New Stories

by zunguzungu

(This is a rough version of the introductory talk I’m going to give to my first class today; I’ve written it out as a kind of mental rehearsal of what I want to talk about, though in the class itself, I’ll try to be a little more impromptu and informal, even dialogic, if I can manage it. The course is called “Generating African Literature”; I’ll post the syllabus eventually).

I can’t begin by giving you a history of Africa, but one of the difficulties of a course like this is that history is really important, and we often don’t know as much as we probably should about African history. We’re going to be reading works of literature whose authors are dealing with historical events and dramatic cultural changes that you and I, most likely, have no direct experience with, and which we often don’t know very much about. So we have to start by grappling, a little bit, with all of the stuff that we don’t know.

We’ll read Things Fall Apart, for example, a book that was written by Chinua Achebe in the late 1950’s on the eve of Nigerian independence. That historical context informs how and why Achebe wrote it the way he did, and how and why his readers read it in the ways that they did. Even though it was written in the moment when the colonial state was collapsing, as Nigeria was becoming independent, it is about the beginnings of colonialism, in the 1880’s. We’ll only read Things Fall Apart, but it was originally envisioned as part of a trilogy, which Achebe had planned to span three generations: Things Fall Apart was the story of his grandfather—the generation that first confronted British colonialism—and the trilogy was to lead to the story of Achebe’s own generation, the generation who would achieve independence in the 1950’s. (No Longer at Ease is that story)

It’s easy to understand why Achebe wrote a historical novel, why the end of colonialism would prompt him to think about its beginnings. Britain’s colonial rule of Nigeria only lasted about 80 years, but it radically transformed the people and societies in the areas they conquered. We can’t do a blow-by-blow history of that transformation, but it’s important for us to have a sense of how quickly that happened, and how deep and tremendous and violent a transformation that was: in the span of three generations—about 80 years—the entire world changed for people in the part of the world we now call Nigeria, and one of the things Achebe is writing about is that transformation in scale. For Okonkwo, the main character of Things Fall Apart, his world is his village, Umuofia, and “the nine villages” of which it is a part; by the time Achebe was writing his novel, on the other hand, 80 years later, he would be a member of the Ibo tribe, a part of the colony and then nation of Nigeria, and an African, a person who lived on the continent of Africa.

Does anyone know where do these words come from?

Nigeria: Okonkwo, and Achebe’s grandfather and that generation, would never have thought of themselves in these terms. “Nigeria” didn’t even exist until a British journalist coined the term in 1897: Britain had conquered and was trying to govern broad stretches of territory around the Niger river—since rivers were the main access routes to the interior—and since the area of control was defined by the river Niger, it made sense to them to think of all the people in that territory as “Nigeria.” But no one who lived in that region before the British came would have thought of themselves in those terms.

Africa: By the same token, the idea of “Africa” is an invention of the West, and an idea that only really begins during the European slave trade: over the four centuries or so in which Europeans bought and sold people of African origin, people whose black skin marked them as subhuman, mere property, the word “African” meant someone who, because they were from the continent of Africa, was condemned to be a beast of burden for white people. Africa is huge, and the idea that people from different corners of the continent are all “African”—with almost nothing in common except the way their skin color made them look different to white people—was only an idea that came into common currency after the slave trade.

(We’ll talk about “Ibo” later).

This is history. You don’t need to know all of this, though t helps if you do. But I go through it to impress upon you the fact that what it meant to be “African”—and what it meant to be “Nigerian”—was always changing, always in flux, and always contested. Before the slave trade was abolished, “African” meant slave, nothing more than property. After abolition, “African” meant something different: officially, Europe colonized Africa in order to stamp out the internal slave trade, essentially to save primitive savages from themselves by bringing them Christianity, Civilization, and Commerce, 3 C’s. For them, Africans were people, just inferior people. By the time of decolonization, which happened in the 1950’s, Africans were refusing to be considered genetically inferior, refusing to be defined by what Europeans believed them to be, and—more to the point—trying to think about what they might have been before Europeans arrived—with guns and chains and money—and began transforming the continent and its peoples beyond recognition. They started looking back, before colonialism, in order to look forward, to the time after it.

This course begins, therefore, in that 1950’s moment, when African writers were struggling to define and re-define themselves, to think about what it meant or could mean to be African, and also to imagine the role of literature in that process. To be an African writer, for someone like Chinua Achebe, was to take part in the struggle to show that Africans were human beings; to replace the stories that were told about Africans by Europeans with their own stories, new stories, different stories. And so, this is the reason why this is a literature course, rather than a history course, and why we can read these books without first learning all about the different countries and peoples these authors come from. History is the problem, the nightmare from which they are all trying to awake. And fiction—or imaginative poetry and drama—is the way they tried and try to do it, to make something new. Instead of accepting the “truth” about Africans and African history, as they would have read about it in European books, African writers wanted to write different truths, new conceptions of history.

To put it differently, “history” is always backwards looking. To understand where “Nigeria” came from, we’d move backwards, looking at the creation of the colonial state—how Europe conquered and ruled the people there—and resistance against it. To understand that, the origins of colonialism, we’d move backwards even farther, to look at the slave trade, why and how that began and what its effects were. And so forth; history is the backward glance, where you use the past to understand the present.

With that in mind, it’s important to remember that just about everything we’re going to read in this class is forward looking. History can tell you why things had to happen the way they did; why the slave trade caused colonialism, for example, and why colonialism caused the contemporary problems of the nation-state of Nigeria. I would propose to you that literature of the kind we’ll be reading does the reverse: instead of explaining why things had to be the way they are, it tries to re-imagine the world in new ways. To explain why and how things could be different.

And so, all of the people we will read are creating something new, and trying to create new conceptions of what it means to be African. They’re trying to put aside all the things that non-Africans have historically said that “Africa” meant, and so, the way to read these books is to put aside everything you know, or think you know about Africa and Africans, and try to hear what it is that the writers are saying about it, what they’re creating and imagining. It’s good to know history. But when history is the problem we’re trying to solve, a certain historical ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing; a lack of preconceived notions can be helpful in helping us learn new truths.

After all, by definition, “fiction” is untrue. We’re reading lies! Okonkwo never existed. And so, if you’re a historian, you can read something like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and quibble with aspects of how it tells the story of Nigeria in the 1880’s; you can look back and say “it wasn’t really quite exactly like that.” Or, the reverse; we can read this book and say: here is what it was like. This is a book that’s often used in history courses, in fact; where the thing we value in it is what’s true, what really happened.

In this class, we’re not going to read it that way. We’re going to think about literary writing as a creative endeavor: instead of judging it by whether or not it’s true, we want to think about how fictional stories about Africans, by Africans—precisely because they aren’t true—work to re-imagine the world, to create new stories.