Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024

Title: Remapping African Literature
Author: Olabode Ibironke
Genre: Literary Criticism/Theory
Pagination: 333 pages
Publication: Palgrave Macmillan
Book Reviewer: Chris Anyokwu


Remapping African Literature is simply a work of literary critical re-evaluation based on the use of archival material, a methodology influenced in the main by established processes and procedures of scholarly historiography and the monumentalization of scribal culture understood in the holistic sense of both manuscript and print culture.

Accordingly, the critic avails himself of hitherto unpublished private correspondence in the form of letters, scrawled marginalia, galley-proof material, inter alia transmitted between author and publisher. Thus, the prefix ‘Re –’ in the title Remapping embosses a hermeneutical strategy of revisionism, a reinterpretation of the canon of modern African literature and, hence, a radical reassessment of the corpus of endogenous gnosis authorized through archival criticism. Olabode Ibironke draws upon the archival work done by such pioneer figures as Bernth Lindfors, etc whose indefatigable quarrying of the material conditions as well as the beginnings of modern African literature has proven inspirational for other literary archivists.

As a matter of fact, Ibironke reconstructs quite evocatively the high drama that was staged between Nigerian (African) writers and critics such as Yemi Ogunbiyi, Wole Soyinka, Achebe and Lindfors, the Texas-based American archivist over the location (i.e., depositories/repositories) of the manuscripts of Amos Tutuola’s work, notably The Palmwine Drinkard. The short of this brouhaha was, presumably, feelings of eurocentrism, racism, the North-South power relations as they relate specifically to the ideo-aesthetic trajectory of African letters.

Ibironke, thereupon, under the chapter entitled ‘The Commonwealth Impresarios’ examines the role of British publishers, specifically, the Heinemann Educational Books, Ltd., under whose aegis we have the African Writers Series (AWS), midwifed by figures such as Alan Hill, Sambrook and, most influential of them all, James Currey, Ibironke explores in detail the politics of the book industry, interrogates points of intersection between editorial criticism and literary criticism; excavates how boardroom decisions taken in London determined the collective fate of African literature. The point is that, it is not enough for an African novelist to come up with an idea, mull over it and eventually put it in writing, expecting it to be published wholesale. The publishing ‘impresarios’, as Ibironke calls them, resident in the West had the final say on what finally got published: they picked and chose, expunged and calibrated, assessed and rejected as they deemed fit, depending crucially on how what was written mirrored the West vis-à-vis the African world in a positive light.

Under the chapter entitled ‘The Literary Scramble for Africa: Selection and the Practice of Hierarchies’, the critic references troubling reservations expressed by the likes of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi regarding what they perceived as the questionable, misleading and, ultimately wrong-headed midwifery role of Western editors, critics and publishers of African literature. In this regard, Ibironke queries and questions the deployment of the political map of Africa by western publishers in trying to furnish the literary cartographies of African literary production and African cultural production as a whole. To be sure, Soyinka in a previously unpublished Preface to Poems of Black Africa, edited by him, remarks:

Let me just add that a number of foreign ‘African experts’ have seized on this silliness with glee. It legitimizes their ignorance, their parlous knowledge enables them to circumscribe, then adopt a patronizing approach to African literatures and creativity. Backed by centuries of their own recorded literary history, they assume the condescending posture of midwiving an infant entity. It is all rather depressing (qtd. in Ibironke 56)

Thus the invocation of the infamous Scramble and Partitioning of Africa in 1884/85 in Berlin, Germany in the context of the production of African literature uncovers the deep-seated fears and anxieties of the subaltern over metropolitan overreach. It is pertinent to then ask: (a) what does the African novelist write about; i.e. his/her subject matter? (b) how does he or she organize his or her plot? (c) what should he or she include, develop, minimize, hint at or completely expunge or leave out of his storyline? (d) How should the white person be portrayed vis-à-vis the person of colour? (e) How should the past, history, reality, and/or modernity be conveyed: realistically or otherwise? Put differently, what are the ideological and aesthetic implications of the varying degrees of stylization of form? (f) And, ultimately, what constitutes a masterpiece, and, what, additionally, are the criteria for inclusion into the canon?

Olabode Ibironke proceeds to set forth the pioneering role of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as well as his role as the Editorial Adviser to African Writers Series and how two hundred novels were published under his editorship. Interestingly, the book explores how the British gurus and their African collaborators, working from London, Lagos and Nairobi assessed and evaluated manuscripts, determining whether these manuscripts measured up to Things Fall Apart as the gold standard. Given Achebe’s declared pedagogical orientation enunciated in the well-known essay, ‘The Novelist as Teacher’, the Heinemann Educational Books authorities saw fit to legislate that ALL African novels must be tailored along these heuristic and hortatory lines. This criterion had far-reaching implications for subject matter and form, including setting and authorial ideology of what Ibironke calls “Author Function.”

The effante terrible of African Literature, Wole Soyinka, in the mid-1960s published The Interpreters, a modernist tour de force, shot through with pejorism, satire, avant-gardism. It stormed the literary scene, displacing Achebe and his fetishization of pellucid simplicity. This ungainly cortege of realism heralded the momentous advent of aesthetic modernism which emblematized post-colonial dystopia, an unsavory scenario described by Soyinka as “the recurrent cycle of human stupidity” and “the total collapse of humanity”. This Hobbesian Inferno exacerbated by the visionlessness of the power elite finds eloquent expression in many an African novel, for instance the novels of Nuruddin Farah, Ayi Kwei Armah and Bessie Head, among others.

