‘Poor’ African Writers Travelling:
Home and Exile in Younger Nigerian Diasporic writing
Memories of Stone: Chuma Nwokolo, Jnr. Villagerhouse, Lagos, 2006.
The Bridge Selection: Poems for the Road. Nnorom Azuonye. Eastern Light EPM International, London, 2005.
Why I Don’t Like Philip Larkin & Other Poems: Esiaba Irobi. Nsibidi Library of Nsukka Poets, Nsibidi Africana Publishers, Owerri, Cambridge, 2005.
Heart’s Field: Uche Nduka. Yeti Press, Bremen, 2005.
The experience of a traveller from the world’s poor places is very
different, whether he is travelling as a tourist or struggling to settle
down as an exile in a wealthy country. One could give a whole lot of
time to that subject but I am not going to. Let me just say of such a
traveller that he will not be able to claim a double citizenship like
Gertrude Stein when she said: “I am an American and Paris is my
(Chinua Achebe, Home and Exile, 2000).
Achebe’s focus on identity and location is continued in the closing paragraph of his book of essays. A magazine opinion by Salman Rushdie that “Literature has little to do with a writer’s home address,”1 elicits the following comment from the African novelist:
I just wonder if in seeking to free the writer from all ties we might
not end up constraining literature’s long reach into every nook and
corner of every writer’s experience and imagining including his
encounter with the extraordinary invention called the passport (105).
Achebe’s responses in Home and Exile interest because some of the certainties informing them are being tested in the experience and work of the younger Nigerian writers under review. Chuma Nwokolo, Nnorom Azuonye, Esiaba Irobi and Uche Nduka, who live and work in Europe and America – Oxford (London); Athens (Ohio) and Bremen (Germany) respectively – are among a dramatically increased and increasing number of new Nigerian poets and other writers writing from abroad. For illustrative purposes in this review, I will also consider the ruptures in the diasporic experience of some of these other Nigerian writers abroad.
I intend to complicate the subject further with a passing interest in the represented memory of those new ‘Nigerian’ writers abroad, who have lived outside Nigeria most of their signifying life, having limited contact with the country, its ways and people. This later group of writers still uses Nigerian or related African material in the work they do, but they also belong to the national literature of their location of residence (place of birth, in some cases) by choice, and are primarily engaged with that other national experience. For this later group, the connection with their African ancestral homeland was tenuous from the beginning and has remained so for much of their lives. The question is how do they relate to that unknown African place which would offer itself as the creative homeland of their art? Being part of an African national diaspora but not having any substantial experience of Africa like the first group of writers abroad, is their own experience of alienation any different from the experience of the earlier group? UK-based ‘Nigerian’ writers in the later category would usually identify themselves as Black British writers, and are categorised and celebrated as such, but they also share the Nigerian ancestry and memory of the other new writers abroad with a more extensive Nigerian experience.
I am interested in how, if at all, the marginal or fringe (or, in Achebe’s words, “poor”) experience of all these new Nigerian poets and other writers abroad is indicated in their creative choices and the identity of their writing. Writing from their metropolitan settings, what is the present evidence of their creative sensitivity to being of black, African, ‘poor’ origins? Poor may also be translated as postcolonial for the purpose of this review. After the theoretical gains of hybridity and related universalisms, is Achebe’s ancient wisdom still relevant to our reading of these young Nigerian writers abroad? How indeed does long-term residency in a location of aspiration sit with the longing for that other location, the location of origin, from which presumably these writers are still drawing inspiration? And there is the awful question to be considered: Is the creative home of this new and exiled writing still properly Africa? What Africa? There is potentially then not only an aspirational location but also an inspirational location determining this new Nigerian writing abroad. All the writers still imagine a home in their ancestral past, or in its contemporary Nigerian realities, which they continue to represent (celebrate or criticise) in their works. But it is not actually as clear-cut, this issue. These new writers are more conflicted over origins and identity, over the imagining of home, than has been previously evident in Nigerian writing, or known to its earlier discourse generations, including that of Achebe. Perhaps, the real difference between now and then, in the case of Nigeria, and much of Africa, is in the sheer weight of numbers involved in these departures, and the seeming permanence of their exit. That has to be culturally significant, sufficient reason for this invitation to discourse.
I have assumed a Nigerian diaspora in this review. That is based on the large numbers of people involved, their continuing behaviour as a nation abroad, and common imaginings of Nigeria as the home to which they might return. I should also state from the onset that the focus here is not on the condition of ‘internal exile,’ by which, in the case of Africa, we might mean such intra-continental exilic and diasporic movements that have also increased for the same reasons and at the same time that the vertical movements out of Africa have increased. Harry Garuba and Sanya Osha, both in South Africa, are among the younger Nigerian writers involved in these horizontal relocations within Africa. Kole Omotosho, of an older generation and now also a South African, is another of the Nigerian writers who may be considered internal African exiles.
As this review is informed by postcolonial commentary from Chinua Achebe, it might have been assisted by a corpus of imaginative exile writings from the novelist with which to draw some comparative conclusions: that is, comparing what Achebe has urged on ‘poor’ diasporic writing in his essays, in terms of nation-consciousness, and how he has actually represented this imaginatively now that he is in long-term residency abroad, and then comparing these new differently informed, and, possibly, generationally specific, representations of Achebe with the exile work and thoughts of the younger writers under consideration. We are not assisted in this regard by Achebe’s recently published book of poems. Obi Iwuanyanwu notes in a Sentinel journal essay, ‘Achebe’s Poetic Drive,’ that Collected Poems (2004), is “the same collection of poems that has been reborn or, like an Igbo ancestor, reincarnated at least four times through different publishers, in different forms, versions, titles, and incremental number of poems over twenty-three years across three continents…”(25) Most of these newly published poems are not new and can collectively make no definitive statement to us on the exile imagination of Chinua Achebe.
Not finding comparative joy with Achebe’s imaginative oeuvre, we might seek analytic comfort in Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known, the most recent collection of poems from Wole Soyinka, one of the other outstanding Nigerian writers of Achebe’s generation. But the value of this for our purpose is also limited. Samarkand, registers the international presence of Soyinka, who lives part of his time abroad, but not really his international experience. In the period of its writing and publication Soyinka was never far from home, and was in fact engaged with home politics, which is what features in most of the poems. But the usual elements of internationalism (rather than universalism) in Soyinka’s writings – the references to Greek mythology and to the important literary and political figures, or struggles, of other travelled lands – are also reflected in Samarkand. What Soyinka shares with Achebe, and with all Nigerian-African people of a sentient nature, including writers, whether they live abroad or at home, is that emotional separation occasioned by frustration from the observed poverty of vision and lack of progress in their African places of origin. Achebe was moved by this to write his political treatise, The Trouble with Nigeria. In Samarkand, Soyinka also deals with that estrangement in the opening stanza of a poem, ‘Elegy for a Nation,’ dedicated to Chinua Achebe, at seventy:
Ah, Chinua, are you grapevine wired?
It sings: our nation is not dead, not clinically
Yet. Now this may come as a surprise to you,
It was to me. I thought the form I spied
Beneath the frosted glass of a fifty-carat catafalque
Was the face of our own dear land – ‘own’, ’dear’,
Voluntary patriotese, you’ll note – we try to please.
An anthem’s sentiment upholds the myth. (68)
Among earlier Nigerian writers, it is, perhaps, in the later work of Tess Onwueme (Shakara Dance-Hall Queen, 2000) and Isidore Okpewho’s novel, Call Me by My Rightful Name, 2004, that diasporic experiences from the recent mass literary departures from Africa are becoming influential in plot-making, characterization and other creative choices, including the choice of subjects and locations. I am interested here in determining possible differences in the recent thinking and imaginative work from exile of older Nigerian writers in comparison with that of their younger compatriots who are the subject of this review. In noting here the changed global circumstances of forced removals and cross-border relocations by refugees, exiles, émigrés, expatriates and other migrants, I am struck by how the elements which determine the exilic contexts of an earlier Nigerian writing by Buchi Emecheta (Second Class Citizen), Naiwu Osahon (Sex is a Nigger) and Wole Soyinka (in the early play, Childe Internationale, or the poem, ‘Telephone Conversation’) remain relevant to the immediate world of this review and the experience of the younger Nigerian writers it is reviewing.
On the Nature of Diasporic Consciousness
Achebe’s thoughts on the poor writer abroad resonate in these later days of literary practice in Africa, with its many forced and ‘voluntary’ exiles, including internal exiles, its increasing body of writings from younger Africans abroad, among them the Nigerian writers under consideration. There are more of the writers relocating abroad, making a life outside the homeland, and increasingly representing that conflicted subjectivity of life-away-from-home in their work and utterances. The memory of home these more recent Nigerian writers abroad have is seen to recede the longer they reside abroad so that this exiled imagination begins to represent home in terms of absence, in words of unfulfilled longing for presence. For all the evidence of political sophistication in some of these younger Nigerian writers abroad, dislocation and its ambiguities remain primary constants in many, conditioning, if not determining, their creative choices and the changeable interests they allow to inform those choices. Their uprootedness and frayed sense of certainty and communal loyalty, feature in idealized or compensatory imaginings of home, and a suspicion of the moments and fixtures of their locations abroad. This conflicted sense of belonging continues to provide a dominant subtext for much of the work – the loss of home, the yearning for it, and, especially for those in long disconnecting residency abroad, the progressively increased perception of home as a place less known, not where they live, only an imaginary or imprecise construct of where they are from.
A cautionary word on how we may fruitfully approach the subject of exile may be found in ‘Reflections on Exile, ’the seminal essay by Edward W. Said. Said urges an appreciation of exile that is distanced from any valorisation of the experience, and the attempt to centre and define it as a peculiarly Western experience, such as may be found in George Steiner’s aesthetic justifications of the experience.2 Said replaces Steiner’s aestheticism with a political construction of the exile experience:
it is apparent that to concentrate on exile as a contemporary political
punishment, you must therefore map territories of experience beyond
those mapped by the literature of exile itself. You must first set aside
Joyce and Nabokov and think instead of the uncountable masses for
whom UN agencies have been created. You must think of the refugee
peasants with no prospect of ever returning home, armed only with a
ration card and an agency number. Paris may be a capital famous for
cosmopolitan exiles, but it is also a city where unknown men and women
have spent years of miserable loneliness: Vietnamese, Algerians,
Cambodians, Senegalese, Peruvians… As you move further from the
Atlantic world, the awful forlorn waste increases: the hopelessly large
numbers, the compounded misery of “undocumented” people suddenly
lost, without a tellable history. (175-176)
For all his sensitivity to the identity and suffering of other nationals outside the Western world, Said, a great internationalist, criticises Wole Soyinka, and by implication Achebe, in Reflections on Exile and other Literary and Cultural Essays, for investing too much in otherness, and in the nation project. In this way, then, he can be classed with the cosmopolitan Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Homi K. Bhabha,3 in opposition to the nationalist criticism by which culture (including literature in Africa) is usually interpreted. Said’s main concerns in a later work, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, are subject specific, but in that collection of public lectures, he also offers justification for his difficulties with nationalists and nation-projects:
Because the world has become far more integrated and demographically
mixed than ever before, the whole concept of national identity has to be
revised and, in most places that I know, is in the process of being revised.
Muslims from North Africa, Kurds, Turks and Arabs from the Middle East,
West and East Indians, as well as men and women from several African
countries have changed forever the collective face of Britain, Sweden,
France, Germany, Italy and Spain, among other countries in Europe.
Extraordinary mixtures of nationalities, races and religions form the different
histories of Latin America, and when we look at India, Malaysia… and
several more Asian countries, we will note, as we would in the case of
many African countries, an enormous variety of languages and cultures…
The point is that of all the baggage inherited from nineteenth century
political thought, it is the notion of a unified, coherent, homogenous
national identity that is now undergoing the most rethinking, and this
change is being felt in every sphere of society and politics.
It is possible for the exiled African writer in difficulty over identity and related cultural decisions to find an easy resolution of such conflicts in these words of Said, for they reflect accurately the realities which they choose to represent. But there are the contradictions to be found in what is not stated. First, the idea of a collective of people united under governance, located in geography and history, with an evolved system of social mores and lore and is not a discovery of nineteenth century political thought, though it may have gained prominence in discourse from that time. A country or state is sometimes commonly referred to as a nation, but a nation is really a more involving political construct than the mere presence of flags and anthems may indicate. It can be any political formation of people with shared, extensive and lasting ethnic, linguistic and historical loyalties and experiences attached to them. It is in this sense that Africa was organised in national formations long before the colonialism and discourse of Nineteenth Century Europe, and it is also by this definition that the idea of nation seems likely to outlive the contemporary discourses aiming to rest it.
