Read Under African Skies Online

Authors: Charles Larson

Under African Skies

For Roberta, Vanessa, and Joshua
Table of Contents
Undoubtedly, the most extraordinary aspect of African literature—and particularly the fiction—of the past half century has been its resiliency. The ability of the African writer to overcome enormous obstacles and continue creating has been nothing less than astonishing—to borrow an important word from the title of one of Ben Okri's visionary novels. From near-total invisibility on the world literary scene four decades ago, African writers have moved to center stage in a remarkably short time. A Nobel Prize (Wole Soyinka), a Booker Award (Ben Okri), an internationally praised novel that has sold in the millions (Chinua Achebe)—and, most encouraging, the majority of them on the African continent—these are some of the impressive accomplishments garnered by black Africa's highly visible writers during the past two generations.
And yet all is not well on the African literary scene, nor has it ever been. The twentieth century has been a difficult time for writers in many areas of the world—not just in Africa, but in Asia and Latin America, as well as in some of the countries of the former Communist world. Too many international writers have been faced with obstacles their counterparts in the West have never had to worry about or at least confront as a ubiquitous presence. But African writers, including many represented in this volume, have suffered the indignities of censorship, of exile, of such high illiteracy in some places that many were unread in their own countries for years; of publishers who had privileged Western views of the continent—let alone
the logistics of publishing “overseas” or in the so-called mother country before adequate means of book production existed on the continent itself. More recently, Ken Saro-Wiwa's death by hanging in Nigeria in 1995 sent shock waves throughout the intellectual community which will take years to subside.
Many of these issues were heatedly discussed at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in Harare during the summer of 1996, as they tend to be on most occasions when African writers (and editors and publishers) are drawn together. The subject at the
which preceded the actual fair, “National Book Policy,” may in general relate to questions of governmental support for textbooks for students in schools across the continent—who approves them, who produces them, who profits from their marketing—but as much as anything, the question centers on the most basic one of all: money. Books, and particularly literary works, are expensive in Africa, so expensive that Africans cannot afford them (even if they have the ability to read them), though literacy as we approach the end of the century is a lesser problem than cost. At the Book Fair a year earlier, in 1995, the Honorable Dumiso Dabengwa, Minister of Home Affairs for Zimbabwe, stated the dilemma much more starkly: “Concerns over freedom of expression are quite different to the middle-class urban professional in the highly developed consumer societies of Europe or the United States, with home library, newspapers, magazines, television, video, radio and personal computer, in comparison to the subsistence farmer in the rural areas of Africa, where the radio is something which sometimes operates when batteries can be found and paid for, where the two-week-old newspaper is read over and over by ten or twenty people and where a library is something not many, especially of the older generation, have actually seen. The same comparison needs to be made between our own relatively privileged urban elites and our peasant farmers.”
Some of the pioneers (now the privileged elite) of African writing can clearly remember the difficulties they encountered when they first sent their manuscripts to European editors for possible publication, since there were virtually no publishers in tropical Africa with the capacity to print books. Chinua Achebe has recounted the story behind the publication of
Things Fall Apart
(1958) a number of times. Not only did he pay £30 to have the manuscript typed before it was sent off to England—an amount in that decade equal to what the average Nigerian subsisted on for an entire year—but the manuscript was almost lost in the mail. Fortunately, it was not. One
cannot help asking, however, what would have happened to the continent's most distinguished novelist if he had not had the funds to pay for the typing, or if the mails had failed him. Imagine the topography of world literature without Achebe's presence. Imagine the topography of subsequent African literature without Achebe's enormous influence.
Several years earlier, the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola had fewer resources available to him. As Bernth Lindfors has noted, Tutuola's novel was lost for thirty-some years because the writer miscalculated his choice of publisher. How, in fact, would an unpublished African writer in the 1950s know which European publisher would be most sympathetic to his work? How many African writers in that era gave up their dreams of seeing their works in print after the lengthy delays in submission via colonial mails, after the loss of the only copy (most likely handwritten) of a manuscript, or after rejection by a publisher or two? There is the apocryphal story of the writer from the continent who received a letter of rejection from a European publisher with the stark comment: “Not African enough.”
Those fortunate enough at the time to have their work accepted tell stories of elation followed by acute frustration, typically a year or so later when the first printed copy of their book (or short story or poem) arrived. Writers may not always want to celebrate their earliest publication with family or friends, but such celebration is impossible if parents and, possibly, friends are illiterate. In such a context, who will read the writer's work? Fortunately, today that problem is not the most urgent one on the continent, as it was during the time when the first generation of African writers were writing their books. However, I can still recall Stanlake Samkange describing his horror on reading the first royalty statement he received from his publisher when he realized that his novel (
On Trial for My Country
, 1966) had sold few copies outside of Britain and his further chagrin that copies sold “abroad” (i.e., Africa) earned only half royalties because of the increased expenses of distribution.
These are anecdotes from the past, to be sure, but they are directly related to the issues of book policy in black Africa today, especially those of an economic nature. Books simply cost too much in Africa (and in many other parts of the world) and therefore fall within the domain of luxury items. In an article in
The Washington
Post of February 3, 1996, Eniwoke Ibagere identifies several grim examples of book sales in Nigeria (traditionally, an affluent country). “The economics of the collapsed Nigerian economy have turned what once was a thriving market for literature, reference works and other
printed products into a disaster area. Soyinka's latest book,
the Penkelemes Years
