Things Fall Apart; The Attempted Hijack of the Black Writer

by JJ Bola 

“All art is political, Johnson. Otherwise, it would just be decoration,” said the Earl of Oxford in Shakespeare’s Richard III.* To assume that this does not extend to the great art of literature would simply be false. Unlike visual art, which can either be used to make bold political statements or balance the feng shui in a room, literature has always had a powerful, purposeful tradition of addressing political issues; the difference has been whether it is done overtly or subliminally. The greatest of writers and storytellers in the plenitudes of civilisations that have existed since the dawn of time, have written to stimulate and capture the imagination of the people. To inspire and enthuse political change, more so, a change in humanity. It’s always wise to take care of politics, for otherwise, politics will most certainly take care of you. It would be a damnation of the greatest kind if we imagined Shakespeare wrote to simply be studied in the curriculum of the western education system, as he is today, his stories removed from its politics. We would not dare depoliticise Shakespeare, or even other great writers of the western world, so why is this being asked of Black/African writers today?

Ben Okri, a talented, successful and highly acclaimed poet and writer of Nigerian origin, stated in his article ‘A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness’ for the Guardian newspaper that black writers “…should not be expected to write about slavery, poverty or racial injustice. The greatest literature comes not from the heaviest subjects but from freedom of thought”. The article continues with similar statements of subterfuge, for instance “the black and African writer is expected to write about certain things, and if they don’t they are seen as irrelevant. This gives their literature weight, but dooms it with monotony. Who wants to constantly read a literature of suffering, of heaviness?”

This raises the initial question, who are “they” that Okri is referring to, and why do “they” have such expectations of Black/African writers only producing literature about heavy subjects? Although this is a glaring omission in the article, one has to consider the effect of publishers on the finished work. For ultimately it is they who have the final decision on what is published by the author, but not necessarily what is created or what may exist on the literary horizon. Were it not for their vetoes, that piece of work may never have the opportunity to reach the mainstream literary world.

We’re all familiar with Chimamanda Adichie’s Tedx talk, the danger of a single story, or at least we all should be. And if we are, we have to ask, why are so many mainstream publishers stuck on producing the single narrative about Africa or blackness? An example of this is covered in a blog piece by Africa is a Country in which it raises the issue that book covers in the publishing industry regarding Africa all have the recurring Acacia tree and sunset image, a very orientalist, stereotypically Eurocentric perception of the most diverse continent in the world.

If you couple this with the statistics regarding lack of diversity in the publishing industry, that although the 30% of the working population in London are Black or Minority Ethnic, only 7% are from a non-white background (report by equalityinpublishing.org). And even less than that are published. Perhaps the elephant in the room is actually the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, and not the subject. Writer Irenosen Okojie addresses this issue sharply in her article for the Guardian, Black British writers: we’re more than just Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. Okojie questions why publishing houses champion few writers from ethnic backgrounds, and when they do, they make them representative of the entire narrative. This orientalist perspective is a harrowing plague in the literary industry, one that continues to exist untreated.

Another issue to address is the rhetorical question posed by Okri “who wants to constantly read a literature of suffering, of heaviness?” Well, if we were to apply this questionable logic, then giants of African literature would never have surfaced. The monumental works of Chinua Achebe, particularly Things Fall Apart, in which he addresses both internal corruption and oppression, as well as the oppression that emerged via the colonial missionaries, would not exist. By this logic, Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986, would have never achieved such an acclaimed accolade. By this logic, Ayi Kwei Armah, whose transformative poetic prowess penetrates the deepest subconscious spirit of any human being privileged enough to read, would not be the literary Goliath he is today. And if – lest the point be left unclear – we are to live by this logic, then contemporary Black/African writers such as Malorie Blackman and Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi would not have provided such a deluge of literary genius.

It is dangerous, and very problematic to align oneself to the, once again, orientalist, The eurocentric notion that expression of art pertaining to suffering and heaviness is unique or more natural to the African experience needs to be moved away from. Particularly when there are non-Black, equal giants of literature such as George Orwell, with classics like 1984 and Animal Farm, that address, so poignantly and purposefully, oppression, suffering and heaviness. Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Albert Camus’ The Stranger, both address oppression and suffering on a political and a personal level, respectively. Is it not human to write about oppression and suffering? And in doing so, are we not making our intelligence into souls, as Keats so poetically postulated?

