Politics and the African WriterAuthor(s): Kolawole OgungbesanSource: African Studies Review, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Apr., 1974), pp. 43-53Published by: African Studies AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/523576 .Accessed: 06/02/2011 09:20Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTORs Terms and Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTORs Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at .http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=afsta. .Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. African Studies Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to African Studies Review.http://www.jstor.org
POLITICS THE AND AFRICAN WRITER Kolawole Ogungbesan The African writer has been very much influenced by politics,probably because the African intellectual is a part of the politicalelite. The writer is a sensitive point within his society. Thus,African literature has tended to reflect the political phases on thecontinent. Chinua Achebe is a very suitable example. Beginning duringthe colonial days his writing spans the succession of political criseswhich has beset Nigeria. Also, more than any other Nigerian writer, hehas made statements on the role of the writer in his society. His con-ception of the writers duty has also tended to change with the polit-ical situation in his country. By examining both his creative writingand his pronouncements, we can obtain an interesting picture of how thequality of a literature can be directly influenced by the degree of thewriters political cammitment. Achebes first statement on the social responsibility of theAfrican writer was made in a lecture entitled "The Role of the Writer ina New Nation," delivered to the Nigerian Library Association in 1964.Although he had cast the title of his lecture in rather general terms,Achebe talked specifically about the role of the writer in what he calledthe new Nigeria. The major problem all over the world, he said, was thedebate between white and black over black humanity, a subject which pre-sented the African writer with a great challenge: It is inconceivable to me that a serious writer could stand aside frcn this debate, or be indifferent to this argument which calls his full humanity in question. For me, at any rate, there is a clear duty to make a statement. This is my answer to those who say that a writer should be writing about contemporary issues--about politics in 1964, about city life, about the last coup detat. Of course, these are legitimate themes for the writer but as far as I am concerned the fundamental theme must first be disposed of. This theme--put quite simply--is that African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value 43
44 AFRICANSTUDIESREVIEW and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that many African peoples all but lost in the colonial period, and it is this dignity that they must now regain. The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writers duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Ibo that a man who cant tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where therain began to beat them. After all the novelists duty is not to beat this mornings headline in topicality, it is to explore in depth the human condition. In Africa he cannot perform this task unless he has a proper sense of history (Achebe 1964, p. 157). Thus, the African writer should be both a cultural nationalist,explaining the traditions of his people to a largely hostile world, anda teacher, instilling dignity into his own people. Achebe reaffirmedthis position later the same year at the Conference on CommonwealthLiterature held in Leeds. Although his paper, entitled "The Novelist asTeacher," was largely a restatement of his earlier stand, Achebe wasmore eloquent and more assertive, perhaps because he was arguing hiscase before an international audience. He refused to believe that an African writer could be alienatedfrcm his society. In spite of the fact that the education of Africanswas largely Western-oriented, the relationship between European writersand their audience will not autamatically reproduce itself in Africa.In Africa, Achebe said, society expects the writer to be its leader. Herevealed that many people have asked him to bring out more forcefullythe lessons to be learned from his stories. Not that Achebe writes toplease his readers; indeed, he believes that no self-respecting writerwill take direction from his audience and that he must remain free todisagree with his society if it becomes necessary. However, the writersduty is more fundamental than that of the journalist. The period ofsubjection to alien races has brought disaster upon the African psyche.In fact, all over the continent people still suffer from the traumaticeffects of their confrontation with Europe: Here, then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse--to help my society regain its belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-denigra- tion. And it is essentially a question of education in the best sense of that word. Here, I think, my aims and the deepest aspira- tions of my society meet. For no thinking
