The polarization of the countries of the world into developing and developed nations has brought in its wake a dichotomy in the perception of ideas, concepts and cannons by different specialists in these divides. One of such distinctions is ‘whether the literary artist should or should not be concerned in his work with happenings in his society.’ This question has been the subject of robust debate among critics and artists over the ages. The originators of the art-for-art’s sake club are of the opinion that artists should be independent of their society, that happenings in their environment should not be subject for their works. Members of this group would frown at a Christopher Okigbo getting involved in a civil war to the extent of enlisting in the Army. They would grimace at a Wale Okediran standing for election or a Wole Soyinka forming a political party.
This body of gentlemen and ladies holds tenaciously to the impression that ‘good art is static.’ Fortunately the champions of this cause have their origin in the so-called developed societies of Europe and America. Such developed societies have attained certain reasonable peace and harmony in the manner, pattern and rhythm of governance. So the art connoisseur and practitioners in such society may be content with singing the praises of birds, bees and trees or writing about the snow and flowers just as Ngugi wa Thiong ’o, reporting in his Writers in Politics that he saw his own son trying to memorize a poem by William Wordsworth. The boy had recited:
I wonder’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Ngugi asked the boy: ‘What are daffodils?’ His answer after looking at the illustration in the book: ‘Oh, they are just little fishes in a lake!’
In the developing social system, the society where all sorts of preventable diseases and afflictions still assail the masses; a society where poverty, deprivation of all shades, nepotism, misplaced priorities, abandoned projects, general directionlessness and lack of credible leadership are the quotidian features! I am referring to a society where a ruler had the temerity to pack the equivalent of a million pounds sterling of state money in a suitcase and hop in a plane! A collection of human beings where vice is rewarded with garlands and bouquet of flowers; a society where the collective will of over fourteen million of its citizens could be scuttled without as much as a blink. Indeed, I am talking about the society so debased with leadership insensitivity that one is tempted to believe George Alfred Henty, a British journalist and novelist, writing his ‘fictional account of parts of the Ashanti war’ in his novel, By Sheer Pluck, that,
Africans are just like children…They are either
laughing or quarrelling. They are good-natured
and passionate, indolent but will work hard for
a time; clever up to a certain point, densely stupid
beyond. The intelligence of an average Negro is
about equal to that of a European child of ten years.
A few, a very few, go beyond this, but these are
exceptions… They are fluent talkers, but their ideas
are borrowed. They are absolutely without originality
absolutely without inventive power. Living among
white men, their imitative faculties enable them to
attain a considerable amount of civilization. Left
to their own devices they retrograde into a state little
above native savagery.
Though Mr Henty’s opinion about Africans as reiterated above may sound parochial and hasty but if we Africans put on our thinking caps, we may begin to pin point one or two or even more of our rulers who aptly fit the description Mr Henty had painted.
In a situation where the challenges identified earlier subsist; it is almost impossible to tolerate the attitude of art for art’s sake patronage, especially, if it is granted that literary work is imaginative communication. And in every communication interaction, there must be a feedback. Then it follows that every work that attains literary standard should, as a matter of compulsion, elicit a form of response, a feedback, from its receivers. This view, which orchestrates a mutual bond between the artist and the reading public, supports Ngugi’s attitude while quoting Arnold Hauser that:
All art aims to evoke; to awaken in the observer, listener
or reader emotions and impulses to action or opposition.
But the evocation of man’s active will requires more than
either mere expression of feelings, striking mimesis of
reality, or pleasing construction of word, tone or line: it
presupposes forces beyond those of feeling and form which
assert themselves simultaneously and in harmony with
emotional forces, fundamentally different from them. The artist
unfolds these forces in the service either of a ruler– whether
despot or monarch—or of a particular community, rank in
society or financial class; of a state or church, of an association or
party; or as a representative or spokesman of a form of government, a
system of conventions and norms: in short, of a more or less rigidly
controlled and comprehensive organization.
Again, Ewen supports this position when he sees:
the writer in Africa and the Third World
countries (as) the contributor to and or creator/
sharper of the nation’s enlightened opinion; he
is the doctor and it is he who must diagnose and
then prescribe the right drug for the nation’s illness;
he is to a great number of people, the light whose
beams guide the ark to safety.
