Chinua Achebe’s Notre Dame Lectures Focus on Igbos’ Perception of God, Man, Creation

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Chidi Achebe doesn’t officially wear the label of “publicist” for his world-renowned father, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. But count on Chidi to spread the word quickly and virally on the Internet about his father’s literary engagements in any corner of the globe. That’s how we first learned about Achebe’s three-day lecture at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, this week — Monday, March 23, Wednesday, March 25, and Thursday, March 26. As we write this blog late evening on Monday, March 23, Achebe’s lecture on Day 1 was probably already winding down.

We had emailed several questions to Paulinus I. Odozor, associate professor of Christian Ethics and a member of the organizing committee that selected Achebe to give the Notre Dame lecture. Odozor, CSSP, is a Nigerian-born professor.

TAN: Do you have a theme for Chinua Achebe’s lecture?
PO: The theme is “The Igbo and their Perception of God, Human Beings and Creation.”

TAN: Why was Chinua Achebe chosen to deliver this lecture? What aspect of his background interested the search committee the most?

PO: I need to provide some background to the Blessed Pope John XXIII Lecture Series in Theology and Culture in our department before I can tell you why Achebe was chosen for these lectures. The Department of Theology at Notre Dame is one of the largest and most prestigious of such departments anywhere in the world today. We are ecumenical and traditional, yet we are also on the cutting-edge in all aspects of theology today. One of our many interests has to do with providing opportunities for our students, faculty and others at large to be in dialogue with cultures and traditions everywhere. In doing this, we are conscious of the fact that the church is now a world church and as such needs to be in dialogue with all aspects and areas of the world in order to learn from them, be challenged by them, and to challenge them. Theology is therefore in this way a critical mediator between various aspects and segments of the human community. The Blessed Pope John XXIII Lecture Series in Theology and Culture is one prestigious and important medium by which we further the work of the university and of the church as a place where the church does its thinking. The last lecture in this series was on secularism, a much-talked-about aspect of our culture today.

What do you hope would be the message Achebe would leave with his audience?

PO: This year, we have turned to Professor Achebe to continue our dialogue with an important segment of the human community today- Africa . I want to mention two important points here. The first is that we consider ourselves fortunate to have Achebe come to give these lectures. Aside from the fact that his presence will enhance the standing of this already prestigious exercise, the truth is that Achebe has spent his adult life as a writer and scholar engaged in dialogue with the West, Christianity and Africa.

“Even though he does not wear the badge of theologian or religious studies scholar, he has done a lot to enlighten both theological discourse and the study of religion. He counts among the best theologians and scholars of religion in recent memory. His work continues to impact research not only in literature but also in religious studies and in theology.”

A second noteworthy point about the choice of Achebe is that Africa has moved center stage into Christian thinking and in the world of Christianity as a whole. Consider these facts: there are more Anglicans in Nigeria than in Britain , The largest seminaries in the catholic world are in Africa; Africa is the area of fastest Christian growth. This means that getting to know Africa has become a necessity for the Church in many ways. Thus, when a known and knowledgeable African scholar comes to present the kind of lectures Achebe is coming to present, everyone pays attention to hear what he has to say about the faith of Africa.

P.S.: A report has it that a book is likely to come out of Achebe’s lectures at Notre Dame. Stay tuned!
Expect a blog or two here on Chinua Achebe’s visit to Notre Dame in the near future.

Press Release:

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Chinua Achebe’s Three Lectures at University of Notre Dame

by Chinua Achebe Foundation

Achebe to Deliver the Blessed Pope John XXIII Lecture Series in Theology and Culture at the University of Notre Dame March 23, 25 and 26, 2009.

Nigerian author, poet, critic, and essayist, Chinua Achebe, will visit the Indiana campus of the University of Notre Dame, March 23-26, 2009, to deliver the 2009 Blessed Pope John XXIII Lecture Series in Theology and Culture. The three-part lectures will be on God, Man, and Creation, and will be published later this year by the University of Notre Dame Press.

Professor Achebe’s visit is sponsored by the Departments of Theology, English, Africana Studies, and the African Students Association. The Blessed Pope John XXIII Lecture Series in Theology and Culture has been described as “an important contribution to the post-9/11 debate on religions, cultures, and societies, and are first-rate lectures finely attuned to their moment.”

Professor Achebe, the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature (currently on leave from Bard College to complete two books), is the author of over 20 novels, short stories, collections of essays and poetry, as well as children’s books. He is best known for the novels often described as the African Trilogy – Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God. In addition to the publication of God, Man, and Creation, readers can also expect another Achebe collection, Reflections of a British Protected Child, from Anchor Books this year.

In perhaps his greatest work, Arrow of God, Achebe introduces his readers to the complexity of a rich African tradition. Employing an abounding, multi-faceted, layered narrative style, Achebe inserts the reader into the tensions that develop between the views, motives, and forces that have shaped Ezeulu, the chief priest of Ulu, his rivals in the tribe, in the white government, and even in his own family. Surrounded by trouble, Ezeulu adopts an increasingly cosmic view of events – surely in the battle of the deities, he finds himself humbled, reduced in stature and influence, merely, he concludes, “an arrow in the bow of his God?”

In his scholarly essay titled “Chi in Igbo Cosmology,” Achebe suggests that: “Since Igbo people did not construct a rigid and closely argued system of thought to explain the universe and the place of man in it, preferring the metaphor of myth and poetry, anyone seeking an insight into their world must seek it along their own way. Some of these ways are folk tales, proverbs, proper names, rituals, and festivals” (“Chi in Igbo Cosmology,” 161).

Achebe was raised as an Anglican ( the Church of England) – his father was a catechist in the Christian Missionary Society – was equally interested in exploring his ancient African religious and cultural traditions. His literary works explode with this creative tension and he provides an important ‘outside’ perspective on theological issues often ignored or submerged by the pervasive ‘universal,’ cultural debates. The University of Notre Dame is pleased that he is participating in this conversation on the world stage.

ABOUT NOTRE DAME
Notre Dame is America’s leading Roman Catholic University and is rated among the nation’s top 25 institutions of higher learning in surveys conducted by U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review, Time, Kiplinger’s and Kaplan/Newsweek. The university was established in 1842, by a 28-year-old French priest, Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., and seven companions, all of them members of the recently founded Congregation of Holy Cross. Today, the beautiful Notre Dame campus is spread over more than 524 acres of Indiana mission fields.
The Department of Theology at Notre Dame represents the heart of the education in faith and reason that the University of Notre Dame strives to give to its students. Guided by the ideal of “faith seeking understanding,” its faculty conducts critical reflection in six areas: moral theology, spirituality, history of Christianity, liturgy, biblical studies, and systematic theology, in service to all students, the larger Church, the academy, and the broader public.

