Drawing on the theoretical reflections of Abiola Irele, Daria Tunca, and Lindiwe Dovey, how would you explain the problems with the concepts of African literature and African cinema? Wh
- Drawing on the theoretical reflections of Abiola Irele, Daria Tunca, and Lindiwe Dovey, how would you explain the problems with the concepts of African literature and African cinema? Why do you think these scholars’ critical attempts to redefine these concepts are important?
- Abiola Irele and Lindiwe Dovey foreground the significance of oral tradition in modern African literary and cinematic production. Building on their ideas in your analysis, describe the significance of oral tradition in Bamba Suso’s “Sunjata” and Dani Kouyaté’s Keïta! l’héritage du griot (Keita! The Heritage of the Griot).
- Examine the practice of adaptation in African literature and cinema using the epic of Sunjata and Dani Kouyaté’s Keïta! l’héritage du griot (Keita! The Heritage of the Griot) to illustrate this creative and critical practice. In your response, reflect on Lindiwe Dovey’s theory of adaptation to map out the relationship between the epic poetry and the film on Sunjata.
*Make sure to include in-text citations and pay attention to the text and context when doing this assignment and it should be on two pages
THE AFRICAN IMAGINATION
Africa & the Black Diaspora
F. Abiola Irele
OXPORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
OXPORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
Oxford New York Athens Auckland Bangkok Bogoti Buenos Aires Cape Town Chennai Dar es Salaam Delhi Florence Hong Kong Istanbul Karachi Kolkata Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Mumbai Nairobi Paris Sao Paulo Shanghai Singapore Taipei Tokyo Toronto Warsaw
and associated companies in Berlin Ibadan
Copyright © 2001 by F. Abiola Irele
Published by Oxford University Press, Inc. 198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016
Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Irele, Abiola. The African imagination : literature in Africa and the black diaspora / F. Abiola Irele.
p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-19-508618-X; ISBN 0-19-508619-8 (paper) 1. African literature—History and criticism. 2. Literature and society—Africa. 3. African diaspora. I. Title. PL8010 .174 2001 809'.896—dc21 00-052417
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
The African Imagination
Ever since the advent of African literature in the late 1950s and early 1960s, critics have been occupied with providing an account of its dis- tinctive features and arriving at a definition of its specific nature. Most notable among these critics was Janheinz Jahn, who proposed the term "neo-African literature" to cover the specific corpus of writings produced by Blacks in the modern age and in the European languages, on both sides of the Atlantic; these writings were distinguished by a fundamental unity not only of reference but also of vision Qahn, 1961, 1966). His approach consisted of positing a structure of mind common to members of the black race, an informing principle of a collective vision of the world. This vision was presumed to be discoverable in specific modes of traditional African thought as expounded by scholars such as Placide Tempels, Marcel Griaule, and Alexis Kagame. For Jahn, this structure of mind and this collective vision are manifested in one form or another in the imaginative expression of Black writers, both Africans and those of African descent. Jahn's approach, which derives from the essentialist ten- ets of the Negritude movement, is summed up in his use of the concept nommo as the operative factor of neo-Africanism in literature: the word is conceived as a living principle, an active force to be deployed in the writer's confrontation with experience.
In the United States, a similar preoccupation can be discerned in the effort of the Black Aesthetics movement to identify and account for a specific African-American literary tradition distinguished from the so-
called mainstream of the national (white) literary expression (Gayle, 1971). While the quasi-mystic dimension of Jahn's account is absent from the formulations of the writers and critics associated with this movement, their effort was also bent toward the clarification of the distinctive quality of African-American literature, in their case by reference to the profound implication of this literature in the Black experience, in terms therefore inherent in its history and framework of elaboration. In both cases, the larger question of a Black identity provides the background for these ef- forts, the presumption being that such an identity would find its clearest and most profound expression in works of the imagination produced by Black writers.