It is the case that refuge seekers, intellectuals, agitators, artists, thinkers, and other sentients and official undesirables usually inhabit a life across borders, or at the borderline, as may be determined by birth, residence, marriage, sexual orientation, religious experience, or as a consequence of emotional journeys, work histories and intellectual enquiries. A life lived across borders or at the borderline tends to find great attraction for universalisms, explanations of life and recommendations for living, which necessitate an erasure of borders. For those who belong here and elsewhere, who may be ruled out as belonging elsewhere rather than here, or simply seen as nowhere people, like refugees (or exiles and internationalists like Said, Rushdie, Homi Bhabha and Appiah) borders and boundaries can assume peculiar relevance as insidious locations or moments of antagonism, presences providing justification for the exclusivities which bar some and exalt others, which separate and oppose subjectivities in perpetuation of conflict. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza indicates this as the continuing challenge of Said’s vision:
Said embodied and exuded a humanistic sensibility, a yearning for a
more humane world subject to universal standards of justice, a world
we could all call home, without the suffocating and terrorizing binaries
of “us against them.”4 (Zeleza on Exile, 2)
Will the idea of nation, and the wars and other hated conflicts associated with it, be concluded in Europe or Africa by globalisation and its system of mixed perspectives and relationships, and supposedly shared lives and aspirations? Or, will it, perhaps, happen that instead of the death which opponents of the nation-project imagine they see, what actually happens is that nations re-model themselves, sometimes even change their make-up, in their peculiar history of re-births and make-overs. It is not that nations do not have their historical reversals. No, they have sometimes been conquered, or their people wiped out by plagues or environmental factors, even by invaders, or through internecine conflicts. It is also true, however, that nations have a remarkable capacity for survival, and those who would theorise or hustle them out of existence will have to deal with that. The continuing survival of the Jewish nation is a remarkable story but it is not the only evidence of longevity and survival in the world of national identities. There are the Armenians and Said’s own Palestinians. After the break-up of empires and the emergence of its modern countries, the European ‘tribe’ (or nation) was supposed to be ‘a thing of history’ – until its recent re-configurations in the Common Market, monetary union and the parliament at Brussels. It might be imagined that after the shame of apartheid, the Afrikaner national identity would be in retreat, not wanting to assert itself in independent South Africa. Not so. There is much pride in the use of the language and projection of the culture even from the more liberal of Afrikaner writers. When Said tries to offer America as an example of multiculturalism in triumph, he encounters what he seems to think is a passing inconvenience, what some others might, however, identify as an abiding feature of nations making or re-making themselves:
The actual composition of America is not much different [from what
exists elsewhere] in terms of diversity and multiplicity of cultures,
although one unfortunate consequence has been the felt need to try
to homogenize all this into an assertive, not to say bellicose and
positive American identitarian unanimity. The invention of tradition
has become far too thriving a business.5
Since both the ‘home-sickness’ of the African writer in exile, and the ‘home-consciousness’ of Achebe, imagine the homeland as a place of value, from which ‘national’ writers abroad inherit a uniquely shared history and common identity, authenticated by the name African - and there are cultural perspectives and models, which dispute this, or define it differently- it is useful to evaluate some of these alternative visions of the Africa project to which the younger African writers abroad might be turning for comfort, direction or inspiration. Oyekan Owomoyela attempts a reading of some of these perspectives on Africa in his essay, “The Mata Kharibu Model and its Oppositions: Conflicts and Transformations in Cultural Valuation.” He identifies two broad visions in the discourse on the African past and evaluates their contemporary importance as guides to the definition and development of the African identity. Owomoyela’s models are represented on the critical side by Wole Soyinka (in the independence play, ‘A dance of the Forests’), Ayi Kwei Armah (in the novel, Two Thousand Seasons) and Yambo Ouloguem (in the novel, Bound to Violence). Against the differently damning readings of the African past modelled by these three African writers is the promotional model provided, in Owomoyela’s view, by Chinua Achebe (in the novel, Things Fall Apart) and by the poetry of negritude:
While the Soyinkas, the Ouloguems and the Armahs looked at the African
past and saw perdition, other Africans looked and saw a heritage that
inspired pride, and cultures that were, in human and spiritual terms, if not
in material terms, far superior to the Western impositions. (488-489)
Owomoyela does atttempt to bridge his perceived divide in these opposed interpretations of the African past, providing a suggestion that in Anthills of the Savannah and The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe makes up for his earlier position in Things Fall Apart by at last turning his critical searchlight on the enemy within rather than just the strangers. But the readings of the authors he offers still seem rather simplifying and calculated to indicate a division, which is not evident, or not quite so pronounced and crucial. What is evident is that, taking the discourse further, beyond Africa, differences do exist in the recognition and interpretation of the African experience, even in the acceptance of the validity and viability of Africanness, and this lends accuracy to Owomoyela’s specific consideration of such commentators as Ato Quayson and Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah’s In My Father’s House (1992), seeks, in part, to delegitimize Africanness as a viable identity option, going further, in some ways, than Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, in which the Africanness of the black presence in the diasporic Americas, is simply de-emphasized, or deliberately ignored.
Chinua Achebe and Ayi Kwei Armah assume it and have written novels to prove it; but beyond the geography and history (its time and space significations), and the practical economic, political and social structures and signs of an African cosmopolitan or hybrid modernity (largely traceable to colonial contact with Europe and Arabia and to globalisation), is there an African “essence” or “way,” or “truth,” habits of mind, system of relationships, a unique and separable African identity, which the exiled writer from the continent might correctly imagine as home and feel committed to defend, promote or return to? Or is this imagined ‘essential’ Africa – and its attendant claim of an African diasporic consciousness – mere fiction? In the face of such uncertainties about origins, especially in the diaspora, can (how can) the African identity and sense of belonging for those long settled outside the continent be differently interpreted? This is the many-headed question Isidore Okpewho, Carole Boyce Davies, Ali Mazrui and other scholars in African and Diasporic Studies consider in their published volume of conference papers, The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities. Okpewho provides It is not out of character with the Africa discourse that in The African Diaspora, Michael J. C. Echeruo’s qualified afrocentric perspective (in ‘An African Diaspora: The Ontological Project’) should seem at odds with Ali Mazrui’s multiculturalism (in ‘Islam and the Black Diaspora: The Impact of Islamigration’), or with Jean Rahier’s atlanticism (in ‘Blackness as a Process of Creolisation: The Afro-Esmeraldian Decimas’).
Okpewho guides the discourse of these many perspectives on Africa in diaspora with an introductory essay, which also speaks to this review, especially regarding attitudes that too hastily dismiss any foregrounding of African elements in diasporic studies as essentialist and particularist. He attempts to contrast the Atlantic revisionism of Henry Louis Gates and others, which recognises and engages links with African origins or centres…
In the work of these scholars, there is at any rate, a civil concession
to an African past which suggest that the quest for self-definition
need not entail a total disavowal of vestigial history. This, in fact, is
the significance of scholars like Houston Baker and Henry Louis
Gates – in the ideas of “vernacular theory” and “signifying,”
respectively – as well as artists like Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat,
and Grace Nichols, and the trope of “re-memory” or “re-membering”
underlying their work. (xx-xxi)
and the disavowals or denials of revisionists like Clarence Walker and Paul Gilroy, who, as in the case of Walker’s Deromanticizing Black History, unleash “a no-holds-barred attack not only on those who look backward to Africa, but even on those who employ the concept of “community”… to construe Afro-America as one unified racial family.” (xxi) Okpewho revisits this tendency towards a denial of the African connection, and its attendant denunciations of those in the diaspora who would consider Africa ‘home’:
“Essentialism” has emerged in… diaspora discourse as an ugly label
for any tendency to see the imprint of the homeland or ancestral culture
- in this case, Africa – in any aspect of the lifestyles or outlook of
African-descended peoples in the western Atlantic world. But we can
hardly deny that Africa has had much to do with the ways that New World
blacks have chosen to address the realities before them from the moment
they emerged from the ships… Deracination must have seemed a little
easier to bear the moment the Africans discovered that the environment
[of the Southern plantations] looked amazingly similar to home. In time,
this familiarity not only encouraged them to resume skills (e.g., herbal arts)
they had practiced in Africa but even to seek sanctuary, as maroons fleeing
an inhuman regimen, in the protective cover of the surrounding woods.
Memory of Africa, a sense of roots, therefore served these exiles well,
especially when conditions became simply intolerable… (xv)
This sense of an ancestral connection with Africa was what led to the resettlement initiatives by which some African Americans returned to Africa. Indicating that this connection with Africa is resonant even now in African American culture. Okpewho says regarding the contradictions of Gilroy’s position, that “nothing could be more essentialist or particularist than recognizing a geocultural site (however unstable) as peculiar to a certain set of cultural integers; an isle (even a floating one) of self-elected deracines is nonetheless a “home,” something Gilroy has been looking for ever since lamenting ”There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.” “ (xxii-xxiii) Gilroy is of a British and Caribbean background.
Toyin Falola and Matt D. Childs offer an ethnographic perspective in The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World. In this way of seeing, the representative diasporic home of Africans abroad is defined in a more anthropologically specific manner. Differently from afrocentrism, for which is Africa is one conceptual (pan-cultural) unit, ethnographic and other sectional readings offer instead a basket of African national identities. Falola and Childs privilege the Yoruba, in their own search for diasporic roots, for an African homeland. But Falola and Childs are not unique in this kind of sectional reading of Africa in diaspora, and offer additional possibilities for what is an immeasurably complex discourse, in much the same manner as Ali Mazrui’s privileging of religion, especially Islam. In his contribution to a 2003 CODESRIA conference in Dakar,6 Mazrui, habitually a provocative taxonomist, goes on to identify two kinds of genealogical American diasporeans from Africa:
The distinction between the diaspora of enslavement and the diaspora of
colonialism gets more complicated with the distinction between (a) African
Americans (Americans is the noun and African the adjective) and (b) American
Africans (Africans is the noun). The great majority of African Americans
are a product of the diaspora of enslavement. The term ‘African Americans’ can
either be hemispheric (meaning all descendants of enslavement in the Americas)
or national (meaning all descendants of enslavement in the United States).
American Africans (or Americo-Africans), on the other hand, are products of the
diaspora of colonization. They are usually first- or second- generation immigrants
from Africa to the Americas. They may be citizens or permanent residents of
Western-hemisphere countries. What is distinctive about American Africans is that
their mother-tongue is still an African language. (In the case of Americo-Liberians,
they may still speak Liberian English.) Second, American Africans usually still
have immediate blood relatives in Africa. Third, they are likely still to be attached to
the food culture of their African ancestry. Fourth, American Africans are still likely to
bear African family names, although this is by no means universal, especially
among Lusophone Africans, Liberians and Sierra Leoneans….
W hen does an American African family evolve into an African American family?
When it loses its ancestral language. The umbilical chord is language… But when
American Africans become African Americans it does not mean that other ties with
Africa are cut. Relatives in Africa still abound. Concern for Africa is often still intact.
And the Internet is now providing a new network of Afro-Atlanticism, a new
About previous centuries so little information has been available
as almost to justify the unlikely assumption that a past did not
exist – were it not for two large improbabilities: that English
should have been used in Wales for so long without giving rise
to literary expression, and that the vigorous Anglo-Welsh
Literature of the twentieth century should have sprung into
existence fully formed.(6)
Garlick then proceeds in his essay to unearth some of these lost Welsh voices in English. Over the years, this nationalist response of Garlick has flowered all over Wales, and become even more deeply rooted, so that now there are funded graduate courses and structures set up for the study of Welsh (language) Literature, which, as the subject-name indicates, is different from Anglo-Welsh Literature (or Welsh Literature in English). This political balancing of national representations and influences also informs the historical readings of literary relations in Robert Crawford’s Devolving English Literature, and the reading of British and American Poetic Relations since 1925 provided by Steve Clark and Mark Ford.
National particularities in cultural response and experience survive even after long connecting encounters with others. But merely surviving is not the same thing as bountifully thriving. Without the kind of counter (or protectionist) measures taken over time especially by the literatures of America, Wales and Scotland in containment of English Literature, the functional space by which a peripheral literature can be represented diminishes. If such a marginalized literature is indifferently managed, and not centred even its own locality, it may increasingly be poorly represented, become more devalued, perhaps ultimately lose even its right to a name or identity in its encounter with a globalised literary tradition or tendency. This happened with the African colonial experience so that there had to be a process of cultural retrieval and much affirmative writing around the independence period. Migratory shifts and cultural displacements in a time of global cultural activity from the metropolitan centres can again result in indigenous African perspectives becoming just as internationally and nationally insignificant as was the case in colonised Africa. Centrality never totally disappears, nor does it ever stop wanting to determine and dominate discourse, including the judgement of value and the interpretation of form. It will not yield the controlling values and structures of understanding, by which its core essences and authority base are established, to the migrant multiculturalism which some point to as evidence of an equalisation of cultures. No. It will continue its gate-keeping practices, othering aside or mapping out, and marginalizing such compound or hybrid migrant cultural formations as may be developing within its own locality. It will reserve its ‘rights’ and protect its ‘interests,’ achieving the desired separations, exclusions, and selective inclusions through the processes of naming and definition, and by retaining the powers of provision and judgement.
