The Socio-historical Background to the African Novel

It could be surprising to learn that there was a time in African critical thought when it was a seriously debatable issue as to whether there was a genre that could be termed the African Novel. This was because western critics found it difficult to concede the fact that Africa ever produced what could be adjudged to be an authentic African art form; let alone writing a literary genre as complex, important and as recent as the novel. The arguments by the Eurocentric thought or thinking were based on the constantly projected fact that the novel began in Africa as a result of the incidence of colonialism.

It was largely enshrined in the Eurocentric criticism based on European thinking that the African novel was an extension of the English novel. The apparently plausible and not easily contestable reason advanced for this assertion was that most African writers in modern time began writing after having come in contact with colonial writers and that a careful study of their works could reveal that they mostly aped or copied the novel form from their ‘English masters’.

Another objection raised by the Eurocentric critics against the possible existence of the African novel was in the area of language. The early African writers, who were educated in the colonial languages such as English, French and Portuguese, as a matter of consequence, spoke and wrote in those languages. Thus, the argument was that based on the language criterion, Africa could not possibly lay claim to a novel that was not written in an African language. Because these novels were written in English using supposedly European or Western forms, they could not be said to be African.

The western critics found it convenient to regard these novels as English or European and thus used European critical standards to assess or evaluate them. There was a long drawn literary and critical battle to rescue or salvage the African novel from the brutalizing grip, hostage or kidnap from and by the Eurocentric critics, and today one can safely say that there is, indeed, in existence an authentic African novel.

Writers and critics such as Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong’O, Abiola Irele and Chinweizu, in a series of creative works and volumes of critical thoughts, succeeded in establishing the existence of the African novel through a thorough debunking of the claims and charges levelled or advanced by the Eurocentric critics against the existence of the African novel.

At present, the African novel is the most dominant of all the genres of literature practised in Africa. Recent criticisms of the genre have revealed that the existence of the African novel can be traced to the classical period when most European literary works were said to have begun. For instance, just like the Malian Sundiata epic is generally cited to exemplify the enduring poetry tradition in Africa, The Golden Ass by Apuleius and Aethiopica by Heliodorus have been cited by Abiola Irele in ‘Perspectives on the African Novel’ to indicate how the development of the African novel goes as far back as the classical times. This is part of the decolonisation project aimed at purging Africa of European-imposed thoughts.

The modern African novel, as it is known today, came into being as a result of the colonial encounter, or so it is often assumed. This could be because the form of the novel, including its production and finishing, could be said to be a by-product of the European industrial revolution during the 17th and 18th centuries which, among other things, brought about the invention of the printing machine, as well as the development in the art of writing and attainment of sophistication in communication using European languages like French, English and Portuguese.

Writing in these languages was inevitable for the African writer educated in the European school system, which resulted in the colonial interference in the African culture and societies. By that it meant that the disruptive effect of colonialism did not spare African writings. Against what colonialist criticism and the Eurocentric critics would have us believe, African writing itself dates back to antiquity.

Alain Ricard in an article entitled ‘Africa and Writing’ states that ‘Africa is everywhere inscribed’, referring to the existence of some forms of writing in Africa before the advent of colonialism. These writings were mostly in the form of signs, pictures and drawings, which served various communicative purposes. Even in ancient Egypt, there were hieroglyphic forms of writing made up of signs and pictures. The Nsibidi scripts have also been documented as part of the forms of writings that existed in precolonial Africa. There is an argument as to whether these so called ‘illiterate writings’ should form part of the discourse in the historicisation of literature/writing in Africa. Thus, in the study of African writing, according to Ricard, there are two schools of thought. These are the inclusivist school and the exclusivist school.

       The inclusivist school of thought argues that these inscriptions should be considered as part and parcel of African writing and should be studied as part of the development in African writing so that the argument could be advanced that Africa would have developed a writing system but not for the disruptive tendencies or effects of colonialism. On the other hand, the exclusivist school of thought argues that since these ‘illiterate writings’ did not metamorphose into the effective means of civil communication, they should not be taken into consideration when discoursing the development of writing in African literature. Rather, the exclusivists are of the view that the origins of African literature/writing should begin with oral tradition. No human society started up with the art of writing, argue the exclusivists. Africans, first of all, had to speak before developing a writing system, just like European literature started with orature. Many critics have toed the exclusivist line of thinking in African literary thoughts, especially when it comes to explaining away the stormy origins of African literary arts.