AND POLITICS THEAFRICAN WRITER 45 African can escape the pain of the wound in our soul....The writer cannot expect to be excused fram the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact he should march right in front.... I for one would not wish to be excused. I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past--with all its imperfec- tions--was not one long night of savagery frcm which the first Europeans acting on Gods be- half delivered them. Perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct fram pure. But who cares? Art is important but so is education of the kind I have in mind. And I dont see that the two need be mutually exclusive (Achebe 1965, pp. 204-205). Two years later Achebe published his fourth novel, A Man of thePeople. The tone of this book was foreshadowed by an article entitled"The Back Writers Burden," which Achebe wrote for Presence Africainein 1965 but which was not published until after the novel came out earlyin 1966. Presence Africaine was founded in 1917 by a group of Africanand West Indian blacks to propagate African culture. Achebes burningzeal in his article matches that of the founding fathers of that maga-zine. He opens on an avowedly militant tone: Without subscribing to the view that Africa gained nothing at all in her long encounters with Europe, one could still say, in all fairness, that she suffered many terrible and lasting misfortunes. In terms of human dig- nity and human relations the encounter was almost a ccanplete disaster for the black races. It has warped the mental attitudes of both black and white. In giving expression to the plight of their people, black writers have shown again and again how strongly this trau-: matic experience can possess the sensibility. They have found themselves drawn irresistibly to writing about the fate of black people in a world progressively recreated by white men in their own image, to their glory and for their profit, in which the Negro became the poor motherless child of the spirituals and of so many Nigedan folk tales (Achebe 1966, p. 135). Obviously, the need for the writer to lead his people to reclaimtheir dignity has became even more urgent. However, Achebe goes further,by saying that now the greatest task confronting the African writer isthat he should "expose and attack injustice" all over the world, but
46 AFRICANSTUDIESREVIEWparticularly within his own society in Africa. African writers shouldbe free to criticise their societies without being accused of supplyingammunition to the enemies of Africa. "Wemust seek the freedon to ex-press our thought and feeling, even against ourselves, without theanxiety that what we say might be taken in evidence against our race."Africans have for too long behaved as criminals in a law court. "Wehave stood in the dock too long pleading and protesting before ruffiansand frauds masquerading as disinterested judges" (Achebe 1966, p. 139). Thus, Achebe has given the African writer a second duty, that ofthe social critic. As in 1964 it was the condition of his society thatmoved him to assume this second role. The situation in Nigeria in 1964-1965 can best be summed up in the words of a character in Wole Soyinkasnovel, The Interpreters (1965): "Next to death, shit is the most ver-nacular atmosphere of our beloved country." Achebe wrote A Man of thePeople under this disgusting atmosphere. Here he has forsaken hisearlier duty to give back to his people their dignity; now he focusseshis gaze on the evils inflicted on African societies, not by an alienrace, but by Africans themselves. Yet the fundamental belief remains--that the writer can and must influence his society. This would explainthe much-vaunted prophetic ending of the book: "But the Army obliged usby staging a coup at that point and locking up every member of the Gov-ernment." The point is not so much that in January 1966 this became aprophetic statement, but that the writer, like a journalist, is so con-scious of his role in his society, and his involvement in its fate, asto put forward solutions to the problems facing his people. Achebe may have foreseen the military coup of January 1966, butthere is very little doubt that subsequent events caught him, likeeveryone else in the country, unaware. In May several hundred Ibo werekilled in parts of the Northern Region. In July a counter-coup overthrewthe government of General Ironsi; most of the military officers who werekilled were Ibo, including Achebes brother. In September there wasanother massacre of Ibo in the North, and Colonel Ojukwu asked all Ibopeople to return to their homes in the East. As events moved inexorablytowards war, Achebe became an Ibo nationalist. When war actually brokeout, he became a diplomat, acting as one of the roving ambassadors forthe Republic of Biafra. Achebe now said that the role of the African writer should be thatof a social transformer and revolutionary. In a paper presented at apolitical science seminar in Makerere in 1968, entitled "The Duty andInvolvement of the African Writer," he said that a writer is only "ahuman being with heightened sensitivities" and, therefore, "must be awareof the faintest nuances of injustice in human relations. The Africanwriter cannot therefore be unaware of or indifferent to the monumentalinjustioewhich his people suffer." African writers are committed to anew society which will affirm their validity and accord them identity asAfricans, as people; "they are all working actively in this cause forwhich Christopher Okigbo died. I believe that our cause is right andjust. And this is what literature in Africa should be about today--rightand just causes" (Achebe 1970, p. 163).
