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Writing the New African: Migration and Modern African Literary Identity

It was a simple ceremony. Yet, at the end of it, the Nigerian literary circuit was never the same. In February 20004, the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) company announced the birth of a new literary prize in Lagos, Nigeria, with the highest prize money in Africa (£20,000). There were mixed reactions amongst the literati as the organisation had announced that the prize would be open only to Nigerian Writers resident in Nigeria. This they believed would truly make it a ‘national’ prize. By definition, to be truly classified as ‘Nigerian’ you have to be living in Nigeria. A writer in foreign land can no longer be referred to as Nigerian as their ‘experience and identity has changed over time.’

Unwittingly, the company had made a rather significant intervention in the identity discourse. They have taken the subjective position that identity is a function of geographic borders rather than culture, heritage and other factors that make up the persona. Soon after the announcement, Nigerian writers in diaspora, particularly those resident in United Kingdom and United States of America (USA) raised a united voice of protest at the seeming discrimination they are suffering from those who should be members of their artistic tribe.

As Dike Omeje, a UK based performance poet puts it, ‘it is not so much that the competition has been denied a vast array of quality works that could have enriched Nigeria’s literary landscape, we have been denied our citizenship and identity by our contemporaries at home; the same way we are being denied by those abroad. Our materials are derived from Africa and the stories most writers abroad tell is that of their experience at home.’

The migrating Nigerian author in Diaspora has been rejected and alienated, by that singular action, both at home and abroad. They are seen as too foreign, not even deserving of being called Nigerian/African by their home contemporaries while they are still seen as foreigners in the land of residence. Their story is like the ghost of Ama Ata Aidoo’s play, ‘Dilemma of a Ghost,’ wondering whether to go to Elmina or Cape Coast.

These writers have contributed a large corpus of literary work to the Nigerian and African domain and have helped readers, through the pages of their book or through the lines of their poetry, to take a second look at Africa and appreciate the roots and heritage of the writer.
It is pertinent then at this point to ask the question: Why the exclusion? Why the struggle of the migrating writer to assert his identity? The simple answer lies in the attitude of their contemporaries at home who feel that the writers in Diaspora are no longer telling the ‘African story.’ It is strongly believed that the migrating writers have yielded to the allure of the western hosts and have compromised their writing. This has caused them to lose touch with the African realia in return for incentives like writing grants, legal status, and profits from sale and western sympathy; to use a very familiar cliché, the writer in Diaspora has sold his conscience and returned to colonialism.

As one writer in Nigeria was quoted: ‘The writers in Diaspora are not telling our stories in their works anymore. They are writing of an Africa that exist only in their imagination and reflects what their hosts want them to hear.’ (The New Nigerian Newspaper, 14.06.2005)

Therefore, it is important to once again examine the identity question as it relates to the works of the writer and his heritage; time to ask the questions: Has the African writer in Diaspora told the true story of Africa to his readers or has he reduced his tale to fables that does not represent the true identity of his people? Has he told his own story of migration and its effect on him and his hosts? What really is the African literary identity?

These questions will be the basis of this discourse that attempts to engage the identity question and the effects it has had on migrating writers. The essay will also have a look at the positive effects of the narratives of the migrating writers and how it enhances their stake to be identified as Africans.

First though, let us examine the concept of identity.

What exactly identifies a writer? Is it the colour of his skin? The language he employs in his writing, the content of his book or the location of his birth? To this I answer, a combination of all these factors.

Although the term identity has a long history—deriving from the Latin root idem implying sameness and continuity—it was not until the 20th century that the term came into popular usage. Discussions of identity take two major forms—psychodynamic and sociological. A central thrust of both traditions has been to challenge essentialist understandings of the concept. These assume a unique core or essence to identity—the ‘real person opposed to the label attached’—which is coherent and remains more or less the same throughout life. Against this the emphasis within both sociological and psychoanalytic theories has been, to varying degrees, the invented and constructed character of identity.