Meet Mister Humorist, Journalist, Memoirist

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by Cyril Ibe

This blog is dedicated to those African immigrants who boldly and tirelessly wear many hats in the U.S. while chasing their “American Dream.” Like Edwin Okong’o.

I never knew of him before that historic Tuesday, January 20, that marked the inauguration of his Kenyan “cousin” as America’s first black president. I read about him on a flyer emailed to me announcing that he was going to do stand-up comedy at a presidential inaugural ball organized by the National Association of African Journalists in Washington. I know so much already about the “thirty something” humorist, journalist and memoirist. He’s one busy African immigrant, creatively pursuing his “American dream” simultaneously on several fronts.

Okong’o introduces himself on the comic stage thus: “I’m from Kenya, and Barack Obama is my cousin.” A smart line. He gets you to pay attention to him. (If you follow this link, be sure to scroll down at least mid-page to watch “Poor, funny me!”)

This University of California-educated journalist was editor of Mshale in Minnesota. Very refreshing to see a publication that bills itself as “the African community newspaper” in America when you’d think it’s part of a dying breed. (I’ve been there — with the now-defunct “African Newbreed” magazine, which I co-founded, co-edited and co-published for several years in Chicago).

Turns out, the memoirist is also a prolific writer. He’s kind enough to grant us permission to share one of his short stories — a true story, “The Day I Became a Man,” on this blog. Edwin Okong’o would love to hear from you. So would we. Here it is: “The Day I Became A Man” by Edwin Okong’o.

The Day I Became a Man

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In my culture, the circumcision ritual marks the passage from childhood to manhood. When I turned ten, I had to face the knife.

By Edwin Okong’o

We lay face down on the grass, two ten-year-old boys, completely naked, outside my uncle’s saiga, a hut where young Gusii men live until marriage. The cold from the mid-December dew cut through my tiny body like the knife I was about to face. The tips of my toes and fingers hardened from the cold and felt as if they were going to explode. Ants bit various parts of my body. In Makairo, my rural birthplace, a village nestled in the Gusii highlands of southwestern Kenya, only fireflies illuminate nights. I was scared. My heart was pumping fast. Yet this was only the beginning of a three-hour wait. And I couldn’t complain: I had asked for the harrowing experience. It was time to prove that I was capable of becoming a man.

The men who ordered us to the grass, and were now indoors, drinking, cracking jokes and talking about girls, had arrived at dusk to guide me in my painful journey to manhood. They said that at three o’clock in the morning, we would start a five-mile trek to see omosari, a traditional circumciser. He would be waiting with several knives immersed in hot coals, ready to chop my foreskin off, without any form of anesthesia. Once there, I would stand, back against a sacred tree, with men pointing spears at me, ready to kill me if I made a sound that could embarrass my father and the village. By the time we got to the man who would sharpen our spears, as the Gusii would say, my mentors hoped freezing my body would lessen the pain.

Gusii is unlike the vast savannah; the image foreigners usually associate with Kenya. There are no acacia trees. Most children who grow up there have never seen the wild animals you would see in a safari. The topography of Gusii is so unique that anywhere you stand you are on top of one hill and at the bottom of another. In all directions, there are randomly placed steep hills, dressed with tea plantations and tall eucalyptus and avocado trees. Corrugated iron-roof mud houses and grass-thatched huts dot the landscape. There is a creek every two miles or so.

The Gusii people, who make up six percent of the country’s thirty-four million people, are small-scale farmers who rely entirely on their land for food. Their main crops are corn, beans, bananas and sweet potatoes. They also grow tea and coffee, which are their major sources of income. Because of the fertility of their land, and rain that falls almost all year, most people born there do not leave. This makes Gusii the most densely populated region of Kenya. The average family has five children, and people live in homesteads made up of extended families. Although the Gusii had embraced Christianity and discarded most of their customs, traditional circumcision rituals were very common when I was a child. The rite of passage still defines a Gusii man.

My ordeal had begun to take shape a year earlier, in January 1983, on the first day Makairo Primary School had reopened after a six-week break. Kenyan schools run on a trimester calendar, beginning in January. Instead of taking a long summer break, like American schools, Kenyan schools take three breaks, in April, August and December. Because of the Christmas holiday and the time reserved for circumcision, the last break begins around the middle of November.

The first day of the school year was special for boys. It was when you knew who had become a man during December. The newly circumcised boys, aged between ten and twelve, seemed happier and always ready to announce that they were now grownups, deserving respect for facing the knife bravely.

At recess, tens of older boys, those who had been circumcised more than a year earlier, gathered the new men to make sure their demands for respect were valid. The secret meetings occurred in the bushes behind the red brick classrooms, near a creek that ran though the school. With older boys in a circle to shield them from girls and teachers, the new inductees to the world of manhood proudly showed their recovering penises, amid praise. When all were inspected, the older boys turned to those who did not make the cut. In January 1983, I was one of them.

“Why didn’t you get circumcised, you punks? Are you cowards?” an older boy named John asked.

“A relative died on my mother’s side of the family,” I replied quickly to avoid the ridicule I knew was coming.

They laughed. It was the custom that if a relative died in a year when children were to be circumcised, the ceremony got postponed. Although it’s a painful act for the soon-to-be man, circumcision is a celebration, and carrying one out in a year that a family member dies is disrespectful. If the dead person was elderly, the whole village may choose not to circumcise any children that year, as a sign of high respect. What I did not know was that this rule did not apply to the death of a maternal relative. The older boys figured out that I was lying.

I did not become a man in 1982 because my parents decided that, at nine years old, I was too young. They also had another concern: I was a coward. Every little thing made me cry. Paper cuts sent me bawling to my mother. The women in my family called me Marera, the Gusii word for “crybaby.” My parents decided that I could not withstand the pain of circumcision without anesthesia. My cowardice would cause more pain, in the year that followed, than the knife I dreaded.

In Gusii, the consequences of failing to graduate to adulthood with your age group are great. In just six weeks, the same boys who had been my friends for what seemed like decades – fishing, hunting, trapping birds, and hollering at girls together – became my superiors. I could not call them “Yaa,” a term that denotes close friendship when addressing age mates, and authority when summoning younger boys. I was omoisia, an uncircumcised boy, who has no right among men. He does not have a penis; he has ekemincha, a tail, which must be cut to make him a man.

If I accompanied my friends at all during our childhood adventures, my role was of an assistant, not an equal. When they needed someone to dig up worms from swamps for fish bait, they assigned me. Failure to obey the circumcised boys sometimes led to violence. I have a scar in the back of my head inflicted by a boy who thought I had no right to protest the unfair share of passion fruits he took after making me crawl through thorny vines to harvest. Such injustice motivated me to make sure that 1983 did not pass without my circumcision.