The authenticity of the African novel is rooted in the fact that it is written using the oral tradition of the African people. This is because the oral tradition of a people forms the basic substance of their arts. It is the single most important raw material that determines the essence of an art work, its ontology and its authenticity or originality. The language question, though relevant, has been established not to be enough or adequate to utilise as the sole criterion in the determination of the origin or authenticity of an art form. This is because the sensibility of the art form which is important in deciding the milieu that owns the art form does not, so to speak, reside in the language, nor is it known to exclusively reside in the language. Rather, the sensibilities of an art form are seen to be reflected in the cultural values of the people, all of which could be found in the people’s oral literature. However, this is not to underplay the importance of language in a people’s literature, but rather it is to discourage the use of one overarching criterion in determining its ownership.

Again, a re-examination of the history of the novel reveals that the early 20th century phenomenon which characterised the evolution of the novel was also prevalent in classical antiquity when such novels as Aethiopica and The Golden Ass were written through the appropriation of a foreign tongue (language). A study of these classical novels indicates that though they are written in Greek and Latin, respectively, they depict the African sensibilities because the two novels are set in Africa or have African setting. At this point, a definition of the African novel is necessary.

What Is the African Novel?

The African novel has been defined as a fictional prose of considerable length, either written by an African or a non-African but which is about Africa and depicts the African sensibilities (with sensibility being the kind of feeling we have when we hear, see or think about something). It should be noted that an African critic by name C. A. Ibitoye, in a 1994 publication entitled Stages of Development of African Literature, states that a novel can have non-African authorship as long as it depicts African sensibilities or concerns or it is about Africa.

A further thought on the definition of the African novel concedes that it could be written in English and other languages other than African languages. One of the scholars who believe that the use of English does not, in any way, subtract from the authenticity of the African novel is Chinua Achebe who, in a collection of Essays published in 1975 entitled Morning yet on Creation Day, maintains that the enduring effects of the colonial project make it inevitable for the African writer to resort to the English language at the point of writing.

However, Achebe is also quick to point out that the language he uses is really not the language transported from England to Africa by the colonial masters. For Achebe, he has been able to localise or indigenise that language to make it capture the sensibilities of his environment. Achebe’s view is justified not only by the existence of varieties of the British language known as the ‘Englishes’ of which Nigerian English is one, his view is also justified by the fact that one would observe a marked difference between the use of language in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. A key term that defines Achebe’s use of language in his novels has come to be known as ‘transliteration’, a word known to have semantic affinities with translation. The term refers to the direct transfer of syntax, diction, images, symbols, among others, from one language to another. Transliteration is marked by creative disregard for the rules of the new language or the target language. This is the language deployed by most African writers for the writing of African literary works, the novel inclusive.

Thus, it could be said that the language of the African novel is marked by abrogation and appropriation, where abrogation refers to a deliberate refusal to obey the standard rules of a hegemonic language, while appropriation means the act or art of conditioning or shaping a language to serve one’s communicative function even when such conditioning defies the standard rules of that language. Most African writers engage in the practices of transliteration, abrogation and appropriation. Some of them, apart from Achebe, are Ken Saro Wiwa in Soza Boy, Gabriel Okara in The Voice and Amos Tutuola in The Palm-wine Drinkard.

Again, the modern novel, as we know it, is merely different from the oral narratives based on the written words or the printed work and the industrial finishing in a book form. The question then is, is it the printed word/work that makes up the novel? The answer is no. The contents which constitute the substance of the African novel are embedded in the African oral tradition; century upon century-long tradition and culture of rich tales and sagas in Africa that predate colonial rule.