The psychodynamic tradition emerges with Freud’s theory of identification, through which the child comes to assimilate (or introject) external persons or objects, usually the superego of the parent. Psychodynamic theory stresses the inner core of a psychic structure as having a continuous (though often conflicting) identity. Taking this concept further, the psycho-historian Erik Erikson saw identity as a process ‘located’ in the core of the individual, and yet also in the core of his or her communal culture, hence making a connection between community and individual. He developed the term identity crisis during the Second World War, in reference to patients who had ‘lost a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity’ (basically confused by the identity they have assumed and the one the war was forcing on them), and subsequently generalized it to a whole stage of life (as part of his epigenetic life-stage model of the eight life-stages of man). Here, youth is identified as a universal crisis period of potential identity confusion. Subsequently, the term ‘identity crisis’ has moved into common parlance. (Berger, Invitation to Sociology, 1966). Perhaps, this explains why we are still having this discourse so advance a period in the techno-sociological age.

If we are to follow the Freudian/Erikson definition, then the African/Nigerian writer will be someone born of Nigerian parents, who sees himself as Nigerian based on the beliefs of the parents and the cultural heritage handed down to them. For most of the writers abroad, it was not until sometime later in their life that they migrated out of their homeland and as such; their ‘inner core‘ has been formed, seeing themselves as Africans. Let us note that it is not just the fact of their birth within a geographical location that identifies them as African, but their relationship with the community in which they grow. This ‘inner core’ never changes, not even the colour of a passport changes it. It is a continuous and unbroken story.

That is why Helon Habila will remain a Nigerian writer irrespective of where he lives as his writing is a reflection of his background as an African raised in Nigeria. His works reflects this cultural heritage as it feeds off it. In his book ‘Prison Stories,’ Habila draws mainly from his unique experience within the Nigerian society where he grew and flourished as a journalist. This experience is uniquely his, experienced within the borders of Nigeria and bequeathed unto the world. This makes him African and Nigerian by all definition and while he may have migrated to some other geographic space, the experience is fixed in his psyche. He cannot lose that identity of African.

The sociological element of the identity question is a more fluid concept. According to John Scott and Gordon Marshall, ‘the sociological tradition of identity theory is linked to symbolic interactionism and emerges from the pragmatic theory of the self discussed by William James and George Herbert Mead. The self is a distinctively human capacity which enables people to reflect on their nature and the social world through communication and language. Both James and Mead see the self as a process with two phases: the ‘I’, which is knower, inner, subjective, creative, determining, and unknowable; and the ‘Me’, which is the more known, outer, determined, and social phase. Identification, here, is a process of naming, of placing ourselves in socially constructed categories, with language holding a central position in this process. In the later works of Erving Goffman and Peter Berger (quoted above), identity is stated clearly to be ‘socially bestowed, socially sustained and socially transformed’ (A Dictionary of Sociology, 2009).

The conceptual fluidity of the sociological elements of the identity is further evident in the significance attached to language within the social group.

Language plays a major role in any individual identifying himself with a social group. Most of the migrating writers still speak their mother tongue and for a fact still write in their mother tongue. Nguigi wa Thiongo is an example of an African writer who chose to write in his native tongue as a way of identifying with his people and not with the people of the geographic location he may habit.

However, it has to be noted that as the modern world continue to change, the social identity begins to take on a hybrid nature. Migration has encouraged writers to inter marry with people of other race, eat other food and embrace other culture. This hybridity of social identity does not make them any less African or Nigerian, but expands their horizon and place their writing in a wider context. That is why the identity question must transcend the fixed labels of gender, race, language and location as the transforming nature of human society is beginning to further ask question of what we know as ‘identity’ or what we base our definitions of identity on.

Even the father of negritude, Leopold Sedar Senghor married a white woman, a decision that at the time called his claim to believe in the negritude movement to question, but which, with the benefit of hindsight, has proven to be a leap across social segregations and a vote for tolerance and social inclusion.

