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Writing the New African: Migration and Modern African Literary Identity

AM I WHERE I LIVE OR WHERE I COME FROM? MIGRATION, MIGRATING WRITER AND LITERATURE IN AFRICA.

Writers of African descent have recently faced questions regarding their claim to be called Africans and it is not just indicative of the location of their residence or birth in the case of second generation migrants. The contents of their writings have also been blamed for not adhering to the unwritten code of what constitutes African literature. A writer in Nigeria, Akintade Sopeju, vocalised this accusation when he said ‘this writers are removed from what is on ground in Africa. They have sold their soul for immigration papers and only write what their masters want them to write about their home. They are far removed from Africa, do not have African interest at heart and so cannot be said to be African writers.’ (Post Express Newspaper, 22.10.2001).

His submission is representative of how the writers in diaspora are viewed by a section of their peers thus making us ask if the location of a writer in anyway changes his identity or if the content of his writing makes him less ‘African.’

Migration has always been a part of the development of literature in Africa either in Sahara or the sub Saharan area. As noted earlier, Olaudah Equaino’s narrative was made possible by the Christian mission that he joined and his literacy is owed as much to his reading of the bible as his oral background. While this is not a discourse on the moral uprightness of the Christian missionaries in Africa, the role they played in introducing religious texts, the bible and hymn books as well as educating the native Africans to read and write played a major role in the codification of the African languages and the subsequent transposition of the oral culture to the literary form. These migrating missionaries would later be instrumental in the translation of the religious texts firsts and publication of journals to educate the native Africans.

This process of migrating texts would continue down the times and rather than demean the African or oral texts, they have provided a means for the African writer to explore his background and give the world a different kind of literary genre.

Moving to contemporary times, the major accusation will be the representation of Africa in literature where the focus has often been on the failure of the post colonial political leaders to fulfill the promises made to the people at the outset of independence and then invariably generating a literary corpus of rebellious writings. This ‘discourse of dissidence,’ has firmly been the thematic focus in books such as Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie, Prison Notes by Helon Habila, Invisible Chapters by Maik Nwosu and Graceland by Chris Abani. In truth though, what this writers have done is help turn the light on oppressive regimes in the outside world and bring about elements of change. They have thus used their only known weapon, literature to help their home. Yes, their writing is literature, African literature.

Social realism would mean that as the world continue to grow into a smaller village – thanks in no small measure to the advancement of technology – migration will always be a part of the social, cultural and economic mobility process and elements of it will continue to filter into the writings of African authors. It has not in anyway become an indication of abandonment of African identity, but rather an affirmation of the right of these writers to be called Africans as they have written what is going on in their society. Just the same way as writers who are resident in Africa are writing about the same problems they face in their literature and it has not been termed a rejection of African ideals.

I cite as an instance here, the thematic thrust of Toni Kan Onwordi’s book, ‘Ballad of Rage.’ A book that is contextually based on the issues of Nigeria during successive military regimes. It is noteworthy that not one accusation has been raised against Onwordi, either by the writing community or the local press. Yet, his plot narrative is no different from what his contemporaries outside Nigeria, are telling in their books.

The African-in-diaspora experience has added a new outlook to the narrative of the African literature. Biyi Bandele’s ‘The Street,’ is an example of this. He demonstrated that for most of the migrants, travelling is simply a journey through space as their culture has been transposed from their homeland to their new environment. The street is in fact a symbolic expression of an Africa dominated area in the United Kingdom where even the children born around there still have the feeling of living in Africa even though they are thousands of miles removed from it.

As noted by Chinua Achebe in Homes and Exile, ‘Stories create People create Stories (Achebe, Home and Exile, Oxford University Press, 2000). Therefore as the socio political terrain of Africa continues to experience change, then the writer, either as a cultural griot recording events or an historical observer, cannot close his eyes to the events but report and write about them. I do not agree with the notion that any writer has sold out for the purpose of immigration papers. Writer’s license would mean that every perspective on a particular story must be respected even if we do not agree with it. It will also mean we respect the right of the writer to have a voice, unique to him. Changing times would mean the stories created continue to change and the writer must write this change.

Thematically, migration has also benefited African writing. It has expanded the definition of African literature beyond orality and introduced gender, sexuality and class discourse; things hitherto unheard of in the sphere of literary discussions in patriarchal Africa. Today writers like Oyeronke Oyewunmi and Unoma Azua can make feminism and sexuality a subject in their works and not be afraid of being put to the critics sword for standing up to the heavily patriarchal society that they have come from; subjects addressed by Flora Nwapa in Efuru and Buchi Emecheta in Second Class Citizen much earlier but not totally well received in the African literary domain. In fact, it was noted by Kevin Ryan that ‘Things Fall Apart would confirm Africa as a very patriarchal society where women are considered weak and docile, with their only function that of child bearing, rearing and domestic chores. (Post Express Literary Supplement, 2003). The women writers mentioned above though have brought issues like matrifocality and women’s rights into the discourse of African literature. While it will still be very hard to state categorically that these are now subjects acceptable for discussion in the African terrain, the fact that the writers who have written them are of the ‘Africans in diaspora’ tribe shows that the influence of migration on African literature is continuously emerging, continuously evolving. They have opened up new areas of exploration for the writer and also expanded the world view of what is considered African literature beyond orality.