Africa has an enduring tradition of storytelling which is reflected in the abundance of epic tales, myths, folktales, legends, among others, which has been recorded on the continent. Perhaps, the only credit that could be given to the colonial project is the fast and speedy facilitation of the preservation of these rich oral tales by having them in printed forms. Apart from that, Africa could not be said to have been without their own literature before the arrival of the colonial masters. But then again, this would not have been necessary because the African peoples have a long memory which could have preserved these tales; not forgetting the gradual evolution of writing and technology that was taking place in Africa, which in the long run could have been used to preserve these works.

 The historical development of the African novel is usually traced to the coming of the colonial masters who were the first to write about Africa. However, it should be noted that the claim by Western critics such as Adrian Roscoe, Eustace Palmer and John Povey that Africa owes the existence of the novel to the West, is partly faulted by the fact that long before the Europeans appeared on the scene, Africa had had contact with the Arabs, who could be said to be the first colonisers of the continent. These contacts, which consisted mostly in trading and religious activities like the spread of Islam, also meant that the Arabic language and literature could be imposed on the natives. The consequence could be that the Africans, having been indoctrinated by the tenets of the new culture and religion, could also write using that language and the ideology of the religion.

The modern African literature is, therefore, said to have begun more or less as a reaction to the white colonialist writings about Africa. At this point, it is necessary to point out the source or cause, motivation and the agency for including non-African authorship in the definition of African Literature. There is in existence, and up until today, writings by non-Africans about Africa. In the colonial era, one could recall names like Joseph Conrad, Joyce Carey and Rider Haggard. The depiction of Africans in works such as Heart of Darkness, Mr Johnson and King Solomon’s Mines was full of racial biases and misconceptions. Thus, when African writers were educated and equipped with adequate knowledge, they began writing as a reaction against these colonialist literatures. There is the point then that African literature is in a number of ways a reactionary literature. It is a literature written to debunk some of the colonialist claims about Africa which include the depiction of Africans as people without culture and civilisation, people without religion, people without history, political system and perhaps people without human values because in most of colonialised literature, the African characters are portrayed as primitive and barbaric.

Countering the narratives that the emergence of the African novel coincided with the incidence of colonialism, some scholars have, it must be restated, posited that Islamic colonisation predated the European colonisation in Africa and as such, there were novels that were inspired by Islamic colonisation. Such novels include The Last Imam published in 1984 and Season of Migration to the North published in 1966. The Last Imam is authored by Ibrahim Tahir while the latter is authored by Tayeb Salih. The idea then is that there is not one source of influence when it comes to the origins of modern African literature.

There were also novels written in indigenous languages some of which were inspired by the oral tradition and some of which were motivated by the need to spread the gospel. A good example of an early African novel inspired by oral tradition is a 1938 publication by Daniel Orowole Fagunwa entitled Forest of a Thousand Demons. The indigenous title of the picaresque novel is Ogoboju Ode nini Igbo Irunmale (A Brave Hunter in the Forest of Demons). The novel’s hero is a traditional hunter by name Akara-ogun, whose name means ‘compound-of-spells’.

The indigenous African novels owe their existence to the activities of the early missionaries who codified the indigenous languages for the purpose of evangelism. Other African prose writings were inspired by the incident of slavery. A good example is a 1789 publication by Oluadah Equiano entitled The Interesting Narratives of the Life of Oluadah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African (Equiano’s Travels). Another novel that forms a body of publication in the early days of the African novel is an 1856 publication by Evaristo d’Almeida entitled O escravo (The Slave). One should also note R. E. Obeng’s Eighteenpence published in 1941 and which is of Ghanaian origin. One should equally note the 1911 publication of Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford entitled Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation.

It is also important to note the 1958 publication by Chinua Achebe entitled Things Fall Apart which has come to be known as a classic work in African literature. Before Achebe, there was Amos Tutuola’s Palmwine Drinkard which draws largely from the African oral tradition of mythic tales. It was published in 1952.

Today the African novel is a celebrated art form in the world, as can be seen in the works of Chimamanda Adichie, Amma Darko, Ngugi wa Thiong’O and Sefi Atta, among others. Long live the African Novel!

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