At this point, it is pertinent to point out that the identity question is only answered by the person it is asked of. It is an assertion of the self; the way the respondent perceives himself and not what or how he is perceived. That is why Richard Jenkins stated that ‘identity is our understanding of who we are and of who other people are and reciprocally, other people’s understanding of themselves and of others. Jenkins further argued that ‘social identity is about meanings that are socially constructed rather than being about essential differences between people, skin colour, location, mannerism and gender. (Jenkins, Richard. Social Identity,1996).
This assertion is corroborated by Hall who stated that ‘it is possible to have what he referred to as fragmented identities; a situation where people no longer possess a single, unified conception of who they are, but instead possess several, sometimes contradictory or unresolved identities. (Stuart Hall, The Question of Cultural Identity, 1992).

Critical analysis of these submissions will indicate that both Hall and Jenkins place identity within the individual; his mind or consciousness where beliefs and practicalities are formed. Hence, it is possible for someone to be male and still be a feminist.

Therefore, location or geographical borders in isolation cannot be used as a basis for identity. Identity remains a concept of the mind of the individual in so far that Africa itself is not populated by black skinned people alone. There are Arabs in the northern part of Africa and Caucasoid in the Southern part; do we conclude that they are not Africans due to the colour of their skin? The world of Sports and politics does not think so at the Olympics and football tournaments like the African Cup of Nations where everyone of African origin is welcomed and the same should apply to the literary landscape.

Hence, for as long as writers with socio political link to Africa, either by virtue of being born by African parents or being born in Africa and then chose to migrate elsewhere, we cannot but accept them as Africans; as long as they uphold the shared communal values of the place they are choosing to identify with. Habited location cannot be used as the basis of resolving the identity question as there are indeed Africans in Diaspora who are promoting the values of Africa and that they do not reside in Africa does not make them any less African than those resident in Africa.

If identity is conceptualized in the mind of individuals, then literature will be its foremost vehicle. How is this so? Literature has served as an ambassador in more ways for Africa than any diplomatic mission can. All over the world, universities are studying the works of African authors, getting more knowledge about Africa from the pages of books than the average political ambassador can offer.

Though they may be based outside Africa, the authors are Africans who identify themselves as such and so should be respected.

But then, what about their story? Has it reflected Africa or changed with their experience and migration?


I know no better way of judging the future than looking at the Past‘ – Patrick Henry

Migration may have collapsed the barrier between time and space but it has also raised the question of the content of the writing of the migrating writer. The communal value of an African writer or the African experience (inner core) has been the main thematic focus of the writings of modern African authors. A progressive examination of African literature reveal that after the arrival of the Europeans on African shores in the 16th Century, slave trade boomed and literature became the only way of retaining whatever identity the slaves may have. As literature was still in its oral form, passed on from the mouth of one slave to another, it was easy for the slaves to keep folktales from their home and all its lessons in their head and to constantly repeat them to each other and to self as a way of keeping their sanity.

The slave shared his story as he moved from one location to the other. His fear was that he may never return to tell where he was taken and the telling of his story to the people he met on the way was to mark his path to the unknown and make his transition to the spirit world safer as orality was still the main vehicle to commune with the spirit world. As the slave shared his story, he maintained his identity. That is why today, the folktales may differ in terms of the characters and form, but they retain their sameness in terms of the moral code and contextually. I cite as an example, the similarities between the wily tortoise, always full of crafty acts in the Yoruba folktales and Kwaku Ananseh, the spider in the stories of the Ashanti people of Ghana. Almost all the stories share some striking similarities with the spider replacing the tortoise; showing the slave -in-transit has had contact with the people on his way to the point of no return at Elmina, on the coast of Ghana.

The slaves also sang aboard the slave ship and kept muttering the stories to himself and upon arriving on land, he kept sharing his story and folktales from homeland with those who would listen. Today, in lands such as Mexico, Brazil, Cuba and parts of Grenada, large communities of African descendants are using the Yoruba language in their communication and celebrations of their heritage. Oral literature had prevailed as a pillar of identification and social acceptance.

Building on the oral tradition, early 18th Century Slave Narratives by freed or escaped slaves was publicized by Abolitionists in Europe as a way of empowering the slaves and showing that bad as slavery was, it failed in one way; wiping out the asserted identity of the Slaves. It must be noted that in most of the books, the freed slaves referred to themselves as ‘African’ rather than slaves, choosing to be identified by the region of their birth.