Centrality (including a centrist paradigm like globalisation) may enthusiastically export itself but it is a hesitant importer of otherness. From the metropolitan driving seats and engine rooms of globalisation, traditionally or locally developed standards, which may be culture specific, are offered and sometimes enforced as universally applicable in a canonical process. Selecting and authenticating cultural work even in this time of the Internet, supposedly a time of the blurring of borders, is still based primarily on nationalist agenda and curriculum setting mechanisms. Pius Adesanmi, one of several critics to have taken the calculated risk of introducing the new poetry from Africa to academic peers and readers abroad has narrated his experience in a Sentinel Poetry Quarterly essay, ‘Nigeria’s Third Generation Poetry, Canonization and the North American Academy: Random Reflections.’ Some of the Nigerian poets, whom he considers, though well known in their home country, struggle abroad at the fringes of recognition and patronage. Their Nigerian-known work is not easily available to international readers, and their struggles in exile, including difficulties with the publishing regime, and with canon-specific or policy-determined critical and curriculum preferences, ultimately affect the progress of their writing abroad. Some of these new Nigerian poets abroad considered by Adesanmi include Maik Nwosu, Lola Shoneyin, Unomah Azuah, Ogaga Ifowodo, Amatoritsero Ede, Sanya Osha, Nduka Otiono, Victor Ehikhamenor, Obi Nwakanma and Olu Oguibe. He aligns his own experience in attempting to recommend and teach some of these new poets with the similar difficulties of another Nigerian poet in Canada, the film scholar Onookome Okome. The fact that the fiction from emergent Nigerian novelists, especially those abroad, has had so much international publishing success, critical acclaim and media attention is, for Adesanmi, evidence of the growing importance of this national corpus of new writing, and invitation to a greater publishing and critical interest in its poets and poetry. In a sense, this ‘success’ abroad of the new fiction from Nigeria, but not the poetry, can easily be explained by the fact that poetry anywhere, from any place, is often the poor sibling of narrative fiction. But upon closer inspection of the mechanisms, purposes and influences involved, it also exposes, as indicated earlier, the possibility of cultural engineering and political manipulation in the reception, ordering and determination of what gets honoured abroad, something which Achebe’s poor writer abroad often has to deal with.
Younger Nigerian writers abroad are fiercely independent individuals who, however, also long to belong somewhere and experience the certainty and comfort of home. This accounts for the growth of the literary listserv and other online gatherings by which these writers communicate, share work and remain in touch with the home country. The evidence is that this diasporic ambiguity of catering for two locations is processed through several stages of engagement and/or disengagement. Most exiles, including those whose lives were really physically endangered in their homelands, and who had to flee, are almost never the comforted cosmopolitans Kwame Appiah might applaud, though they may become increasingly internationalist in their outlook, utterances and work. Some do become home-obsessives, operating a rather more conflicted subjectivity than may be evident, full of contradictory resolutions and representations.8 This position of the ‘poor’ writer abroad is, for the most part, governed by a distanced, sensitively managed and changeable commitment to home.
But a word of caution is in order here. The exilic life is a condition in flux, changeable by individual circumstance and location, in other words most accurately judged by its intractably emotive, individual human evidence, and only imperfectly as the generally applicable result of any cultural study. Home for the more separated of these writers increasingly becomes a location elsewhere, an unsettling memory or notion rather than a settled place. I suggest that among the ‘poor writers’ of Achebe’s discourse – those writers long resident abroad from whom the certainty of home has been taken – the need to settle somewhere is sometimes resolved by making a home of their art, the only ‘place’ they frequently go to and live in, which cannot be taken away from them by dislocating distances, political and other cultural alienations. Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer long resident in the UK provides a perfect foil for this kind of study. He is perhaps the model or pathfinder for the current wave of Nigerian diasporic migrations. There was of course Buchi Emecheta and others before him, but the current literary relocations in younger Nigerian writing can be traced to the success of Ben Okri (at the Booker), the globalising effect of the Internet, and the economic and other difficulties of intellectual labour in the home country. Since Okri there have also been the recent high profile successes of Chimamanda Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Segun Afolabi, Helon Habila and Uzodinma Iweala, who are all part of this newly attractive canvas of Nigerian literature abroad.
Okri’s long-term exiled creative work show degrees of separation or disconnects from his inspirational origins. There is evidence of conflict in the creative exploitation of a lost or disappearing memory, a difficulty seemingly resolved in locating and representing it differently as an aesthetic imaginary. In this sense by which the inspirational home has become an aesthetic imaginary for a dislocated poor writer, any fictive response to, or representation of, the lost geographical space is possible – idealized characterizations, alienation-fuelled fantasies, scientific fictions and futurisms, fabulist caricatures, cultural anachronisms, and magic realism of the sort some interpreters of The Famished Road attribute to the novel. By this thinking, it is logical that the creative experience of Famished Road (and its spin-off novels)9 would lead eventually to the imagining and construction of an aesthetic-intellectual space, location or home in Okri’s other difference-marking novel, the more recent In Arcadia.10 What is the present mind of this most influential of the younger Nigerian writers abroad regarding exile? There are important words from his book of essays, A Way of Being Free:
Exile is a fleeing from one dream to another one. In the process
we change, we metamorphose, and our new shapes are never
Living is a continual metamorphosis. Everything is change;
everything is relative. (54)
Obsessions about purity of blood have wiped out empires. We are
all of us mixtures, and our roots are fed from diverse and forgotten
Okri, especially in his work with the Caine Prize for Literature from Africa, and recent contributions to the 2005 memorial for the slain Nigerian writer, Ken Saro Wiwa,11 has tried to continue engaging that elusive home of his primal creative impulse. But it is also true that since the Booker-Prize success of The Famished Road, he has become much honoured as a ‘British writer,’ and is now fairly established as one, finding permanent space in UK bookshops and in certain, politically defined curriculum lists receiving an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2001. For the younger Nigerian writer abroad, this kind of success can seem to offer more attractive value than any continuing engagement with a distant homeland as the place of primary source and security for the postcolonial writer. ‘Forget Africa’ might seem like a winning formula, but what really is on offer outside Africa? Even for Okri the seeming security of institutional recognition as a British writer still serves only as an uncertain access into the heart of ‘English Literature,’ into English cultural (or national) history. Indeed the evidence of many anthologies, academic curricular, critical essays and literary histories indicate that there is not much of that invitation from the national literature of England to Okri or any British other. There are still the English Novel, English Poetry and the English Literature of Shakespeare, and Okri is still not read, taught or anthologised as belonging to that national literary tradition. In canonization, beyond matters of ethnic or linguistic identity, there are also the exclusively aesthetic concerns with form and subject. Okri’s canvas largely reflects the troubled memory of some lost ancestry and its alienating contemporary realities – his creative enquiry into possibilities for an aesthetic recovery from, or representation of, that loss. He is located in the British literary present as an establishment figure but still identified in terms of his creative struggle with a past that has not gone away. His life may no longer be dominated by that past but his work and literary identity are still being coloured by it.
Pius Adesanmi, in ‘Redefining Paris: Trans-Modernity and Francophone African Migritude Fiction,’ reflects this Okrian experience in the ‘settled’ Parisian residency, marginalisation and alienation of the younger Francophone African writers:
In France, this new international and intercultural space of
representation has been occupied since the mid-1980s by two
sets of novelists with different trajectories but whose idea of Paris
and politics of self-imagining are best captured in the scopic
regime of the songs, “nous pas bouger” and “le bruit et l’odeur.”
First are the novelists of Maghrebian origin, children of the first
generation Maghrebian immigrants, mostly born in France but
who are still rejected and placed under stereotypical signs of
Otherness: Arab, Islam, terrorism. The corpus of novels produced
by hese writers comes under the critical tag, litterateur beur, beur
being the sound derived in French when Arab is inverted. (966)
And this is happening more than a half-century after Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, negritude and the French colonial policy of assimilation, all of which, taking different routes, should have made France and the literature of France more accustomed to and more fully accepting and involving of otherness than any other literary nation.
The exile condition comes with its differences in filial, genealogical, marital and other human and political attachments, commitments and affiliations, even for writers who might regard Nigeria or Africa as their ancestral homeland, so it would seem illogical for criticism to deny these diasporic writers the right or choice they have to make a home of their locations of residence, whenever they wish, and to whatever extent or however long they may wish to do so. I do not read Achebe as assuming that legislative power. What is being identified in Adesanmi’s study and Achebe’s comments is that such a decision to belong elsewhere (not merely settle there) when it means a turning away from, or abandonment of, the African ancestral homeland, is itself a choice of limited and tainted value, not a choice without consequences. Adesanmi has more to say on the younger writers of the diasporic African literary presence in France:
Second are novelists from sub-Saharan Francophone Africa who
are also children of first-generation immigrants or who moved
independently to Paris as teenagers and now have very vague
memories of Africa. These writers… have thematized identity and
otherness… Of the critical taxonomies that have evolved around
these writers – the critic, Bernard Magnier has called them “black
beurs,” “negro-gallic” or “negropolitan” writers in an essay12 – their
recent characterization by critic, Jacques Chevrier, as “migritude” 13
writers is particularly pertinent… Migritude – a contraction of migration
and negritude – evokes two mutually reinforcing ideologies as well as
a negation. Migration of course implies the location of these new
writers in the diasporic space of Paris while Negritude evokes the
deconstructive black politics vis-à-vis the dominant narratives of
their context. But migritude negates the return to source philosophy
of negritude. For the migritude writer, Paris is home and it is the
context in which s/he seeks to articulate a resisitant black identity
that refuses to construct Africa as a site of salutary return. (967)
Okri’s experience is instructive on the conflicted memory and aesthetic of the Nigerian-African writer long resident abroad but this review is not centred on him so let us consider others whose work and utterances also provide substantial evidence of similar responses to the problem of dislocation – similar responses in the sense that they seek to cover or bridge the information or knowledge gap in their constructs of home, and their lingering awareness of an absent home, by representing their estrangement from that absent home as an aesthetic imaginary, going into magic realism, deploying lampoons, diverse superstitions and fantasy, in the representation of language, form, plot, conflict, situation, and even characterisation. Home, represented or characterised as the unknown (perhaps unknowable) alien place of strange (and so fearful) experience. The opposite of this, in which home is promotionally idealised and idolized, is also indicated, as, for instance, in the poetry of negritude and some of the imaginings from the literature of African America. Nnedimma Okoroafor-Mbachu, Uzodinma Iweala, Helen Oyeyemi and Chris Abani are among recent Nigerian writers to have found such creative comfort in these mythic constructs and mystical or stylised representations of a home from which they have been significantly distanced. Uzodinma Iweala even constructs a fabulist linguistic space in representation of that imagined home, which by experience he can most comfortably relate with aesthetically. In his acclaimed novel, Beasts of No Nation, the haunting memory of a bad news-homeland he has had little personal experience of is unsurprisingly imagined as some dark, fearful badland. Beasts is a novel of contemporary realities from a contemporary imagination, not some fairy tale, but it similarly reflects the involved imagination’s insecurities and distanced representation of the unknown, all that unremitting violence of its plot determined by a sense of being violated by so much bad news from home.
Iweala’s success with Beasts, his first novel, enabled him to return in triumph and experience more of home, listen to home-based criticism, and empathise with the bones and blood realities of his location of inspiration. What will ‘home’ look and sound like in the novels of his future writing? In Chris Abani, home is imagined in poetic and increasingly stylised portrayals of experience, especially with the new novel, Becoming Abigail. Myth and mystery, portrayals of the uncanny, the fearful unknown, also offer aesthetic succour to Helen Oyeyemi, Diana Evans and Bernadine Evaristo in their creative encounters with that elusive, memorial past they identify as home. In the novelist Diran Adebayo , and poets Patience Agbabi and Jackie Kay, representations of home offer the reader more realism. But they remain poignantly estranged, as they focus, like tourists, on what is strange, what is different, what might elicit laughter, disgust or some other strong interest or response from outsiders about that distant location or memory they interpret as home. Is it possible that the actual creative choices made by these writers can be explained differently as determined simply by aesthetic considerations? Yes. But I am interested in the unconscious subjectivities informing those choices – the patterned thoughts and responses, which become readable over time, considered comparatively with what is observed in other writers of a similar experience. A literary style, or the form and features of any kind of writing, is the result of many unconscious writerly choices traceable not only to training but also to other non-literary human experiences. I am factoring the diasporic personal experiences of these ‘African’ writers as being influential in how they write, what they write.
In the case of Biyi Bandele, the following magazine report for The Guardian newspaper (Lagos, Nigeria) by Molara Wood is revealing. She informs that Bandele’s
upcoming novel, Burma Boy, is set in Burma. “It is about my
father’s generation during World War 11 (WW11).” It will focus on
Nigerians but will not dwell much on Nigeria itself. “I don’t write
much about the Nigerian government anymore because I don’t live
there; it would be hypocritical.”
Set in 1943, Burma Boy features two flashbacks, one to 1936 and
the other to 1896. “I find I keep going back to the past to make
sense of the present.”
This Nigerian writer abroad is not rejecting his homeland or abandoning his past. On the contrary, he is still fascinated and inspired by both. Indeed, he seems to say that even if he wanted to he can’t totally prise his present from the grip of his past. There is so much hidden treasure for a writer in that past, he thinks. His problem, as is the problem of all the writers under consideration here, is what to do when that past, which has its spatial-cultural references, has receded in memory but retains a strong emotional resonance in the creative unconscious. Do you totally silence that echo from a home you no longer quite know or do you subsume all that uncertainty, that dislocated knowing, in the art which now serves as the location of all your living spaces? Can you? How effectively so? I believe that in support of the claims made in this review, the Bandele statement above, “I don’t write much about the Nigerian government anymore because I no longer live there…” is better understood as, I don’t write much about Nigeria anymore because I don’t live there… I’ll illustrate this with another Bandele statement on his art, from the Guardian online service (Guardian Unlimited), which offers further insight on the choices he has had to make as a writer abroad:
Great theatre is the telling of a truthful lie, defined by the degree
to which the facts of the mind are made manifest in a fiction of
matter… In the universe of imagination to which we all belong,
we may not always know where we are going, but we require
no visas to go there and we need not worry about packing.