To toughen up, I would not cry for the whole year, I vowed. One superstition attached to circumcision motivated me to be brave: No woman would marry me if I was not cut. The fear that crying at the sight of the knife would embarrass my father and Makairo, forcing the men to kill me, also helped.

In the beginning of the year, I moved from my parents’ house to the saiga with my teenage uncle. He had been circumcised two years earlier and would be my mentor as I prepared to become a man. The first step was to identify a young rooster and raise it to maturity. The young men, who on the eve of my circumcision would congregate to ready me for the ritual, would slaughter and stew the fowl.

The next task was to gather firewood. Heat is essential for a speedy recovery. A fire has to be continuously burning when boys are in seclusion. Letting it go out during this period prompts rejection from potential brides because the initiate is seen as someone who failed to complete the process of achieving manhood. In the olden days, such men had to travel far away to villages where they were not known to find wives. Although I would have my teenage uncle to help make sure that the fire stayed burning, it was my responsibility to provide enough wood to kindle it.

I devoted Sunday evenings, after doing all my chores, to digging up stumps of omotobo, a shrubby thorn tree most commonly used for fencing and demarcation. It was the firewood of choice for initiation because it burned slowly, keeping the fire going even as we slept. There were several plants that could be used for the purpose, but none were as effective. By the end of September, I had enough wood to burn for a year, let alone a month. On the last day of the school year, I promised the boys I would return a brand new man.

The first week of December came and passed without a word from my father. My patience began to wane one morning after a round in the shopping center, delivering milk. We were one of the few families that had a surplus. My father owned a Jersey, a European-breed dairy cow that, he often bragged, yielded enough milk to flood the village. One of our customers was the family of my best friend, Jones. One day, Jones failed to answer the door, as he usually did, to receive the milk. I asked his older sister, who had now taken his role, where he was. She said he was in seclusion after circumcision, and inquired why I was still delivering milk. I unequivocally assured her that plans were under way. When she asked again two days later, I knew it was time to act.

I did not ask my father if he intended to get me cut that year. My relationship with him was not a happy one, even though I was at such a tender age. We lived together, but I did not know much about him. He never talked about his life to me. It wasn’t until after my thirty-first birthday – eight years after his death – that I returned from the United States to find out, from a biographical flyer distributed at his funeral, how old he was and what schools he attended.

What I knew was that my father was a man who believed that there was such a thing as a stupid question. If I asked one, he punished me, often with lashes. He was a teacher, and like most of his colleagues educated in the colonial days, he carried on the oppressive legacy of the British long after they had left. Many Kenyans who were more educated than their fellow citizens at independence mistakenly believed they became successful because of the floggings they were subjected to in British-run schools. I knew no parents more abusive than those who considered themselves educated. Because I was so afraid of my father, I did not speak to him directly. I went to our mediator – my mother – as I usually did when I needed something from him.

My mother was my best friend, which was unusual for a son in a culture that expected boys to be tough like their fathers. Our relationship was almost a secret. We laughed, hugged and joked when my father was away, but kept a distance when he was home. She was my only source of solace, a protector from the wrath of my father, who cracked the whip in ways that make Kunte Kinte’s torture in “Roots” look like a child’s play. My mother was required to report to him any “sins” I committed in his absence, but seldom did so because she knew that even the littlest of them resulted in severe punishment. I returned her favors by helping around the house.

I found her in the kitchen, sitting on a stool barely a foot off the ground, preparing cornmeal porridge for breakfast, as she did every morning. I asked her if my father had set a date for my circumcision.

“You’ll have to wait another year,” she said without looking at me, rapidly stirring the porridge to keep it from clumping.

“Why, mother?” I asked, protestingly.

“Atang’a died this year. Remember?”

I was devastated to find out that my father had decided against my circumcision. I broke my vow and cried in protest, several times that day, at the thought of enduring another year as an outcast. When I saw my father walking up the driveway, I calmed down, certain by then that my mother would pass my grievances to him.

That evening, my father called me to the kitchen, where he sat around the fire with my mother as she cooked dinner, to deliver a resounding no. He also forbade me to talk to my mother about it because “Men don’t talk to their mothers about such matters.”

I went to bed angry that a man’s death, months earlier, could deny me my adulthood. I was even angrier with Atang’a for choosing to die in 1983. Despite being old enough to be my great-grandfather, the man was one of the strongest I knew. He was slender and stood about six feet tall. He had a very dark complexion, a tiny goatee on his pointed chin, and very little facial hair. Atang’a always wore the same gray woolen trench coat with nothing under it. I never saw him wear trousers, even in the coldest months. On the rare occasions when the youngest of his two wives was able to talk him into letting her wash the coat, he wore a blanket and went about his daily routine, weaving baskets and thatching roofs with grass – unbothered by the stares of people of later generations, who were unaware that that was how Gusii people dressed in the pre-colonial days.

Atang’a was my father’s close friend, despite their age difference. I did not know how old they were. A date of birth was not important, at all. Even today, there are no birthday celebrations in Makairo. Many children are born at home and most parents do not see the need to have written records. Even I, the son of a teacher, did not have a birth certificate until 1993, when it was required for a passport. Thirteen years later, I found out, from the same flyer circulated at my father’s funeral, that he had underestimated my age by a year. In such a culture, it is hard to know precisely how old one is. Men and women of Atang’a’s generation were said to have been born in the year of “the locusts,” or of “the great drought.”

I watched my father sit with Atang’a and other men on weekends, sharing stories and long wooden straws immersed in a five-gallon earthen pot of busaa, a corn-based homebrew. Such get-togethers were the village’s equivalent of bars, only no one paid for beer. Men earned respect from having their wives host. Up to a dozen men sat around the pot, passing the straws to each other, as people sharing a hookah pipe would. Only close friends were invited to the pot, and a song they often sang made it clear:

Siberia ong’e, aye siberia ong’e, Mosaiga.

Ayeee, aye Mosaiga.

Toa monto, ‘saiga, toa monto okobayabaya.

Ayeee, aye Mosaiga.

The lead singer in the ditty invites his best friend, the man he shared a saiga with at circumcision, to take the straw and draw busaa. But he reminds Mosiaga, “Give the straw back to me, not to a man who is not a true friend.”

The men talked about their lives, travels and adventures. Some had gone to work in forests as lumberjacks, others in commercial tea plantations. At the busaa pot, they met to share their experiences. From such tales, heroes were inducted into the village’s oral history book of great men.

