By Dennis Abrams
When Chinua Achebe died in March, he was mourned around the world, proclaimed as the “Father of African Literature,” as the author of contemporary classics such as Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, and as a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. But he was far more than that.
For many years, Achebe served as advisory editor to Heinemann’s African Writer Series, which served as a forum for a generation of post-independence writers, while also providing the texts needed by African universities to help redress the colonial bias that had been prevalent in the teaching of literature. To many, it was their only window into African publishing.
As described by Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker, “the fact that [Achebe] must be remembered as not only the father but the godfather of modern African literature owed at least as much to the decades he spent as the editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series. In that capacity, Achebe served as the discoverer, mentor, patron, and presenter-to-the-world of so many of the now-classic African authors of the latter half of the twentieth century. The series’ orange-spined, generously inexpensive paperbacks carried a stamp of excellence that drew readers everywhere to essential works by writers as varied as Kenneth Kaunda, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Dennis Brutus, Tayeb Salih, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Ousmane Sembene, Wole Soyinka, and Nadine Gordimer, to name but a few: it is an extraordinary legacy.”
But: how much of that reverence towards Achebe is strictly from a non-African perspective? In a recent interview with Sahara Reporters, Wole Soyinka questioned both Achebe’s role as “Father of African Literature” as well as the validity of the African Writers Series:
After noting that Achebe himself repudiated the “title,” as “Father of African Literature” he went on to say that, “it is a tag of either literary ignorance or ‘momentary exuberance’ — a la [Nadine] Gordimer — to which we are all sometimes prone. Those who seriously believe or promote this must be asked: have you the sheerest acquaintance with the literature of other African nations, in both indigenous and adopted colonial languages? What must the francophone, lusophone, Zulu, Xhosa, Ewe etc. etc. etc. literary scholars and consumers think of those who persist in such a historic absurdity? It’s as ridiculous as calling WS father of African drama! Or Mazisi Kunene father of African epic poetry. Or Kofi Awoonor father of African poetry. Education is lacking in most of those who pontificate.
“As a short cut to such corrective, I recommend Tunde Okanlawon’s scholarly tribute in The Sun (Nigeria) of May 4th. After that, I hope those of us in the serious business of literature will be spared further embarrassment.
“Let me just add that a number of foreign ‘African experts’ have seized on this silliness with glee. It legitimatizes 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.”
And regarding the African Writers Series, Soyinka continues:
“I must tell you that, at the beginning, I was very skeptical of the Heinemann’s African Series. As a literary practitioner, my instinct tends towards a suspicion of ‘ghetto’ classifications — which I did feel this was bound to be. When you run a regional venture, it becomes a junior relation to what exists. Sri Lankan literature should evolve and be recognized as literature of Sri Lanka, release after release, not entered as a series. You place the books on the market and let them take off from there. Otherwise there is the danger that you start hedging on standards. You feel compelled to bring out quantity, which might compromise on quality.
I refused to permit my works to appear in the series — to begin with. My debut took place while I was Gowon’s guest in Kaduna prisons and permission to publish “The Interpreters” was granted in my absence. Exposure itself is not a bad thing, mind you. Accessibility. Making works available – that’s not altogether negative. Today, several scholars write their PhD theses on Onitsha Market literature. Both Chinua and Cyprian Ekwensi – not forgetting Henshaw and others – published with those enterprising houses. It was outside interests that classified them Onitsha Market Literature – not the publishers. They simply published.
“All in all, the odds come down in favour of the series — which, by the way, did go through the primary phase of sloppy inclusiveness, then became more discriminating. Aig Higo – who presided sometime after Chinua – himself admitted it.”
Even so, Soyinka ends by praising Achebe: “Chinua’s place in the canon of world literature? Wherever the art of the story-teller is celebrated, definitely assured.”