The name of the place is home.
Here, home is located in the imagination, and then further identified as a future place. So we have from the words of this writer, perhaps not intended but nonetheless revealing, a presentation of home as an imagined future place. But isn’t home supposed to be where this writer has come from, where he still nurses in memory, and continues to creatively plunder, but with increasing uncertainty and trepidation? Is there a conflict here? How does he cope as an ‘African’ writer, who has made a home abroad, with the centrifugal pulls on the imagination from these varying experiences and interpretations of home?
A futuristic home, a fantasy home, a mythical home, or the imagined destination of Ben Okri’s In Arcadia – these are noticeable features of the conflicted thought and work from some of the writers under study. Relocating inspiration away from the ancestral home to the home of residence is conflicted because such relocations are often only effected with some loss of identity. The Nigerian writer in long-term, committed exile in England may thus become known as a Black British writer and become increasingly attended by (and attentive to) the structures and practices of the new identity. There are eight years between Bandele’s two 1991 novels, The Man who came in from the Back of Beyond and The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams, and his third novel, the street (1999). The first two novels have a Nigerian setting but the street is set in Brixton, London, though Bandele continues to draw material from his, by then, fading Nigerian memory, just as he will do in his forthcoming novel, and has been doing in some his plays and adaptations, including the Methuen published Brixton Stories and Happy Birthday, Mister Deka D (2001).
Helon Habila won the Caine Prize for African Writing, and then settled in the UK. Habila’s anxieties about questions of literary identity and the challenge of locating a creative home for the work he would be doing outside Africa are poignant in the series of 2003 email conversations with Black British writer, Courttia Newland. These email conversations were published in Pretext, a literary magazine of the University of East Anglia. We come across Habila wrestling with the following questions in his closing comments in that email conversation, comparing his own unease to Newland’s settled loyalty and continuing engagement with an ancestral/historic home in his work. Habila:
What then keeps a novelist going in such instances of uncertainty? I
envy you when you say that some strangers would stop you and tell
you to keep up the good work. What if nobody did? Would it still matter,
and would you still feel that sense of rootedness? Or would you have to
re-evaluate or reinvent your purpose? (70)
At the time Habila reaches this conflict in his enquiry, he is dealing specifically with what he imagines is the absence of a unifying and legitimising subject, a common objective, in African literature after the end of the colonial struggle. The reality is of course that African postcoloniality is as much a struggle and remains one of the major unifying subjects of African literature. But my concern here is not to dispute what may have been just a provisional position taken in the course of this Caine Prize winner’s enquiry. What concerns this study is the fact that a year or two into his new life abroad, not really enough time to suffer severe alienation from home, Habila is already sufficiently moved by his experiences to engage these issues of location and dislocation, which could be informing and redefining his subsequent work.
In his essay, ‘Coming to America,’ published in Farafina, the Nigerian based literary magazine, novelist Okey Ndibe provides useful insights on the nature of his diasporic experience. He had arrived in 1988, at the invitation of Chinua Achebe, with a plan to edit a literary magazine for people of African origin. A battle with the cold weather, a real sense of suddenly being deserted, alone and unknown in a strange land, a racial encounter with the law – these were some of the difficulties of his early time in America. In a fundamental sense, these familiar experiences of initial dislocation abroad never fully go away because they quickly inform attitudes and stimulate strategies of survival in the exile, which continue to the later years, reinforced by the fact that these early negative experiences tend to be repeated. Okey Ndibe tells the story of his defining moment with the law:
Ten days after my arrival in the U.S., I was standing at a busy bus
stop in Amherst, Massachusetts, when I saw a police cruiser driving
past. The officer and made eye contact. Recalling the warning against
looking straight in an American’s face, I quickly averted my gaze. From
the corner of my eye I could see that the officer had turned right onto a
corner street. I exhaled a breath in relief, counting my luck at evading
what might have been a bloody confrontation with a gun-ready cop. Two
minutes later, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to face a tall,
muscle-bound police officer, his body a testament to many avid hours spent
in the weight room.
“Sir,” he said, “do you mind stepping to the back of the bus stop?” (20).
This early diasporic experience of official racial profiling by the police is surely the sort of experience that marks the memory. But if you are from a poor country on exile in a rich country it is also the case that the wealth of your new location will make you acutely aware of the poverty of your ancestral homeland, so that you become quite angry and alienated, just from observing those leaders who should be helping your home country behave instead like vampires, bleeding its hope – and yours. Your sense of homelessness in exile is underlined by the bad news from home, which acts with other factors to perpetuate your exile, especially if, as noteworthy in the poetry of Esiaba Irobi, you are of that younger African generation that has never known hope, suffering rejection or abandonment from the homeland. You may, like the poet Amatoritsero Ede, write an award-winning poem in response to taunts from German Nazi youth, and others in the metropolitan media, who detest your immigrant status and emotionally oppose permanent immigrant settlement.14 But you couldn’t easily respond to this structural or institutional denial abroad by simply returning home because a fundamental disconnect or breach has developed between the frightful ‘home’ of the newspapers and the inspirational ‘home’ of your imagination (Ede has also written a largely celebratory sequence of poems, ‘Globetrotter,’ on the cities of his exile, as part of this emotive-aesthetic unburdening of exilic experience).
Like many African writers long located outside Africa, Okey Ndibe eventually had a choice to make: to take or not to take the passport. He chose to make America his official second home country, but that choice was not without its mixed feelings:
I came to citizenship with few illusions. I know that, whatever the
colour of the passport I carry, my skin, as the indomitable writer
James Baldwin reminded us, always gives me away. I know about
the perils of race in America, but I know of something even more
potent and powerful: the grammar of values passed unto me by my
parents and passed down by all the ancestors before them. To be
on the outside looking in, as is the lot of many African-Americans,
is not an enviable position. (26)
Ndibe, however, has a life to live. He lives in America, not Nigeria. He has familial, civic and other responsibilities in America. He has to travel, has to frequently identify himself to all kinds of suspicious authorities in America and beyond. It is a practical decision in the end. He can afford the American passport but not his Nigerian sentiments. In today’s world an American passport is infinitely more useful than a Nigerian passport, and Ndibe is not yet ‘big’ enough a personality to have himself simply name-checked, rendering the display of his Nigerian passport redundant or just a formality, at these insulting and frustrating international airports. Ndibe makes his difficult choice – or, perhaps, has his choice made for him – and then burns with exilic rage for the rest of his essay against those whose abuse of governance in his native land has pushed him into a contract with America in which his own reluctance is almost negligible compared to the suspicion, fear, doubt, possibly disdain, he knows he will have to put up with in this unemotional relationship with this new homeland. Ndibe’s pain is evident in the Nigerian newspaper column he keeps. And he is not alone in this indescribable rage, for which many in his Nigerian generation of writers are also noted:
That acidulous tendency is most fully displayed in my criticism
of Nigeria, a nation rich in promise and prospect but short on
achievement… Nigeria is a country conceived in hope but
nurtured by its gluttonous leaders into hopelessness. (27)
People trying to make some meaning of their exile, of lives lived away from their familiar, from positions of comfort, people dealing with their memories of ‘elsewhere,’ is also the subject of Segun Afolabi’s collection of short stories, A Life Elsewhere, and Ikhide Ikheola’s whimsical Sentinel Quarterly ‘Essays form Exile: Another Coming.’ Ndibe’s exploding emotions are missing from these two writers – but not his sensitivity to waste and exilic alienation. Making the best of a difficult situation, finding ways of putting up with exile, including putting down roots in exile, has resulted in several firsts in Nigerian literature from the new writers abroad. A short story award, aptly named ‘Olaudah Equiano Prize for Literature,’ was recently established to reward excellence in the work of African writers outside the continent, with a focus on stories centred on the exile or diasporic experience. Chielozona Eze, a Nigerian writer in the United States won the first prize of the inaugural contest. If Ndibe, Ikheola and others now double as African-American writers (or American Africans, as Ali Mazrui might prefer to call them), and Diran Adebayo and others are Black British or Afro-German writers, it is quite in the spirit of the times that Nigerian literature is also represented in Belgium, as Afro-Belgian, by the writer Chika Unigwe, who has published her first novel, De Feniks, in Dutch, not even the English and French of our many heated postcolonial discourses.
The object so far has been to construct the setting in which work from the four new Nigerian poets under review has been written. Further consideration of this setting is useful. In the younger Nigerian writers abroad with unbroken imaginative commitment to the geographical homeland, an absence of the kind of dislocation and alienation profiled in others may be seen, also greater certainty in the reading and judgement of information from the ancestral homeland. The experience of these ‘less removed’ writers is equally instructive on diasporic exile and its dislocated imagination. One young Nigerian poet in long-term residency abroad, who is still enthusiastically and realistically representing the distant geo-political location called home as his definitive subject would be Ogaga Ifowodo (The Oil Lamp, 2005). Ifowodo’s empathy is with such present realities, anxieties and confidences about the homeland as might also be material for the art of any home-based poet. But by the strict measure of long, unbroken (or disconnecting) residency abroad with which some others have been profiled, Ifowodo is probably more useful to our study in a different sense. He offers the possibility of being home away from home (according to the counsel of Achebe) by remaining attached to the homeland through visits and an attentive relationship with the local media. Other new Nigerian writers who live abroad but remain engaged with the homeland through journalism include Okey Ndibe, Obi Nwakanma and Molara Wood. And others, among whom Ike Okonta would be an example, have kept in touch through personal visits and by monitoring media information on Nigerian political developments. These writers are of course being studied here at the beginnings of their exilic and literary journeys. Things will complicate more: Ogaga Ifowodo is, for example, recently married into a Jewish ancestry. What ‘African literature’ will his children, or my children who speak no African language, read and write?
Staying tuned to, and fine-tuned by, information from home is a fairly effective response to the challenges of distance and alienation for the ‘poor’ writer abroad. Chimamanda Adichie counters alienation by staying proactively engaged with home through visits and work with the local media. There is in her writing a conscious identification with, or referencing of home, including the deliberate deployment of the language of home (Igbo, in her case) as embroidery and also connective tissue for her work. In her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which centres on the Nigerian-Biafran war, there is a total of thirty one other books on the Nigerian crisis (mostly by Nigerians) which are referenced as informing her writing of the novel. It does help the diasporic Nigerian imagination to continuously and avidly read Nigerian, to continue following the Nigerian story as told by those who live and know it sufficiently as witnesses. And Biyi Bandele offers the possibility of collaborative work – which might include intellectual work such as conferencing, sabbaticals and residences at home – in his planned engagement with Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry. But it is not just about expecting individual writers to stay connected to the homeland. It is also about establishing the structures and preparing the ground not only for more of these returns and interactions from abroad, but also for the support of those writers who stay in the homeland.
Exile comes with its uncertainties about the possibility of return. As painfully indicated in T. S. Eliot’s 1927 poem, ‘Journey of the Magi,’ people can “return” and find they are “no longer at ease with the old dispensation.” This may be because they have become sucked into the perspective of the locations of their travels abroad and now return home to observe what painfully becomes “an alien” people (one’s own people) “still clutching their gods.” More generally, the difficulty of return for the exile is indicated in the opposite fact that the place of origin, fixed or fixated in the exile’s memory as home, does change, (and not always positively), does move on and away from what the exile had hoped to return to. Picturesque villages have become smoke-filled cities. The known people have died off or moved on, and the customary practices, those remembered things that seemed like fixtures, may have vanished by the time of return. But these difficulties of return, which the exiled writer can be expected to document in his novels, poems and essays, do not necessarily negate the advantages gained from such returns.
It is good news for Nigerian literature that some in the contingent of Nigerian writers in the UK, who write as Black British writers, and have been honoured as such, are lately, for different personal and professional reasons, returning to rediscover and engage Nigeria. From the evidence of colonial fiction on Africa, and the more recent but equally damning touristic perspective of V. S. Naipaul, it is hard to tell what kind of Nigerian imaginaries will result in the future work of these new writers from the Nigerian diaspora, who are becoming more attentive to the country. However, it can be argued that any kind of fictive Nigerian representation abroad is at least a centralising step away from international obscurity for Nigerian subjectivities, and a basis for discourse, including the evaluation and authentication of the representations concerned. More can be done with involving Nigerian writers abroad, of whatever other nationalities, in the contemporary making and centralisation of Nigerian literature. The idea is to make this literary homeland more homely, so that those writers who are currently located there can make comparative progress with their work and lives there to the extent that they have no regrets about living their literary lives at home. The other side of this is that those who are currently outside the continent are encouraged to engage more with home, to gain more from their returns through a well supported system of sabbaticals, artist and literary residencies, cross-border collaborations and supported research holidays at home.