, costs about 4,000 naira—more than the monthly salary of most civil servants.” Ibagere further explains: “The economy is so battered that people think more of how to survive … . The best that many authors can hope for is a lavish launch ceremony, where the publisher runs off a limited edition that is snapped up by Nigeria's rich and powerful for inflated prices of up to 20,000 naira ($250) a copy.” For a family struggling to pay a child's school fees, the money to purchase a novel or even a textbook may result in deprivation of basic needs. The other side of the coin is no better. European publishers have been burned so many times by unpaid bills from their African distributors that some who were once eager to publish African writers have considerably retrenched, cutting back their plans for expansion in a market that by all logic should be exploding.
The African reading audience for creative writing has not exploded, though one hopes—if examples from India and certain Latin American markets can be replicated—in time it may, but many African writers and critics are not encouraging about this growth in spite of the literally hundreds of publishing outlets that exist on the continent today. Books remain luxury items. Presses have to be imported, and—worse—in most African countries, paper has to be imported. Sadly, even paper of the cheapest kind is expensive and, too often, highly taxed—one of the hidden burdens of book production in Africa today.
The reading audience has not mushroomed because in too many instances creative works are the last to be considered even by an affluent reader. Self-help books, textbooks, and technical works are, typically, of first importance (as they are throughout most of the world); a novel or a collection of poems or stories is purchased much later, if at all. The climate for the reading of creative works has to be nurtured, slowly and carefully. Some African writers and critics will state quite candidly that their fellow countrymen do not read books. Although the example is once again from Chinua Achebe, it cannot be laughed off as satirically as he implied. Chief Nanga, a character in
A Man of the People
(1966) who is identified as his country's Minister of Culture, “announced in public that he had never heard of his country's most famous novel and received applause—as indeed he received again later when he prophesied that before long our great country would produce great writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Bernard Shaw and—raising his eyes off the script—Michael West and Dudley Stamp.”
The climate for reading is easily developed in a household or a classroom
full of books or other printed material. But schools which are barren of the printed page rarely produce adults who are readers, even in the face of the most intense craving for the printed text. What a pity, given the way the eyes of children around the world shine when they are read aloud to, or the laughter and excitement of schoolchildren when they are presented with printed literature (magazines, even brochures or colorful advertisements) to take home.
Encountering the excitement of a group of African writers, especially those at the beginning of their careers, one would conclude that the scene for African writing is much more favorable than I have described here. At the 1996 Zimbabwe International Book Fair, the country's most distinguished novelist, Chenjerai Hove, signed copies of his latest book, a collection of essays called
Shebeen Tales
, with a cover price of sixty local dollars (U.S.$6). Copies of the paperback book were selling briskly, but one wonders how many of Hove's fellow writers find such a market for their works? Can Hove support himself, and presumably his family, solely by his writing? How many creative writers in Zimbabwe, which appears to have a thriving publishing market, are able to do so? How many writers in all of black Africa are able to support themselves solely by their work? My guess is that there may be two—or possibly three or four—in sub-Saharan Africa who belong to this exclusive club, and all of them are Nigerian. Revealingly, those few—the only ones I can be certain of—do not currently reside in Africa.
The mere idea of full-time creativity collapses in the face of censorship and the related indignities that many African writers have experienced once their careers were launched. In most instances, creative works pose little threat to African governments simply because so few copies of a newly released work are sold within a given country. The problems are much more likely to be encountered later. This was especially true for writers who began publishing before the independence of their countries, establishing themselves in part by criticizing the colonial power. What could be more logical than the writer/critic subsequently exposing the excesses of the new leaders, especially those Ayi Kwei Armah described in
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
(1968): “How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders? There were men dying from the loss of hope, and others were finding gaudy new ways to enjoy power they did not have. We were ready here for big and beautiful things, but what we had was our own black men hugging new paunches scrambling to ask the white man to welcome them onto our backs … . There is something so terrible in watching a black man trying at all points
to be the dark ghost of a European, and that is what we were seeing in those days.”
Stated more bluntly, politics and literature have been firmly intertwined within the panorama of African writing since the earliest days—and not just within the obvious context of apartheid in South Africa. Nadine Gordimer spoke disturbingly about the consequences of this bonding at the 1995 Zimbabwe Book Fair: “There were raids on these [South African] writers' homes, their manuscripts were taken away to be buried in police files, sometimes even their typewriters were confiscated, so that the type-face might be compared with that appearing on revolutionary pamphlets. No manuscript was ever returned even though the type-face didn't match; the message was: Stop writing. Shut up.”
That same year at the Book Fair, Nigerian Wole Soyinka—currently an exiled writer—described an even more alarming situation with reference to the publication of one of his books: “Two hundred armed police were there stopping the launching of a book.” Of the brief introductory notes to each selection in this volume, too many include references to periods of censorship or exile for the writers themselves. One especially mourns almost an entire generation of exiled South African writers who drank themselves into oblivion as a result of the terror generated by apartheid's invisible reach. There was little optimism at all during those years; it looked as if apartheid would last forever.
The stories in this collection span a period of nearly fifty years. During that time, apartheid wreaked its havoc on an entire country (and perhaps indirectly on an entire continent) but finally came to an unexpectedly sudden and liberating halt. During that time, short stories by African writers moved from Amos Tutuola's spontaneous surrealism (perhaps more accurately identified as magic realism before the term was used to describe Latin American fiction) to Véronique Tadjo's “The Magician and the Girl,” which the author admits was influenced by writers of the Boom. Similarly, the movement has been from colonial to post-colonial, as well as from a literary topography dominated by men to one where women writers finally have a voice. Nevertheless, the short story has typically been regarded as the stepsister of African writing in large part because of the difficult logistics of placement, of first publication. Finding a serious magazine where literary fiction is admired is almost always a challenge for the African writer.

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