Ngugi’s and Ewen’s stance here underscores the reality that the artist is born in a society, he lives in the society, the body of experience he garners as he grows up is a reflection of the quality of the society in question. His whole life-outlook is conditioned by happenings in that society. His works therefore must be based on the realities of his society; and inasmuch as he uses language to express his works, and his audience receive his work, then a response there must be. This is the position of a crop of artists and critics who oppose the view of the art-for art’s sake club.
The burden of this work is an examination of the ways and means by which works of art emanating from the budding polities of the world can elicit reactions from the readers. However, before this is done, it is pertinent to clarify the nature of the response or reaction a work should attract from its recipients. Egudu captured the essence when he said:
One’s reaction to a literary work may not be
a simple course of physical action (and it does
not have to be); it may be only a mental or emotional
reaction, which can ultimately lead to action–physical
So much for the need to react. Who is to react? A cursory examination of the social structure of a developing society is enough to reveal the identity of the entity that should react. Elementary sociology informs us that a typical society is stratified into the rich, the middle class, and the poor. The compartmentalization is such that members of a class can move to another step on the ladder given certain conditions. In the developing countries of Africa and allied places however, events over the years have gradually firmly illustrated that the rich, in league with the rulers have eliminated the link between the rich/ruler and the poor/peasant. This open secret prompted Odejimi to affirm in the blurb of his absurd literature that,
…now that the Nigerian middle class is dead and about
to be buried, the author has a patriotic mission…
The patriotic mission of the writer in a developing society should be predicated on the reality that the rulers have marginal control over the wealth of society; its distribution rests solely on their whims and interests. The compulsive greed and avarice of these rulers and their rich collaborators have rendered the peasants economic and social laggards.
Placed in this static socio-economic desperation, the ruled/masses are faced with only one option characterized by dual dimensions.The choice is for them to employ every means available to effect the sensibility of the rich/ruler. This is the instrument literary works are better positioned to provide the oppressed peasant. The other dimension is that, should the ruler/rich refuse to modify their perception of and attitude to their responsibility as custodians of the collective wealth, literary works have the prerogative of arming the peasants with the basic weapons with which to effect the desired alteration in the ruling equation.
Achieving this interconnectedness between literary works and their potentialities at eliciting a response or contributing to eliciting a response—physical or intellectual—and the audience, should be the avowed responsibility of the socially involved writer. Therefore, since language and its variations (depending on the genre) remain the only effective media through which messages (literary) can be transferred to the receiver, it becomes incumbent on the writer to employ the medium that encapsulates the peculiarities of his intended audience on one hand, and possesses the flavor and strength that can break the barriers that may obscure the meanings of his work from reaching the audience, on the other hand. The implications for the writer in a developing society: he should choose a language or combination of languages that can effectively present his case.
Booth has discussed fervently the advantages and disadvantages of an artist in a developing world using any of the colonial languages as the medium of expressing his art. He also highlighted the implications of adopting an African language as the means of propagating his convictions. However, as frighteningly discouraging as Booth’s contentions are, Za-Ayem recalls and discusses the Kenyan experience; and we realize that in spite of the advantages derivable from employing the bourgeois, colonial languages in literary interaction with the politically battered, economically disenfranchised and socially disoriented peoples of the world, the indigenous languages are more capable in evoking the kind of reaction Egudu talked about. The inference is that, with all the flaunted advantages, the colonial languages have very little chances of arousing the consciousness of the hoi polloi, to any degree for an effective uprising.
The indigenous languages, however, are capable, when literary works are molded in them of making the authorities uncomfortable, if it is granted that, it is only when these powers that be are touched that they can realize that the governed are not receiving their fair share of the collective wealth placed in their custody. Since it is difficult or near impossible for an artist to penetrate the lair of the ruler/rich to physically present his work, and mass media have been brow beaten into submission, the only plausible option left is ‘the popular literature in the area of people oriented communication effectiveness.’