Contemporary African literature can do more with government support, but it would be foolhardy to simply wait on the government. Nigerian literature itself has to build the literary bridges connecting its increasingly dispersed practitioners and disparate practices. African literature itself can do more to provide a prosperous local African environment for writing. As far as funding from governments and governmental institutions are concerned (and this would include local and country-level as well as African Union-related institutions), I think that in African literature today there are many who may well be more useful to themselves and all others as literary entrepreneurs, rather than as writers. There is the need for the development of literary agencies, or external author association lobbyists, which, for the agreed fees and stated conditions, will professionally champion interaction with governments, businesses, schools, etc, in organising, publishing, merchandising and promoting literary practice, including travels or tours, readings, performances, festivals, conferences, special writing commissions and other projects. The evidence in Nigeria is that some groups, individuals and organisations have already caught this vision of a more prosperous Nigerian literary milieu. Some of these centres and catalysts of a renascent Nigerian literary practice would include Glendora Bookshop, Jazz Hole, Committee for Relevant Art, Kachifo Publishing, Sentinel Publishing, and some of the state branches of the Association of Nigerian Authors. Some key editors and reporters running the literary pages of Nigerian newspapers are also part of this construction process. Something is being done but more can be done in the stated direction of making home a more realistic counterweight and option compared to exile. This might suggest that the reasons African writers choose to write Africa from abroad are all personal and professional. Not so. There are some abroad whose lives were politically endangered at home. Esiaba Irobi, one of the four poets reviewed here, is an example. But, mostly, there are the incalculable failures of governance, which might result, for instance, in the non-provision of basic security and social amenities, or in a high incidence of citizen harassments, robberies and road accidents, regarding which Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have been among the continent’s high profile literary victims.
But this review isn’t directed at governments. This is about how literature in Africa can understand better and meet the challenge of one of the major features of its contemporary practice: exile. So I am thinking of sponsored residencies and sabbaticals, not only in the local African university literature departments, but also in local businesses, charities (including ecclesiastical organisations), or just for the duration of particular events, including literary festivals and literary association conventions. I am thinking of more literary prizes, readings and performances not only to select literary audiences but also at social and business events, merchandising, recording, the academic and literary exploitation of Nollywood for the production of documentaries, biopics and performance events, literary tourism, niche publishing, authors’ association activism in schools and the wider society towards an improvement in writing and the reading culture. There is no National Poet for Nigeria, or State Poet, or city laureate for most places in Africa, positions, which, in close working relationship with the authors’ associations, might actually carve little aesthetic havens for culture in the continent.
Keep the writers of Nigeria, of Africa, busy and businesslike. Make them relevant. In various appropriate ways, reward their work. Make home a more attractive destination for the exile, and challenge the various hungers that drive African writers into exile. This is the big idea. In early 2000, the Nigerian and Black British poet, Patience Agbabi, much respected in the UK as a performance poet and workshop facilitator, was in residency at Flamin’ Eight tattoo and piercing studio, as part of Poetry Places, a £450,000 writer residency programme funded from the UK National Lottery’s Arts for Everyone Scheme. Agbabi narrates her experience:
My primary objective was to create poems to be tattooed onto the
skin although I had no idea whether anyone was brave enough to
go through with it. A couple of friends had shown some interest but
we hadn’t discussed it seriously and I remained unconvinced. I toyed
with the idea of advertising but was seriously daunted by the prospect
of dealing with perverts who were more interested in pornography
than poetry. (18)
But Agbabi did embark on her project, encouraged by additional corporate interest from UK Channel 5 television, eventually writing little tattoo poems for herself, her friend and a couple of young female rap musicians. One of the results is this “twenty-six syllable acrostic” written on the body of her friend by the tattoo artist at Flaming Eight, which was written to order, after extensive discussions with the owner of the body:
Rhythm is the symphony of angels
Angels are muses with wings
Wings elevate words into rhythm (18)
These final words from Agbabi on her experience are relevant to our audience development and author placement concerns in this part of the review:
My Flamin’ Eight placement has enabled me to operate far beyond
page and stage, allowing me to explore my ongoing obsession with
poetry and other art forms. People who wouldn’t dream of picking up
a poetry book have read the poem published on Joelle’s upper arm,
in the flesh as well as in diverse magazines [where her photographed
tattoo has been published]. The people who set foot in Flamin’ Eight
have had their experiences enriched by reading, viewing and listening
to poetry. (19)
For Nigerian literature and Soyinka scholars, Peter Forbes, writing generally on poetry placements and particularly on Poetry Places, also offers some information:
Who knows when the first poet-in-residence was appointed? Perhaps
it was Auden with the GPO Film Unit in 1935? ‘Night Mail’ is certainly a
model for the commissioned poem. From the 1950s on, the idea of poets
in residence started to take hold, with positions such as the Gregory
Fellowship in Leeds University which… was so influential to the poetic
apprenticeship of Tony Harrison, Wole Soyinka and James Simmons,
amongst others. (3)
Writing residences and author placements are not the panacea to dealing with the difficulties of growing the literary life of a ‘poor’ cultural environment, but they can assist the purpose greatly if properly developed and popularised by author associations and literature or arts entrepreneurs, dealing as agents with fund-makers and opportunity providers. Apart from Agbabi, other new Nigerian writers abroad who have had the experience of career enhancing placements or residences include Amatoritsero Ede, Unomah Azuah and Chuma Nwokolo. Properly managed, placements, like conferences, lecture or reading tours and sabbaticals, can ensure that African writers abroad are periodically connected with the local African experience they need, and the African literary heritage needs them to have.
Such a discussion as this, on complexities in the identity of recent diasporic writers from Africa, enables criticism to reconsider its measures for engaging the literature of the continent. It invites further discourse on the sense of mission Achebe imagines above with his use of the important word “poor” to differentiate the response of an American, Gertrude Stein, to exile in Paris, and what he offers as the appropriate response of an African postcolonial writer abroad. His chosen word ‘poor’ suggests it is ultimately a question of survival, of having and not having, of being and not being, of winning and losing, of politics. Writing, like all art, has always been political. I think that Achebe largely gets it right. What may have been lost in translating his thoughts was a sensitivity to the complexities of long-term exile for a younger generation of poor travelling writers for whom the independence promises, certainties and expectations of Achebe’s earlier African literary renaissance has been displaced or replaced by years of suspicion from political uncertainty, personal insecurity and emotional isolation. Many of these writers were on internal exile, were already sawn apart from their country of origin by circumstances, even before their exit to new lives abroad.
If you leave your country long enough your country eventually leaves you. If there is the possibility of this parting of ways, if patriotism, or simply love of country, is learned experience and can be unlearned, not the natural instinct it is often imagined as, then old exclusivist ways of imagining African homogeneity or commonalities, as evidenced by the work of a critic like Chinweizu have not only become inadequate tools for the construction and interpretation of the African contemporary but also weak weapons for its defence. Such perspectives are not gainfully engaged with the discourse of rampaging universalisms, which seek to ultimately deny the possibility of an agreed African experience with its own comparatively different peoples and their chronicles, values and imaginaries around which an African literature may be confidently defined or identified. There can be more creative freedom, and less imaginative anguish, in the work of African writers at home and abroad, less of that pressure to conform, the removal of identitarian guilt and its associated paranoia in the choice of subjects, themes and forms by these writers. Choices made by African writers abroad, and those at home, including even the choice to redefine civic status in order to claim membership of, and additional benefit from, another country’s literature, might then be more accurately judged by individual subjectivities rather than the policed prescriptions of an overbearing common will. Africa is a choice the contemporary African writer should make, needs to make, has to be encouraged and guided to make, but it is no longer the simple choice it once was because, as this review has shown, the contemporary African writer is also no longer the simple person (s)he once was. Choosing Africa, choosing to write Africa, to write as an African, whether from within or outside the continent, is a more radical and involved decision than it used to be. And this contemporary complexity in African writing is more pronounced in the diaspora because of the postcolonial disillusionment of newly migrant writers.
There are new writers, with new experiences, now writing Africa, often from outside the continent. These writers can still be guided by discourse towards an appreciation and fuller understanding of the home country, and then encouraged by provision and an adequate catering of needs to find at home some of what they seek abroad. But no one may be forced to conform on pain of ostracism, as sometimes had seemed the weapon of choice in parts of the afrocentric discourse. It is evident from other advantaged literary nations that even as individuality and personal choice is allowed to flourish, practice remains determined by and organised around nation-projects, which relate to their nationals through a clearly defined system of provisions and promotions. A national system of promotions and provisions works to guide, inform and influence both international and intra-national literary relations for its writers, also encouraging interest in its own literature, culture and history. Cultural agencies and organisations like the British Council, the (UK) Arts Councils, Goethe Institut and Alliance Francais are usually involved in this kind of promotional and unifying work for national literatures. So do some of the numerous funding bodies, literary academies, publishing organisations, prize-giving and event promotions systems.
Without active individual and group efforts to relocate and dedicate affections and understandings to the inspirational homeland of these younger African writers abroad, especially the poets, the disturbing spectre of significant cultural disadvantage, which Achebe evokes in Home and Exile, may indeed become the reality of a future Africa. Cultural (including political) alienation as is evident in the experience of new African writers abroad will not by itself suddenly be resolved. Understanding is required, action necessary, determined action to progressively re-train or re-tool memory with the tastes, sights and sounds of home – the ancestral home as defined and agreed. As stated above it is not merely about aesthetic identity; it is ultimately a political question of cultural survival. At worst, this is about the possibility of a progressive and irreversible loss of cultural certainties and confidence, about comparative advantages increasingly yielded to metropolitan others in the imagining and understanding of the contemporary, including even the African contemporary.
The drift abroad of African literature is only a generation old. If the process continues several generations following, without the reconnecting measures earlier indicated, or some unforeseen historical reversal, what kind of literature will be identified as African? To what extent will our understanding of African subjectivities have been altered (or subverted) by centred (therefore influential) but possibly invented (or mistaken) interpretations from the diaspora? There is at any time the progressive interpretation of culture and the imaginaries and rubrics of culture, and such renewals and re-inventions happen even within national borders. But, in the case of literature from Africa, should this inescapable redefinition, already determined by its colonial encounter, also be driven now by diasporic dislocation, distortions and alienation? Does this matter? Will Achebe’s representative ‘poor’ national abroad still have a home literature to represent at the rich centre after several generations of imagining that literary home from the metropolitan centre? What to make of these assurances that global and cosmopolitan pressures also yield the differences, exactness and particulars of their own dominant cultures to migrant hybridities and multiculturalism?
In the context of the foregoing discourse, the publication of poetry from Chuma Nwokolo (Memories of Stone) and Nnorom Azuonye (The Bridge Selection), two of the younger Nigerian poets living abroad, becomes an opportunity for much provocation and interrogation. Poets? What kind of poetry? What value? Chuma Nwokolo, Writer in Residence at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, is author of the novels, Diaries of a Dead African and One More tale for the Road. Memories of Stone is his first collection of poetry. Perhaps because of the way he entered the Nigerian literary scene without involvement in any of the university or city based literary coteries, and without access to the media as an aspiring writer, Nwokolo’s impressive talent has not quite enjoyed the critical interest some comparable others in his generation of Nigerian writers have been favoured with. Okogbule Nwonodi and Pol Ndu, are ready examples from an earlier generation of Nigerian writers, whose work suffered in the shadow of their better-known contemporaries. But Nwokolo’s absence from the network of university and city literary groups has provided his work with a meritorious individuality that should interest readers of new Nigerian writing. Memories of Stone mostly collects his recent poems from the Ashmolean Museum readings at which he has hosted other Nigerian and local Oxford poets. But there are also versions of poems written years before.
Nwokolo is not quite the involved postcolonial poet abroad Achebe might depend on to raise a political banner for home, except in the sense that the personal is construed as political. In the manner which his poetry dispassionately mines the personal space for its peculiar insights and everyman experiences, this student of life is too taken by the dross, the familiar, the lessons of the everyday to be restricted to, or governed by, the favoured postcolonial subject – identity. Not that he is uninterested in questions of origins, colour and location, but that his responses to these matters are filtered through the lenses of his existential binoculars. Here is the observer of ‘Neo-colonial Mantra’:
I am better than you are, / and even if I am not,
my God is stronger than your god, / and even if she’s not,
my God and I are bigger / than your God and you together.
And even if we’re not, / you believe me. / And that’s enough.
A view from the observatory rather than the positioning of one in the trenches. The very choice of the word, ‘mantra’ suggests an embattlement with political cant, with the restrictive, contentious and repetitious politics for which a writer might be expected to relinquish his/her individuality, or by which perspectives must be positioned one side or the other. And still from the observatory, this other comment on racial separations (from which, presumably, inequities and segregations come):
The races are far apart, / or so it seems.
Bridge the watery span of seven seas.
Blend the world’s cuisine on each high street.
Splice and mold the human DNA in wombs.
Break down language walls, mix up countries
Raise the world’s children in one large crèche.
Deal citizenship from one blind deck.
Preach one credo: cash, but
loose the lion of joblessness on streets. Find:
The races are far apart, / and so it stays.
(‘The Races Are Far Apart’)
Mostly, Nwokolo is concerned with plumbing the life of the everyday – for its lessons rather than its politics, for meaning and direction. ‘Desire’ is one of the more accomplished poems of the collection:
The man most to be feared in all the world
wants one thing and one thing only.
