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Six Early Anglo-Phone African Novelists and the African Experience: A Reader-Response Interpretation

 



Six Early Anglo-Phone African Novelists and the African Experience: A Reader-Response Interpretation

Okpara, Macpherson Chikaodiri

Principal Lecturer

English Department,

Ebonyi State College of Education,

Ikwo, Nigeria

 

Abstract

Most extant studies on the reflection of authentic African experience in the African novel have focused on isolated investigations of the achievements of individual novelists. In an attempt to articulate in one brief study the encapsulation of diverse realities of life on the continent in the African novel, this paper critically looks at the offerings of six early Anglo-phone African writers and identifies their contributions in projecting the African experience. Using reader-response literary criticism, the paper moves from an overview of the outstanding novels of each author to critically discuss a novel, one for each, which this researcher considers the best in capturing authentic life on the continent.  Selected on the basis of purposeful sampling, the paper argues that the six authors - Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o Meja Mwangi, Peter Abrahams, and Ezekiel Mphahlele – remarkably apprehend African historical, socio-cultural, and political realities in their respective regions in particular and Africa in general. The paper concludes that those early Anglo-phone African novelists not only provide the necessary thematic concerns of the African novel, but also offer glimpses into utopian social visions that could be built upon by present and future African creative writers.

Key words:

The Novel, Africa, Anglo-Phone, African Experience, Reader-Response criticism

Introduction

The Anglo-phone African literary firmament would have worn different thematic and stylistic colourations without the offerings of Chinua Achebe and Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi, Peter Abrahams and Ezekiel Mphahlele who best represent the voices of early novelists from the English-speaking West, East, and South of the continent. These writers were all born before independence began to smile on hitherto colonized African nations, making them harbingers of firsthand accounts of the African experience of coloniality and the aftermaths. Chinua Achebe was born in 1930 in Ogidi, Eastern Nigeria;  Armah in 1939 in Takoradi, Ghana;  Ngugi in 1939 in Limuru, Kenya; Meja Mwangi in 1948 in Kenya; Peter Henry Abrahams in 1919 in Vrededorp, South Africa; and  Ezekiel Mphahlele in 1919 in Pretoria, South Africa. Such a heritage amply arms them with veritable ideas which they exploited in laying the foundation for the growth and development of African narrative fiction, a tradition that has flourished for decades, straddling the unique authentic experiences of diverse African societies, and birthing rich and remarkable thematic and stylistic features. This paper overviews the achievements the aforementioned six Anglo-phone African novelists; it highlights each author’s literary productions and justifies the researcher’s claim of a particular novel emerging the author’s best representation of the African experience. The researcher adopts Reader-response theory in contributing to the making of meaning out of the select novels. The reader-response theory, Cuddon states, is a

“theory concerned with the relationship between text and reader and reader and text, with the emphasis on the different ways in which a reader participates in the course of reading a text and the different perspective which arise in the relationship thus, reader-response theory is concerned with the reader’s contribution to a text, and it challenges, with varying degrees of plausibility and conviction, the text-oriented theories of Formalism and the New Criticism , which have tended to ignore or underestimate the reader’s role.

            Fundamentally, a text, whatever it be (poem, short story, essay, scientific exposition), has no real existence until it is read. Its meaning is in potential, so to speak. A reader completes its meaning by reading it. The reading is complementary; it actualizes potential meaning. Thus, the reader does not have a passive role, as has been traditionally thought; on the contrary, she is an active agent in the creation of meaning. By applying codes and strategies the reader decodes the text (589).