The impression that the foregoing excursus might have created, albeit, erroneously is that African literature simply oscillated between Soyinka and Achebe with the rest playing epigones to them. Small wonder, under the chapter captioned “Ngugi: Language, Publics, and Production”, Ibironke discusses Ngugi’s role in shaping the politics and aesthetics of African literature, delving as he does into the history of his decision, alongside his professional colleagues at Nairobi University, to abrogate the then Department of English and establish in its place the Department of African Literatures, an endogenous orally-informed unit.

Ibironke also tells the story of how Ngugi wrote the popular text of postcolonial theory, Decolonizing the Mind, and, finally, his epoch-making decision to stop writing in English and start writing in his mother tongue, Gikuyu. It is equally important to note here that Remapping African Literature reveals Ngugi’s latest postcolonial theory of Globalectics. This is “a theory of global reflexivity in which we no longer view the postcolonial text as inert or as an object in nature. The praxis of writing renders reading an interactive act: we are reading a text that may be reading us, just as a performer reads their audience”. (239).

Further, the critic adds that: “Globalectic reading assumes the prophetic vision of the text in the mode of the classic first encounter between Christ and his disciple, who expressed surprise when Christ called him by name: “Nathaniel said unto him, where do you know me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you”. The emphasis of globalectic reading is on the exigencies of the textual moment as the original moment of recognition” (239-40). Olabode Ibironke argues perceptively that Ngugi’s globalectics is principally informed by a sympathetic internalization of cognate notions and ideational categories excavated and distilled from the theoretic exertions of the likes of Edward Said (Orientatlism, 1978), Homi K. Bhabha (The Location of Culture 1994), Simon Gikandi (Maps of Englishness 1996) as well as the work of Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Claude Mckay.

The book under review goes on to examine determinacy versus autonomy in the context of African literary production. In this regard, the writer assesses the relationship between author function and publisher’s reader, with the implication that the latter’s opinion trumps the former’s autonomy, i.e., the author’s original vision. Impliedly, therefore, Remapping African Literature appears to be fighting a rearguard battle for the soul of African Gnosis, attempting to disentangle it from the octopus – like constraints of metropolitan episteme and debunking the myth of derivationism and revalorizing endogenous or autochthonous knowledge production processes and protocols.

In doing this, Ibironke opposes Mudimbe and Irele regarding their divergent stances on the vexed question of the theory of derivation and, all things considered, concludes that: “the premise that international publishers and colonial culture laid the unbreachable foundations of postcolonial knowledge must no to carry an emphatic question mark” (292). Olabode Ibironke concludes the book with the chapter entitled: ‘The Auto-Heteronomy of African Literature’. The theory of “Auto-Heteronomy”, based in part on the methodological and ideological postulations of Mudimbe and Gikandi, is a nuanced rethinking of the major theoretic planks of these theoreticians, a reasoned compromise authorized by pragmatism and common-sensical interfusion of internal and external “conditions of literary production” (307). Ibironke’s Kantian notions coincide with T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in locating the originary founts of afflatus and agency.

Remapping African Literature evidently exemplifies the methodological and theoretical cornucopia of the western academy as amply demonstrated by Olabode Ibironke’s incredibly adroit mobilization and marshalling of its archives and libraries. With a B.A. and M.A. taken at Ife and a PhD earned at a U.S. University, Ibironle, now an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, U.S.A., has become a poster-boy of the metropolitan academe. His critical magnum opus, by virtue of its staggering achievement, can very easily sit side by side with the very best literary-critical works anywhere in the world and, of course, Olabode Ibironke can take his place in the revered company of such canonical personages as Soyinka, Achebe, Ngugi, Jeyifo, Irele, Bayo Williams, Harold Bloom and Terry Eagleton.

One aporetic moment in this work, however, is the critic’s insistence on the imperialistic colonization of Africa as a cultural space and epistemic site through the utilization of the political map devised in Berlin in 1884/85 to rout the African silence. However, he surmises that: “The real consequence of international publishing in African may not, after all, even be the impact of the location of the publishers or the paths of circulation on literary expression. The more consequential practice in the publication of African texts may well be the selection of publisher’s readers, who ultimately served as the gatekeepers for what constituted African literature, and good writing’ (293). The worry is that, if, as Ibironke claims, western publishers dominated African literary products, how come he concludes as he does above, namely: publisher’s readers are “the gatekeepers” of taste?

Such niggling incidental mud aside, Ibironke’s scholarship, evidently immersed in literature and philosophy, is enriched by a sustained apprenticeship in the western centres of knowledge production. He has also shown that he thoroughly digested the writings of the best western philosophers, like Marx, Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Raymond Williams, Scott, Faucault, Freud, Kant, Sartre, Hegel, Hannah Arendt, and Derrida. In many places in the book, Ibironke constructs his arguments around the thematic insights and postulations of these philosophers. He utilizes, for instance, Derrida’s ‘Thesis’, Kant’s ‘Thema’, Sartre’s ‘objective spirit’ as well as Hegelian ‘spirit’, conjoining these suitably with Foucauldian ‘discourse’.

  • By the same token, he invokes Stephen Greenblatt’s notions of New Historicism as well as T.S. Eliot’s theories of Tradition. However, given the fact that Mapping African Literature is about archivalization of African literature, the critic has mobilized the Marxist concept of materialist criticism as he sets about investigating the whys and wherefores surrounding the historical and the material conditions/relations of literary (cultural) re/production in post/colonial Africa. And given the astounding amount of intellectual labour expended and the remarkable historiographic and archival nous displayed in the book, Remapping African Literature recommends itself to both the expert and the neophyte in the burgeoning field of African literature, both in its creative and critical spheres.

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