The Balance of Our Stories (2)

One can almost hear Achebe cursing the darkness and saying of Soyinka’s prose: “That is no longer merely troubling. I think it is downright outrageous. And it is also pompous rubbish.” Now, if these hurtful words had been written by Watson, we would be asking for his head. My point is that if the world took us seriously, they would be insisting on the same standards for our very best. Perhaps, the Western world truly believes that Africans are children of a lesser god. And our very best thinkers seem to agree with them. For our words, our writers’ stories, drip with the self-loathing that confirms the worst hiding in other people’s dark hearts.

There is some hope that the Western world is getting fed up with our tales of woe. Some of our writers protest too much and even for a gullible readership there is such a thing as too much misery. In April 2006, Nathan Ihara reviewed Abani’s book Becoming Abigail in the LA Weekly and he pronounced himself fed up with Abani’s fare. He courageously protested the all-you-can-eat buffet of unnecessary suffering and deprivation served up by Abani thus:

[s]tarvation, torture, AIDS and murder have become the background noise of our entertainments, the wallpaper pattern of our newspapers. We are so inured to tales/images/instances of pain that a direct assault on our cauterized nerve endings no longer works. Literature must come upon us athwart, enter the heart by sneak attack. Peter’s debasement of Abigail — “Filth. Hunger. And drinking from the plate of rancid water. Bent forward like a dog” — is disturbing yet remote. The staccato rhythm and the graphic language are so direct, so lurid, that they fail to pierce the skin. The scene is grimly fascinating, but lacks emotional resonance. Suffering in literature must be more oblique, more sideways; it must be a void into which the reader falls. [1]

A recent copy of the literary magazine Granta features short stories from Adichie and Helon Habila, two of Nigeria’s star writers.[2] In the midst of several robust offerings by other writers, we read the same tired overcooked gruel from two of our very best – of victims being thrown out of storey buildings by over-sexed generals, etc, etc. Why are we so depressed? Is there no joy in our existence? Why do our writers peddle the same tired stories, all the while ignoring fresh palm wine frothing in the sunlight? How is it that our best and brightest are not mindful of the end of the machete that hurts our motherland?

There may be hope but from strange quarters. The July 2007 edition of Vanity Fair, guest edited by the musician Bono, was a bumper issue devoted solely to Africa. It was a beautiful edition and all those who truly love Africa, should find a copy and keep it for posterity. For once Africa was in the limelight and it was not all about disease, war, famine, corruption and associated clichés. Bono’s Vanity Fair made the point that generations of award-winning African writers have failed to make – that Africa is not a lost cause, lost to disease, war, famine, ceaseless despair and hopelessness. Rather, just like Africa, the magazine was a comforting collage of some of Africa’s success stories, some of whom had been carefully rescued from Africa, by the West. We saw literary jewels from the very young and talented Nigerian writers Uzodinma Iweala and Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie to aging lions like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. One gets goose bumps from seeing in living color all these beautiful people, irreplaceable offspring of Africa’s loins luxuriating in the adulation that has eluded them in their own Africa.

No doubt war has been hard on African writers. It would appear, for instance, that in terms of abuse and suffering, Abani has paid his dues. Ihara points out that Abani was imprisoned several times in Nigeria for his literary works, and tortured as a political prisoner: he apparently endured beatings, electrical shocks and solitary confinement. There needs to be closure – a Truth Commission that invites people with claims of horrid abuse to come testify – and for the perpetrators to publicly apologize once and for all. Regardless, our writers have every reason to be worried about the situation in Africa. The question becomes: What are they doing about it? Many of our writers spend a lot of time painting gory pictures of Africa’s sorry state and selling the result to Westerners. When Westerners gasp from shock, they complain that Westerners are being patronizing and racist. Right after posing for Bono’s Vanity Fair, Iweala penned an indignant editorial in the Washington Post decrying the tendency of Westerners to “promote the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of disease and death.” He was unhappy that “news reports focus on the continent’s corrupt leaders, warlords, “tribal” conflicts, child laborers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation.[3] Is this the same author that posed for Vanity Fair’s bumper Edition on Africa, the same African who wrote the best-selling book Beast of No Nations a novel about child soldiers? Iweala’s editorial comes across as the protests of one who wishes to eat his cake and have it. At the very least, he is guilty of being overly sensitive. Fresh from posing prominently in the Africa issue of Vanity Fair, he rushes to the Washington Post to chide Western superstars like Bono and Bob Geldof and presumably the entire West for a patronizing attitude towards Africa’s challenges. He makes the profound point that a lot of humanitarian efforts from the West directed at Africa are driven by less than altruistic motives. But those who read Bono’s Vanity Fair will be forever haunted by the before-and- after images of African AIDS patients who have been miraculously rescued by the anti-retroviral drug that is now available in African countries thanks to the Lazarus Project and the efforts of Westerners like Bono. Those pictures in Vanity Fair are the most graphic reminders of what can happen to Africa if the world stopped for a second and paid her much needed attention. Iweala’s rage is sadly misplaced. Instead, Iweala and the rest of us should erupt in lusty songs of protest against African leaders who continue to loot Africa’s treasures and deposit them in the West even as they loudly berate the white man for all of Africa’s problems. According to Vanity Fair, the United States has quadrupled aid to Africa over the last six years under President George W. Bush. Once you get over that shock, a rising rage wells up in you because you have your suspicions as to what happened to all that money. Nigeria is a wealthy county. She should not be receiving aid and sympathy from any country.

