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Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

On-line version ISSN 2309-9070
Print version ISSN 0041-476X

Tydskr. letterkd. vol.54 n.2 Pretoria  2017 



Indigeneity, Globalization, and African Literature: Personally Speaking



Tanure Ojaide. Hampshire & New York: Palgrave Mac-Millan, 2015. 291 pp. ISBN: 978-1-13754-220-5.

Ambitious and bold, Tanure Ojaide's Indigeneity, Globalization, and African Literature offers readers an analysis of predominantly Nigerian poetry and fiction over a period of more than five decades. In particular, Ojaide is interested in how the relationship between Africa and the West, as distinct geopolitical and cultural spaces, plays out in different literary texts. The book consists of several different genres of writing that include literary analysis, tributes to two deceased writers, autobiographical narratives, Ojaide's own perspectives as a writer, and a treatise on the politics of publishing.

While Ojaide's book has some interesting observations, it is unfortunately driven by an essentialist impulse in which a collective African culture is always at risk of contamination from a seemingly monolithic West. The book would have benefited from a more rigorous engagement with discourses of transnationalism in order to disrupt the binary logic of indigeneity and globalization, especially as these terms are defined by the author in rather narrow and unproductive ways.

Ojaide's argument also becomes far more prescriptive than descriptive, as he sets out to define what characterizes "good" African literature. He appears to centre this analysis on two loose criteria. Firstly, he argues that fiction and poetry that locates itself within indigenous myths and folklore are not only better and somehow more "authentic" but also more likely to form part of the canon of World Literature. He goes so far as to insist that "[o]ne who denies African culture should not be seen as an African writer!" (17). Ojaide appears to evaluate the quality of African creative writing in terms of the amount of African culture and folklore that it references.

Secondly, the didacticism of his binary classificatory judgements is similarly evident when he privileges political commitment to social issues over artistic freedom and authorial agency. He claims, for instance, that African literature should "promote literacy and solutions to African problems" (49) and function as "the vanguard of human development" (51). He writes further that "[f]or a literary artist to set works in a society, culture, or environment and to not help raise the consciousness of the people about their problems is unconscionable" (43). While social justice concerns are important themes in the history of African literature, Ojaide's didacticism also risks producing art that is utilitarian and hollowed out of all the complexities of cultural life.

A troubling conservatism also underscores much of the book's analysis. Ojaide writes, for instance, that African authors should "promote virtues in individuals that will make the society grow stronger" (48). This claim is explained when the author criticizes the "graphic representation of physical sex" in African literature, in part because such depictions supposedly reject essentialist constructions of African values in an attempt to access "a large foreign audience" (48). Ojaide similarly evidences an essentialist and Manichean logic when he writes, "the liberal societies of the West have encouraged some African writers to delve into thematic explorations as of sexuality that they would not have dealt with in their African homelands" (22). This idea is repeated again when he says that the representation of sex, sexuality, and politics is "to the acclaim of Westerners affirming their distorted ideas of Africa" (200).

Despite the book's largely essential-ist and didactic impulses, three chapters stand out as important discussions of Nigerian literature. In a chapter titled "Defining Niger Delta Literature", Ojaide offers a speculative mapping of a localized Nigerian literature. The author incorporates bioregionalism and ecocriticism into his analysis of selected texts from local writers, probing the relationship between activism, capitalism, the environment, and postcolonial statehood. This could have been theorized in greater detail and might have been a powerful way to rethink the binaries on which much of the book's analysis depends.

The book's exploration of the poetry of Tijan M. Sallah and Odia Ofeimun also marks a significant contribution to literary scholarship. Ojaide expertly contextualizes the work of Sallah, a Gambian poet, and seems to gesture to a more dynamic system of transnational cultural production. The analysis of selected works of Ofeimun, a Nigerian activist poet, tracks the aesthetic and ideological genealogy of poetry, as well as a history of protest poetry in Nigeria. Significantly, and unlike many of the discussions in the book which tend to offer long lists of literary texts with only basic summaries and few analyses, the chapters on Sallah and Ofeimun offer probing engagements with the literary texts themselves.

Finally, Ojaide's book appears to lack a polished sophistication, which undermines the flow and cohesion of its arguments. There is a strong sense that the book is a collection of essays that were not conceived or written together. In one instance, the author introduces Chinua Achebe despite already having devoted a chapter to discussing one of his novels. Similarly, one of the final chapters in the book is derived from a speech that had previously been delivered. This is not signposted effectively, however, and readers are left uncertain by declarations that "[m]any of my generation are here [...] and I welcome them as colleagues and kindred spirits. My good friend Niyi Osundare has not been able to make it here today" (217).

Furthermore, at times, the author appears to lack critical distance and regularly refers (in the third person) to his own creative output as being constitutive of the "good" African literature that he imagines. His own work is discussed alongside the works of literary giants such as Achebe, and with more than 30 references to his own novel and poems (excluding the autobiographical section at the end of the book), the analysis takes on a rather self-indulgent tone.

Ultimately, while Ojaide's book might have been well placed to contribute to current debates about decolonizing the curriculum in South Africa and elsewhere, its binary logic misrepresents the mobility of literary forms and the transnational networks in which texts move.


Andy Carolin
University of South Africa. Pretoria

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