He wants one thing – and his desire
never goes out of fashion.
It won’t be jaded by the fluxing of years,
or devalued by a failing stock exchange.
The first poem of the collection, ‘The Empty Page’, is also one of the most successful. There are inevitably what may be termed the poems of postcolonial longing and reflection but these are few from this poet for whom the past, or indeed all of experience, is more lesson than location. ‘Lungfish’ is an example of a Nwokolo poem with postcolonial content but which is really more a statement of personal travail than a commentary on the collective experience. Other poems of similar persuasion include ‘M.V Benin’, ‘Enugu in the Sky’, ‘The Races are Far Apart’, ‘Neo-Colonial Mantra’, and ‘Two Exiles.’ Here are what may serve as definitive lines on the subject from this poet in his poem, ‘Enugu in the Sky’:
Memory is no concrete face / whose rigmarole to memorise.
Memory is a shrubbery maze / whose limpid seasons since
have grown wild thickets in my paths,
have screened the faces of near friends,
making me a stranger to my soul.
Certain poets and their poetry are easy to judge, like or dislike immediately at first reading. But others like Nwokolo grow on a reader, excite interest and offer value, but still leave one with the need to be cautious with judgement, to perhaps allow only tentative judgements until a second reading, even a second collection. Is this an important new voice whose poetry will grow to impact Nigerian literature? Will the ambition for great literary achievement be added to what is only now a demonstration of obvious talent and ability? My trained instincts tell me this is a poet to watch. The freshness of his voice, striking a chord untraceable to any known or popular Nigerian influence, underlines again his freedom from the usual early involvement with the literary groupings and aesthetic schools of the country. It also indicates the continuing evolution of a different poetic in recent Nigerian poetry, more generally known as third generation poetry. Certainly, among the new poets from Nigeria, Nwokolo deserves a hearing for the surprisingly assured voice of this first collection. A simple diction, pungent thought, concern for a highlighting of meaning more than lyrical achievement, even in the use of repetitions – these are some of the features of the Nwokolo poem. Mostly, the poetic voice is urbane, didactic in parts, reportorial rather than conversational. Nwokolo is not a painter of words, not even, like Uche Nduka, a technician of words. And he is not your typical protest poet, deploying words as weapons. He is secretarial, the unobtrusive note-taker at the passing moments of experience. In Memories of Stone, he offers us these records of his candid observations.
A candid observation on exilic or diasporic migration is how ‘Journeying South-East through North-West,’ Nwokolo’s recent essay for the African Studies Association, may also be described:
There is a yearning for Elsewhere that is at the root of all
journeying, whether spiritual or physical… In the end, what
the faithful sojourner finds is a more faithful mirror into his
own soul. Speaking of which every great book is, at the end
of it a faithful mirror into a human soul.
And more wisdom from the poet’s observatory:
There is also a critical point at which the journeys that
cross-fertilise the different cultures of humanity with the
morality of balance spins out of kilter. The Sahara was
once verdant pastureland, peopled and planted,
trafficked by herds of cattle, drained by lakes and rivers…
until the balance of seasons, of rainfall and sun, was
broken. Sometimes, the diasporic journey is not rounded
out by a circumnavigation of the world. Sometimes cultural
deserts emerge. It is not often that an Ibn Battuta travels the
known world and returns home to roost.
Nnorom Azuonye’s The Bridge Selection is so titled because, in the words of the poet, “this volume, which is intended for poetry readings and poetry parties, bridges my first and future collections of poems” The references are to his Letter to God & Other Poems (2003) and the forthcoming A Juror of My Time (2007). It is good that there is an expected Azuonye poetry collection because one of his recent poems, which I found really delightful, ‘Express Goodbye’, is not included in the slim volume under review. As a poet, Azuonye is an incorrigible teller of stories. This narrative quality to his work is both a strength, because of its performance and epic poetry possibilities, and also a weakness when it results in wordiness. This is how ‘An African Tale ‘ begins:
I tell the story of a people now naked
In front of dusty mirrors, wondering,
“Who are we?” / “What have we become?”
Their faces hardened by many hard earth years
Contort in disorientation.
What is offered above may also be accepted as the definitive statement on this poet’s central theme of individual and corporate loss, on the fact of lostness as a driving experience of an unsettled adult life lived outside a birthland, an ancestral home, from which there has been neither promise nor inheritance. But lostness is only one side of a continually flipped coin in these poems of Azuonye. There is lostness, and, because it is about absence, there is also longing – a longing for presence, the longing to belong. This is a recurring feature of poems like ‘Isuikwuato,’ ‘Isuikwuato II,’ ’Wake’ and ‘Yesterday.’ ‘Isuikwuato II’ begins with a personified lament:
This village complains to the hills,
in my earth his umbilical cord manures / a coconut tree,
but he has abandoned me.
There is the promise of a return home by the prodigal, a return to status normal, but you wonder whether that promise merely demonstrates what the heart wants but the head knows it can no longer have, or fully embrace without question. There are these telling exilic lines from ‘Life Burns’:
Roaring into your mid-twenties, you make an unoriginal
discovery; in this land, dreams die before they fruit.
You run in the direction everyone runs, not unpatriotic,
for everyone who can always abandons a sinking ship.
just before junction forty, you finally grasp the concept;
things, especially dreams, are not meant to stay the same.
One cannot overstate this sense in which Azuonye’s new collection is not only about bridging his past and future collections, but also a statement of exilic coming to terms with the conflicted binaries of the present, a situation in which uncertain glimpses of the future are sparking off and colliding with the receding but treasured memories of the past, of home. This poet attempts to resolve his conflict by asserting himself, with limited success, as a home-child in the poems of The Bridge Selection – in his choice of style, tone and themes. I think it is in the first collection, Letter to God and Other Poems that the creative power of this poet is properly in evidence. In that earlier collection there is still the narrative voice but it is less burdened by the pressures of prolonged exile and its demand on the poet to continually serenade a fading memory of home. The excitement of the quirky observations of Letter to God is almost lost to the new worded gravity of Bridge. In Letter also, the range of subjects and objects, which inspire the poet, are more because the grave voice of prolonged exile, and its fixation on loss and lostness, on the longing for home, had not become the dominant poetic. Without the tensions of the new work, the poetry also breathes more in Letter, is more adventurous, and more convincing in its arguments even when the subject is home and exile, as in ‘Serviette Scribble 3’:
When I finally go home, / If it is not in a coffin / I will
Never go into exile again. / If a foreign land will blot my pen
And darken my dreams / I will stay in my hometown.
We may not have a telephone / That works, but if I shout over
The fence, somebody will hear me.
On the way, I would walk past people,
Real people who will acknowledge / My greeting.
They might even ask / About my home and my people
In issues poetry, the poet is often tasked with the burden of successfully carrying the reader through some contentious subjects and a weighty discourse. This may be achieved through the effective deployment of eloquence, lyricism or some other heightened aesthetic value. The issues poet is not an evangelist, journalist or politician. He/She is a poet. The difference between the issues poet and those others, who are also noted for their interest in issues and cleverness with words, is that only the poet’s vocation insists on the primary signification of beauty in the pursuit of a cause. What is the achievement of Azuonye’s Bridge Selection? It demonstrates the tensions informing aesthetic choices in the diasporic writing of a generation of Nigerian literature. In this collection, the poet’s preferred orality finds its lyrical berth and success in poems like ‘Casting Stones’, ‘On the Wings of Songs’ and ‘Isuikwuato II.’ Other poems like ‘Bogus’ and ‘In the Kitchen’ also please. Azuonye, founder of the Sentinel Poetry Movement, is also one of the leading names among the band of pioneering publishers from his generation by whom new work from the younger Nigerian writers are being engaged through publication. There is another poet Azuonye – the Okigbo scholar, Chukwuma Azuonye, Testaments of Thunder: Poems of Crisis and War – with whom Nnorom Azuonye may sometimes be compared or confused, and whose different poetic voice, however, also models the same traditional African orality evident in parts of The Bridge Selection.
The next two poets, Esiaba Irobi and Uche Nduka are better known, and were among the six young poets who made their publishing debut in 1988 by recommendation of the Association of Nigerian Authors, and whose appearance signalled the arrival in print of a new generation of Nigerian poets. Unlike Chuma Nwokolo, who was earlier considered, these are two poets who offer poetry of the kind critics may either love or hate, with equal passion. These poets make no concession to the reader in their choice of style or even in the deliberate confrontational voice by which perceptions are enunciated and poetic vision represented. Esiaba Irobi’s new book of poems is titled Why I Don’t Like Philip Larkin. In Irobi, poetry is polemics, and historical narrative. This is the poet as speech maker. Pius Adesanmi has said, in his expose of Irobi’s poem ‘The Battle of Harlem’ (not included in this collection), that Irobi’s poetry suffers “the occasional lapse into prosaic literalness.” (32) That is often the indicated flaw in polemical poetry of which an argumentative and plain language evidencing of historical data or incidence becomes a paramount objective. This is usually in aid of some ideological or issues-based struggle. Much of the poetry of Latin American history by Pablo Neruda, or the poetry of African-American struggle, as in work form such poets as Langston Hughes and Leroi Jones/ Amiri Baraka. Leopold Senghor and Aime Cessaire also found the poetic device of massing historical evidence, and heightening rhetoric, useful in aid of their essentialist representations of the black and African experience. Nigerian critic Chinweizu has also written similar poetry in support of his ideological positions.
Esiaba Irobi marches into this discourse straight from the opening lines of the first poem in the new collection, and then continues in much the same robust manner all through. Here is ‘The Rhinocerous (For Enoch Powell)’:
I AM THE BLACK RHINO. My eyes are fierce,
My hide is coarse, my breath is poison gas.
My tusks are cleavers, short and sharp,
Forever smeared with blood. I feed on brain
And bone marrow and fresh ovaries and
Hot semen and, you guessed it right:
Human genitalia!! I’ll eat your balls tonight!
My turd is made of warts and wattle.
My brain is made of dung. I stamp the mud.
When I fart, language dies in your mouth
‘The Rhinoceros’ is for me one of the better-managed poems in this collection. Irobi appropriates the taunting voice of an urban ghetto braggart in the poem. Enoch Powell, a Minister in the government of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was notorious for his racially prejudicial comments and attitudes towards immigrants. The poet as defiant voice of the immigrant ghetto relays Enoch Powell’s worst racial nightmare to him:
(You can scale fish with my tongue!) Tonight, I’ll eat your balls
and smoke your genitalia like a pipe. I will never die!
Signed: I, the Black Rhinoceros.
Such coarse language, and so deliberately provocative to the upper class-master race sensibilities of the addressee and his cohorts. In his Nigerian poetry generation, Irobi is arguably the most at ease in representing and contending with the conflicts and other experiences of exile. He seems to have made that emotional crossing necessary for committing to the construction of an exilic home – his location of aspiration having also become the home of much of his inspiration, a bountiful source of creative material (just like the ancestral home). This may be because of his long-term residency abroad, but I believe this also reflects the affecting brutality of his forced flight from his ancestral homeland. This poet left Nigeria in forced political circumstances that left only the option of commitment to making a home abroad. This story of his forced exit from Nigeria is told in the long narrative poem ‘Horizons! Horizons!’
‘Horizons!’ is an exile’s apologia, a political treatise, which the poet lightens with more of the coarse humour earlier encountered in ‘The Rhinoceros.’ The theme of ‘Horizons!’ is indicated from the beginning:
HISTORY, FOR ALL EXILES, begins in flight! Georgina,
When I ran past you, that Thursday evening at Lagos,
My sandals in my hands, my suitcase on my head,
I was not fleeing for life or from you, far from it,
I was fleeing from the myriad indignation I had suffered,
recusantly, at the hands of the beasts of Sandhurst:
Their violent signatures on my scull. The scars on my soul.
Exile then is not a flight from life. It is a flight from death, or some degree of
dying. The exile is expecting to breathe better, feel alive and well, as part of the promise of the new location. From this primary expectation of the exile is also born the sense of forfeit or failure, and experiences of disappointment and betrayal, that often follow when the shortcomings of the new location become just as apparent and troubling as the difficulties of the abandoned homeland. As in many poems of this Irobi collection, ‘Horizons!’ is addressed to a person, in this case Georgina. This fail-safe creative strategy of ensuring an audience, and as such ensuring the dialogic for his conversational and topic-led poetry, serves him well in the two suites of poems dedicated to (or inspired by) people either important to his literary life or his history of personal romance. Some of these poems to literary figures are addressed to Salman Rushdie, Saul Bellow, Seamus Heaney and Clive James. In these poems Irobi is not merely paying homage to the addressees; he is also contending with issues and ideas associated with them, or simply having them on side as personal witnesses to his continuing recollection and interrogation of history.
‘Horizons!’ also showcases Irobi’s interest in the performance arts, his field of scholarship. It is strongly performative, with refrains or choruses from traditional folk, church and street melodies punctuating the stanzas, and dramatic conversation sketches featuring as part of the narrative. I had mentioned earlier that this poet has taken the lead in making the exilic experiences and thoughts of his increasingly displaced and dispersed generation of Nigerian writers a significant feature of his work. Apart from the title poem, other poems in this collection also reflect his settled interest in the locations and dislocations of his exile. These include ‘The last Old people’s Home in Britain,’ ‘King James Version,’ ‘Orpheus,’ ‘Sisiphus,’ ‘Spring’ and ‘Treasure Island.’ But this seeming ease with the literary exploitation of the exile experience may not be equated with a sense of comfort in exile. This collection from beginning to end is about the anxieties of exilic imagination.