The critical perception and reception of African literature has also been enhanced by migration and migrating writers. Academic discourse such as this one are taking place all over the world and Universities are also having Africana Studies department, African scholars and literary enthusiasts are also beginning to pay more serious attention to literary materials from Africa as having powerful educational weight.

This is no mere accident, but the result of hard work of the writers in diaspora who have made the best use of the facilities accorded them by their new environment to promote the literature of their homeland and to engage the established theories of literature from other parts of the world and from other periods.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

As World literature continues to benefit from the large corpus that come from African writers, the identity question appears to be one that will not be dismissed with easily. It has continuously evolved from racial, to gender to sexuality to geographic and indeed to nationalist spectre. However, we have established that to be called an African writer, there must be that shared experience or ‘related allegiance to African Culturalism’,(George, Olakunle. The Oral-Literate Interface. Cambridge Companion to African Novel. F. A. Irele. (Ed) 2009). This definition will mean there must be a connection with Africa, either by birth or heritage, as in the case of second generation of immigrants who embraced the writing art. An African writer is not someone writing on Africa or Africa related themes. At best, they are pacifists or friends of Africa.

In establishing this definition, a deliberate attempt was made to use only sociological paradigms of the identity discourse. No, this is not an attempt to discredit the definitions already proposed by literary scholars, but to firmly reposition the identity of African writers from a passive narrative filled with esoteric words to a functional element of the social debate and further enhancing some of the conclusions reached. This makes the writer a member of the society rather than alienating him. The African writer thus becomes part of the society rather than a mere subject.

The Freudian/Eriksson theory in particular the focus on the inner core has helped explain why African Americans would want to move from their geographic location and be identified with people who live miles away but share the same heritage.

The role of orality and its influence on African literature cannot be over emphasised for it forms the bedrock upon which the pillars of African literature are built. These pillars though have now been developed and hold other forms of evolving and still emerging areas of literature, all central to Africa. It cannot be said that the quality of African writing has been toned down or ‘lost its soul’ as a result of the thematic focus of modern writers. The story of the day has to be told and that is what the writers are doing. It does not make it any less African.

Modern Africa is no longer the Africa of thatched roof and round clay huts; African countries are now cosmopolitan with big cities, airports and highly intellectual writers. Modern Africa has built universities on the foundation of Timbuktu and Alexandria and its citizens are students at such institutions of learning. Sadly, this is just part of the story as Africa is also the home of neo colonialists, despotic dictators, corrupt politicians, fanatic religious leaders and a constantly agitated populace who wants an end to all the wars and hunger and pollution that are becoming an everyday occurrence in Africa. These are the reasons for the mass migration of authors and writers to foreign countries but like the slaves of the colonial era, they have taken their literature with them and are telling the stories to the world.

In fact, literature from Refugee writers fleeing violence and those seeking political asylum have become a major intervention in the political history of many African countries. The book has thus become as powerful as the AK 47 on the battlefield in helping to heal the wounds of war. This is not a new phenomenon. It is the major thrust of African writing post independence from colonial master and while it seems most of the literature of that time was still willing to blame the departing colonial masters for the decline in the social state of Africa, the modern writers are going ahead to point the fingers at the corrupt natives who do not govern in a beneficial way to their people.

As the geographical lines that separate the world continues to collapse on paper, it is pertinent to note that, like the Bata dancer, constantly in motion, the identity discourse will continually change its step and direction and migration will continue to play a role. With the cyberspace now offering more in the area of expression and freedom of speech, it is not coincidental that it now offers a new platform for the African voice to be heard. This cyber mediated public sphere has replaced the village square as the converging points of ideas from Africans both at home and in diaspora.

On this point of cyber fora becoming the focal location of ideologues and discourse, we have to mention that it seems no one is concerned as to the geographic location of the contributors on this fora; everyone is welcomed provided they share that related allegiance to Africa, either by birth or heritage. Websites like AfricanWriter.com, african-writing.com, africanwriterstrust.org and africanwritersabroad.com have now become the rallying point of African literature and ideas, bringing together African writers all over. It would seem that cyber space has succeeded to break down the barriers and help forge the pan African spirit in writers.

Migration will continue to influence the path of African literature as writers continue to strive to endogenise what is known as African literature. More stories will be developed and told, more will be disturbing, yet more will soothe. The migrating writer may face the crisis of identity and acceptance but in his writings, he can always be assured that his African roots are established.

Being African does not mean falsifying the realities or ignoring the problems in Africa for the sake of arts but engaging the issues using the primary vehicle of oral literature and transposing this to the written form. And for as long as the writer is of African origin, he can stake a claim to be called an African.

African writers and writings have evolved and embraced the modern developments especially in the digital field and with migration at its epicentre, the voices are being heard in the open square of the world. The new African writer is a world writer and the story told, while inherently African, is universal in nature.

This discourse is the definition of today; the definition of tomorrow is already being written.

 

AUTHOR’S NOTES
1. This Paper was originally presented at the ‘Travel and Writing Conference’ of The University of Wolverhampton, Telford Campus in August 2005. While some updates have been made and new materials added, its content remains essentially the same. However, since that time, the NLNG Literature Prize has been opened to all Nigerians irrespective of their location.
2. Helon Habila’s book ‘Prison Stories’ quoted above has since been repackaged for the international audience as ‘Waiting for An Angel.’

About the author

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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