 

Cuddon goes further to note that several sub-theories of reader-response have emerged in the mid-to late 1970s. Among others, Umberto Eco in The Role of the Reader (1979) presents the idea of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts: in the ‘open’ text the reader actively creates meaning, a ‘closed’ text conditions a reader’s response. Norman Holland in Five Reader Reading (1975) and David  Bleich  in Subjective Criticism (1978) look on reading as ‘wish-fulfilment’ for individual reader handles a text as they please. Cuddon  relates that Wolfgang Iser in The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1976, trans, 1978) proposes “that all literary texts have Leerstellen (‘blanks’, ‘gaps’ or ‘lacunae’). These blanks have to be filled in or ‘concretized’ by the reader in order to interpret the text. But this proposition poses a basic question: is the text itself the cause of the reader’s interpretation, or does the reader impose, as it were, an interpretation on the text? A possible answer to this is that the reader supplies a set of social, historical and cultural norms but the text calls them forth and in a sense contains them”(589). Implicitly, the contemporary reader of the African novel is at liberty to contribute to the creation and/or validation of meaning(s). Selected on the basis of purposeful sampling, the novels of six authors that remarkably apprehend African historical, socio-cultural, and political realities are studied as veritable mirrors of authentic African experience in their time and place. The exclusion of novelists from North Africa is a function of the Islamic tradition that produced them and the Arabic language in which early North African novelists wrote.

 

The African Experience in the Anglo-Phone African Novel: Perspective of Six Authors

 

From Anglo-phone West, East, and South of Africa, Chinua Achebe and Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi, Peter Abrahams and Ezekiel Mphahlele are some early novelists whose literary offerings best represent the authentic African experience, past and present. 

Chinua Achebe

One of the most respected and studied literary craftspersons in the world, Achebe left behind several nonfictional and fictional works, including memoirs, short stories and novels. His novels include Things Fall Apart (1958) which represents traditional Africa’s contact with western values through colonialism; No Longer at Ease (1960) which focuses on social and ethical questions of bribery and corruption in the civil service in Nigeria; Arrow of God (1964) which straddles religious, political, social, educational and psychological issues in Nigeria under colonial rule, reenacting centrifugal and centripetal forces in society;  A Man of the People (1966), a political satire on personal and public morality, and which also celebrates social and ethical issues such as sexual relations and immorality; and Anthills of the Savannah (1986) which focuses on dictatorship and nation building in a fictional African state named Kangan.

            Although all the novels by Chinua Achebe have considerable thematic and stylistic merits, Things Fall Apart emerges as his best offering to the literary world, especially to African letters. Its literary quality hinges squarely on the idea of tragedy and the tragic hero which his protagonist, Okonkwo, exemplifies. Again, language use in the novel stands it out of other works by Achebe: the successful experimentation with transliteration, which Achebe calls “… a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a world-wide language” (“The African Writer” 61) makes the work universal, even as other local speech patterns in it remarkably distinguish it as a truly African writing about Africa. At a conference on African literature in Canada in May 1977, Chinua Achebe stated that “…the African novel has to be about Africa. A pretty severe restriction… But Africa is not only a geographical expression, it is also a metaphysical landscape- it is in fact a view of the world and of the whole cosmos perceived from a particular position” (“Thoughts on the African Novel” 50). For him, the African novel not only paints the African physical space, but also explores aspects of the cosmology of its peoples, encompassing their realistic past and current experiences. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart remains his magnum opus, which displaced other novels by Africans before it to birth what later became the tradition of the African novel. In that one stroke of literary endeavour it redefined the African literary firmament, straddling pre-colonial and colonial Africa and charting the direction of the flow of the themes, language, and narrative techniques of the written form of the African novel. Besides its lucid and ambitious representation of the all-time issue of culture contact and the attendant conflicts, the novel apprehends and projects the world view of the African society in a characteristic unmatched language and form. Set in Igbo land, Nigeria, between 1850 and 1900 (Moody et al 25), TFA represents a traditional Africa that comes in contact with Christian missionary institutions and colonial rule. The protagonist of the novel is ambitious Okonkwo, who wants to take the highest traditional title in his Igbo society and commits abomination and is banished from Umuofia. While he is in exile, Christianity and colonial elements arrive in his society; he returns and fights them, and is ultimately destroyed by his weaknesses. His tragic end through suicide generates a supreme irony as his people abandon his corpse:  Obierika tells the District Commissioner, “We cannot bury him. Only strangers can” (TFA 165). An African classic, ever since its publication, the phenomenal ideas Achebe weaves into Things Fall Apart continue to challenge its readers and critics as they examine and re-examine the African worldview.