The title of this book may suggest that my aim is identical to the efforts I have evoked above and so may give rise to undue expectations. It is, however, not my intention to propose a model of the structure of a racial imaginative faculty nor to demonstrate the impress of a Black iden- tity upon the imagination. I would like more modestly to explore what seems to me a coherent field of self-expression by Black writers in relation not only to a collective experience but also to certain cultural determi- nants that have given a special dimension to that experience and therefore to have imparted to Black expression a particular tonality. My position does not of course rule out the possibility that such an explo- ration may well offer an opening for the elaboration of a distinctive Black aesthetics nor indeed, through the analysis of the dominant modalities of the literary works of Black writers, for the elucidation of the particular structure of mind fashioned by their cultural environment.1 These are not, however, my immediate concerns here. My aim, rather, is more mod- est: to explore the terrain of African literature in the widest acceptance of the term and to arrive at a sense of its possible boundaries, that is, in its immediate reference to literary expression on the African continent and in what may be perceived to be the extension of this expression in the New World. In other words, I am exploring a field invested with a particular body of imaginative discourse, marked by both a convergence of themes and a common preoccupation with the modes of address of a new self-formulation. I would like my use of the term African imagination to be taken therefore as referring to a conjunction of impulses that have been given a unified expression in a body of literary texts.2 From these impulses, grounded both in common experience and in common cultural references, Black texts have come to assume a particular significance that is worth attempting to elucidate.
4 THE AFRICAN IMAGINATION
The exploratory approach I am adopting has been prompted by the fact that the term African literature (to which we can directly relate what I have called the African imagination) carries with it a particular ambiguity of reference in its present and common usage. In the first place, our use of the term is posited upon a disjunction between lan- guage and literature. Ordinarily, we assume an organic and intimate as- sociation between the two. The association between language and lit- erature can be said to be "natural" insofar as language constitutes the grounding structure of all literary expression, so that the unity of a body of literature is most readily perceived in terms of its language of expression rather than by any other criterion. For historical reasons with which we are familiar, the term African literature does not obey this convention. The corpus is in fact multilingual. The variety of lan- guages covered by the term can be appreciated by a consideration of the range of literatures in Africa. These literatures fall into three broad categories: the traditional oral literature, the new written literature in the African languages (these two closely bound by their common basis in the various indigenous languages), and, finally, the written literature in languages not indigenous to Africa, in particular the three European languages of English, French, and Portuguese. It should be noted here that Arabic, though possibly the most widely employed non-indigenous language in Africa south of the Sahara, is usually excluded from our use of the term.
What I have called the disjunction between language and literature in our understanding of the term African literature has often been per- ceived as unnatural. It was at the root of the controversy that raged in the 1960s concerning the proper application of the term African to the new literature in the European languages, a controversy inaugurated by Obi Wall in his now famous article, "The Dead End of African Literature" (Wall, 1963). Despite this initial controversy, which surfaced at the dawn of the reception of African literature in the early 1960s, categorization according to languages indigenous to the continent has not yet become so compelling as to inhibit the use of the term African literature in the comprehensive continental sense in which it has become customary to do so. The reason seems to be that the ethnic dimension suggested by the appeal to indigenous languages does not appear to have received rec- ognition as a determinant in the contemporary political, social, and cul- tural experience of the continent. In short, the notion of Africa as a uni- fied geopolitical concept serves as the primary validation for the
THE AFRICAN IMAGINATION 5
continued application of a term whose all-inclusive character does not seem to impair its efficacy of reference.
