restricted access Oral Tradition and the African Novel
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Oral Tradition and the African Novel

In the growth and development of modern African literature, African traditional oral poetics is playing a very significant role. This is seen in modern African poetry, modern African drama, and the modern African novel. Indeed, it is at the center of the on-going experiments and innovations in modern African literature. The African writer has found in the sources of the African oral heritage a new enrichment, a new revitalization of contemporary African writing. Now African oral literature invites communal participation so that I do not see anything intriguing about its incorporation into African drama and African poetry. This is because their consumption is also communal. Like African oral literature, modern African drama and modern African poetry can be socialized, democratized. This is not meant for a particular class of people. The same cannot be said of the African novel because its consumption and creation are basically individualistic. Thus, the incorporation of African oral poetics into the novel forms a basically written and individualistic form and seems to be rather intriguing plumbing. [End Page 389]

This paper, therefore, seeks to plumb the significance of African traditional oral poetics in the African novel. Many African novelists now expect that the riches of the African oral tradition will nourish the novel form, but I do not think all of these authors make creative use of the African oral tradition in the sense of making something new out of it or showing innovation. One must therefore go beyond mere exploration of the African oral tradition. The level of a novelist's success may be determined by the degree of his or her innovation because a mere celebration of the romantic aspect of the African oral tradition is not enough. The concerns of this study are the structural and thematic significances of African oral poetics for the growth of the modern African novel.

Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Ama Ata Aidoo, and probably Kofi Awoonor draw on the narrative of African oral tradition for structure, theme, and style. They show that this tradition is also extremely flexible and highly inventive by boldly breaking away from the conventional structure of the novel form so that the novelists represent a sophisticated continuation of African storytelling and other oral traditions in dialectic tension within the novel form. Also, by incorporating the oral literacy structures into the novel form, these innovative writers of the novel are gradually working toward the Africanization of the novel form and evolving a poetics of the African novel. They depend on the oral tradition of Africa to deform the received Western novelistic pattern in order to challenge our received notions while our African identity is also affirmed, thereby freeing Africans from the negative image in which others have created us. Indeed, Armah, Ngũgĩ, and Aidoo have boldly willed themselves to break the rules of the conventional Western novel form and to show that African literature is reactive. It is a literature that is defensive of the African heritage.

Chinua Achebe was the vanguard in this literary movement that seeks to defend the African heritage, but the achievement of Achebe seems to end at the level of the word. I admit that the attempts being made to relate the English language to the rhythms of African speech are important given the language crisis in African literature, but it seems that a novelist must go beyond that to include other elements of the novel such as structure and perspective. Achebe is undoubtedly sensitive to the African oral tradition, but he appears to be less innovative when it comes to the deployment of oral literary structures. One is therefore not surprised that all Achebe's novels—from Things Fall Apart through Anthills of the Savannah—are structurally in the mode of the great Western tradition.

It is useful for one, in attempting to explore influences of the African oral tradition on the novel form, to be clear as to what is typically African and what is exclusively African or what is borrowed to nourish the African tradition. This is because the oral literary tradition—the folktale, the proverbs, and the riddles among others...


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