Perhaps, the reason why many Black/African writers feel compelled to tackle issues such as slavery, poverty and racial injustice, – aside from the fact that these issues still exist today in the Sudans, the shanty towns of Brazil or slums of South Africa and in towns like Ferguson in the United States – is because so much of the narrative that exists is comparable to such Django-esque literature, that is to say superficial self-gratified cathartic entertainment, that so much more of the true story remains to be told. Furthermore, when is any subject matter ever completed to the point that artists must move on from it? How many times had love already been written about by the time that Pablo Neruda began crafting his masterpieces?

I am not in complete disagreement with Okri. In fact, I think he does make good points, however, I feel the majority of the article may not have been articulated with the utmost clarity. I agree with the fact that, as Okri suggests, writers should reflect the temper of the age, and that we are indeed living in troubling times. In addition, I am wholeheartedly in agreement that, in regards to writing, the essential thing is freedom. However, this curtailment of expression and castigation of creativity towards Black/African writers almost raises the same contradictions it seeks to oppose. Particularly when there is a whole wave of Black/African writers who have found their voice in the new wave of afrofuturism, and are showing the creativity and freedom of expression that far surpasses the imposed narrow expectations. Writers like Steven Barnes with contemporary classics such as Gorgon Child, or Mbuzi Momi and The Chronicles of the Empire Of Ntu. Not to mention the number of young Black/African writers and poets who may not necessarily be attracting the attention of big publishing houses, who are stuck in their rigamortis of representation, but are growing in popularity and gaining the attention of readers through social media and live readings. Writers and poets such as Musa Okwonga, Yrsa Daley Ward, Raymond Antrobus, Warsan Shire, Jacob Sam La Rose, Tapiwa Mugabe, Nayirrah Waheed, Inua Ellams, and so much more that to name them would create a list almost as long as this article.

I do feel Okri’s sentiments, however, I think that this is an ongoing dialogue that will not be resolved by either his article, or this as a response. It is nonetheless a part of a greater narrative that, if used correctly, can only fuel the passions of writers to create more.

I grew up reading Okri’s work. He sparked my imagination as a young adult. One of my personal favourites is Astonishing the Gods, in which Okri abstractly fuses the reality and suffering of individual existence with the imaginings of futurist alternative dimensions. In this book, there is an excerpt that has always rested well with me. The protagonist, who is nameless, and on a journey of discovery asks, ‘…how can I find without looking?’ To which he receives the reply ‘you will never find by looking. You have to find first… too late I discovered that the answers were always there. Always.’ Perhaps, much like the protagonist in this classic, Okri needs to stop looking in order to find what has always been there. That the narrative and expression of Black/African writers, story tellers and poets does not sit in the hands of the publishing houses, but in the hearts and the imaginations of the people it so touches.

*Correction (19 Feb 2015): The quotation, “All art is political, Johnson. Otherwise, it would just be decoration”, appears to be from the 2011 film Anonymous rather than Shakespeare’s Richard III.

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JJ Bola is a writer & poet, educator and public speaker. His work focuses on global issues, both political and personal. Find his work at jjbola.com and on twitter @JJ_Bola 

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6 replies

  1. I think there is an impatience from writers and readers alike, to see African writers reflecting the ‘everyday Africa’ rather than the politicised subjects shown on TV in the West, such as famine, Aid, AIDS, War and corruption etc…But writers are just human beings who don’t pick their circumstances, just like the rest of us. What has happened to Africa in the past 500 years has been impacting and traumatic- it’s not surprising that African writers are documenting such events in fact and fiction books.

    Okri also contradicts himself. He implores his fellow continental authors to write about the ‘everyday Africa’. He commits a Nyerere, by prescribing what writers should write in order to influence the perceptions of Africa outside of the continent. Similar to what the ‘Orientalist’ agenda does, by ‘boxing’ in African writers to write about ‘stereo typically African’ topics.

    There is no happy medium and I am in agreement with John about the freeing of African literature from its history (or itself) as an elusive freedom.

    But in the search for a more optimistic ‘everyday’, literature from the continent, the question is “What do we expect from an everyday story?”

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  2. Thank you very much for this great response!!

    I would agree that a lack of diversity in publishing is the elephant in the room. I gathered some data on this a while back, focusing on speculative fiction (article in Strange Horizons). I imagine the situation is similar in non-genre fiction 😦

    It is also quite sad to see that while there is an amount of diversity among editors of (speculative) poetry and short fiction, this does NOT carry on to novels. People who have comfortable day jobs at a publishing company are much less likely to be diverse on any axis.

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