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Bishop's book is a welcome addition to African theoretical and critical scholarship. In its Introduction, it forays into the multifaceted controversies on the defining criteria of African literature, on the tense battles raging between African and non-African critics. Bishop outlines the former's claims to ownership of the literature and, sees, therefore, a better, deeper, and unbiased evaluation of it, and the claims [End Page 391] of Western critics, armed with "universal" critical and theoretical tools, who see African literature as an academic exercise, especially when it is written in their language.
Bishop is quite right in reiterating that African literary criticism is not a matter of preestablished standards imposed on it, and that on the part of the critic a knowledge of the history, sociology, and anthropology that inform the literature is important for a thorough evaluation of it. Bishop catalogs various African and non-African views on the issues of languages, nationality, geographical spread, subject matter, style nègre, and African psychology without making any conclusive statements.
For instance, Bishop presents the vexed question, raised by Obi Wali, of Western languages for African literature. Reactions and counter-reactions to this question are legion. Bishop restates African critics' view that, ideally, African literature should be written in African languages. African writers and critics themselves lay the problem of language to rest by agreeing that African writers should, like Achebe in Things Fall Apart, adopt African English, African French, and African Portugese; that is, European languages should be domesticated to express the peculiarities of African sensibilities.
Bishop also addresses the issue of audience and highlights African critics' displeasure at the domineering and paternalistic attitudes of Western publishing houses that dictate to the African writer what to write and how to write it. African critics are of the strong opinion that their literature should have blacks as their main audience. As far as the phenomenon of African tradition is concerned, Bishop presents the differing opinions: some rely on it; others either reject it or blend it with the modern.
Bishop goes on to discuss the tendency on the part of African critics to agree on the need for the African writer to depict African reality in order to correct the erroneous image that the colonial era had given Africa. But what is this reality or, in Bishop's term, "realia"? Is it reality in the present, or reality in the past, or a mixture of both? But, then, the dangers of a decadent naturalistic movement soon surface. Senghor would prefer African surrealism to realism: a hankering after realia soon turns a work of art into a documentary journalism, divesting it of imaginative explorations.
But African literature, as Bishop emphasizes, is inscribed in the ethos of militancy. Jean-Paul Sartre's seminal essay, "Orphée Noir," reinforces the theoretical construct of this emergent and belligerent written literature. The criterion of "engagement" is unanimously applied to a creative production whose social message takes precedence over medium or aesthetics. Art for art's sake, although aired by some obscure critics and writers, is always frowned upon in African literary practice.
For the Francophones, the Negritude movement comes up with a theoretical paradigm. Senghor is its most vocal exponent. Anglophone critics, particularly Ezekiel Mphalele, disown and frown at the Negritude paradigm. Like any concept, it compresses creative impulse by squeezing it into an ideologizing pigeonhole. Its incessant call to an idyllic past, the Anglophones say, is as false as it is loud. But even then, as Bishop ingeniously asks, is African literature and criticism not an aspect of the Negritude movement? [End Page 392]
From a forest of controversies and opinions by African and non-African critics and writers, Bishop has been able to elicit strong paradigms of critical and theoretical evaluation of African literature by Africans themselves, and therein lies the abiding merit of his book. However, one is ill at east with Bishop's role as a passive presenter. In a work of this kind, the critic, engaged in a critique, should situate himself or herself in relation to the text...