
At the beginning there was a huge drop of milk.
Then Doondari came and he created the stone.
Then the stone created iron;
The iron created fire;
And fire created water;
And water created air.
Then Doondari descended the second time.
And took the five elements
And he shaped them into man.
But man was proud.
Then Doondari created blindness and blindness
But when blindness became too proud,
Doondari created sleep, and sleep defeated
But when sleep became too proud,
Doondari created worry, and worry defeated
But when worry became too proud,
Doondari created death, and death defeated
But when death became too proud,
Doondari descended for the third time,
And he came as Gueno, the eternal one
And Gueno defeated death.
There are many things one could say about this wonderful story but I will settle for only one – the constant battle the Creator wages, to maintain the integrity of his world in the face of insidious threat from pride. Four times Doondari has to create an agent to defeat pride. And four times it rises and fights again. And it was man’s pride that began it all.
The Fulani people who made this story before the coming of Allah were obviously concerned about pride. The theology behind the story is not concerned about seven deadly sins, but only one. In the 1950s after one thousand years of Islam, a young Fulani from Senegal who had received the best education the French could give to a brilliant colonial subject wrote a novel about the plight of his people after their defeat and subjugation by French arms and policies.
One of the major characters in the novel has this to say:
If it were still only a matter of ourselves, of the conservation of our substance, the problem would have been less complicated: not being able to conquer them, we should have chosen to be wiped out rather than to yield. But we are among the last men on earth to possess God as He veritably is in His Oneness…How are we to save Him?
The point being made here may elude anyone who has not read Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel: Ambiguous Adventure so I will summarize it:
“We the Diallobe people,” it says “would have had no excuse to continue living after our fathers were defeated by French arms; we would have had every justification in committing suicide. But we are among the few in the world who truly understand God. If we should die what would happen to God then?”
Now that is hardly a declaration of modesty. In fact it is pretty arrogant. It would seem that the pride which the Diallobe people meditated upon is a living problem still with these people in spite of a thousand years of Islam, in spite of a history that has experienced imperial grandeur of their own making as well as the ultimate humiliation of defeat and colonialization by strangers.
We are thus talking about qualities at the core of a people’s character. Something which survives time and events and can ferry across from oral poetry in an African language to modern fiction written in French. We are not talking about transitory fads and fashions.
I take my second example from my own people – the Igbo of South-Eastern Nigeria, and a very different kind of creation myth. Unlike the Fulani story which takes place in a remote, ethereal setting, the Igbo story like the Igbo themselves, is very much down to earth.
The crux of this story is that one morning Chukwu, the Creator, looks down and beholds the king of Nri and the King of Adama sitting disconsolate on an anthill surrounded by marshy ground ( It is not clear whether there are two kings or one king with two titles: for simplicity I shall assume only one.) Chukwu asks him what the matter is and the king replies that the soil is too moist to plant the yam which Chukwu had directed him to plant during an earlier discussion. As a result of this failure of the crop, the story tells us that people are wandering through the bush like wild animals. So Chukwu sends Eze Nri to Awka, the town of blacksmiths to invite one of them to blow on his bellows and make the soil dry.
This is an unusual creation story. It is not the drama of creation that it is concerned with. The world is already made and functioning somehow. But it is not perfect. Man complains to God about this and holds conversations with him to bring about changes and improvements, specifically the tremendous transition of mankind from wanderers in the bush to settled agriculturalists using iron tools.
The Igbo people who made this story are famous (or notorious according to one’s point of view) for their belief in conversation even with God. Unlike their neighbours, they do not care for kings and kingdoms. They were not easy to colonize; the British described them as argumentative. Why the British would consider the Igbo habit of arguing as surprising, is the real surprise.
Why would people who argue with the Creator of the world be intimidated by white district officers some of whom were in their twenties? The Igbo did not care for Empires; they preferred small-scale village communities where every adult male was the king of his own household and could take part in decision-making and every adult woman in (admittedly less frequent) women’s decision-making.
I hope you will not expect me to demonstrate in detail how the world of Things Fall Apart and the world of Arrow of God derive their substance and ambience from these primordial conversations between the first Igbo people and their Creator.
When the British colonized Nigeria they had a lot to learn- some of them did, but some of them, unfortunately, did not. It was bad enough that the Igbo had no kings and no horses, but to also demand a hearing was just too much! What the uninitiated members of Britain’s imperial service did not realize was that the Igbo got away long ago talking back to God Himself. That is a major element of their ethnicity and it will be present in their life and literature.
I want now to address briefly the question posed in what appears like a sub-title to the main subject: To what degree is all literature shaped by the cultural contexts of the authors?
The creative enterprise is a magical space onto itself – the mind in mutual collaboration with the world and its elements to produce something of aesthetic value. Creative writers are like painters, using words to paint a literary tapestry. I think that words have a magic, that human situations- one’s environment, culture, ‘ethnicity’ as we have spent time re-discovering – can be unburdened to join other factors wordsmiths use to create literary magic – that extra dimension that the writer can conjure up by placing ideas about the human condition side by side on paper.
I suppose that cultural contexts is another name for what we have so far been calling the factors of ethnicity. Quite clearly these factors do shape literature. The cultural context within which a writer finds him/herself is relevant in so far as it brings something of literary value -contributes to the world story – and does not claim superiority over, deny, obscure or jaundice, even oppress other perspectives or stories. But having said that let me now admit that there are other factors and not least among them is the genius and free-will of the author.
I left this factor out of account until now, for a purpose. Good literature, whether oral or written, will bear the marks of the author’s culture as well as his or her own personal signature.
Culture is a shared commodity. It implies community. The behavior of one person is not called culture; but the action of one person can influence the culture of the group, and even change it.
