Although Ato Quayson developed this fine book from his dissertation for Cambridge, it shows little of the pedantic niceties and lugubrious prose that might relegate it to a library’s annex. In fact, it succeeds admirably in its elegant and highly readable demonstration that African literature, here represented by a segment of Nigerian writing, deserves a nuanced analysis that acknowledges the full context in which the literature arises, along with the various stylistic decisions unique to each writer.
Quayson’s chosen task is to extend earlier readings by Abiola Irele and others that focus on the Yoruba literary tradition, and to suggest that postcolonial attention to nation building and wider national realities prompted the writers under analysis to use the oral tradition in ways that were not strictly ethnic, and in ways that ultimately transmogrified the symbology of the stories. To do so, he turns his attention first to Reverend Samuel Johnson (whose History of the Yorubas was completed in 1897 and published in 1921), then to Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, and Ben Okri. He is less interested in showing the “authenticity” of these writers, based upon their use of indigenous materials, than in analyzing their strategies in incorporating the oral tradition. He offers, therefore, something of a study of the anxiety of influence on the African continent. The dynamic that runs through the analysis is Quayson’s notion of “interdiscursivity,” wherein a text is imagined as “the prismatic field of interaction between cultural discourses and literary ones,” and literature is seen as “not a mere precipitate of culture [End Page 1076] but as a process of meditation upon it.” The emphasis on showing the process allows room, nonetheless, for a demonstration that some of the recurring themes in Nigerian writing center on a shifting sense of the possibilities of individual heroism, “an elaboration of liminal boundaries,” and a recuperation of “a sense of self-worth for the African psyche.”
Quayson shows that Samuel Johnson’s work of filiating to indigenous resources fits into a contemporary nineteenth-century tradition that sought to compile collections of ethnographic materials to articulate a cultural nationalist impulse. This impulse dominated until the late 1930s, at which time creative writers like Fagunwa began reworking the form of the folktale. Taking inspiration from this new freedom, Amos Tutuola specifically broadened the canvas by seeking an international audience and taking that wider readership’s expectations into consideration at an important moment of late decolonization. The ambivalent response Tutuola received from African commentators, in Quayson’s view, demonstrates their own “contradictions in identity-formation in the period leading up to self-rule.” Wole Soyinka furthered the exploration of possible contemporary meanings in the movement from the oral tradition to the written, and suggested a continental mythopoetics that could contest traditional European realism. That insight took a sharp step forward with Ben Okri who, according to Quayson, “represents the indigenous resource-base comprehending its own hybridity and discursive eclecticism” while “hinting at its potential discomposition.” Thus, the movement from Johnson to Okri suggests the troubled postcolonial condition of Nigeria, in which many writers live as expatriates or as dual citizens, and in which the coherence of indigenous culture no longer seems as self-evident as it did in the battle against the colonizing Other.
Quayson’s extended discussion of Okri is most welcome, since comparatively little has yet been written on the novelist’s important work. In contrasting him to older writers, Quayson portrays Okri as paying homage both to the literary tradition and to indigenous traditions and beliefs, but at the same time as obliterating boundaries between the forces of chaos and those of order. Okri cannot resolve the conflict, let alone do so in favor of order, as Achebe may have done.
As highly recommended as this informative book must be, it does have its limitations. Some are acknowledged by the author as directions [End Page 1077] for future research: in Okri he analyzes a non-Yoruba use of Yoruba oral traditions; Quayson further suggests that an examination of someone like Christopher Okigbo would show the use of...