This situation leads to the other important association disregarded in our use of the term: the connection between literature and nation, which is understood as a community of people bound by ethnicity, lan- guage, and culture. The notion that literature is the collective expression of a people in this sense, of their heritage as a constituted national com- munity, is of course an eminently modern one. Since the 1970s, there has been a movement in African literary studies toward the recognition of national literatures in the new African states, such as Cameroonian, Senegalese, Beninois literatures, and so on (Kadima-Nzuji, 1984; Huan- nou, 1989; Bjornson, 1991). But while there has undoubtedly emerged a definite sense of corporate identity, often marked by clear thematic and formal progressions, in some of the literatures expressed in the European languages, because of the common interests and involvements that have arisen out of what one might call the "territorial imperative," it remains an incontrovertible fact that the European-language literatures in Africa, for which a national status is being canvassed in each of the states where they have been produced, are not yet generally experienced as having attained such a status, largely because the languages in which they are expressed have at best only an official acceptance. They are neither in- digenous to the societies and the cultures on which they have been im- posed nor are they national in any real sense of the word. This must limit the claims to national significance of any of these literatures, however abundant the corpus or coherent the internal configurations.
The present position, then, is that literature in Africa does not quite function in the limited national range suggested by the conventional association between literature and nation save in a few exceptional cases, the most prominent being that of Somalia. Given the decidedly multi- ethnic and multilinguistic character of African states as presently consti- tuted and the circumstances of the emergence of modern literature in Africa—along with the development of literary studies related to Africa— it has not been felt to be either appropriate or functionally valid to em- ploy this micro level of definition or categorization of works. Today they are grouped together in the general corpus designated by the term African literature.
Clearly, Africa is not a nation in the ordinary sense of the term: with- out a common language and common institutions, the idea of an African "nation" with a recognizable political personality founded upon a com-
6 THE AFRICAN IMAGINATION
mon heritage of history and culture is an "invention" (Ranger, 1983). Objectively, then, where African literature as presently understood is con- cerned, there is no real correspondence founded upon conventional as- sociations between literature and language on one hand or literature and nation on the other. Often, therefore, one feels a lack of congruence be- tween the term African literature and the object to which it is applied. However, when considered from the point of view of reference to a frame- work of experience, the term acquires a pertinence that cannot be denied. African literature exists and has meaning primarily in the context of a recognizable corpus of texts and works by Africans, situated in relation to a global experience that embraces both the precolonial and the mod- ern frames of reference. The significance of this continuous scheme for the notion of an African imagination will, I hope, become apparent later in this volume.
The point is that, for historical reasons that include important de- velopments in the New World, Africa has emerged as an operative con- cept, which can be applied to an entire area of existence and historical experience. It is essential to bear in mind that this notion, starting as an ideological construction, has developed beyond this contingent factor to assume the significance of objective fact: there is today the sense of an African belonging that commands the vision of an entire people regard- ing their place in the world. The term is thus closely bound up with the emergence in Africa itself of a self-focused consciousness of which liter- ature has been an essential medium of expression. The use of the term African literature therefore presupposes an attention to the complex of determinations that have endowed the term African with real meaning, with a special significance for us as Black people. But precisely because of the developments in the New World and their consequences for our notion of Africa, the term African literature itself can be restricting, since it excludes a dimension of experience that brought it into being in the first place. Moreover, we have seen the difficulties thrown up by its ap- plication to the African corpus itself. For this reason, it may be preferable to employ a term that is both more embracing and more flexible in its definitions. The notion of an African imagination corresponds to this wider scope of expression of Africans and people of African descent, which arises out of these historical circumstances.
In what follows, I shall attempt a pragmatic survey of the field that is covered by this extended term, taking into account the total framework of the imaginative expression that it represents: the areas of articulation
THE AFRICAN IMAGINATION 7
and levels of representation and creation in relation to Africa, whether as an immediate reference or as a mode of connection to what has come increasingly to be accepted in the New World as an ethnic and cultural resource. I would like in short to consider the image of Africa as the figure of an engagement with the world in and through language from a com- prehensive historical, ethnic, and cultural perspective.