Case: The compelling literary merit of the River Between; Weep Not Child; A Grain of Wheat; Secret Lives put together or the volatile The Trial of Dedan Kimathi or the stinging criticism of Petals of Blood were not considered weighty enough to warrant any interference in the literary activities of the Kenyan literary guru, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. However, his involvement with Kimiriithu Community Educational and Cultural Center as a member of its management and chairman of its cultural sub-committee which organized the writing and production of, Ngaahika Ndeeda—I Will Marry When I Want (1977) led to his arrest in the night of December 1977 and detention without trial for one year. Subsequently, the license for further production of the play was rejected, members of the members of the group were ‘refused entry to resume rehearsals at the University. And on March 12, 1982, the two-thousand-seat Kimiriithu Community was destroyed by the police and the theatre taken over by the government.’ The Kimiriithu Community Theatre did not feature any of paraphernalia of the university’s pro-government propaganda machinery or public relations department of the powers that be. It was, as Agye put it:
…a popular theatre in its true sense. It is theatre by the
people emerging from their collective effort. The peasants
and workers control its management, deciding on what to
produce through collective decision-making.
Again, in July 1979, Ngugi reported that the students of Riara Secondary School, Kiambu staged a play about a peasant plantation worker who subsisted on 300 Kenyan Shillings (about 150 naira) a month. The play was titled, Thi Ino Ihana Atia Andu Aitu (What a World). The staging of the play earned the school a raid and the teacher in charge of the production was interrogated by the secret police. A. Oko reported that in the western part of Nigeria, Hubert Ogunde’s Opera, Yoruba Ronu, (Yoruba People, be on Your Guard) was banned from being staged because it criticized an election swindle.
A pertinent question is worthy at this point. Why is it that it is only the works written in indigenous languages that have been engaging the attention of the authorities to the point of proscription and not the ones written in borrowed Languages? Indeed, why is it that Petals of Blood is allowed to circulate and Ngahika Ndenda (I will Marry When I Want) banned? Or why is Yoruba Ronu banned and Festus Iyayi’s Violence allowed to make the rounds? The answer is simply that, rather than align with the placid, neo-colonialist glorification, the proscribed works seek to activate the consciousness of the toiling masses and galvanize them to see every wrong in the way they are being governed.
The limitation often associated with writing in indigenous language is that ‘it reduces’ the writer’s audience sometimes drastically.’ This reason is another imperialistic blinker because, if the use of indigenous language would limit the readership to the oppressed and the work is meant primarily for them, who then is a university trained critic to impose his ‘eggheadic’ sensibility and judgment on such work? However, if such work does not have as its content materials that are meant for the peasants, the writer can go ahead and present such work in the language that meets the standard of his audience.
Creative works in a developing society should be audience-bound in regard with the language in which it is cast. The campaign against the use of indigenous language should not be considered at all, if the aim of the writer is to better the lot of the hoi polloi by rousing them. For if not for the fact that the content of America Their America is a stark reality of the shortcomings of the American society, why was JP Clark forced out of the US? Paul Okpokan not only did a term in San Quentin prison but he was prohibited from the US. His iniquity: His black sympathies and starring in a film titled Bush Man. Obi Egbuna was imprisoned in London; his crime was that ‘he sees the Blackman and his revolution in the Biblical image of Christ which he appropriated for himself’ in a book titled Destroy This House.
The argument here is that, if the blacks can comment about the decadence and hypocrisy of the white in his indigenous language, thereby effecting the consciousness of the white authorities and making them uncomfortable to the point that their stay in the white man’s country was prohibited, the black man should brace up and do similar thing for his society in his society, using his native language if that is the only weapon to deal ruthlessly with this protracted degeneration.
In this age of highbrow information technology system, the reliance on the printed characters alone may not be enough to effect the much desired reactions. There are many other devices, able and capable of reinforcing and enhancing the quality of message obtainable from the written medium. The film is a veritable option in this regard. When a message is read and assimilated, its retention in the head and inculcation into the habit system require some intensification. The film is suitably placed to ensure the efficacy of this onerous tendency because of its basic features and susceptibilities. It is sad that the theatre-going inclination and the theatre itself are crumbling in the face of the rampage of the film industry. However, the Kenyan experience is still a practicable venture, which could be replicated to meet local peculiarities of the developing environments. A further insight into the modus operandi of Kamirrithu Community Theatre as recorded by Agye should demonstrate its relevance to the plight of the masses and the possibility of the content of its message being people-oriented,
Decisions are arrived at through long discussions,
acceptance of criticism and self-criticisms… the
plays were created through democratic channels.