Atang’a’s legend was that he was brave, strong and resilient. When the British colonial administrators rounded up men from the area to work in plantations in the Rift Valley, Atang’a ran away and walked hundreds of kilometers home. He often talked about how he escaped at night from a camp owned by a white man who cultivated sisal, an agave plant used for fiber, which the British brought to Kenya from Mexico in the early twentieth century. What motivated Atang’a to abscond were the working conditions. Three years after Atang’a’s death – by sheer coincidence – my father moved us to what was probably the same valley Atang’a escaped from. We lived in a house that most likely belonged to the British plantation owner. It was here that I would find the answer to why a man would walk night and day, risking his life to get away.

The unintended journey to discover Atang’a’s colonial-era workplace began in December 1985, when my father announced that my brother and I would be accompanying him to a new teaching job in the Rift Valley. We arrived in Lower Solai in January, the hottest month of the province. It was not anything like Makairo, my paradise. The heat from the dusty, semi-arid earth scorched my bare feet like I was walking on red-hot coals. There were mosquitoes, even in the daytime. Acacia thorns were everywhere. You couldn’t go a hundred yards without seeing a venomous snake. When the rains came, four months later, roads turned into temporary rivers, forcing residents to take long detours home. Yet, horrible as things were, people were at liberty to build on high grounds to keep floodwater away from their homes. In the hot season, they had the freedom to take breaks from their work in the fields to seek shelter. As a forced laborer, Atang’a didn’t have that luxury.

My two-year residency in Lower Solai explained why Atang’a would risk being mauled by lions, leopards, and cheetahs to get home. I learned why Atang’a gambled that he would make it safely through the territory occupied by the Kipsigis, one of Gusii’s most vicious tribal enemies, who could have easily mistaken him for a spy or a cattle rustler. Whenever someone at the weekend busaa drinking parties asked him how he traced his way home, Atang’a said he followed the sun west. Did he ever think he might not make it alive? “Yes,” he would say, “but when you are subjected to the kind of brutality and humiliation we experienced in the hands of the white man, death becomes attractive.” Atang’a’s strength and determination made him my hero.

I also thought Atang’a had control over his mortality. In the years leading to his final death, the old man “died” at least twice of excessive alcohol consumption. During the last one of those “deaths,” his family actually started to make funeral arrangements. He “resurrected” after more than a day in a coma. Why would such a tough man, let me down in a year when I needed him the most? As I struggled to figure out what to do next to avoid another year of bullying, an idea struck me. There was a powerful person in my family who held a vendetta against Atang’a that spanned more than half a century. I knew she would be thrilled to overrule my father in order to strip Atang’a of the honor postponing my circumcision would accord him.

Those of my generation in our extended family grew up thinking Atang’a was my grandfather’s uncle. Not until twenty-three years after his death did I find out that he was my biological great-grandfather. The man who married Kemunto, my great-grandmother, was Atang’a’s older brother. He died before my grandfather was conceived.

Gusii widows do not remarry. A married man, usually her husband’s brother or cousin, takes her over. He becomes a sort of visiting husband, and a father figure to her children. The children, even those he then fathers, consider him an uncle. He should always go back to his wife or wives. The system is meant to continue the lineage of dead men, an obligatory task for relatives.

Atang’a inherited Kemunto, who had four children already, all of whom died before they reached adulthood. Because she had lost these children to disease, my great-grandmother wanted more. Atang’a, however, wasn’t too excited about her. He left after giving Kemunto only two children. It’s unclear why, but I can guess.

Baba, as we affectionately called her, was no ordinary woman. She was a tough disciplinarian, even to her livestock. I watched her day by day, as she spent her last decade of life sitting on a goatskin outside her grass-thatched mud hut, legs crossed at the ankles, her cane next to her. From the goatskin, she watched her goats graze. She shouted commands whenever one went too far. The goats mostly obeyed, but sometimes one refused to comply. Baba then called out for a child, usually me, and ordered the goat brought to her. She lectured the animal and bit the back of its neck, leaving it crying in agony, as we burst into squeamish laughter. The punishment never made any goat obedient, but that never stopped Baba.

My great-grandmother’s treatment of people who crossed her is even more telling. In a culture dominated by men, a woman, especially a widow, had to be tough to defy them. People in Makairo regularly spoke of how daring she was. She told me stories of how she fought men who attempted to take advantage of her. A black colonial chief tried to sell her goat because she had refused to pay taxes; she wrestled him to the ground and recovered it. She would later choose to spend five days in jail every year rather than pay taxes. Another brother-in-law stole grain from her barn; she went to his house and almost choked him to death. A neighbor tried to move a boundary because, he argued, Baba’s land was too big for her only son; she chased him away with a machete and dared him to try again. So dictatorial was my great-grandmother that one of my uncles nicknamed her “Smith” because he thought her style of running the family resembled that of Ian Smith, the brutal colonial prime minister of Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe), who in 1965 declared the colony independent from Britain in order to deny blacks self-rule. These unusual traits for a Gusii woman might have scared Atang’a away.

Because he was the legal inheritor of his brother’s widow, she was forbidden to seek other men. For this, my great-grandmother despised him. I don’t ever remember the two of them talking or even being at the same place together. To get an idea of how much Baba hated Atang’a, you just had to watch and listen to her when he passed by on the way to visit my father. She mumbled insults at him, calling him among other things, a worthless piece of crap. She spat after every derogatory phrase, a sign of disgust and resentment in Gusii. As her sight got worse with age, Baba sensed Atang’a by smelling fumes from the raw tobacco he always smoked, rolled in cornhusk. Therefore, when my father decided to delay my right to become a man because of the death of a relative Baba hated, I knew I could count on her to overturn his verdict.

It is hard for most people in the West to understand how a woman in a continent supposedly riddled with misogynists and male chauvinists would have so much power. But in Gusii, women gain more authority, as they grow older. Mothers got the most respect; those who had great-grandchildren ruled their families. They possessed power that was almost supernatural. They had the ability to condemn anyone who defied them to great suffering, the Gusii believed. Fail to heed an old woman’s warning and she will put a curse on you. My great-grandmother’s loss of many children to death may have also made her more vigilant to protect her only son.

Baba supported my grandfather like a religious extremist. He had answered the call of duty to inherit his cousin’s widow, but unlike Atang’a, abandoned his wife to move with his new lover away from Makairo. He only came home once or twice a year to collect money from a tea plantation his wife and children toiled in. Because it is taboo for a woman to question her husband, or a son his father, my grandmother was powerless, even as her children dropped out of school for lack of funds. Her attempts to complain only pushed her name up on Baba’s long list of enemies. My grandmother was almost nonexistent. Her rise in the family hierarchy only came after Baba’s death.