Ayi Kwei Armah

Another outstanding novelist from Anglo-phone West Africa, political theorist, polemicist, poet, short story writer and novelist, Ayi Kwei Armah towers above most of his contemporaries on the African literary tuft in his creation of unforgettable characters and themes. His novels include The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Houghton Mifflin, 1968; Heinemann, 1969), a novel that uses disquieting imagery to present consumerism and stinking corruption in post-colonial Ghana; Fragments (Houghton Mifflin, 1970; Heinemann, 1974) which uses the popular character, Brempong to relate society’s expectations from its individual members; Why Are We So Blest? (Doubleday, 1972; 1979) a novel which uses three “interpreters” (Solo, Modin Dofu, and Aimee Reitsch) to portray “the problem of evolving a notion of communal redemption” (Fraser 48). Others are Two Thousand Seasons (EAPH, 1973; Heinemann, 1979) and The Healers (EAPH, 1978; Heinemann, 1979) which are historical novels that seek the righting of twisted views of African history.

            Described as “one of the most controversial writers Africa has produced” (Fraser 1), Armah’s most outstanding novel is The Beautyful One Are Not Yet Born, his first novel. Fraser contends that being Armah’s first “and partly because of the uncompromising stand it takes on certain aspects of Ghana’s national life, it[The Beautyful Ones] has attracted considerably more critical attention than his subsequent books “(15). Set in immediate post-independence Ghana, the novel takes a swipe at social, economic and political imbalances, as well as imaging the ethical “problems of individual integrity in a society with shifting values” (Moody et al 67). Its major preoccupations are with a society faced with unbalanced development, the corruption of the post-independence elite and the civil service, as well as foreign influences on the emergent life of the people. The novel also lampoons uneven distribution of economic resources and unchecked consumerist attitude, as well as caricaturing the political leadership and stridently decrying mass apathy and despair. Armah’s The Beautyful Ones excels in the deployment of realistic setting, characters, language, and situations: the society in the novel is true to life; the narrative language and dialogue blend to grip the reader, as the generous use of proverbs and other indices of local idiom add value to the narrative; the characters and the situations are appropriate. In fact, characterization and plot join the masterful wielding of harsh images and symbols of rottenness and despair to accentuate the literary quality of the novel. These are not matched in any other novel by Armah, making it a true retelling of authentic experience of corruption in post-independence Ghana, as in most post-colonial African nations today.    

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

Reputed to be East Africa’s most outstanding novelist, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o has been aptly described as “a committed and challenging writer whose works (novels, drama, short stories and critical essays) show a progressive politicization over the years” (Moody et al 251). His novels narrate events underlining the East African experience of pre-colonial realities and more importantly, postcolonial struggles of the people for the reclamation of their land and rights trampled upon by neo-imperial elements. His novels include Weep Not, Child (1964) which focuses on a Kikuyu family enmeshed in the  struggle for independence; The River Between (1965) which relives the conflict between Christianity and traditional ways and beliefs; A Grain of Wheat (1967) which focuses on social, moral and racial issues of the struggle for independence and its aftermath; Petals of Blood (1977), a novel on social and economic problems in East Africa after independence; Devil on the Cross (1980), a highly allegorical work that relates the meeting of the Devil and many villains that exploit the poor in post-independence East Africa. Others are Matigari (1986) which attacks capitalism, religious hypocrisy and corruption among the economic elite, and The Wizard of the Crow (2006), a satirical novel on kleptocracy and autocratic rule in Aburiria, a fictional African state.

            Critics of Ngugi consider Petals of Blood his most accomplished work, for it aptly sums his social visions for the peasants which is the main subject of his earlier writings.  C. B. Robson, for instance, notes that in Petals of Blood

Ngugi is no longer simply evaluating.  He is clearly censuring certain developments in modern Kenya, as well as suggesting positive values to stand in place of corrupt ones.  It seems that he felt an up–dated, more comprehensive and emotionally charged statement was needed.  Secret Lives was not enough.  Hence the all–encompassing fervor of Petals of Blood which draws its strength from The River Between’s sense of unity and order, the suffering and compassion of A Grain of Wheat and Weep Not, Child, and the disillusionment of Secret Lives (92).