Contents for the play were discussed by workers
and peasants before the two Ngugis—Ngugi wa Thiong’o
and Ngugi wa Mirii—were asked to write the draft, drawing
on the discussions. The draft were read to the people, discussed
and change made. In the end about two hundred villagers took
part in the production of the first play—I Will Marry When I
Want. Four hundred people auditioned for the fifty parts of the
second—Mother Sing for Me.
It is obvious that the Kenyan instance as quoted above was revolutionary in execution and humane in planning. When were the contents of any play discussed with workers and peasants in any of the developing society before they were put on stage? Are the remnants of our theatres not reserved for the eggheads and their students (an elitist outlet to propagate support for the hegemonic inclinations of the ruling class?) If the committed creative writer can adapt his people-oriented works into plays and toe the line of KCT in their production, won’t the theatre be returned to its old glory and relevance? The fact that the film and theater appeal very much to the recreation of life through physical actions, their propensity for prolonged residence in the minds of the audience is guaranteed. Acting within this ambit, the attitude of the masses/poor is shaped faster, stronger and sharper than when the print is the only medium of reaching the target audience.
Having dwelt so much on the vehicles for hauling the word, it is pertinent to examine the desirability of ensuring multifariousness in the contents of the word. The need to diversify the source and treatment of themes is a sine qua-non to ensuring an intensively steady brand of response from the ultimate receiver of the message of the creative sender. Is it only in the area of social infrastructure entitlement that the masses are lagging? Politics, education, technological integration, the relationship between our oral tradition and westernism, freedom fighting, the need for ideological engineering and re-engineering, human rights abuses, environmental pollution are some of the burning and pertinent realms worthy of exploration. It is most gratifying to note that the world of thematic choice and treatment is one that lends itself to robust manipulation and recreation based on the prevailing conditions in the writer’s clime. So, what remains for the creative communicator is to be sensitive to the changing colors and nature of the disparagement and neglect of the masses; he should also be responsive to their success and gains as it is from these silent but salient and roaring dynamisms that he can pick and choose his themes.
It is not enough to create relevant and intimate themes, the quality of character and characterization must match the aspirations of the subject matter. It would result in negative orientation if, after choosing the right theme, its treatment results in the creation of characters that choose suicide in the face of natural or man-made challenges requiring instance resolve and decision or heroes that choose to keep mute when they should be strident in their condemnation of inimical developments.
In this age of mass resentment, uprising, and vociferous reactions, the writer should endeavor to create protagonists who have the feel of the people. A hero who truly reflects the bashing of the toiling, suffering masses; a staunchly dynamic personality whose experiences are parallel with those of the common man is most likely to enjoy round sympathy than a soft, lily livered semi-intellectual, who dithers when crucial decisions are expected of him.
There is no gain saying the fact that a system that prescribes rules and laws without evolving an enabling environment for the conventions to thrive and be obeyed, will soon find itself reeling in a discordant social system. The allusion here is to the dearth of books. For whichever manner it is viewed, the prescription of laws is tantamount to the need for literary works to be available to the reading public. The anxiety and psychological trauma resulting from the unavailability of relevant literary works is the chaos in the reading climate.
The frosty relationship between the writer and the publisher in the developing system was raised far back 1986 by the Nigerian writer, the Late Cyprian Ekwensi that,
What (I am) advocating is a lifting of the tight
and artificial control whereby books are
released to the reading public in droplet;
books are never available to be bought on
impulse, books are never printed in quantities
to meet the demand…
Faced with this type of lapse precipitated by whatever reason, it is still the writer who should design a temporary means of ensuring that his books are available ‘to be bought on impulse’ while the system is shoving and prodding the publisher to find a permanent solution to the unwholesome drift. Writers must be ready to finance the publishing of their works. They must be ready to learn the technology of publishing. They can do this as individuals or as a body of writers with similar hopes and aspirations. This arrangement is what is called self-publishing. The advantage is that the writer becomes the marketer of his works and he can determine areas where his work is most likely to sell and flood the venues with the product.