So, why does this poet not like Philip Larkin, or isn’t that what the title poem is saying to us? Why? The title poem does its best to answer:
NOT BECAUSE he wrote obnoxious verses such as
‘Prison for strikers, bring back the cat.
Kick out the niggers, how about that?’
‘Who is that feeling for my prick
Is it Tom, Harry or Dick?’
afterall we all wrote such doggerels at Oxford
We are immediately set a task here – to unravel the several speaking and thinking voices of this poem, its ‘multiple personalities.’ There is the narrator, who is seemingly independent of the poet until towards the close of the poem, when that narrative persona grudgingly accepts there may be more complexity to the simplicity of Philip Larkin, more to his celebrated lack (and suspicion) of intellectual sophistication. The narrator is at that closing stage of this title poem then also agreeing with the third of the poem’s trinity of perspectives, the perspective of an unnamed black author of a book, Poetry Versus the Ivory Tower. This unnamed author’s positive appraisal of Larkin in his book is what is subjected to discourse principally by the narrative persona in this poem of references, subtexts and intertexts. I think there is a proclivity for verbosity in ‘Why I Don’t like Philip Larkin,’ but it may have been redeemed by its lively discourse, multiple characterisation, layered structure, dramatic gestures and the loose, colloquial prose language, which enables the poet Irobi to do all that he might ever wished to do with one poem. And he tries. For its many references and provocative discourse, this is a poem to be studied rather than enjoyed in one sitting.
There is some difficulty, however, with the imagined voice of the narrator, who is introduced in the poem as a retired Oxford distinguished fellow, a white English gentleman of about age seventy, who, however, seems to speak exactly like poet Irobi, whose voice we have become familiar with in the other poems. There is also potential for confusion in determining which voice is speaking in some of the italicised lines because of a lack of consistency with the use of italics. It can be argued of course that the three character-perspectives of the poem agree in the end as they were merely reflecting the varying possibilities for interpreting the life and work of Philip Larkin. This title poem also deals with the subjectivities of literary evaluations and canonization. But its claim to profundity is in its interrogation of the sheltered and supposedly sophisticated life of the intellect – exposing the conceits, plasticity, paranoia and other vanities, which burden any claim to wisdom or true knowledge in a separated life lived in and around books, and away from the world outside. The poem contrasts this life with what may be considered the true poetry of life, this truer experience represented by the organic life, wit and earthy realism of Philip Larkin. This is why the poem centres on the ex-academic experience of that provincial English poet, why it locates its discourse around the University of Oxford, and why in the poem the book in conflict is subject-titled, Poetry versus the Ivory Tower.
Irobi returns to his ‘conversations’ on home and exile in his final poem, yet another epistolary poem to “Georgie”. But this time in ‘I Shall Return,’ he is entering an urgent plea:
TOMORROW I’ll be leaving for New York
on the second phase of my interminable
exile. Georgie, do not ask me how long
I will be out there in that hot and sticky city,
which I hear, like London or Liverpool,
sucks you in like a clam, like an enterprising
vagina, the big apple in the Garden of Eden,
Eve’s beautiful pussy, her valley of no return.
As always, the voice is irreverent, caustic, deliberately rude and shocking even when it speaks of (or in) love, a feature shared by the next poet to be considered, Uche Nduka. It is the defensive voice of the outsider, of exilic rage, a voice not unused to frustration, exclusion and deception (this last represented above by the cloying warmth of Eve’s momentary pleasure). But in this poem the poet also imagines a turning away from the structures and incidents of exilic frustration and deception, indeed a return to that other place of memory from which his journey began, where, hopefully, there remains that remembered loyalty, honesty, chastity and certainty represented by the female love “Georgie.” This is of course myth-making, a mere aesthetic response, another celebratory representation from an imaginary in which the ancestral past is the perfect ‘home,’ a place of restful returns. This is because this constructed sense of a homely past is usually conflated with soothing memories of childhood and innocence. Like most exiles, this poet will allow himself his reverie, but he will also wake to the realities of his continuing exile, the reasons he cannot quite keep his promise of a return to Georgie – yet:
But believe me, Georgie, I shall return.
When Time is ripe, I, the Minstrel, shall return.
In glory, in story or in song, I shall return.
Do not ask me when, Georgie, do not ask the date
Ask the soldiers, the Beasts of Sandhurst,
Or the witchdoctors, necromancers in civilian attires
But bear in mind that in the end, I shall return.
And when I return? The power of poetry
will overpower the power of power.
Why I Don’t Like Philip Larkin, with its subject structure of home and exile, is undoubtedly work from one of Achebe’s poor writers. But why would a poet from Nigeria consider a frightfully conservative English poet fit subject even for backhanded praise in the elaborate title poem of a collection? The best answer is that this has been purely an aesthetic response by this poet to exilic experience, an aesthetic interpretation of (or coming to terms with) the changed issues and circumstances of a life lived abroad. This would be in keeping with the earlier observation that further in exile, in cases where there has been continuing communication difficulty with both a faded past and an unsatisfactory present, there is a tendency by these writers to construct a third home, an aesthetic imaginary. In such a case both the receding memory of the ancestral home and the unsettled experience of the exilic home increasingly become located and represented as part of a world of art which the writer now inhabits and feels most at home in. Some poems in Irobi’s Philip Larkin are located in this kind of imagined (rather than actual) past, a fictive construct, a virtual somewhere, a frozen time-past, which is usually only a grossly imperfect and potentially misleading model of the lived geo-political space which the exiled imagination seeks to represent. In some of the poems of Irobi’s Philip Larkin, the experiences have become part of an aesthetic rather than a geo-political landscape. The title may yet change but Irobi has considered What is Tender about Ted Hughes? as a possible name for his planned collection of poems after Why I Don’t Like Philip Larkin. Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes and many of the subjects of Irobi’s collection under review come from his earlier experience of exile in the UK, and not from the America of his current experience. In addition to the creative tensions occasioned by this poet’s long-term absence from an inspirational ancestral home, there is also the complication created by a potent, possibly treasured, memory of an earlier exilic home. All these past narratives further complicate whatever memory may be seeking relocation into the present of a diasporic writer’s imaginative representations.
The need to uphold artistic integrity by declining judgement or withholding comment on a homeland one no longer knows very well, which Bandele reflects above, is also represented in recent work by Uche Nduka. This most confessional of the recent Nigerian poets has found some resolution of his conflict by constructing a living space that is essentially made of material from his art – the soliloquies, monologues and diaries of a ruthless self-examination and visceral confrontation with experience. This is true of recent Uche Nduka collections like If Only the Night (2002) and Heart’s Field (2005). Uche Nduka is an important Nigerian poet, one of the key writers by whom Nigerian literature may critically examine itself to determine what has happened, and is happening, to it. It is easy to miss this, or dismiss it, because poetry almost seems to come too readily, or easily, for him in just about any of his six collections. This has not been a big issues, big ideas poet, so you are unlikely to be engaged with a long discursive poem, any major poem of individual character and sustained competence in his oeuvre. And there will be those who will insist on this as a weakness of his writing. But within the defined range, or confined space, of his creative enterprise, Nduka is lord over his turf. He is better at being himself than most other poets of his Nigerian generation are at defining and representing their own creative identities. He does what he does with practised, even easeful, competence. He occupies his Uche Nduka niche gloriously, and so should it be: to every space its writer. From Flower Child (!988) to Heart’s Field (2005), there is a sense of the diarist at work, documenting his intense life and other lives, uttering a poem for each bleeding moment. And the moments of this poet’s progress bleed, or are bled, in a confrontation with the quotidian not seen in African poetry since the brief but remarkable appearance of Zimbabwean pathfinder, Dambudzo Marechera. 15 All through Heart’s Field, there are clues and hints of a life lived dangerously, moment by moment. This is Poem No 13 (for the poems of this ninety six page book are simply numbered, 1 – 94):
Sometimes they tied you / To a grave, sometimes
they leashed you to a bed, / and you never knew
which was which, / at the bananery.
back there and then / our love was out of
place and time, our / ties were out of luck.
These representations of life at the edge are of course partly aesthetic, part of the myth-making of Nduka’s poetry. But there is also genuine rebellion there, instinctual antagonism towards the structures and strictures by which the everyday experience seeks to order and curtail the human freedoms. Here is what this poet says to all that in Poem 52:
neonlight devours a shadow. / plurals resound around
might-have-beens. / citations are poppycock.
the ludic lute hiving us / is more real.
explaining? No. / we are creatures
besotted with disorderings. / stalactites, papyri, lignites
they all breed / the news of our survival.
In this “disordering” light by which experience is confronted, the survival ethic prevails with its ready violence, cunning individuality and instinctual rebellion against controlling powers. With his epicurean sensibility and dedication to the rare and eloquent phrase, Nduka is a poet’s poet in both the aesthetic and experiential meanings of that – just like Christopher Okigbo, the representative name of Nigeria’s last poetry century. This is not suggesting that there is much similarity in style or substance in the work of both poets. For the lasting early influences on the work of Nduka, one would have to look beyond Africa to poetry from the Beat Generation. Flower Child, the title of his first collection, signifies. The heart of this poet’s oeuvre was always located elsewhere, anywhere away from location, that location, like each muse-like sexual partner of the poems, taken as offered, while still hot, while still available, while still interesting or intriguing. This love, this joy, is temporary, rather than settled. This is traveller poetry, exile poetry, in its purest form. There is no sense of home, or an ancestral past, no cloying memories of communal belonging here, because home in these poems is wherever the fire is made – the intriguing, ultimately unsatisfactory, constantly changeable and mobile present. The life of these poems is unsettled, many of its experiences unsettling, and the poems read little samples of a life not engaged in depth, and at length. Brevity and movement (or escape) underline them. The exit door is never far.
In Poem 52, as in much poetry from this collection, meaning is associatively and pictorally achieved. This is the sense in which one may identify imagist influences or borrowings in Nduka. But this need not be an issue for some exhaustive study as it is also possible to detect postmodern borrowings in very recent work from the poet. There is no substantial evidence that he is committed that way. As a craftsperson, Uche Nduka is really only committed to experimentation, and as a thinker, to a confrontation with (rather than interrogation of) meaning. Situations and experiences are sometimes lived through, and named after, their associated objects or ideas. The poet jumbles these associate phrases and images together with the actual situations and experiences, and then leaves the reader to do the unscrambling. After the background provided by the introductory lines, Poem 52 begins to state its case from line four:
citations are poppycock,
the ludic lute hiving us
is more real
We are invited to a treasure hunt here. Citations are poppycock? Citations as poppycock? Citations and poppycock? What have these got to do with the poem? Well. if anything is considered poppycock, as used in common speech, it can’t be that much valuable or real or desirable, can it? But surely citations are things of value. They bestow honour, respect, a sense of achievement. There is a veritable industry of human expectations built on citations, many lives lived around citations. But this poet, we know from extensively reading him, is not usually found with the crowd. Part of his myth-making, yes, but also part of his artistic temperament. So, it is to the values we normally associate with citations that we go to understand the real target of the poet’s specific rage in the poem.
Heart’s Field centres on the conflicted romantic trail of this ‘poor’ Nigerian poet abroad, and as such also reflects the gender subjectivities of that experience. Not that this poet might be expected to actually focus exhaustively on such weighty matters that take themselves so seriously as to weigh like a personal cross on the individual’s epicurean freedoms. Poem 33:
the Seine eschewed / our stroll, / invectives pulled at us,
dislodged our routine. / we began with the Lotus position
and ended in / the Missionary position.
In Heart’s Field, the poet demonstrates again his willingness to bend or break the rules of writing, part of a larger native rage for individual freedom against sacerdotal impositions and orderings, including the regime of signs. In much of his poetry, Nduka is sparing with punctuations. In Heart’s Field, he writes without capitalization. And in some even more recent work, he has adopted continuous, unbroken prose-like lines rather than the customary stanza formations. For those who have wondered whether there is a new generation of Nigerian poets emerging in greater confidence, who are pointedly different in their creative temperament and aesthetic choices from preceding generations, it is to the poetry of Uche Nduka, Esiaba Irobi and some others that we can assuredly turn for that sense of movement, of change. As is also true of Irobi, in Uche Nduka poetry is with attitude, and not squeamish about its language or choice of subject. Literally, there are no holds barred. Poem 4:
no crystal / is needed to ornament / the night between your arms
i praise the simple / sincerity of the parted / moon between your legs.
around a sacred ring / let’s fuck / to the covert rhythm / of a thinking tree.
And this is Poem 15:
on the tip / of a tinpan roof : / a flower, / six-handed.
a hallowed batik / spread for love. / hello hash. / hello grass.
