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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 465-470

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In Search of African Literary Theory

John C. Hawley

Adélékè Adéèkó. Proverbs, Textuality, and Nativism in African Literature. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1998. xii + 154 pp.

Brenda Cooper. Magical Realism in West African Fiction: Seeing with a Third Eye. London: Routledge, 1998. 250 pp.

These two fine books have several structural and thematic features in common. Both focus on fiction principally though not exclusively from West Africa, and both devote opening chapters to theoretical discussions that are later applied to specific authors one by one. Cooper's method closely resembles New Criticism, and Adéèkó's is roughly deconstructive; in both cases the theoretical chapters are by far the most suggestive and helpful. Cooper's applications become redundant in their narrative thoroughness; Adéèkó's, on the other hand, with their interstitching of Derrida and poetry in Yoruba, are sometimes a test of patience in their density. Cooper's discussion focuses on Ben Okri, Syl Cheney-Coker, and B. Kojo Laing. Though a shorter book, Adéèkó's looks for examples in a broader group of writers: Chinua Achebe, Oládèjo Òkédìjí, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and Fémi Òsófisan. Laing, Òkédìjí, and Òsófisan are not household names in the United States, and the attention these books bring to their work is welcome. [End Page 465]

Adéèkó's book is the best recent study of nativism--subtle, comprehensive, argumentative. He divides his subject into three types: classical nativists who imagine an irreducible African aesthetic in which daily concerns of the African reader are rendered in an easily accessible form; structuralist nativists who root their essentialism in historic precolonial cultural expressions, in conventions and philosophies of representation that may be joined to modern literary techniques; and linguistic nativists, who insist that African literature is, by definition, written in languages pre-existent on the continent before the European invasion. All three types of nativists disparage art for art's (or artist's) sake, and valorize literature that is didactic and agenda driven.

Using "metaproverbs" in his nativist approach, Adéèkó is anything but simplistic as he explores the material role of figuration in representation. His chapter on the proverb as an African genre is informative, presenting the form and its interpretation as a kind of call and response. His goal in the book, he writes, is to complicate the relationship between the material text itself and its use by African novelists. In Achebe's Arrow of God, for example, he finds that the problems of material figuration are overlooked by classical nativism's poetics of clear self-explanation. His study of a Yoruba-language play by Òkédìjí (Réré Rún) shows that heeding the call of linguistic nativism does not automatically make representation an unproblematic affair. Typical of Adéèkó's approach is his attempt to nuance the nativists' demand that literature engage real social and political issues: perversely, some would say, he analyzes Armah's Two Thousand Seasons specifically with an eye for the novel's "self-conscious marking of the constructive character of fiction" (xi), highlighting its artistry rather than its polemics. Adéèkó offers Ngugi's Devil on the Cross to demonstrate that allegorical representation, with its rhetorical structures, creates difficulties in delivering clear thematic material. He uses Òsófisan's Kolera Kolej to satirize the rhetoric of nativist postcolonial critique. As Adeeko notes, "by placing 'unreasonable' acts and narratives in a university," Osofisan "mocks the thematic earnestness of classical nativism with an endless series of ironies" (121). But while he seeks to raise the level of the discussion of nativism, Adéèkó clearly recognizes that such emphasis on difference and on the relevance of indigenous forms for the description of contemporary cultural elements is necessarily the starting point and foundation for African literary criticism. [End Page 466]

He traces the origins of the nativist impulse in anglophone African literary criticism to the first session of a 1962 Conference of African Writers of...


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