Providing a Paradigm of the concerns in the slave narratives is Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassar (His Slave name). In his book, he told the tale of collusion by African Chieftains with the white slave traders from his kidnapping in his home village, to his eventual sale and journey across the ocean. He had every reason to be against his own people but still, his book is titled ‘The Narrative of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassar, The African.’ Ending the title of the book with ‘The African,’ Equiano asserted his right to belong to a people he left behind long ago, but whom he believes, he still shares a common heritage. That heritage comes through in the content of the book. However, it has to be noted that even back then, the issue of literary identity surfaced as a discussed argument. While Equiano has laid a claim to being an African, his narrative has been said to be anything but. The critic S. E. Ogude argues that the book is littered with borrowing, both from other contemporary African writers such as Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, and from Daniel Defoe. Ogude claims that “in many respects Equiano  is as ignorant of the African continent as Defoe’s Captain Singleton and Robinson Crusoe” and that “both Defoe and Equiano build their image of Africa on hearsay, pseudo-history and pure fiction. (Ogude, S. E. (1984), “Olaudah Equiano and the Tradition of Defoe”, African Literature Today; Heinemann Educational Books).

For the purpose of our discussion though, we can establish that Equiano started his servitude in Africa, forced to migrate to the Americas and then published in England. Yet his text is seen as a forceful African voice of the time and part of the element that eventually achieved the abolition of slavery.

Moving further down the timeline, the struggle against colonialism dominated a wide section of the literature produced in the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. What most of this literature did back then was to confound the colonialists and show that the colonized can write, have a voice and intellectually capable of handling their affairs. From the horn of Africa to the Savannah basin, the message was clear; Freedom. As African writers embraced socialist ideologies, it must be emphasised that  theirs was also a literature in constant motion of travelling as they were running away from colonial masters and writing in exile. James Nguigi would be in that category and he later changed his name to Nguigi Wa Thiong’o to reflect his African identity. According to Vicky Unwin, a former director of Heinemann Publishers and the editor of the African Writers Series, ‘Nguigi will always insist on writing in his Gikuyu language to show he was proud to be called African. The language was his connection to his roots and even though he would later spend over 22 years in exile, he kept true to his African heritage.

That was the literary identity projected to the world and defended with fervour, not only by Nguigi, but also by most of the writers of the time. Symbolic of this is the best selling African novel of all time, ‘Things Fall Apart.’ While this is not a review of the thematic and literary thrust of the book – all you need is Google search for that –  it is pertinent to our discourse to look at the book and how it has help define the African literary identity.

Achebe situated the book in the village of Umuofia, Eastern Nigeria. The locals speak the Igbo language and participate in traditional African rituals like the Egwugwu Festival and engage in leisure activities like wrestling and sharing  of the local brew, Palm Wine. The use of proverbs and anecdotes, deeply rooted in the African oral tradition cannot be missed as is the emphasis on family values, honour and hard work. The colonial element of the Anglican missionaries and District Commissioners further enhances the African experience, by bringing in the roles of the colonialists. Achebe employs the richness of the African oral culture to background his novel while addressing the fundamental issues of the time. In doing this, he shows that African literature can be contemporary without losing its identity and links to the oral culture. Achebe showed that Africans speak, have cultures and even if oral, have literature that is living, educational, edifying and identifying.

Achebe’s contemporary, Wole Soyinka wrote in Yoruba and English and his works reflect the customs and tradition of his people and his play, ‘Death and The King’s Horsemen still confounds and fascinates  most people outside Arica in equal measure, but is an affirmation to the close links Africans have to their cultural heritage and how western education has not broken this link.

The interface of the African experience and Colonial interaction is also expounded in Nguigi Wa Thiongo’s book, ‘Weep Not Child.’ The protagonist, Njoroge’s family love to sit around and tell stories; this most basic of the African oral education process. The woven tales that unite the people, enhance their heritage and ensure that their story is not lost in the track of time.