Despite the disproportionate attention paid to literature by Africans in the European languages, the primary area of what I have called the Af- rican imagination is represented by the body of literature produced by, within, and for the traditional societies and indigenous cultures of Africa. This literature forms an essential part of what is generally considered the oral tradition of Africa, though it does not entirely account for it. Fur- thermore, it is a literature that is fully contemporary—still being pro- duced, in various forms, updated in its themes and references, and, what is more significant, integrating influences from the written conventions adapted from the literate tradition of Europe. It is also beginning to em- ploy new technological means of production and performance as the au- diovisual media create a revolution in the oral tradition: records, cas- settes, films, and videos have been pressed into service in several African countries for the transmission of the traditional literature in its original oral/aural form of expression.
What the preceding remarks indicate is that, although the traditional literature of Africa in its original form is being increasingly marginalized, it has retained an undoubted vigor. What is more, its practitioners display a sharp sense of context, which has enabled them to maintain it as a cultural form, open nonetheless to change and adaptation. Its appropri- ation of modern, Western-derived forms has a peculiar interest therefore as an indication not merely of what Ruth Finnegan has called an "over- lap" between the oral and the written in traditional societies in the mod- ern world (Finnegan, 1982) but also of the strategy involved in what Soyinka has called the "survival patterns" of traditional culture in Africa (Soyinka, 1988a, 90-203). Soyinka's point has to do especially with the creative accommodation to cultural change of traditional forms of drama. When we consider the impact of radio and television on the production and transmission of traditional literature, the striking fact that we en- counter is the interaction, if not fusion, of the three phases (or levels) of orality distinguished by Walter Ong—the primary, residual, and second- ary (Ong, 1982). Despite this interaction, we recognize in the oral liter-
8 THE AFRICAN IMAGINATION
ature a fundamental and indeed organic aspect of the African imagina- tion. For all their undoubted diversity, the manifestations of the imagination in our traditional societies have one common denominator: they rely primarily on an oral mode of realization. It is this that accounts for the pervasiveness of the spoken word in traditional African cultures.
This observation has implications for our conception of literature and our values of interpretation. With regard to the oral literature of Africa, I recall the scheme of three levels of orality that I have proposed elsewhere (Irele, 1981, 1990). There is, first, the level of ordinary com- munication with a purely denotative use of language, as in simple factual statements and commands. At a second level, we have the forms of or- ality associated with the rhetorical uses of language, forms that are not necessarily reserved for special situations but are ever-present in tradi- tional African discourse through the use of proverbs and aphorisms, which regularly channel communication in African cultures and therefore provide what one might call a "formulaic" framework for speech acts, discursive modes, and indeed the structure of thought. As the Yoruba metaproverb puts it: Owe I'esin oro (Proverbs are the horses of discourse). Finally, we have the strictly literary level, which is concerned with and reserved for the purely imaginative uses of language.
In reality, these three levels exist along a continuum, for it is difficult to draw a sharp line between denotative and connotative uses of language in oral communities. It is useful nonetheless to make the distinction for clarity and to facilitate analysis. In any event, it is the last level or cate- gory that interests us, for it is here that we encounter what must be accepted in many African societies as a consecrated body of texts.
The notion of text itself needs to be clarified here. Not only must we conceive of this as a sequence—whether extended or not—of structured enunciations, which form therefore a pattern of discourse, but we must also consider the nature of those specimens in the oral tradition that are endowed with the same character of literariness as written texts. In other words, where we are dealing with imaginative creations, we must expect to see a preponderant recourse to those aspects of discourse that signal this character of literariness: metaphors, tropes, and other figures of speech that create a second order of language with constitutive ele- ments—words—foregrounded, organized in highly stylized ways, and sub- jected therefore to artifice so as to carry a special charge of meaning. In other words, a literary text, whether oral or written, is language intensi- fied.