It didn’t take long to convince Baba to take my side. I was her favorite, the oldest great-grandson. She called me Uncle Obegi, after an uncle who raised her when her parents died. Her love for me, mixed with her hatred of Atang’a, made it easier for her to say to my father, “I want Uncle Obegi to face the knife before I die.” He knew better than to argue.

My partner in the march to manhood, the boy shivering next to me on the grass, was my cousin. The twenty or so young men who ordered us to lie down naked had gathered hours earlier at my uncle’s saiga to start the process. It was there that we would be in seclusion for three weeks, during which we would leave only for nature’s calls and only through the window. There would be no baths during that period.

The oldest men in the group, who were in their late teens and early twenties, conducted the ritual, as the younger ones observed carefully. My cousin and I had walked into the room, each carrying the rooster we had been raising all year, gifts to our mentors. The men were ecstatic. Chicken was something most people in Makairo ate only on special occasions. Our diet was chiefly vegetarian.

We handed the fowls to the men. Four of the oldest passed them around, gauging by hand if they were heavy enough. They could reject one if they thought they were being shortchanged. When they were satisfied, they passed the birds to the younger boys to slaughter and stew. One of the boys took my rooster and walked out to the garden behind the hut, as I followed, lantern in hand. He laid the rooster sideways on the ground, his left foot on the wings pinned behind its back like a handcuffed prisoner about to be decapitated. He stepped on its scaly legs with his right foot to keep its body stable. He wrapped its head in his hand, as if to prevent the bird from seeing the sharp knife another boy was about to hand him. Without even saying a prayer for the poor creature’s soul, he slit its throat, leaving the head connected to the body only by the skin. The rooster’s body jerked, shooting blood from its neck like water from a child’s squirt gun. A moment later, the boys were plucking, chopping, and stewing the roosters. It was the only time tradition allowed men to cook in a saiga, for cooking was a woman’s task. While the men cooked, they ordered us to take off our clothes, to begin a long ritual of hazing.

The men started to question us. No matter how we answered, we got in trouble. They asked whether we had had sex with girls. I said I hadn’t. How did I expect to become a man if I had not had a woman, they asked. They responded by slapping, pinching and whipping me with canes from all directions. One man even wanted to hit me with a poison ivy-like plant used in the ritual to measure a boy’s ability to endure pain, but another said my father had strongly forbidden it, probably because he feared I would cry like a toddler and shame him. My cousin, seeing me abused, lied. They served him the same treatment. Who gave him permission to sleep with girls when he was uncircumcised?

The men gave us a crash course on how to act as men. They interrupted the ritual to send us naked to my mother’s house to tell the women to cook obokima, staple cornbread, that we would eat with the stew. We returned only to be punished for indecent exposure to women.

After dinner, our mentors read us the rules men had to live by, most addressing things you don’t do with your mother. Never peep into, or enter your mother’s bedroom. Never sit next to your mother on a bench. Never sit by the kitchen fire with your mother. Never hug your mother. Could I, Mama’s boy, survive under these tough rules? I couldn’t imagine not sitting with my mother, as I did nearly every day, listening to stories about our extended family no one else told. Or the fascinating childhood tales she shared, something my father never did. I took the oath to abide by the rules not knowing that twenty-three years later, I would return to Makairo to break all but one that would embarrass my mother.

At around four in the morning, after a long night of torture, I was delighted to learn that the Christian faction of the family had decided against the more painful traditional knife. My cousin’s father had managed to convince my irreligious father that their father, a devout Christian and the number two commander of the family who executed his duties from the self-exile, would not be happy if they did the ritual the Gusii way. They summoned a doctor trained in Western medicine, the Christian way.

Because we were the last boys in Makairo to be circumcised that year, the doctor was able to come to our home. The men who had been tormenting me all night placed me on the doctor’s table under a cherimoya tree, a few yards from the saiga. They blindfolded me and held me down, like they had the rooster that shed its blood for me hours before. I knew the procedure would be less painful, but there was still pain involved. The doctor injected my “spear” with anesthetics and began to work. There was some pain, but a real man does not flinch like a chicken. A few minutes later, I descended from the table back to the earth where my blood spilled into the soil, a man. My fellow men burst into a vulgar ceremonial song about things I would do to women now that I was a man.

***

The Gusii still consider the ritual an important step to adulthood. I agree. But I see the rite of passage as serving only a cultural function today. It is what identifies a Gusii man. If I ever have a son, I would have him circumcised. It won’t be at the age of ten, but when he is born. When he is as old as I was when I became a man, I would take him to Makairo for a feast to announce to my kinsmen that he is a man. I value the rituals of my ancestors, just like religious believers adhere to theirs. Unlike my father and those of his generation, though, I would not rob my son of his childhood by expecting too much of him at an age when he needs to be embraced.

Where Gusii’s traditional hardliners and I differ is in the belief that circumcision is what makes a man. I am lucky to have been spared the need to condemn the hazing and omosari’s knife, for most parents have dropped that part from the ritual, preferring instead western methods. But I still look at how useless the horrifying experience was. I don’t ever remember drawing any lessons that benefited me from that night, perhaps because my mentors were not aware that times were changing. Now I find the rules of manhood standing between my mother and me.

More than two decades after I became a man, I went back home after twelve years in the United States. As I stepped out of the taxi, my relatives waited. My mother was in the front of the line to greet me. I walked up to her, trying as hard as I could to hold back tears. I felt like a little boy again. I wanted a big hug from my loving mother. She reached out to offer a handshake. I wanted to ignore it. Hug me, Mama, and don’t let go, I wanted to say. “Never hug your mother! Never hug your mother!” the voices of the men in my uncle’s saiga rang in my head. I settled for a handshake. I placed my left hand on the back of hers, sandwiching it as we shook. I had not felt her warmth in decades. I let the tears roll.

©2007 Edwin O. Okong’o. Republication of copyrighted material without the owner’s consent is unlawful. For permissions please contact okongo@gmail.com

A Nadine Gordimer Harvest

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by Cyril Ibe
In our first blog for 2009, “resident novelist” Benjamin Kwakye offers his first review of an African novel. His first pick (from his arm-straining stack of titles, see the photo on the review blog) is The Pickup.

Perusing Ben’s review of Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup sent me out to the worldwide web to harvest articles of unique insight on the iconic South African writer to share on this blog. The hunt turned up, as you might naturally expect, an impressive yield. From Ivy League gatherings disecting or connecting with The Pickup at Cornell University to Gordimer’s biography about growing up Jewish in Springs in Transvaal, South Africa, from a Charlie Rose television interview to her Nobel Prize speech, you will savor a rich sampling of what we have gathered on Nadine Gordimer.