POLITICS ANDTHEAFRICANWRITER 47 In a period of conflict, priorities change, and people tend toreinterpret their lives and roles in new lights. In an interview at theUniversity of Texas at Austin in November 1969, Achebe gave a new readingof his novels, calling himself a protest writer. Indeed, all Africanliterature, he said, is protest writing. I believe its impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, same kind of message, some kind of protest ....In fact I should say all our writers, whether they are aware of it or not, are committed writers. The whole pattern of life demands that you should protest, that you should put in a word for your history, your traditions, your religion, and so on (Lindfors 1970, p. 18). Achebe has moved from criticising his society to directly takinga hand in remoulding it. He claimed that, in addition to recording thepast and the current revolutions and changes that are going on, theAfrican writer has a great influence in determining Africas future, forby recording what had gone on before, he is in a way helping to set thetone of what is going to happen. "This is important because at thisstage it seems to me that the writers role is more in determining thanmerely reporting. In other words, his role is to act rather than toreact" (Lindfors 1970, p. 18). Achebe is consistent in his belief that the writer has a functionin his society, that he could and diould influence his society. Yetsome sort of revolution has taken place in his view of his society.Whereas in A Man of the People Achebe had called the ccamon people "thereal culprits" of the social malaise in Nigeria, two years later he sawthem as the vanguard of the revolution; if anything, it is now the turnof the artist to learn one or two things from his society: This has been the problem of the African artist: he has been left far behind by the people who make culture, and he must now hurry and catch up with them--to borrow the beautiful expression of Fanon--in that zone of occult instability where the people dwell. It is there that customs die and cultures are born. It is there that the regenerative powers of the people are most potent. These powers are manifest today in the African revo- lution, a revolution that aims toward true independence, that moves towards the creation of modern states in place of the new colonial enclaves we have today, a revolution that is informed with African ideologies. What is the place of the writer in this
48 AFRICANSTUDIESREVIEW movement? I suggest that his place is right in the thick of it--if possible, at the head of it. Scne of my friends say: "No, its too rough there. A writer has no business being where it is so rough. He should be on the sidelines with his note-paper and pencil, he can observe with objectivity." I say that a writer in the African revolution who steps aside can only write footnotes or a glossary when the event is over. He will became like the contemporary intellectual of futility in many other places, asking questions like: "Whoam I? Whats the meaning of my exis- tence? Does this place belong to me or to somebody else? Does my life belong to me or to same other person?"--questions that no one can answer (Lindfors 1970, pp. 16-17). Immediately after the war ended, Achebe was faced with the problemof reconciling his different positions. He sought to establish samesort of continuity in his ideas by viewing the civil war as only a crisiswhich has brought out more nakedly the dilemma between the African writerand his society. He attempted to adapt his latest position, that of thewriter as a revolutionary, to the situation in postwar Nigeria. "I havecome to the belief that you cannot separate the creativity from the revo-lution that is inevitable in Africa. Not just the war, but the post-independence period in Africa is bound to create in the writer a newapproach. This, maybe, was sharpened by the war, but in my case it wasalready there" (Emenyonu 1972, p. 25). African literature in its presentform, he said, is really not sufficiently relevant to the issues of theday. "I think what is meaningful is what takes into account the pastand the present." African writers cannot forget the past because thepresent ccmes out of it; but they should not be mesmerized or immobilizedby their contemplation of the past to the exclusion of the contemporaryscene. "The most meaningful work that African writers can do today willtake into account our whole history: how we got here, and what it istoday; and this will help us to map out our plans for the future" (Emenyonu1972, pe 25). Nonetheless, Achebe has been chastened by the war. Now, he claimsto understand the plight of South Africans who used to say that they couldnot afford to write novels--only poetry or short stories. During thewar, he had found, like them, that there was no time, everything was toopressing, novel writing was a luxury, and poetry seemed to meet the de-mands of the time. Even two years after the end of the war, Achebe hasnot felt the urge to write a novel. "Id like to try my hand at a play."On the relationship between politics and the writer, he says that scenemeasure of politics is bound to intrude into writing, especially inAfrica. He himself could not abstain, although he would not deny theright of any writer to do so. For him, however, "one can only avoid can-mitment by pretending or by being insensitive" (West Africa March 3,1972).