THE AFRICAN IMAGINATION 9
Two points arise from the foregoing. First, the conventional dichot- omy established for prose and poetry loses much of its relevance with oral literature; the idea of the "prose-poem" becomes inoperative and inappropriate in an oral context. Thus, orality invites us to a revision of notions about genre and generic conventions. Second, the view of the literary text I have advanced provides an occasion for challenging the conventional Western view of textuality and consequently of literature as linear and spatial, which is based on the exclusive model of writing. Orality operates with a different scale and category of apprehension, the temporal, but this does not by any means preclude its possibility for gen- erating texts endowed with the same level of interest and significance as those produced in writing.3
In the ordinary sense of the word, therefore, we have here literature, understood as imaginative expression, at the third level of orality I have distinguished. We have a coherent body of texts that constitute not merely a repertoire with established conventions for composition, per- formance, and transmission, as in the case of the Akan dirges studied by Nketia (1958) or the family praise names (orikl) of the Yoruba (Barber, 1991), but also, quite often, a canon in the strict sense of the word; that is, a body of texts that have been fixed and set apart, reined as it were, as monuments of a collective sensibility and imagination, expressive of a structure of feeling itself determined by a profound correspondence between experience and imagination. Examples of canonical texts in this sense abound in Africa; they include the heroic and praise poems of the Zulu (izibongo) and Basotho (Cope, 1968; Kunene, 1971), the court poetry of Rwanda recorded and presented by Coupez and Kamanzi (1970), and of course, the great epics: Sundiata, Da Monzon, Mwindo, and Ozidi. But perhaps the most distinctive body of oral texts that corresponds most closely to this notion of a canon is the Ifa corpus of the Yoruba (Bascom, 1969; Abimbola, 1977). If there is anything distinctive about this litera- ture, it is what I'd like to call its organic mode of existence. In production, realization, and transmission, the text inheres in the physiology of the human frame and is expressed as voice, in gestures, and in immediate performance. The spoken word achieves here its plenitude as a total pres- ence.
Albert Lord, following on the work of Milman Parry, has accustomed us to the formulaic structure of heroic poems. But orality is more than formulaic: it is the active and intensive deployment of parallelism, anaphora, parataxis, and other features, which give life to the structures
10 THE AFRICAN IMAGINATION
of expression predetermined within the culture. Nor must we forget the special role played by sonic values in this literature, the onomatopoeia, ideophones, and especially tonal patterns that depend for their effect on the immediacy of realization peculiar to oral forms and thus proclaim the primacy of living speech in human language.
An important consequence of orality is the social significance of the literature in the face-to-face situations of traditional societies, which pro- vide the context of its performance. We need to take account of the fact that the repositories of this body of texts are often specialized workers, "masters of the word" (Laye, 1978). Therefore, a significant part of this literature falls within the domain of the specialized activity of a category of producers of the particular cultural form represented by oral literature. Not infrequently, this specialization involves the use of deliberate her- meticism, as in the case of the Ifa corpus, which is exclusively in the care of priests of the divination cult Babalawo, literally, "fathers of the secret," in other words, guardians of the word. We may apply to this special cat- egory of individuals the well-known term griot.
We can conclude this cursory survey of oral literature in Africa by observing that it stands as the fundamental reference of discourse and of the imaginative mode in Africa. Despite the undoubted impact of print culture on African experience and its role in the determination of new cultural modes, the tradition of orality remains predominant and serves as a central paradigm for various kinds of expression on the continent. The literary component of this tradition, in both its expressive modes and with respect to its social significance, provides the formal and nor- mative background for imaginative expression. In this primary sense, or- ality functions as the matrix of an African mode of discourse, and where literature is concerned, the griot is its embodiment in every sense of the word. In other words, oral literature represents the basic intertext of the Af- rican imagination.
The function that orality still fulfills in contemporary African society is most apparent as we consider the imaginative creations that derive immediately from the indigenous tradition, especially the new written literature in African languages to which Albert Gerard has devoted a com- prehensive study (Gerard, 1981). The fact of a direct progression from the oral literature is important here, since it is a question not merely of draw- ing upon material from the oral tradition but essentially of re-presenting such material through the medium of print in order to give wider cur- rency as well as new expression to forms that are already structured
THE AFRICAN IMAGINATION 11
within the languages themselves. This practice does not preclude a mod- ification of the traditional forms within the new modes; indeed, such modification is inevitable given the changed context of realization of the literature, which, with other contemporary forms that have developed from the oral tradition, are clearly marked by what we have noted as the assimilation of modes and conventions of the Western literate culture. However, the predominance of orality as a shaping medium is a deter- mining factor of the process by means of which such material is recreated and endowed with a new mode of existence.