Western literature played a central role in promoting the ideal of individual autonomy. As Lionel Trilling tells us Western literature has in the last one hundred and fifty years held “ an intense and adverse imagination of the culture in which it has its being.” It has promoted the view of society and of culture as a prison-house from which the individual must escape to find freedom and fulfillment.
If this is so then it seems to me that a real parting of the ways may have occurred between Western literature and its own origins, to say nothing of other literatures.
The father of Western philosophy says: I think, therefore I am. The unknown formulator of the great Bantu assertion says Umuntu, Ngumuntu Ngabantu: a person is a person because of other persons. The Igbo put it proverbially: if a person feels an itch in the back he calls his fellow to scratch him; an animal scratches itself against a tree.
Georges Braque, co-founder of cubism, once described perspective as “a ghastly mistake which it has taken four centuries to redress.” Perspective is important but it is also a one-eyed view which can degenerate into mere draughts-manship. Perhaps the celebration of individualism, another one-eyed view of the world, can now use a little redressing in Western literature.
The story of Nigeria is one steeped in ethnic and religious tensions and complexity. ‘Ethnicity’ in the Nigerian context has not evolved, through ‘a post-primordial civic nationalism’3 into a blissful, common national identity, as seen in say Switzerland. Until the day “the Swissification of ethnic conflict”4 arrives, Nigerians, particularly its writers, should not be satisfied with sweeping the matter ‘under the rug.’
For those who are not proficient in Nigeria’s recent political history it might be useful to point out that the word ethnic was not always ‘the ugly girl that many took to bed at night, but denied during the daytime.’ My generation remembers a Nigeria that was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation of immense resources at its disposal – natural resources, but even more so human resources. Nigeria possesses a great diversity of vibrant peoples who have not always been on the best of terms, but those of us who are old enough remember periods in our history when collaborations across ethnic and religious divides produced great results.
The Nigeria-Biafra war changed the course of Nigeria. One can summarize the conflict as one precipitated by the bile of ethnic hatred. It was such a cataclysmic experience that for me it virtually changed the history of Africa and the history of Nigeria. Everything I had known before, all the optimism had to be rethought. For me, this traumatic event changed my writing for a time, which found expression in a different genre – poetry.
Since the war, Nigerians have been subjected to a clique of military and civilian adventurers and a political class that have exploited the ethnic divisions in Nigeria. This group, unfortunately, has been completely corrupted – spearheading the enormous transfer of the country’s wealth into private bank accounts, a wholesale theft of the national resources needed for all kinds of things – for health, for education, for roads. The result has been that the nation’s infrastructure was left to disintegrate unleashing untold suffering on millions of innocent people.
This development has been made easy by Nigerian academics who have presided over the liquidation of the university system and the rise of a culture of anti-intellectualism in Nigeria. One of the ways we have done it is our obsession for office.
Twenty-five years ago, university professors were held in very high esteem. Today, I don’t think anybody thinks very much of them, and quite frankly, I think it is our own making. What happens when a university Vice-Chancellor in Nigeria is about to leave office? You ought to see the trips made up and down to government houses in Abuja, begging for cabinet positions.
What upsets me is that this entire mess Nigeria finds itself in was quite avoidable. The leadership appears not to really care for the welfare of the country and its people. If a political class—including intellectuals, university professors, and people like that, who have read all the books and know how the world works—if they had based their actions on principle rather than on opportunity, Nigeria would not be in this predicament.
But Nigerian leaders, beginning with the military dictators, looked around and saw that they could buy intellectuals. Anybody who called himself president would immediately find everyone lining up outside his home or his office to be made minister of this or that. And this is what they have exploited—they have exploited the divisions, the ethnic and religious sectionalization in the country. You have leaders who see nothing wrong in inciting religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. It’s all simply to retain power. So you find now a different kind of alienation.
In the past in Igbo land, if something kept happening and happening, or if somebody kept failing and failing, the people would go and consult an oracle. They call it Iju Ase. In the modern world, the systems that cause these failures are examined. But frankly, I would suggest that Nigeria has decided to put merit aside and bring up whatever considerations, and that is one of the things that happened to us. And the modern world has not been created on considerations outside of merit.
I despair over Nigeria daily. On the missed opportunities of Nigeria: the fact that nobody has had the imagination to say, ‘Look I’m going to transcend all this ethnic pettiness and become the leader of modern Nigeria’ because this is important for Africa, this is important for the world. So, let’s stop all this nonsense about religion, about tribe and so on. Let’s organize Nigeria and make it a working entity so that it can fulfill its mission in the world.
There is a great deal of work for the Nigerian writer- indeed all writers. If the society is healthy, the writer’s job is limited – which is not the situation in Nigeria. On the other hand, if a society is ill the writer has a responsibility to point it out even if it produces headaches in the halls of power!
The role of the writer in a society such as ours besieged with many pathologies -ethnic bigotry, political ineptitude, corruption, and the cult of mediocrity – is not an easy or rigid one. Nigerian writers can choose to turn away from the reality of Nigeria’s intimidating complexity or conquer its mystery by battling with it. I hope we all choose the latter.
1 Ulli Beier (ed.) The Origin of Life and Death, London, Heinemann Educational Books, 1966, In Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments, New York, Anchor Doubleday, 1989, P.135.
2 Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Ambiguous Adventure, London, Heinemann Educational Books, 1962, p.10.
3 Alexandre S. Wilner “The Swiss-ification of Ethnic Conflict: Historical Lessons in Nation building
– The Swiss Example”, Federal Governance Vol. 6, (2007/8), 1-27.
Achebe was David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies
Brown University, Rhode Island, USA