One can only hope that the horrible images of Africa as one giant beggar-continent will someday be erased when Africa’s intellectuals and writers like Iweala direct their rage inwards. The first step is for African writers and intellectuals to stop feeding the West stories of irredeemable despair that turn Africa into a caricature continent. Ironically, Iweala has risen to international prominence by penning a best-selling fiction of a drug-crazed child-soldier who runs around a barely fictitious African country killing people and babbling in an inchoate form of English that is at best contrived. If a Western writer had written such a story, Iweala would be up in arms decrying the racism inherent in such a caricature of Africa. There is another young writer from Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah who is making a killing selling his story, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, a chronicle of his life as a child soldier.[4] A good deal of this may be reality; however it gets a lot of play in the West because it sells. And African writers have been only too willing to play along for riches and fame.

Where are our writers’ loyalties to be found? It is an important question. Compare Abani’s Graceland to The Virgin of Flames and one wonders where the author’s interests lie. For one thing, where Graceland is stale in its message, The Virgin of Flames is current and reflects an immediacy depicted by someone who truly knows Los Angeles as it is today. Should our writers, especially those abroad be oblivious to their current dispensation because it is easier to mine the stories of the past? It is an important question. Westerners fawn with delight over Iweala’s book, Beasts of No Nation and they should; it was written exclusively for them by an expatriate offspring of Africa. But the book does Africa no good. I have to take the reader back to Achebe’s essay in his book Home and ExileThe Balance of the Stories. Where the main character in Joyce Cary’s Mr. Johnson was a bumbling buffoon dreamt up by a racist author, the African characters in books by our Iwealas and Abanis are bumbling buffoons incapable of putting together complete sentences. And we are in the 21st century. I ask the gentle reader: Where is the outrage? Never mind that these are talented writers in their natural elements. In a recent edition of the magazine Granta, Iweala shines as an American author.[5] This edition of Granta features works by, as the magazine bills them, the “best of young American novelists. From America’s perspective, Iweala is an American writer. In his short story Dance Cadaverous, Iweala shines as an American telling a wholesome all-American story of two boys, lips locked in love and in lust and Iweala takes us through scenery that only an American would portray – with love and caring. It is not great literature; chased perhaps by the demons of an editor’s deadline, the story gallops to an undignified end and claims its rightful place in the pantheon of enjoyable but forgettable stories. But it is told nonetheless by an American. Iweala is a Nigerian. Iweala is an American. Iweala is the sum of his experiences. And this illuminates issues in a debate raging rather savagely in my head. Who are we? And, who are we writing for?

What to do? It is a good question. We have been talking about books written mostly by Nigerians abroad and I still say the book is dying. We must look also for fresh thinking in the new e-books thrilling us on that wondrous playground called the Internet. The written essay of our childhood is now roaming free and happy out there, crackling free and fresh on the Internet – in blogs, websites and on YouTube. Our new thinkers are talking up a storm about the new Africa. No one is listening for now because we are still attached to the book. I propose that the astute reader should look to the new medium of ideas called the Internet. The dreams of Africa lurk quietly in e-places where there is a total surrender to a return of the oral tradition of our forefathers and foremothers. Take YouTube for instance. The Western world calls that technological innovation. Our people say YouTube was Africa’s theater from the beginning of time. The more things change the more things stay the same. Every day history is made. But if the West insists on making up history to suit its own agenda, it must not be with the willing cooperation of our thinkers. It is time to correct course.

We must return to Achebe who again reminds us of the East African proverb: Until the lion tells the story of the hunt, the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter. We must tell the truth, nothing but the absolute truth in our own stories. It is a great time for the lion to tell his story because the essay is born again, live, as dying alphabets, former myrmidons of the Empire, flee, shoved out of YouTube by the agents of change. There is hope, because there is a return to the oral tradition of storytelling by our ancestors and they call this change. Long live Africa. Let us continue to remind our writers of this: Cannon-balls of joy and hope are booming clear across the valleys and our thinkers must listen past the smell of dollars and euros for the triumph of song over grief. For now, our thinkers are, backs turned, fawning over alien booms. And there is no balance to our stories. Our stories are unrelentingly Naipaulitan, to coin a perversion from the name of V.S. Naipaul. In our stories, Naipaulitan verse after Naipaulitan verse is hurled, like mean bricks, through Africa’s dainty windows. And strangers peek in to the devastation and spit on what is left and we are outraged.