The adoption of the distinctive modality of writing in this literature has thus led to the development of a new literate tradition in African languages, one that remains bound by language and the distinctive qual- ity of oral expression to the traditional literature. The literate tradition of works in the African languages has been brought into being primarily by writers who, though they may be literate in the European languages, have naturally gone directly to their native tongues for their writing. It is sig- nificant to observe that this tradition is being actively extended today by writers whose dual competence—in both an African and a European lan- guage—is an active one, demonstrated in works produced in the literary registers corresponding to each.
The best known instance of this phenomenon remains Okot p'Bitek, whose long poem Song of Lawino was first written in Acholi and later translated by the author into English. But even more interesting is the case of Mazisi Kunene, whose Zulu poems complement his work in En- glish; in a similar way, Charles Mungoshi has created fiction in both Shona and English as expressions of the same creative impulse. In these and other cases, we observe African writers electing to express themselves in an African language and going back therefore to oral forms. This de- velopment has been thrown into special relief by the evolution of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's writing from English to Gikuyu. To judge from his own translation of the work into English, he has attempted in Devil on the Cross a direct representation of the oral mode in a written medium; the ideological intention of the novel has determined its allegorical and di- dactic character, in the manner of the traditional folktale or moral fable, hence his deliberate recourse to the narrative conventions associated with that genre.
The situation of dual competence in an African and a European lan- guage, which has led to writing in the literary registers of both by some African writers, is indicative of the situation of diglossia in which they
12 THE AFRICAN IMAGINATION
are involved. For if at the moment, the direct and immediate recreation of the oral tradition in the mode of writing, either in an African language or a European one, is not yet widespread, the interaction of orality and literacy in the case of those writers who have established a visible traffic between the African languages with their distinctive forms of expression and the European linguistic medium is especially instructive. These writ- ers provide clear evidence of the tense area of signification that lies be- tween the native tradition of imaginative expression and the European literary tradition, a terrain through which every African writer has to find an expressive means to navigate for his or her own creative purposes.
The process involved in this movement between two traditions can be termed reinterpretation in the anthropological sense of the word. It is well illustrated by the so-called folk operas in Nigeria and the related forms of concert parties in Ghana and Togo. In these works we witness an effort to adapt the conventions of the oral narrative and traditional drama, both popular and ritual, to the exigencies of a new cultural en- vironment dominated by Western influence: even where there is a writ- ten text, the voice as realizing agency remains absolutely primary.
If with oral literature we have an indigenous tradition, then with the writings in the African-language literatures that can be said to have pro- ceeded directly from it, we are dealing with an endogenous development of a mode of expression for which the African imagination has found adaptive forms for its manifestation. In these two areas, orality functions as a maximal framework of expression.
In all other areas of literary production associated with Africa, this integral orality is either totally negated or profoundly modified by the written mode and the conventions associated with a literate culture, which intervenes to define a new framework of expression. It must be emphasized that this relationship is not a recent development arising out of the influence of the West but in fact reflects a long-standing situation. We need to recall in this connection that the oldest written tradition in Africa is associat
Are you looking for custom essay writing service or even dissertation writing services? Just request for our write my paper service, and we'll match you with the best essay writer in your subject! With an exceptional team of professional academic experts in a wide range of subjects, we can guarantee you an unrivaled quality of custom-written papers.
Why Hire Collepals.com writers to do your paper?
Quality- We are experienced and have access to ample research materials.
We write plagiarism Free Content
Confidential- We never share or sell your personal information to third parties.
Support-Chat with us today! We are always waiting to answer all your questions.