We have set out on a unique mission of exposing the African novel, and the African novelist on The African Novel blog. Your feedback would be most appreciated. Do read and drop us a few email lines! Here is the Nadine Gordimer harvest:
Cornell University students pick apart post-apartheid novel
■ Connecting the novel to
college life at Cornell
■ Nadine Gordimer on the image and the word
■ Nobel Presentation Speech
■ BBC interviews
Biography of Nadine Gordimer
■ Nadine Gordimer and the South African Experience
■ Nadine Gordimer: The Conscience of South Africa
■ Nobel Lecture on Writing and Being
A Beneficiary by Nadine Gordimer
■ Nadine Gordimer on Larry’s Radio Pieces
Charlie Rose talks with Nadine Gordimer

Novel Review: Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup

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"Resident novelist"by Benjamin Kwakye

Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup is a post-apartheid novel set partly in the author’s homeland of South Africa. The narrative attempts to tackle the thorny issue of interracial relationships. Even more in its complexity is the international nature of the relationship between the novel’s two main characters.

Ibrahim is an illegal immigrant in South Africa when he meets Julie Summers, a privileged white South African, who seems to thumb her nose at the privilege that has begotten her. A casual romance develops into a carnal union. Even then it’s not clear that the consummation of carnal urges will lead to the complexity of the relationship that Nadine Gordimer navigates. By the time we begin to appreciate the depth of the relationship between Ibrahim and Julie, Gordimer has already succeeded in winning our sympathies for the novel’s characters.

Unable to legalize Ibrahim’s stay in South Africa, even with his connection to privileged, albeit rebellious, Julie, the two lovers have to relocate to his homeland. That Julie will shun her privileges to follow Ibrahim to what, by Gordimer’s account, is an impoverished African country may appear a bit far-fetched. But a more startling revelation lies in wait. And it is that revelation that endears the reader to Julie, to her convictions, to her strengths.

The Pickup sidesteps the expediency of simplicity, to deal frontally with issues of love, race and class struggle. Gordimer, once again, validates her stature as a great novelist.

Nadine Gordimer was born and lives in South Africa. She has written several novels and essays and received numerous awards. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Pickup is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Benjamin Kwakye, our award-winning, “resident novelist,” is the author of The Clothes of Nakedness (Heinemann) and The Sun by Night (Africa World Press), his latest novel.

WRITERS’ SHOWCASE: CHARLES LARSON

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Courtesy of Zed Books

Courtesy of Zed Books

By Benjamin Kwakye

Charles R. Larson’s The Ordeal of the African Writer is a must read. Larson combines thorough research, writers’ personal accounts, and perceptive analyses to expose both the overwhelming odds facing the African writer and, like the continent itself, the writer’s heartwarming endurance. Larson’s account is both depressing and inspiring. But it is this quality, and the book’s blend of accessibility with numerous accounts of writers’ personal experiences that give it an inescapable human quality. To suppose, however, that aspiring writers might be discouraged from pursuing the craft after reading the book, misses the point. Amid overwhelming difficulties, African writers continue to endure and to pursue their craft. It becomes obvious that such writers are inspired by something greater than their difficulties. And herein lies the triumph and hope for the present and the future. It is hope somewhat captured in Larson’s suggestion for the establishment of a Pan-African publishing house devoted to the publishing and promotion of African literature. Even if, given the history of failed attempts in the past, this suggestion might be deemed utopian, it still calls for a positive rejoinder.

It is evident from reading The Ordeal of the African Writer that you have a strong personal interest in African literature. How did this interest develop?

My strong personal interest in African literature goes back to 1962, when I arrived in Nigeria as a Peace Corps volunteer and taught English at a boys’ secondary school in southeastern Nigeria (Oraukwu Grammar School, Oraukwu) for two years. But I’m equally interested in this material because African writers need to be read more widely in the United States. For close to 40 years, I’ve worked to get their books in print in the U.S.

What motivated you to write the book, and what do you hope it will accomplish?

I was motivated to write The Ordeal of the African Writer out of a concerned feeling that African writers are not on an equal playing field with those in the West. I hope the book will convince Western publishers to publish African writers and do everything they can do to nurture African literature.

In parts, The Ordeal of the African Writer is very disheartening, especially some of the heartbreaking personal accounts so vividly summarized in the book. Do you have any concerns that an aspiring African writer would read it and decide that it’s not worth the trouble?

“African writers will always write, thank God. But they need to know that there are obstacles which they will face that have nothing to do with the quality of their writing. In other words, don’t give up! Talented African writers will eventually find publishers interested in their work.”

What, if anything, surprised you the most about the difficulties of the African writer?

I am surprised by nothing in Africa or African writers. The continent is fabulous, the people are wonderful – given proper leadership there will be a true African Renaissance.

What makes the African writer endure amid all his or her challenges, and is any of this unique to his or her situation?

All writers survive on hope, for their own work and for their countries, a double burden for African writers. I could be crass about this and say that African writers (living in Africa) can live on less than Western writers living in Europe or America, where things are more expensive. But that’s not fair. African writers need the same things that Western writers do: recognition, readers (their own people), money.

Short of the Pan-African publishing house that you suggest to publish and to promote African writing, is there anything that can be done to improve the situation?

Yes, governments can say that writers matter. Why can’t the Nigerian government issue a postage stamp with Amos Tutuola’s face on it? Why can’t Guinea issue one for Camara Laye? What would that cost? Why can’t African nations honor their artists (not just writers)?

You argue clearly that despite the difficulties, there’s a great deal of talent on the continent. Still, without strong support systems what, in your view, is the future of African writing and publishing?

The future of African writers is not good. Books are so expensive in Africa that most Africans cannot afford to buy them. Last year, Things Fall Apart sold 100,000 in the United States and 2,250 in Nigeria. Thus, Chinua Achebe (to over-simplify the issue) lives where his readers are. Bottom line: How can African writers become known in their own countries if their fellow countrymen cannot afford to buy their books?

Do you see the Internet as an option for writers from Africa to get published and find a wider audience?

No, I do not see the internet as an option for African writers — not at the current time. Too many African countries do not have reliable sources of electricity and phone lines. What does an internet connection cost in Mali? Who has access to these luxury items? Bottom line: produce books that Africans can purchase for 25 cents or 50 cents and then you’ll have African readers.

Some have criticized your book for over-dramatizing the difficulties of the late Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola in the first chapter of the book. The critics say that you pay too much attention to the inability of the African writer to support himself or herself when, in fact, that may not be unique to the African writer. Your response?

Amos Tutuola was NOT appreciated by his people. That cannot be denied. Nigerians ignored him, except during those times when the press called attention to his obscurity. He died in poverty; a collection had to be taken up (in the West) for his funeral. These are indisputable facts — and he was treated badly by his Western publishers. All writers everywhere want to be read by their people and they want to earn enough money to live comfortably from their work. Tutuola was not read by his people and he could not live comfortably from his work — indisputable facts.