The legacies of Achebe, Nguigi, Soyinka and most of the writers of the colonial and early Post Colonial era, is to give African literature an identity that cannot be denied; a narrative of African experience filled with African traditions and socio cultural heritage. It was the face of Africa in texts, painted with words and upheld by the readers. These writers fought colonialism through their literature and asserted their identity through their texts.

Interestingly, the trio of Achebe , Soyinka and Nguigi would later spend most of their time outside of Africa. Indeed, migration would mean that these beacons of Pan African literature would ply their trade away from their respective homeland. Would this change their identity? Make them less Africans than the inhabitants of the geographical space of Africa? Hardly anyone can make that assumption..

Beyond the intersection of traditional values and colonial experience, at the heart of the African literary identity lies the mythologies of the African folktales or magical realism as a sector of the critical circle refer to it.

No other writer would demonstrate this any better than the first published Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola. Erudite scholar, Prof. Abiola Irele stated that ‘Tutuola’s novel did not go wholly unnoticed and unappreciated in Nigeria, as it has so often been asserted, (Abiola Irele, Chinua Achebe at 70, 2000).  In fact, while Tutuola’s novel is celebrated abroad, it faced severe criticism in Nigeria. Part of this criticism was due to his use of “broken English” and primitive styled language, which supposedly promote the Western stereotype of “African backwardness.” Following quickly is the criticism that Tutuola had plagiarised Yoruba myths for his best material (Lindfors, Bernth. Folklore in Nigerian Literature. New York: Africana, 1973).

Looking beyond the stylistics though – for most of Tutuola’s narrative are in actual fact Yoruba folklore, taken from the writings of David Fagunwa, who was writing in Yoruba around the same time Tutuola was publishing in English –  Tutuola himself provided the best answer to all criticism as he stated he wanted “to reach a wider audience to which this local material may have more general interest ” (Parrinder, Geoffrey. Foreword to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola. London: Faber, 1954.) This ‘local material’ refers to the Yoruba mythological characters like the Bush of Ghosts, ‘Iwin’ (Spirits) and countless proverbs that Tutuola rendered literally in his book. However, it is this local material that has established the difference between Tutuola and the writers of the time; reinforcing his allegiance to his African roots and making his writing African literature. Lending further credence to this assertion, Olakunle George noted that ‘a crucial role that the issue of orality has played is to enable a cultural nationalist-orientation to the way we think of African literature. The link with orality often serves writers (like Tutuola) as a rhetorically effective authentication of the labour of novelistic representation. Indeed, it is as though to stray too far from orality and its connotations is to give up a category that should ground modern African creativity. (George, Olakunle. The Oral-Literate Interface; The Cambridge Companion to the African Novel. F.A. Irele (ed,) 2009))

The African mythology, along with the other elements of the oral culture, thus provides the irrevocable paradigm of what defines African literature. This gives a clear understanding of why modern writers like Mike Okri, Helen Oyeyemi and Helon Habila have not strayed too far from the mythological and cosmological effect of the African culture in their writings while others like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Uzodinma Iweala have tapped into the folklore and extracted proverbs and anecdotes to give their works the African identity.

Social realism however, will mean that African literature or what constitutes African literature cannot just be measured by the contents of the book or a strict adherence to some unwritten rule about the oral code rather by other factors that have come to be part of the social fabric of a modern age. As socio political events of the post colonial era like bad governance, cross border educational exchanges and migration have added new chapters to what is the African ‘story’, the definition given to African literature will need a re- examination rather than a radical change. This re- examination will enrich rather than deter from the uniqueness of the African literary identity.
We will now consider how migration has affected the concept and reception of African literature and its role in the emergence of the new African literary identity.

Eyitayo Aloh
Eyitayo Aloh
Eyitayo Aloh is a Nigerian journalist and writer. He has published 4 children's books, Too Hot to Handle, Door of Opportunity, Flowers for Florence and Bode and The Chick. He also co-edited The Reward and Other Stories, a compilation of short stories by Secondary School children in Nigeria. He currently divides his time between Nigeria and Britain where he has participated in various literary conferences and events.

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