Africa Today 50.3 (2004) 148-150
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Essentially a festschrift to honor Emmanuel Obiechina, a great scholar of African literature, Meditations on African Literature is a collection of thirteen essays, all quite good and some exceptional, reflecting on the current state of African literature. Dubem Okafor has brought together a first-rate team of scholars, including Michael Echeruo, Romanus Egudu, Biodun Jeyifo, Bernth Lindfors, Wole Ogundele, Isidore Okpewho, and others who stand with Obiechina in the forefront of African literary studies. Some of the articles deal with individual authors, such as Chinua Achebe and Grace Ogot; some deal with approaches to African literature (e.g., historical and ethnographic); but most deal with broad theoretical concerns, such as the construction of an African literary canon, or the ongoing question of what language an African writer should write in.
This is a book that anyone with a serious interest in African literature should read, first for the quality of the individual essays, but also for the problems it forces us to think about. Consider three of the best essays in terms of the contributions made to our understanding of African literature.
Isidore Okpewho has an excellent essay, "On the Concept: 'Commonwealth Literature.'" He provides an interesting survey and analysis of the growth of the anglophone African novel, and he shows that the Commonwealth is as useless as a cultural concept in defining a body of literature in Africa as it is as a political concept in affording any real help to the citizens within its boundaries. Increasingly, he maintains, African writers from the Commonwealth countries are living in exile, and will have their imaginations nourished by new sources, with the result that they will increasingly deal "with subjects that transcend their native lands" (p. 41). Implicit in his argument is the point that this will also make it increasingly difficult to speak of African literature in any meaningful way beyond its simple use for geographic classification.
Okpewho's piece is followed by Bernth Lindfors's essay "Who Counts? De-Ciphering the Canon," which offers little analysis, but a great deal of statistical information, which further challenges our thinking about what it is we are talking about when we refer to "African literature." Lindfors's essay updates an earlier study, in which Lindfors set out to determine the major authors in anglophone Africa. Essentially, he quantifies and rates authors in relation to the number of articles and books written about them. He cunningly hid the seriousness of the implications of the study with its name, "Famous Authors' Reputation Test," and fatuous acronym, FART. The basis for his study has been his own multivolume bibliographies, Black African Literature in English, possibly the most detailed and comprehensive of any bibliographic work done on Africa. The statistics are startling, but not surprising. Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe are at the top of the tables, each having almost twice the amount of material written about them as [End Page 148] Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who is third. Ayi Kwei Armah is fourth, with roughly a fourth of the material that exists for Soyinka or Achebe. After Armah, the numbers drop precipitously. The final author tabulated, forty-seventh on one table, has one-thirtieth of Soyinka's numbers. Take the numbers for just Soyinka, Achebe, and Ngugi and they roughly equal the totals for all the other writers. An unstated conclusion here is that what we talk about when we talk about anglophone African literature is the big three on Lindfors' tables.
The final essay in the collection draws even more attention to the kinds of issues concerning African literature that Lindfors and Okpewho have made problematic. Biodun Jeyifo, in "One Year in the First Instance," offers the only direct homage to the man being honored by this festschrift, Emmanuel Obiechina, though he honors him by gently taking issue with him on one point. Jeyifo focuses on an essay by Obiechina, "The Dilemma of the African Intellectual in the Modern World." Beneath his praise for the clarity...