By Chimdi Maduagwu
The last piece here was on writers of distinction and again this piece takes up the same subject. Now before I continue. I want to reason out what make(s) some writers special, in other words, what distinguishes a writer – not in the sense that the writer is different from others – but more in the direction to which that writer is adjudged better than other.
Distinction here, thus, is more of a consideration of merit than of feature or qualities that are special to either a writer or his/her work. Merit is a word I must be careful to use. I have always seen it in relation to value or worth, either from the aesthetic or utilitarian – pragmatic – perspective. Writers of distinction, therefore, become worthy or valuable writers – and evaluating a writer is a tough task.
I am particularly not too excited about the background of a writer, and this is indeed an irony. What I mean is that I, naturally, should be keen on who writes; whether serious or casual, African or non-African, old or new, classical or modernist, conformist or non-conformist and on and on. I think the writer’s background has a way of compartmentalizing the writer, prejudging the writer and even pre-empting the writer.
Chimamanda Adichie, the McArthur Foundation award winner and a writer of Nigerian descent said some time ago (thereabout 2010 Farafina Foundation Workshop) that she does not like being referred to as an “African writer.” This, I suppose, is part of the issues associated with the writer’s background.
To her, chiseling her into “African” translates to putting her works on the shelf – a little one indeed – in the massive western bookstores of America, like Barnes and Noble, and she may never make the bestseller shelf. Quite amusing! While I believe the writer’s background may not be all too important, it nevertheless remains very relevant. Writing is both a linguistic and cultural activity.
There is no doubt that after colonialism, there is a flavor of universality in the linguistic segment of writing because most “writers of distinction” use the linguistic patterns of Western Europe, who colonized virtually the rest of the world at a point. However, the cultural aspect creates a distinction (here, distinction relates to difference) between writers of various regions.
This is part of why it is possible to argue in the direction of African, European, American etc, literatures. Reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s works leaves no doubt as to the culture that produced the works, so the writer may not have a choice as to where she belongs. Readers evaluate; readers comment; readers judge.
There are writers of distinction in both serious and casual writings; African or Nigerian literature; old or new writings; classical or modern literature; conformist of non-conformist (rebel or revolutionary) writings; etc. Distinction is attainment of a certain level of universal acknowledgement of merit, both from the linguistic and cultural considerations.
The value of a work of literature draws upon the qualities of its “form and content.” Sometimes, I wonder how decisions are reached in the award of literary prizes. I really do not believe in such prizes, maybe because I have not been opportune to win any and if and when I do, I may have a change of mind. However, I have been involved in judgment for a prize.
I know that literary excellence should not be legislated, or influence by some extraneous issues, precisely, some extra-literary consideration, but it is difficult for it not to be so. Media attention, critical analyses and critical interests, political and propaganda issues, ideological consideration and other unbelievable variables from the Ivory Tower come into play.
Let me go somewhat back to look at our notion of distinction, with African writing in perspective. Serious African writing started thereabout the third decade of the 20th century in far away Paris, France. A group of African students had identified themselves through writing and resolved to lay bare their inherent “Black Consciousness” to the entire world. By this, it means that the first canons of what would be accepted as Modern Africa literature boomed outside Africa.
This is what we have been told. It is worthy of all acceptability (to echo St. Paul the Apostle), but this is only in relation to literature as a linguistic activity … “Written African Literature.” There were a number of African students, but the most heard of were the likes of Aime Cesaire, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Leon Damas, David Diop and Birago Diop. They might not have been the only or the most important of the writers then, but they became, somehow the front liners.
Even though records have it, according to the literary critic, Gerard Moore, that the loudest and most resounding of their writings was Aime Cesaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (Journal of a Return to my Native Country ), however, the most distinct and distinguished writer of this period became Leopold Sedar Senghor. A number of issues would have been considered in canonizing Senghor as the dean of Modern African Literature.
Part of them include: the ideological – Senghor championed the new ideology and philosophy of Negritude, even though, the word Negritude was first located in Cesaire’s poem Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (Journal of a Return to my Native Country ); the cultural – Senghor, again had a wealth of knowledge of African culture, being that he was nurtured in and by Africa before relocating to France while the likes of Cesaire were descendants of African slaves taken to the West Indies;
Senghor, also had a considerable control of the language of expression (French), being that he was extremely competent in both oral and written communication in French (it is on record that he was a member of the council for the control of the use of French Language eventually);
and perhaps lastly and the most significant, political – Senghor became a frontline politician and was going to be the first President of his country Senegal, at independence and later to be the first elected African President to voluntarily hand over power to another leader (it is on record that Gen Olusegun of Nigeria was the first African Head of State to voluntarily hand over power to another leader).
Here, I am trying to recall the foundation on which writing towards distinction would be built in Africa. I am also trying to identify the bricks that would be used in constructing distinction in writing.
These Africans in Paris France wrote under special circumstances. It must be clearly stated that they were assimilated French people, but they realized that they needed to tell the world who they were (or who we are) and that gave birth to the consciousness of “Blackness” which developed into the ideology of Negritude.
In their endeavours, there are cultural, political, and linguistic elements, all of which combine to generate the early African Literature. They formed the first phase of writers of distinction. These writers are very distinct because they placed Africa on the map of world literatures.