Finally, I write this in memory of one of Nigeria’s great story tellers, Cyprian Ekwensi, anyi, loyal teacher, who just moved on to the pantheon of our ancestors. I celebrate the life of a great soul, Cyprian Ekwensi, rising one last time in joyful defiance of the call of the sokugo. I also salute Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Odia Ofeimun, Gabriel Okara, Zulu Sofola, Elechi Amadi, Ola Rotimi, Chukwuemeka Ike, Kenule Saro-Wiwa, James Ene Henshaw, T.M. Aluko, Okogbule Wonodi, Ogali A. Ogali, Wole Soyinka and J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, seer-poets with a deep abiding love for and pride in our people. It was probably a function of their time – you just knew you were not going to be rich from writing books but in the name of our ancestors you were going to enjoy doing it. These visionaries wrote for a precocious generation that went through books with the same intensity with which today’s children surf the pages of the Internet. The pressures on these writers were enormous; readers were impatient for entertainment and education and they just could not get enough of their stories. And their voices never stopped singing, they delivered story after story, as they painstakingly but lovingly transferred their stories long-hand from foolscap papers onto the typewriter. And this was all before the gods cooked up the wonder that we now call the Internet. And as children, we sat at the foot of these teachers and listened with rapt attention, in awe, to the stories of these gentle warriors. As a devotee of this generation of writers, I learnt that there is a clear distinction between the products of words merely put together even if effectively, and a labor of love by the genuinely gifted and committed. As you read their works, you feel the passion and the love for the word, pulsating through every word; there is a near obsession for perfection that borders on a disability. If you think of the writer as a wordsmith, you can visualize her seated before a canvas, surrounded by all these words buzzing around the workshop. The wordsmith picks one word up, examines it closely, like a practiced shopper would a mango, looks at her canvas for just the right placement, finding none, shakes her head, flings the blighted word over her shoulder and resumes the search for the perfect word, the perfect phrase and the perfect placement. Part of the joy of reading the resulting product is feeling the spirit of the artist wandering around the words like a proud farmer tending her crops, watering a plant here, trimming a tendril to health over there. The presence of the writer’s spirit among the words fills the reader with something and the reader holds the words with respect, and depending on the gifts of the writer, gently leads the reader to approach the written word with reverence. Now, that, my people, is a gift. I propose that there has to be a higher purpose to writing, one that is definitely not self-serving. The Nigerian writer must return to focusing on the true condition of the land without reducing the land and her people to ridicule.

Stories of the past remind us that, like the sokugo, even today is all about change. The sokugo? Ah, if you have never read Ekwensi’s Burning Grass, find a copy and read of Mai Sunsaye’s restless journey under the arresting spell of that mesmerizing wandering disease, the sokugo. There is a message in Burning Grass. The sokugo is a metaphor for the constancy of change even as we endure the daily rituals of living, teaching, learning and loving. The world we live in is a different world from that inhabited by the youths of Achebe, Ekwensi and Soyinka. It is a world at once large and small – there is an impish deity up there re-arranging our world and relationships. In the beginning the gods created walls, clans and villages. There was too much order and then they created sea-faring vessels and air-faring vessels. And there was still too much order. And then they created the radio, television, telephone and faxes. And there was still too much order. And then they created the Internet and all hell broke loose. What will the gods think of next? I don’t know. They are too busy rolling on the floor laughing their impish heads off. How do we manage change today, as the thinkers before us did? I believe that the first step is for the writer to accept some ownership for the circumstances Africa finds itself. We need to begin to show some respect for Africa, actually model respect for Africa and everything African. Immersing ourselves in a contrived culture of despair may earn us fame and fortune but the damage to Africa is permanent and incalculable. We must not be like the Stepin Fetchit character that occupies a prominent place in contemporary African American folklore. It is all about investing in self respect and dignity. It will pay off in the long run; it certainly won’t hurt Africa. John Whitehead says children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see. Our stories like Things Fall Apart and Burning Grass are like our children. What messages are we sending off to the future? Long live Africa.


[1] http://www.powells.com/review/2006_04_30.html

[2] Granta 99, Fall 2007, pp 31-37, pp 225-238

[3] The Washington Post (Uzodinma Iweala, Stop Trying to “Save” Africa, July 15, 2007)

[4] Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Sarah Crichton Books)

[5] Granta 97 Spring 2007, pp 195-211

Written by
Ikhide R. Ikheloa (Nnamdi)
Join the discussion

2 comments
  • Interesting perspective. However, your quote from "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" was a somewhat out of context. You may want to read it again-this wasn't a class conscious, condescending African inflicting on his type what the white man would(haba!)it was a light remark ridiculing the old man's exaggerated show of respect, pointing out the servile comportment people picked up in from colonial era. It was more, "come on old man, stop treating me like you'd the white colonial master",

    "loosen up, it's okay to be polite but being worshipful is something else…" This of course would be consistent with WS's well known detestation of the affectations of that era. You seem to enjoy taking a jab at our revered Kongi…often unecessarily too…