Any closing message to the American audience about African literature?

Obviously, Africans living in the United States need to read African writers but, more importantly, whenever they return home to their own countries, their suitcases should be filled with copies of books by African writers. Take books to Africa!

Benjamin Kwakye, author of The Clothes of Nakedness (Heinemann) and The Sun by Night (African World Press). He was senior editor of “Book world” for Afriscope Radio and Afriscope Weekly, which featured reviews, and interviews with authors of Black titles.

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Chinua Achebe Celebrates Things Fall Apart at Harvard

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Acclaimed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe joined an auditorium packed full of his fans and admirers Monday, Nov. 17, at Harvard to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his far-reaching novel, Things Fall Apart. Achebe, who marked his 78th birthday the day before, delighted his audience with readings – not from his prose, but from his poetry. Here is an article published in the Harvard’s Crimson on the event.

On a personal note, unable to abandon shoulder-high piles of ungraded college papers to attend events like the one held at Harvard, I have been marking the joint celebrations of the golden year of Things Fall Apart and Achebe’s high septuagenarian milestone by re-listening and relishing anew some of his BBC and NPR (National Public Radio) archived interviews and reports. (Download version 8 or higher of Adobe Flash Player to enjoy the NPR audio). The interviews were conducted many years apart. You’d find them an absolute delight!

One last note, for those who would expect a press release to formally launch this blog, you’ll find one on this page. Read it and help us announce that The African Novel blog has made an official entry into bloggersphere. – Cyril Ibe

WRITERS’ SHOWCASE: BENJAMIN KWAKYE

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Cyril Ibe interviews Benjamin Kwakye during a visit to Central State University in March, 2007

Cyril Ibe interviews Benjamin Kwakye during a visit to Central State University in March, 2007

Benjamin Kwakye is the author of two novels, The Sun by Night, The Clothes of Nakedness, as well as several short stories. Over the years, he has served as reviewer of African novels on Africa-oriented radio programs in Chicago, including Afriscope and Window to Africa. As host and producer of these radio programs, Cyril Ibe talked with Kwakye about his works, the works of other African novelists, and the state of the African novel. The following is an edited transcript of one of the radio interviews with Kwakye:

As a voracious reader of African fiction, what worlds do you discover that may remain distant to the non-reader?

In a matter of hours of reading, I am able to experience other African cultures. For example, I am able to visit Egypt through the eyes of Naguib Mahfouz, explore parts of Cameroon by reading Calixthe Beyala, appreciate South Africa and its growing pains from Nadine Gordimer’s perspective, understand Zimbabwe from Yvonne Vera’s lens, appreciate parts of pre-colonial Nigeria with Chinua Achebe, even explore aspects of my native Ghana from another angle from someone like Ayi Kwei Armah. The list goes on and on. Africa has many brilliant writers who entertain and challenge us, expose us to different parts of the continent we may not have had the chance to visit, and even offer us different perspectives on those we’ve already experienced. Because reading requires use of all the senses through the imagination and because African literature is so rich and diverse, this is highly empowering and transforming.

You’ve been reviewing African novels on radio in America and providing listings of titles on the Internet for sometime now. Who is your audience and what kinds of feedback do you get?

The audience comprises of those interested in African and Caribbean culture and literature, although part of what we are doing is intended to increase that interest.

Given their ability to reach a wide audience, radio and the Internet are both powerful media for showcasing African works. The reviews and title listings allow us to share works that otherwise might go unnoticed. In recent months, for example, we have tried to include works published in Africa that may otherwise fall under the radar of fiction readers. This approach has especially struck home. I have been encouraged to continue to bring these works to the attention of the audience. At the same time, more and more writers and publishers are taking note of the reviews and listings and encouraging its continuation as a way to promote African works.

As an African novelist, how do you feel about the low readership you and other authors like you enjoy?

It’s a bit disheartening as a general matter, knowing that there’s so much that Africa has to offer: its diversity, vitality, wealth of culture, history, and so on. I think part of the low readership is symptomatic of the larger marginalizing of the African continent. In part, it is also driven by the lack of patronage of African writers by Africans themselves. Perhaps in our own small way, by what we are doing at Afriscope Radio, for example, we can help create or increase interest in African literature. I must state, though, that the only sure and, in my view, most satisfying reward for the writer of fiction is the pleasure of creating something worthwhile, knowing the joy that comes from what has been described as “the indescribable joy of creation.”

How unique is radio as a medium to introduce African literature to an American audience?

Radio is able reach a much wider audience and in a quicker way than other media, whether broadcast or otherwise. It is easily accessible, easy to transport and does not necessarily require a long time commitment. It is for this reason that a program like Afriscope occupies a unique place in the media by offering an American audience the opportunity to explore Africa’s peoples, culture, history, and Africa’s vibrancy which are all embodied in one way or the other in the continent’s literature.

How do you want readers of your first novel, The Clothes of Nakedness, to approach the work?

I encourage readers to pay close attention to the Akan proverb from which the title is derived: “If Nakedness promises you clothes, hear his name.” In a world of clothed people, what does this nakedness mean? I also encourage readers to ask the question: Who and/or what is Mystique Mysterious? Mystique Mysterious is the character in the novel around whom all the others revolve. Seemingly full of good intentions, he promises jobs to unsuspecting poor people and exacts a price for that. We know very little about him and it is fascinating, in my view, to see how differently the other characters react to him. Do they succumb to him completely? Do they ignore his influence in the community until it is too late? Or do they deal with him squarely and face the consequences? I think these questions will facilitate a better appreciation of the novel.

The Clothes of Nakedness won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book for the African Region. It has also been adapted by the BBC for radio. How do you feel about these honors?

The recognitions are very gratifying. I wrote the novel simply because I like writing. Finishing it was ample reward for me. The award and radio adaptation, therefore, have been completely unexpected. In particular, the radio adaptation was fascinating as it allowed the novel to be expressed in a different medium. I was thrilled to sit back and see another’s interpretation or, if you will, reinterpretation of the book.

It appears that a growing genre of African fiction in America deals with the immigrant experience. What specific purpose does this body of work serve?

It allows for Americans and others to experience America through another cultural prism. It takes such readers from the comfort of their own experiences and opens another window to them. It is harder to appreciate what the other person is saying unless you’ve lived in his or her skin. Of course, it is impossible to do so, but this genre of African fiction gets us close. If read closely and with open-mindedness, that kind of writing can even move us closer to empathy, and hardly anything is more effective than that.

How do you read the prospects for greater readership for African fiction in America?