Ngugi uses the novel sum his achievements in his early narratives, lending credence to his level of apprehension of the degree of imbalance and rot, the unimaginable depth of the harm neo-colonial forces have inflicted on the East African economic order, and its psychological effects. Set in Imorog, Kenya, the novel represents outstanding political issues in Kenya within the years 1970 and 1975 in which it was written. The distinctive character of the novel derives largely from its language and literary value. Using English with heavy influence of Gikuyu and Swahili idioms, Ngugi seems to react to accusation of absence of “African flavour” in the language of his earlier novels. Again, in Petals, Ngugi makes generous allusions to East African political figures, as well as using quotations from the Bible and writers such as Walt Whitman, William Blake, Derek Walcott, and W.B Yeats. Moreover, Ngugi’s use of several forms of orature heightens the domestication of the work in Africa and its literary value; even as the journey motif and other epic features make the book tower above his other novelistic offerings. Writing on “The political Novel”, Gikandi sees Ngugi’s Petals of Blood as “a structuring of the dynamics of neo-colonialism in Kenya” (144), a tendency the author achieves by appropriating the suffering of the oppressed peasants in the hands of their leaders who front for neo-imperialists.  G. D. killam quotes Ngugi as having said that: “… all writers can do is to really try and point out where things go wrong… but fiction should be firmly on the side of the oppressed.  Fiction should firmly embody the aspirations and hopes of the majority…” (97). Thus, Ngugi’s greatest achievement as an African literary artist is the deployment of art in the service of marginalized peasants.

Meja Mwangi

 One of the most prolific novelists in Africa, his novels, which mostly focus on social poverty and deprivation in urban Kenya, include Kill Me Quick (1973), Carcass for Hounds (1974), Going Down River Road (1976), The Cockroach Dance (1979), and The Bushtrackers (1979). Others are The Return of Shaka (1989), Weapon of Hunger (1989), Striving for the Wind (1990), The Last Plague (1997), Mountain of Bones (1999), The Boy Gift (2006), Mama Dudu the Insect Woman (2007), The Big Chiefs (2007), among others.

            Mwangi’s The Cockroach Dance appeals to his critics much more than his other works, especially his early fiction. It is the story of Dusman Gonzaga, a professional meter-reader in an African town who suffers depression in his search for meaning in life. Moody et al describe the story as “a grim allegory of the plight of the urban African, perhaps of the human condition” (239). Set in an unnamed large East African city, the novel evidently satirizes poor living conditions on the African continent, as well as declaiming corrupt bureaucracy and government. A novel of social commitment, it straddles individual and collective issues such as frustrations, exploitation, delinquency and urban squalor, and their psychological effects such as insanity. The use of symbols and disquieting images, especially of cockroaches to signify the squalid conditions of the people and the adoption of a variety of narrative styles and registers (legal, literary, journalistic) heighten the novel’s appeal to the informed reader’s literary taste; it certainly evokes the literary achievements of Armah, Dickens, Kafka, among others. Mwangi’s social vision for his continent in the novel remains a mirage decades after its appearance as most African cities still grapple with the imbalances he declaims; the cockroach still dances in every corner of the continent, signposting the squalid conditions in which the people live and the irresponsiveness of African leaders. Mwangi’s novel, thus emerges a realistic projection of a failed utopian vision.