POLITICS ANDTHEAFRICANWRITER 49 Achebe is correct that politics and social affairs cannot be keptout of literature in Africa, at least not for same time. Yet the writersapproach to these issues will be crucial to the quality of his work. Inorder to be objective, he must be detached, must not become emotionallyinvolved. This is the case with Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, thetwo books on which Achebes reputation still rests. Achebe realised thatthe writer as a teacher must watch his attitudes very carefully. Therewould always be a strong temptation for him to idealise his past--"toextol its good points and pretend that the bad never existed." This iswhere the writers objectivity comes in. If he becomes emotionally can-mitted to the extent of selecting only those facts that flatter him, hewill have branded himself an untrustworthy witness. More important, hewould thereby flaw his art. "The credibility of the world he is attempt-ing to recreate will be called to question and he will defeat his ownpurpose if he is suspected of glossing over inconvenientfacts" (Achebe1964, p. 158). Viewed objectively, the African past will be seen, notas "one long, technicolour idyll," but possessing, like any other peoplespast, its good as well as its bad sides. Objectivity is not the preserve of the writer, but is a prereq-uisite in all intellectual pursuits. Indeed, the writer as teacher wasin very good canpany, for his task, "to help my society regain its beliefin itself," was not exclusively that of the creative writer. There wereother intellectuals to whma objectivity mattered as much as to thewriter--historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and political scien-tists--who were devoted to the task of giving back to Africa the prideand self-respect it lost during the colonial period. The African writers role as a teacher, as Achebe himself real-ised, could only be a temporary measure, sacmething dictated by the polit-ical logics of the time. Once the lesson had been learned, the teachersduty falls into abeyance. In 1964 Achebe was not saying that he did notaccept the present-day as a proper subject for the novelist. After all,his second book, No Longer at Ease, had been about the present-day, andas he promised then, the forthcaning one, A Man of the People, wouldagain came to date. "But what I mean is that owing to the peculiarnature of our situation it would be futile to try and take off before wehave repaired our foundations. We must first set the scene which isauthentically African; then what follows will be meaningful and deep"(Achebe 1964, p. 158). Thus, the writers role as a social critic is a logical sequenceto his role as a teacher. Having repaired the foundations of his societyby establishing the validity of African traditions, the writer can nowafford to take an unflinching look at his society and its shortccmanings.However, the writers role as a social critic is higher than his role asa teacher, since it can go beyond the requirements of the moment. Writ-ers all over the world have always been called upon to play this role.But it demands more of the writer than the role of a teacher. It demandsmore than objectivity; it demands considerable detachment. The writermay not have found it difficult to be detached when writing about thepast, but this quality becomes doubly necessary when writing about the
50 AFRICANSTUDIESREVIEWpresent. This is where Achebe as social critic fails. His righteous in-dignation with his corrupt society, however justified, does not permitdetachment. A Man of the People is an authentic picture of the Nigeriaof 1964-1965, as would be confirmed by anyone who had lived in thecountry or, for that matter, anyone who has read the newspapers of thetime. But the authenticity of the novel is that of journalism ratherthan that of creative literature. Achebe had said in 1964 that "thenovelists duty is not to beat this mornings headline in topicality, itis to explore in depth the human condition." Less than a year later heseemed to have forgotten this. As he was writing A Man of the People,Achebe must 1ave been repeatedly muttering to himself with impatience:"Perhaps what I write is applied art. But who cares?" The logical conclusion of his efforts at producing applied artare the poems and short stories Achebe wrote during the war. The roleof a freedom fighter has very little to do with creative writing, as wecan see by the example of Achebes fellow countryman, the late ChristopherOkigbo, who stopped writing poetry during the war, took to running guns,and finally met his death on the war front. Unable, or unwilling, tomake the distinctions which seemed so clear to Okigbo, Achebe was forcedto term as creative any activity engaged in by a creative writer. Thisis nothing short of denigrating the creative impulse itself. Achebelabelled as half-truth the belief that creativity is saomething that mustccne fran a kind of contemplation, quiet, or repose; and that it is dif-ficult to keep the artistic integrity of ones writing while being totallyinvolved in political situations: I can create, but of course not the kind of thing I created when I was at ease. I cant write a novel now; I wouldnt want to. And even if I wanted to, I couldnt. So that particular artistic form is out for me at the mPnent. I can write poetry--scmething short, intense, more in keeping with my mood. I can write essays. I can even lecture. All this is creating in the con- text of our struggle. At home I do a lot of writing, but not fiction, scmething more concrete, more directly related to what is going on. What I am saying is that there are forms of creativity which suit different mo- ments. I wouldnt consider writing a poem on daffodils particularly creative in my situation now. It would be foolish; I couldnt do it (Lindfors 1970, pp. 17-18). Achebe seems here to be confusing the words "creative" and "use-ful." It is only by stretching the meaning of the term "creative litera-ture" to the point of absurdity that we could apply it to the propagandawhich Achebe wrote for Radio Biafra or the lectures he delivered in