But this is a poet also capable of humour, of profundity in observation, outstanding poetry even with all of that seeming abandonment to rebellion and anarchic agencies. Poem 30:
summer is asking / for a thugs tonic
plumbing and wiring / a wilderness for frumpies and fluffies
summer axes restraint / uses the f-word
hangs out with combat boots / reseeds a wingflap’s jugglery
o the carnivorous scandal of it all
Poet and critic, Obododinma Oha, of the same Nigerian literary generation as Uche Nduka, has done an exhaustive reading of Nduka’s The Bremen Poems, an earlier collection. Oha notes the following postcolonial irony in the book’s represented experience of an African writer seeking refuge in Bremen, a European city:
One would want to know what language the context of exile
speaks in these ‘Bremen’ poems (and by language we mean
generally the stylistic articulation and expression of experience).
It is even more interesting because this ‘racist’ context now
ironically offers refuge to an African writer who does not feel safe
in his African homeland, or that tries to promote African art and
writing, while the African ‘home’ rather fashions a ‘noose’ for such
a writer. An African writing of Europe in this case (in which a European
righting of Africa is implicit) therefore raises salient issues about the
concepts of ‘home’ and ‘exile.’
This observed irony leads the critic to echo the questions of Wole Soyinka in ‘Exile: Threshold of Loss and Identity’: When is exile? Where is exile? (65) Or, in more helpful terms: What or where is home for Uche Nduka and the other recent Nigerian-African writers who now see the western cities of the Atlantic world as destinations of refuge, and who find they must depend on the uncertain welcome which these distant places of an earlier adverse African encounter now offer. Oha asks in his essay: “When does ‘exile’ become a ‘home’?” “How stable is the concept of ‘home’?” These are not redundant questions. In the particular case of Uche Nduka, they are revelatory. The Bremen Poems possibly provide the closest representation of overt political commentary we have from Uche Nduka. The collection was published in 1995 and the poems show the poet struggling to settle into his new society. There is mutual suspicion, much uncertainty, some antagonism. Several collections and years later, especially in Heart’s Field (2005), this evidence of engagement, of a dialogue between poet and location of refuge, is no more. The poet’s gaze has shifted. The tensions of an exilic existence are still traceable or readable from the poems but the fact of exile in Europe itself no longer seems to matter.
How does one explain the ambiguities in the translocational representations of these new Nigerian writers abroad? A globalised perspective ought to be significantly pronounced in their work but it is the representation of ‘nation’ that is still most evident even in cases when it is just a subtext or a contextual (sometimes also conceptual) unconscious. There is no sense of an indifferent attitude to nation in these writings and utterances, not even for the most-lived-abroad among the writers. Not yet. There is rather varying degrees of commitment to, and difficulty with, the nation as a creative space or an information resource. In the most alienated of the writers, often the ones who are least in communication or engagement with the homeland, their difficulties with imagining and representing that space from memory also becomes a central factor in their creative choices. They are no longer at ease with home but home is still a formidable presence in their creative unconscious.
There are distortions in the memory of many of these writers abroad, depending on the extent of their alienation. In some, there are also early indications of a cosmopolitan taste or sensibility, but the loyalty is still to a purist construct – the nation, two nations in some cases, the nation of residence and also the remembered, and now increasingly mythic, nation of origin. As these imaginaries of an African national past increasingly locate outside the continent, it can be asked whether this frayed sense of loyalty, which is poorly supported by actual experience, is in fact offering a representative African literature, or a subverted one. If this African writing from abroad is somehow already subverted, the consequence must be that it is also empowered to be subversive relative to the imaginaries from home, or the literature at home. There is of course the assumption in this thinking that there is an authentic home literature, which is itself not being progressively subverted by home-grown interpretations and innovations.
Pointing to these postcolonial divides and indicating some preliminary findings
is the limited object of this review – asking questions, indicating possibilities for further study. This new Nigerian literature abroad is exactly that: new. It is evolving, developing, fleshing out its features, not entirely certain or settled about the preferences it is foregrounding. This cautionary note has its use. It says there is opportunity to dialogue with these writings and writers at the stage before positions and their oppositions stiffen, and their projects become fully formed or finally determined. Though it is morning yet on creation day for these writers, I believe it is possible to construct a profile, or at least plot the tale, of the shifting aesthetic under review. For these new writers ‘from’ Africa, the continuing loyalty to, and engagement of, Africa, or the reliance on African subjectivities for inspiration, seems determined by the marginality of their experience abroad. Three factors are indicated in this regard: there is a void, an absence, to be filled; there is a difference, an otherness, to be explained, and finally a politicisation of experience or location, which is to be engaged. These factors are differently evident in the writers, and depend on individual experiences. Marginality and duality (being in two minds or of two places) are their determining subjectivities, but there is also the distance factor, by which such issues as length of stay abroad, and frequency and extent of contact with home also factor in their diasporic alienation or dislocation.
Younger Nigerian writers abroad, in their work and utterances, are engaging their experiences, finding meaning and comfort in informed interpretations of the new ways they now have to live and work. Being forced to live outside your own country, and away from your own people, separated from your familiars, is not merely about relocations, and not even simply about loss and separation. It is about the burden of a particular kind of loss – the loss of choice. Olu Oguibe, a Nigerian artist and poet based in the United States, offers a similar interpretation:
Our age may be marked by unprecedented freedom to depart from
home, to sojourn, and to venture even to the farthest reaches of the
universe; yet what emboldens us to leave and venture is the knowledge
that no matter how and when we depart, or how long or far we journey,
we may readily return, of our own free will, to all that is familiar to us: the
scents, smells, liberties and safeties that we call home. What gives exile
its peculiar poignancy, then, is not so much the essential act of departure,
as the nature and condition of that departure.
There is then, in this continuing labour of interpretation and comprehension of the changing circumstances and attributes of writing from Africa, and from Nigeria in particular, the sense of an interrogation that is leading to, or yielding, some unusual answers. It is important that Nigerian literature is attentive to these questions it is being asked by the experience of its internet-age writers, questions which now re-examine some rooted assurances, and, in some cases, seek to re-interpret them. We can no longer assume that African writers will be signed up to an agreed African cause, and reflect this in their writings, even while in exile. After these decades of postcolonial disillusionment, and the experience of isolation and desolation, by which it has traumatised the generation of writers who have grown up with Africa, many of whom are the exiles of this study, criticism in African literature seems less validated by experience in expecting or demanding loyalty to an agreed African cause from these new writers. In 2006, it is nearly just as ineffectual for Nigerian literature to seek to evaluate its writers exclusively by nationalist standards as it would be for the national literature of Wales, or of Scotland, to judge its writers exclusively on some enforced nationalist criteria or agenda. Nothing is granted anymore. Anything that is – in terms of loyalty or commitment – has to be strategically taken. Those in African literature who believe in the nation project have to unlearn past critical habits and develop strategic thinking for involving others, especially the estranged. Rather than the whip of canonical exclusions, it is still possible by means of persuasive criticism, and the development of those writer-support systems I suggested earlier, to guide individual choice and creative work among these new writers towards a visionary Africa-consciousness. Achebe’s assessment of the political realities in the international environment from which the poor writer operates is still important counsel to contemporary African writing, especially to the younger African writers abroad. The realities are there, and they are still as political as he had identified them. But these many years after independence and its cultural affirmations, it is as confidently engaged critical individuals, and with innovative aesthetics, that creative writers out of Africa should be encouraged to respond to their uprootedness and transnational experiences.
There is a useful exercise from Paul Zeleza for the younger Nigerian writers abroad on this intriguing subject of exile in recent African literature. He offers his personal testimony:
It was noted earlier that most leading African writers have been in exile at
one time or another in their lives and careers. Some are even citizens of
Western and North American countries. Yet, the work they produce is often
considered not as “exile literature, ” a specific genre with its own specific
concerns and conventions. Rather, it is unproblematically included in the
problematic corpus of what is called African literature, or what this journal
[Research in African Literatures] more properly calls African literatures.
My short stories are included in several African and Canadian anthologies,
and the designation of my literary identity shifts from location and audience
and in cyberspace (On several online biographies I am referred to as a
Zimbabwean, the country I was born; a Malawian, the country in which I
grew up; a Kenyan, the country on which I wrote my doctoral dissertation
and worked for many years in the 1980s and have written extensively [about];
Canadian, the country where I did my doctorate and whose passport I use for
travel). Where does my work belong – African literature, exile literature,
diaspora literature, or Canadian literature? Many African writers find themselves
in similar situations… Even if this were not a personal quandary for me, which it
is not, for I regard myself as an African, first and foremost, it is a maze of
categorization, conceptual cartography if you will, that our literary critics should
help us decipher and navigate. (RAL: 15-16)
But it is from Achebe, with whom this study began, that it must now also conclude. Achebe, it must be remembered, has now lived in the United States for well over a decade. His word cannot be law for the young African writer abroad, but it is impossible in African literary studies to ignore the reasons he gives for his nationalist responses to the exilic or diasporic experience of the African writer abroad:
People have sometimes asked me if I have thought of writing a novel
about America since I have now been living here some years. My answer
has always been “No, I don’t think so.” Actually, living in America for some
years is not the only reason for writing a novel on it. Kafka wrote such a
novel without leaving Prague. No, my reason is that America has enough
novelists writing about her, and Nigeria too few. And so it is, again, ultimately
a question of balance. You cannot balance one thing: you balance a diversity
of things. And diversity is the engine of the evolution of living things, including
living civilizations. (H&E: 96-97)
Achebe has not said it is wrong in principle for the African writers located outside Africa to write their ‘Australian’ or ‘Canadian’ or ‘Parisian’ novels, especially if they are seeking to interpret their postcolonial and immigrant experiences in these other places of domicile. Achebe is saying there is a price being paid for every sustained shift of focus from Africa, especially with work by Africans abroad that consciously remove their plot, vision, characterization, subjects and incidents entirely out of Africa, of which Ben Okri’s In Arcadia would be a useful enough example. Achebe may yet write his ‘American’ novel, but until he does all he offers are his important hesitations and introspections on this ambiguous adventure of the poor African writer in a rich country:
In Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s great novel of colonization, Ambiguous Adventure,
a brilliant, young aristocrat and hope of his people is sent away from his muslim
community in Senegal by the elders to study in Paris. Their decision, which
was not reached without deep misgivings, was ultimately made possible by
a vision of their son joining the sons of Europe and other continents to construct
a new world for all humanity. The young African, Samba Diallo, will, however,
discover that, contrary to the optimistic notions of his people, Europe has made
no real provision for his participation. That discovery that one is somehow
superfluous is there, waiting at journey’s end, for the weary traveller from the
1. Salman Rushdie in “Damme, this is the Oriental Scene for You.” The New Yorker magazine June 23,30, 1997): 56.
2. Reflections, 173-174: Said specifically disagrees with George Steiner’s, “It seems proper that those who create art in a civilisation of quasi-barbarism, which has made so many homeless, should themselves be poets unhoused and wanderous across language. Eccentric, aloof, nostalgic, deliberately untimely…”
3. Uncritical “cosmopolitanism” (Kwame Anthony Appiah), and face-value acceptance of
“hybridity” (Homi K. Bhabha), or any of the other universalisms that have widely converted many in cultural theory would seem to be just as potentially misleading for the young writer of African origin seeking the ‘truth’ of ‘Africa’, just as unmoderated Fanonism and its related nationalisms might have been in past years. Often in a time of great conflict or uncertainty, as seems to be in this era of terrorism, and as was the case with the fear of communism in McCarthy’s America, there is a nationalist displacement (and replacement) of universalist principles.
4. Said in his lifetime was conflicted between vocal, but not uncritical, support for Palestinian nationalist causes and his visionary suspicion and disavowal of nationalism and nation projects.
5. Said in Humanism and Democratic Criticism
6. The December 2003 Dakar Conference, marking the thirteenth anniversary of CODESRIA.
7. ASA (African Studies Association), ALA (African Literature Association) and CODESRIA
(Council for the Development of Social Science research in Africa).
8. Hybridity is about the demonstrable reality of changed perceptions, mixed experiences and mutuality in exchange. But an important feature of exile is the impossibility, or ambiguity, of settlement, including any kind of suggested permanent surrendering to a hybrid existence. Impermanence, absence, experiment and change are the only permanent features of the exilic life.
9. In Ben Okri, 2002, Robert Fraser has considered Songs of Enchantment, 1993 and Infinite Riches, 1998, part of a trilogy of which The Famished Road , 1992, is the principal work.
10. Much criticised in the UK literary press for being comparatively lightweight, In Arcadia is still, for me, an important work in the Okri oeuvre because I believe it indicates a moment of many changes in the writer’s work and ‘exile’ experience.
11. Famous Nigerian environmentalist and author of the novel, Sozaboy, judicially murdered by the brutal military government of General Sani Abacha.
12. Adesanmi’s reference is to Magnier’s “Beurs Noirs a Black Babel.” Notre Librairie 103 (1990).
13. Adesanmi, from Chevrier’s “Afrique(s)-sur-Seine: Autour de la Notion de ‘Migritude’.” Notre Librairie 155-156 (Juliet-December 2004).
14. Ede’s poem, ‘The Skinhead’s Lord’s Prayer’ won Second Prize at the May Ayim Award in Germany and was published as part of that literary competition’s anthology.
15. Dambudzo Marechera, pioneer Zimbabwean author of House of Hunger and Black Sunlight
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