Heavy and intensive publicity breeds wide distribution possibilities. The writer who has decided to unburden himself of the troubles of our uninspiring publishers should not neglect publicity. Serial rights granted newspapers and magazines is one dimension of stimulating the interest of the masses even before the work is out of the printer’s shop. Is it not possible to hawk books like akara and moinmoin? Instances of this approach are obtained in the capital cities of several developing and developed environments. It may be argued that the books so displayed are old and second hand. But the question is can’t new books be displayed in like manner?
An addendum to the foregoing is Publish on Demand or what is referred to as PoD. This is a system where the book is printed after the buyer has signified his interest by placing order for such book. Needless to say, the technology involved may still be beyond the reach of the developing polities but the application of globalization, global village, and ICT phenomena should cater for the obvious technical obstacles that may threaten the success of PoD in the developing environments.
Another target audience, whose attention needs to be fed with imaginative news about the peculiar manner of subsistence in the deprived world and possible ameliorating alternatives, is the Africans in the Diaspora. According to a US state department official for African Affairs, there are
…roughly 35 million citizens of African descent
in the US with a collective purchasing power of about
$450 billion per annum…
Apart from the huge financial potential, the possibility of being read compulsively is very high because, the other part of the report says,
African immigrants to the US have some of the
highest educational attainments of any immigrant
group. 49 percent of African adult immigrants hold a bachelor
Translation is another salient responsibility of the writer. That the majority of literary works from the embryonic societies are written in the language of the colonial masters is constant. The unfortunate fallout is that, inasmuch as the trend continues, literary works will continue to be available for the consumption of the few miss-educated ‘literate’ ruling bourgeoisies. (That’s the very few of them who have the time to read.) Translating the seminal works into local languages may be realized through a concerted collaboration between the writer and the translator. It is even more pertinent against the backdrop of the lackadaisical attitude to creating the social and political climes for the Kenyan experience to flourish in the developing societies.
Establishing one’s métier as a writer is a sure way of sustaining one’s writing oeuvre. The writer in a developing social system should identify his forte. Once this is done, developing it, using the different areas of the diseased lives should not poise any difficulty to him.
Indeed, the tasks before the writer in a developing society are gargantuan but not insurmountable. What he requires is a change of orientation, focus and a will to reach out as much as possible. It should also always be at the back of his mind that, he is a an arbiter between the rampaging, insensitive political rulership that is daily unleashing socio-economic and political terror on the hapless, cowed electorate; the sympathy of his pen should tilt heavily on the side of the oppressed majority.
Thus, if the substance of this work is considered and employed in concert with other efforts of similar orientation by the literary communicators, not only would the teeming, reading masses have been provided with enough imaginative materials capable of informing the nature of their reactions; a society on course towards eliminating all the reactionary forces which are daily militating against the emergence of a near egalitarian developing society would have been put in place.
Egudu, R N – Modern African Poetry and African Predicament. The Macmillan Press Ltd. London and Basing Stroke, 1978.
Ngugi’s response to a question at a round table discussion titled ‘The Role of Culture in the African Revolution’ published in The African Communist, No.113, Second Quarter, 1998.
Ewen, D.R. – Nurudin Farah in The Writing of East and Central Africa. G.D. Killam (ed) Heinemann, London, 1984.
Za-Ayem Agye – Towards A Peoples’ Literature of Socio-political Awareness in Literature and Society: Selected Essays on African Literature, E. N. Emenyonu (ed). Zim Pam African Publishers, Oguta, Nigeria.
O. I. S. Odejimi – Death of a Link, Campus Publications, Abeokuta, Nigeria, 1997.
Ngugi, wa Thiong’o – Writers in Politics, East African Educational Publishers, Nairobi, 1981.
Booths, James. – Writers and Politics in Nigeria. African Publishing Company, New York, 1981.
Akomoye, Oko – Towards a Sociology of the Nigerian Playwright: The Playwright as an Intellectual in Society in Literature and Society: Selected Essays on African Literature. E.N. Emenyonu (ed) Zim Pam African Publishers, Oguta, Nigeria.