Writers everywhere encounter enormous difficulties. For African writers, coming from and writing about a continent that continues to be marginalized, these difficulties are compounded by other factors. Anyone who doubts this should pick up Charles Larson’s The Ordeal of an African Writer. I have hope, however, in the fact that African writers continue to write amid overwhelming odds. And in some ways, there have been some breakthroughs. Achebe, for example, stands out. It is the resilience of the African writer that gives me hope. Unique African media like Afriscope Radio are helping to spread the word. I’d like to see similar oriented programs proliferate.

What have you been working on these days? Are there any new novels in the horizon?

I have been working on other fictional titles as well as a number of short stories. Things don’t always move at the pace we would prefer, but one has to allow these things to take their natural course. I am hopeful that something will come out soon, though.

The African Novel: Unto us, this blog is born

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Choosing November, 2008 to launch a new blog titled The African Novel is more than an auspicious moment worth celebrating.

Things Fall Apart, the classic, pioneering African novel, and its Nigerian-born writer are both immersed in festivities marking two literary milestones this year. While Chinua Achebe’s first and mostly widely read novel celebrates half a century since its publication in 1958, the author himself turns 78 on November 16.

Enter this new blog as a symbolic extension of the celebration of African letters. As the first of its kind, The African Novel weekly blog promises to chronicle the multi facets of the making of African literature – from the perspectives of writers and readers alike. Among other things, watch out for reviews, author interviews that will illuminate both the writing process and the unique treasure that is the African novel.

While this blog will rise mainly from the collaboration of two friends – Cyril Ibe and Benjamin Kwakye — whose radio interview meeting was occasioned by the publication of Kwakye’s The Clothes of Nakedness in 1999, it will be open to guest bloggers. Yes, let them blog about African letters.

Back to the celebration of the golden anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart. Fans across the world are re-reading their copies of the novel, keeping up with the tempo of the festive year. Readers are savoring their favorite passages and quotes for the umpteen time. Here’s a collection of quotes from Things Fall Apart. With that, welcome to the premier edition of The African Novel blog! May this new relationship with you be long and mutually fulfilling!

Half a Century for `Things Fall Apart’, and counting…

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“`Things Fall Apart’ looms as an inescapable influence in African letters and a classic for all English speakers.” — Scott Timberg, Los Angeles Times.

This is the year of Things Fall Apart. The classic, pioneering African novel by Nigerian-born writer, Chinua Achebe, marks half a century in 2008, and still counting. Achebe won the well-deserved 2007 Man Booker International Award. South African-born Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, one of judges for the prestigious award, remarked that Achebe has dedicated his life to revealing “the political upheavals, the embattled end of colonialism, the fight for freedom, including freedom of expression, by which the personal lives of the people of Africa have been shaped.”

The year, 2008, is indeed the year of this world-acclaimed novel, as yearlong celebrations mark 50 years since its publication by Heinemann in 1958. Back then, little did the unsuspecting, 27-year-old Achebe anticipate what literary impact his narrative of the unprecedented clash of British colonialism cum Christianity with native Igbo civilization/culture at the turn of the 19th century would have on world literature.

From readings in American church basements and college campuses, including Harvard and Bard College (the author’s college home in self-exile), to cultural performances in Achebe’s native Igboland in southeastern Nigeria, the year promises a rich medley of festivities.

At the same time, tons in both print and the Internet are being written on the golden anniversary of Things Fall Apart. Check out this article in the Washington Post which is typical of how this literary milestone is being celebrated in print. The Los Angeles Times is not to be outdone in this.

In this podcast by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Achebe reflects on the abiding influence of his novel on world literature. His reflection comes with the seasoned wisdom of a man of letters who marks his 78th birthday November 16.

Happy half a century to Things Fall Apart! To Achebe, I say, “ka ndu di!” (May there be more life!)

Cyril & Ben: CWP and African Writers

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Last week’s announcements of Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2009 regional winners have been drawing congratulatory messages across the globe. We at The African Novel Blog wish to add our own chorus of congratulations, particularly to the winners in two categories for Africa: Best Book, Mandla Langa (South Africa) for The Lost Colours of the Chameleon; and Best First Book, Uwem Akpan (Nigeria) for Say You’re One of Them. Shortly after the CWP Africa shortlist was announced earlier in the month, Cyril Ibe put the following questions to Ghanaian-born novelist, Benjamin Kwakye, a one-time recipient of CWP honors. Ben is “resident novelist” for The African Novel blog:

CI: Some question whether there should be a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize at all, suggesting that there is no such thing as Commonwealth literature. Do you agree?

BK: If you stretch such reasoning, you might even question whether there is any such thing as African literature or English literature or any other literature denominated by nationality, geography, or other criteria. You are likely going to find similarities and differences so that some level of arbitrariness will be needed. So to me, the important question is whether the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize celebrates and applauds literature. I think it certainly does.

CI: As a writer who has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Africa Region, what can you say about how adrenalin flows in the bodies of writers shortlisted for the awards?

BK: I would expect many, if not all, of the writers to be filled with anxiety at the same time as they are full of pride. Between the release of the shortlist and the announcement of the regional winners, the writers for whom this is a first nomination would be nervous and anticipative, but their expectation would be laced with joy in the knowledge that their works have already been recognized through an impressive shortlist.

CI: To be shortlisted is no easy feat for any writer. What do you think it means to the lucky writers?

BK: Their works will gain increased readership both nationally and internationally. I have said elsewhere that the mere joy of writing and completing a book is ample reward; however, such recognition adds encouragement. That is not to say that you need the validation of others to write, but given that some writers face overwhelming odds, the support that such recognition and spotlight may provide should not be under-emphasized.

CI: How do you think the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is helping in inspiring budding writers in Africa ?

BK:

“Because African writers usually enjoy low readership for various reasons, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize offers an avenue for international recognition. It becomes a beacon of sorts that might encourage aspiring writers that there’s an institution out there that is willing to evaluate their work and put it in the limelight, so that those that may be hesitating would be encouraged to put paper to pen. Having said that, I would encourage aspiring writers to write out of the joy of doing so, without the expectation of rewards or awards. There is great gratification in transforming a blank piece of paper into something worthy.”

CI: Do you have any advice for the writers shortlisted who did not get the prize in the end?

BK: I think they should consider themselves winners regardless of what happened. Out of the many submissions, theirs made an impressive shortlist. They should not take it as a poor reflection on their work as, faced with a very difficult task, the judges’ final decision should be put in its context. It is a particular decision made at that moment by a set of judges. Other judges could reach an entirely different decision.

P.S.: Shortly after the CWP Africa shortlist was announced, award-winning Nigerian novelist Helon Habila took his fellow Nigerian writers to task in a scathing article published in Next online, questioning why only Uwem Akpan represented a country of many notable writers.

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