restricted access Theory, Literature, and Moral Considerations
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Research in African Literatures 32.4 (2001) 1-18

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Theory, Literature, and Moral Considerations 1

Simon Gikandi

In 1967, a group of prominent African writers met in Stockholm, Sweden, to discuss the role of the writer in the modern African nation. We were still in the early days of decolonization, and although disenchantment with what was later to be characterized as a compromised postcoloniality was beginning to enter literary texts, writers and intellectuals still believed that their works and words had an innate and functional capacity to intervene in everyday life and to transform the tenor and vehicle of political discourse. The artist had, after all, been an ally of the politician during the nationalist struggle, while becoming a writer had been one of the most important sources of legitimacy for the political class in Africa. For this reason, then, the African writers who were gathered at the historical Stockholm conference did not seem eager to make any distinction between art and politics; they had gathered to take stock of their situation within their respective polities and in relation to the then great dream of Pan-Africanism; they were not there to mourn the possible split between the artist and the political establishment, but to figure the character of the writer's commitment after decolonization. While the theme of the conference as it was recorded in Per Wästberg's The Modern Writer in Africa acknowledged a certain tension between the individuality of African writers and what appeared to be the collective mission of their art, the days when the writer would be pitted against the power of the state with sometime deadly consequences still appeared to be too far in the future. Indeed, when the African literary establishment turned to what might have then appeared to be the abstract question that had crept up at the conference--the "freedom of all men to express themselves without arbitrary restraint"--their condemnation was leveled at "the bans and prohibitions which have been imposed on writers and writings by the racist regimes of southern Africa," not their own governments (119). In those days, when the discourse of African freedom was articulated against the violence engendered by white South Africa, Rhodesia, and the Portuguese empire, there was still a lingering belief that the African artist occupied a special place in the order of things, that in the words of Per Wästberg, "the poet is there to celebrate and not to subvert society" (11).

But there was one powerful exception to this apparent displacement of the problem of terror on the infamous (racist) villains of the period. In his keynote address to the conference, Wole Soyinka, in his usual bold and provocative style, went to the gist of the problems confronting writers who had begun their careers as advocates of nationalism but had quickly found themselves at odds with the new political class. Soyinka was particularly concerned about what he saw as the inevitable tension between the literary concerns of writers and what he called an overwhelming pattern of reality. In the aftermath of decolonization, noted Soyinka, in new societies [End Page 1] that had begun "the seductive experiment in authoritarianism," African writers had failed to inscribe their difference from "the mass direction" and had become props in the machinery of the postcolonial state (15). In the process, the writer had lost his or her moral vision--"the special eye and ear, the special knowledge and response" (15-16)--that had accorded art a special place in the politics of decolonization. Amidst the ongoing debate on whether African writers had a different social function or responsibility than their counterparts elsewhere in the world, Soyinka resisted the temptation to assign the African artist a distinctive role in the social order. Instead of insisting on the particularity of the African artist, he went on to connect the artistic vision to a specific narrative of universal freedom. The situation in Africa today, Soyinka argued, was the same as in the rest of the world: "it is not one of the tragedies which come of isolated human failures, but the...