Peter Henry Abrahams

An expatriate South African writer, Peter Henry Abrahams has been described as “an early champion of African rights” (Moody et al, 14), and as an outstanding African author “noted for his eloquence in charting the complex issues of the nonwhites’ struggle in his native land for a voice and for dignity” (Merriam Webster’s, 3). Abrahams novels include Mine Boy (1946; reissued by Heinemann AWS, 1963), the story of Xuma, young man confronted with a strange and oppressive culture in an industrial city in South African; The Path of Thunder (1948) a novel about ‘a young ‘mixed’ couple who love under the menacing  shadow of enforced segregation’; Wild Conquest (1950), a historical narrative of the great northern trek of the Boers; Tell Freedom (1954), a semi-autobiographical  writing on the author’s travails in the slums of Johannesburg; A Wreath for Udomo (1956) which renders the author’s utopian vision of liberated African countries and the establishment of a Panafrican state of which Udomo becomes Prime Minister; A Night of their Own (1965), a novel about the plight of the Indian in South Africa;  This Island Now (1966) which presents the story of Josiah, a totalitarian and despotic leader who exemplifies power and its diverse utilization;  and The View from Coyaba (1985), a historical novel about four generations of a  Jamaican family that descended from slaves that escaped from their masters.

            Although each of Abrahams’ prose works touches on the human condition and parades distinctive literary merits, Mine Boy emerges his definitive masterpiece as a creative narrator of the African experience. The novel not only brings to fore the suffering of black people under apartheid, but also envisions a liberated South Africa made possible through collaboration of the suppressed, traumatized and exploited groups in the society. Set in impoverished and traumatized African townships serving the large industrial and mining interests in and around Johannesburg, the novel relates the riveting experiences of a young man, ‘Xuma from the North’ who travels to Johannesburg to look for a job. He succeeds in finding a job, as well as love, friendship and respectability. Xuma is, however, assailed by personal, social and psychological problems that attend exploitative and insensitive humanity. His personality is soon torn apart by his exposure to power and wealth which he partakes in producing, but cannot own. Comparable, at the literary front, to other great African novels such as Ousmane’s God’s Bit of Wood, Ngugi’s Weep Not Child and Petals of Blood that apprehend working class people’s struggle for justice and human dignity, Abrahams’ Mine Boy stands out for its sweeping portrayal of the evils, discriminations and exploitative proclivities of apartheid. Thematically, Mine Boy encompasses social, psychological and ethical questions of the day. Socially, it deals with patterns of life within and beyond the township; as well as lampooning racial division of labour in industry and laying bare the underbelly of trade unionism under apartheid. Psychologically, it relates problems encountered in rural-urban drift such as alienation, schizophrenia and melancholia. Ethically, it unravels that earlier norms of behavior become irrelevant in debased, makeshift communities associated with exploitative mines and industrial cities.

             A narrative of epic proportion, the literary quality of Mine Boy derives partly from its commitment to the restoration of the dignity of the black race in South Africa under apartheid and its skilful representation of the tragic situations that confront the blacks. The debilitating conditions the miners work strip them of their humanity, destroying in the end some of the black characters notably producing several drunks exemplified by Daddy, Johannes, Liz and Lena. Ultimately, Lena and Ma Plank are destroyed by the city and insensitive racial apartheid forces. Lea is jailed while Old Daddy dies after being knocked down by a car; and the tragedy is taken to the climax by the death of Johannes and Chris in the mines. In all these, Xuma emerges a respectable hero; the strike he initiates draws even the sympathy of Paddy, who joins the crusade for the freedom of the blacks though he is white. Bamidele sums the transformation of Xuma from a rustic figure to a hero when he submits that the city “builds in him a strong will and undoubting spirit of resistance against the oppressive and dehumanizing racial policies that make life unbearable for the blacks in South Africa. Though he might end up in jail, at least he has initiated the spirit of struggle, he has abolished the impotent reticence that was hitherto the characteristic attitude of his people” (13). In the novel, Abrahams represents the South African experience of the evils of apartheid, most notably its physical and psychological violence against the black race.