POLITICS ANDTHE AFRICANWRITER 51Europe and America during the war. Okigbos gun-running and enlistmentin the Biafran army were more concrete than anything Achebe ever did andwere "more directly related to what was going on." Yet the poet wouldhave disdained to call his efforts "creative" in any artistic sense.There could be no poetic way of firing a gun. In an interview in 1965,Okigbo had said that he took his work seriously because it was the onlyreason he was alive. I believe that writing poetry is a necessary part of my being alive, which is why I have written nothing else. I hardly write prose. Ive not written a novel. Ive not written a play. Because I think that somehow the medium itself is sufficiently elastic to say what I want to say, I havent felt the need for some other medium (Whitelaw 1970, p. 37).So during the war we had the ironic situation whereby Okigbo the poet,realising that this was not the time to say anything, foresook his mediumfor more direct intervention, whereas Achebe the novelist took to writingpoetry. Achebes war poems, such as "Air Raid," "Refugee Mother and Child,"and "He Loves Me: He Loves Me Not," show a closeness of observation andan intense emotional involvement in the situation. The same could besaid for the short stories "Girls at War" and "Civil Peace." Achebe hasminutely recapitulated the ugly facts of life in Biafra during andimmediately after the war. Unfortunately, neither a photographic atten-tion to details nor an emotional involvement in peoples suffering issufficient in itself to make a good work of art. Achebes "creative"efforts--whether they be pure propaganda, poems or short stories--on be-half of Biafra invite comparison with the products of newspapermen, radioand television journalists who recorded what they saw in the beleagueredenclave. A work of art should create, not just copy. The mood of anger, frustration, and despair which Achebe has dem-onstrated since 1965, and which he finds in South African writers, ischaracteristic of the intelligentsia--not just writers--all over Africatoday. Yet it constitutes a serious danger to art. Righteous politicalindignation as the primary impetus for writing belongs more to the worldof propaganda than to creative literature. In the writer, it accentuatesthe personal impulse to write protest and militates against detachment. One way out, if the situation beccnes too oppressive to allowroam for detachment, is to suspend writing and take a direct hand in in-fluencing the situation. This was Okigbos solution. This was the solu-tion recommended by the South African writer-in-exile, Lewis Nkosi, whoadvised his fellow countrymen to stop writing until the political problemin the country is solved rather than continue to grind out third-ratehackneyed stories (Nkosi 1965, p. 132). Another way out is that followedby Nkosi himself and a host of South African writers--Mphalele, Abrahams,Hutchinson, amongst others--who have quit their country and settled else-where, although, significantly, none of them is now living in an African
52 AFRICANSTUDIESREVIEWcountry. Abroad, they have been able to write with the leisure and de-tachment that their country did not permit them. It speaks enough fortheir caomitment that even in exile they have all written about SouthAfrica. But they have been able to produce other art forms longer andmore artful than the short story. Even if their autobiographical worksare considered as anti-apartheid propaganda, it is a better propagandathan the protest writing they did in South Africa. Paradoxically, at adistance of several thousand miles frcm their society, they have beenable to see it more clearly and attack it more effectively. Becausethey are now better able to restrain their emotions, they are also betterable to discipline their art. As Mphalele said five years after leavingSouth Africa, "Excessive protest poisons ones system, and thank goodnessIm emancipated frcm that. The anger is there, but I can harness it"(1957, p. 54). All over Africa, the writer needs to harness his anger in orderto write well. There is a very strong temptation for the writer withina young literary tradition to embark on a crusade, either on behalf oragainst his society, to attempt to educate the world about his peoplescivilisation, or to teach his own people how to behave. This crusadingspirit can damage his art as irretrievably as any governmental or partycontrol in totalitarian states. In order to criticise his society mosteffectively, he needs to be detached fram it. With greater control overhis emotions, he can sharpen his focus on his society and aim more care-fully at his target. For sane time to ccne, the political situation onthe continent would tax to the utmost the African writers emotional in-volvement in the fate of his society. Alienation is a much-abused word.But the African writer needs at le ast to be disengaged, if he does notnecessarily need to be alienated, from his society if he is to producea lasting work of art. REFERENCES CITEDAchebe, Chinua. "The Role of the Writer in a New Nation." Nigeria Magazine, No. 81 (June 1964). "The Novelist as Teacher." In John Press, ed. Ccmmonwealth Literature. Leeds, 1965. "The Burden of the Black Writer." Presence Africaine, Vol. XXXI, No. 59 (1966). "The Duty and Involvement of the African Writer." In Wilfred Cartey, ed. The African Reader: Independent Africa. New York, 1970.Emenyonu, Ernest. "Accountable to Our Society." Interview with Chinua Achebe. Africa Report, Vol. XVII, No. 5 (May 1972).
POLITICSAND THEAFRICANWRITER 53Lindfors, Bernth. "Achebe on Ccmmitment and African Writers." Africa Report, Vol. XV, No. 3 (March 1970).Mphalele, Ezekiel. The African Image. London, 1957.Nkosi, Lewis. and Exile. Haome London, 1965.Whitelaw, Marjory. "Interview with Christopher Okigbo, 1965." Journal of CaommonwealthLiterature, No. 9 (July 1970). Department of English and Modern Languages Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Nigeria