Debates on the ‘father’ of African literature are patronising and sickening
By Odongo Peter
Why should African literature have a father? It seems the more we consider a matter settled, the more the matter keeps gazing at us.
The issue of the father of modern African literature has been the subject of many literary debates, academic papers and even monographs. In an article in the Saturday Nation of 4th April 2020, Benson Otieno revisits this matter, with a forceful title dismissing claims that Achebe was the father of African literature. Otieno’s piece, ‘Why Achebe was not the father of African literature’, is in response to Mutuku wa Muneeni’s article, published in the Saturday Nation of 21st March 2020, remembering and celebrating Achebe on the seventh anniversary of the literary giant’s passing. Muneeni’s piece seeks to rehash the argument that Achebe was the father of African literature. Curiously, Muneeni’s piece fails to offer any compelling reasons why Achebe should be considered the father of African literature. The good lecturer merely enumerates Achebe’s works and awards. The article should have been given a title that better captures its content. Which is the more reason Otieno’s refuting response requires no rebuttal except for its revisiting a matter that should be settled already.
I will not get into the justification why Achebe was or was not the father of African literature. I think such characterisation is misguided and results in masking an honest and worthwhile appreciation of African literature, be it oral or written. We should train our focus in the direction of celebrating all African writers based on their contributions to literature in particular and society in general—without necessarily ascribing labels that seem to diminish the contributions of some writers in favour of one or two canonised ones. Why do we feel that African literature should have a father? Or even a mother? I think such labelling is patronising and sickening, and adulterates the beauty of consuming literary works. Even if such references are merely metaphorical (and not moralising in any way), they go a long way in entrenching a patronising attitude in gender relations, particularly insofar as appreciating female African writers is concerned. It is the least call we should expect of and from literature.
Disturbingly, Mwalimu Otieno equally fails to demonstrate why Achebe does not qualify as the father of African literature. Instead, the good teacher appears to conflate the fact of a pioneer writer with the concept of fatherhood. From a reading of his article, it appears that the father of African literature has to also double up as a pioneer African writer. I wouldn’t buy such argument. Even if we were to entertain for a moment the idea of a father (or mother) of African literature, the yardstick would not be hinged on pioneer credentials more than it would rest on the breadth and depth of the writer’s corpus. And here I do not mean to say that the father of African literature would be one with the most published texts. Far from it. Yes, the number of texts is important in sketching a writer’s thinking and interests in society, which in turn say something about the writer’s contribution. But more important, in my estimation, would be the extent to which the writer engages with issues of immense concern to the people and continent of Africa, or how his central interests marry with the dominant social themes on the continent at various epochs.
Enough with fathering African literature.
The foregoing exposition brings us to another important matter that we need to consider, and which relates to the idea of the father of African literature. Some literary commentators have latched onto the fact that the failure by the Nobel committee to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Achebe—while the same was conferred upon Achebe’s fellow countryman, Wole Soyinka—is a clear testament that Achebe was not, after all, a great literary artist. On his part, Muneeni believes that it remains a ‘mystery’ how the Nobel Prize eluded the ‘deserving’ Achebe. The less we say about the Nobel Prize the better for African literature.
Closer home, some literary enthusiasts have, year in year out, waited with palpable anticipation, hoping that the Nobel committee might just remember that Ngugi wa Thiong’o is still alive and deserving of the award. I hope it does not come to pass. Not because I do not think Ngugi merits the award, but because I doubt the award is hugely significant as to affirm the place of a writer’s contribution to literature. (Let us note that Ngugi has not failed to win the Nobel Prize—for he’s entered no such contest—but it’s the Nobel committee that has not awarded him the Prize.) The place of a writer’s literary contribution is sketched and assessed by the consumers of his or her writing, especially literary and cultural critics and commentators.
Our obsession with literary awards only perpetuates a linear and limited look at literature. Succeeding generations thus continue gazing at the horizon, hoping one or other award arrives for their (inherited) literary tin god. Part of the reason Ngugi is widely known, read and studied in this country (and beyond) is because of such craze. Why, for instance, is Meja Mwangi less known, less read and less publicised than Ngugi despite the fact that the former has more novels to his name than the latter? And not just that. Mwangi’s writing deals with a myriad of issues preoccupying his society at various times, unlike Ngugi who appears to be motivated chiefly by the colonial legacy and postcolonial experience.
On this charge, the Kenyan academy and media must defend themselves from the dock. Their complicity is as clear as a blank page. The regrettable pattern of idolising one or two writers while pushing others to the periphery continues to this day. Any newcomer literary hawk would think Kenya has no new writers beyond two or three names. The select writers are greats in their own fashions, but there exist other profound Kenyan writers who equally need to be hoisted to the public platform. The academy and the media must stop their complicity in this scheme and lead us in discovering, reading and engaging the other numerous writers on Kenya’s literary scene. We can then talk of African (or Kenyan) literary giants instead of bothering whether African literature had a father or mother. (
— The writer is a consulting editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)