Ezekiel Mphahlele

 A contemporary of Peter Abrahams, Ezekiel Mphahlele was also a vanguard of the struggle for the liberation of the blacks from the evil unfriendly tentacles of apartheid. Early critics of Mphahlele’s writing recognize his promising commitment to artistic representation of the black experience. For instance, Lewis Nkosi observes that Mphahlele’s “most recent fiction reveal how keenly aware he is of the intractable nature of South African experience when it has to be contained within an artistic form; and that intractability has something to do with the over-melodramatic nature of the political situation and the barrenness and infertile nature of tradition”(223). Nkosi was referring to Mphahlele’s short stories, notably some of those contained in his collections, The Living and Dead (1961) and In Corner B (1967). Besides critical writings such as The African Image (1962) and Voices in the Whirlwind and other Essays (1972), Mphahlele co-edited Modern African Stories (1964). He also edited and contributed to African Writing Today (1967). His other non-fictional works include Let’s Talk About Writing: Prose (1985) and Let’s Talk About Writing: Poetry (1986). His notable prose works include his autobiography, Down Second Avenue (1959) which is respected as a South African classic; The Wanderer (1971), another autobiographical novel; and Chirundu (1979) which focuses on power and change, especially on “the symbols of destruction and of sexual power gone mad”( www.goodreads.com). 

            Down Second Avenue is the definitive novel that remarkably establishes Ezekiel Mphahlele in the South African literary corpus. The work has been hailed as “as a classic of South African literature, not only for its documentation of human indignities under the apartheid system, but for its insight into problems of education and creativity” (Moody et al 227). It is set in an urban slum, Marabastad which “seemed to be turning inside out, showing all her dirty underwear” (Down Second Avenue 91); typical of slums birthed by repressive rule, economic advantage and urban drift (reminiscent of the setting of most fiction by black South Africans). The actions of this autobiographical novel take place in the early days of African nationalism and intense racial policies while its preoccupation with social and educational themes makes it quite engaging. As part of its social reflection, the novel paints the picture of the structure and maintenance of life in the slums, its effects on family and personal relations. It also relates the prevalence of traditional values pitched against religious beliefs and agents of segregation. The educational value of the work lies in its discussion of the stages of personal development and various reactions to educational opportunities. Beyond the realistic nature of its themes, the novel’s literary merits also stand it out. Though an autobiography, it appeals clearly to the literary artistic sense what with the author’s deployment of imagery, local colour, episodic narrative technique, engaging plot structure, among other elements of literariness. Again, the work makes evident the creed and practice of a committed writer who elevates the protest tradition in black South African writing. Thus, Mphahlele ranks high in the portrayal of the African experience in his prose writing and merits consideration as an early Anglo-phone novelist with remarkable commitment to championing a continent free from segregation and its attendant evils.

Conclusion

This essay identifies the achievements of Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o Meja Mwangi, Peter Abrahams, and Ezekiel Mphahlele, six Anglo-phone African novelists, in projecting the African experience in their novels. It highlights each author’s literary productions and justifies the researcher’s claim of a particular novel emerging the author’s best representation of African historical, socio-cultural, and political realities. Achebe stands out in the recreation of Africa’s contact with the West and the resultant culture conflict, even as he recreates social and ethical questions of bribery and corruption, religious, political, social, educational, and psychological issues. He also reenacts centrifugal and centripetal forces in society, and satirizes personal and public morality, dictatorship and phantom efforts at nation building in Africa. Armah apprehends the issues of corruption, individual versus society, as well as attempting to correct misconceptions about African history. Ngugi portrays East African experience of pre-colonial realities and postcolonial struggles of the people to reclaim their land and rights trampled upon by neo-imperial elements. Meja Mwangi focuses on social poverty and deprivation in urban Kenya, as well as decrying individual and collective issues such as frustrations, exploitation, delinquency and urban squalor, and their psychological effects such as insanity. Together with Mphahlele, Abrahams relives the evils, discriminations and exploitative proclivities of apartheid as well as social, psychological and ethical questions. Thus, the early Anglo-phone African novelists studied in this paper not only provide the necessary thematic concerns of the African novel, but also offer glimpses into utopian social visions to guide present and future committed  African creative writers.

Works Cited

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Nkosi, Lewis. “Fiction by Black South Africans.” Introduction to African   Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writing, Edited by Ulli Beier,             Longman, 1979, pp.221-227.

Nnolim, Charles E. “Background Setting: Key to the Structure of   Ngugi’s The River       Between”.  Approaches to the African       Novel: Essays in          Analysis, Saro International    Publishers, 1992, 66 -78.

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Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. Petals of Blood. Heinemann     Publishers,       1977