|A critique of African Short Stories, edited by Chinua Achebe and Lynn Innes
Word Count - 3009
African Short Stories is a pleasure to read but irksome to review – and for the same reason. Appropriately enough for a book featuring twenty different authors, the collection showcases some very different pieces. The stories are refreshing in that they have so much variety. This same variety, however, makes it difficult to reach a conclusion about the book as a whole. It is impossible, perhaps, to capture a single essence of such a kaleidoscope of writing. This by no means makes it impossible to offer a response to the text, either as a personal reaction or academic critique, but it does shape the form that this response will take.
A good model for responding to a text such as this could therefore take the following form. Firstly, a response to the text must reflect upon the format. It must consider what choices have been made in compiling the collection, and it must evaluate how successful these choices have proved to be, giving due consideration to any issues as they arise. Secondly, the response must appreciate that like most such anthologies, African Short Stories is to be enjoyed in segments, not as a whole. A critique must recognise these segments and, to an extent, review them as discrete from one another. Finally, the critique should look to put the text ‘back together again’; to assess how it well it functions as a whole.
This paper will evaluate African Short Stories following this schema, with one variation - given that the text has twenty stories, it would be disingenuous to offer critiques to each one individually, at least without writing at considerably more length. The second section of this paper will, therefore, concentrate on just three of the stories.
‘Putting it together’
Even the title African Short Stories hints at some of the issues that must have arisen in selecting the texts. Of the three words, ‘African’ is the one that requires the most consideration. At a first glance, it might not seem especially problematic to determine what is and is not African, but the reality is more complicated. For example, is a text written by a European living in Nigeria African? Does the situation change if that ‘European’ has been living there for many years and considers him or herself ‘African’? What of a member of the African Diaspora living overseas – does it make a difference if they are first, second or tenth generation immigrants? These are, of course, rhetorical questions intended to highlight how the boundaries set which establish what is and is not African are fundamentally arbitrary, and are to be determined by who ever is drawing them, and for what purpose they are being drawn.
Many works of political and sociological analysis draw their own boundaries dependent upon what they see as a sufficiently homogenous subject to study. Herbst, for example, finds it acceptable to treat most African states as grouped together, given their "similar...population structures, levels of technological development and stocks of material wealth"1, yet he excludes South Africa and the North African states from his comparative analysis, given their radically different histories.
If political scientists believe they can find overarching similarities across African systems of government, perhaps a literature critic can find patterns of similar scope across African cultural discourse. Indeed, if there are no similarities to be found in literature labelled as ‘African’, then such a label is, to an extent, pointless and arbitrary. Femi Oyebode frames this question “Is there an African Aesthetic?” in his essay of the same name. Critically evaluating the notion that much African literature has underlying qualities that suggest homogeneity, he searches for “a set of aesthetic values which are said to be recognisably African”2. He explores the various possibilities, such as the alleged potential for Africa’s ‘oral tradition’ to shape more contemporary writing, and the possibility of not one “African aesthetic, but a plurality of African aesthetics”3. He, however, largely rejects such notions. Instead he decides the similarities to be found in African literature are no more specific than the features shared by all literature, noting that ultimately, “language has to exploit what is common to all”. Oyebode, therefore, denies that one can demarcate something ‘African’ or ‘not African’ purely on the basis of its literary features.
Even though Achebe’s introduction states that the decision to group the texts by geographical region was taken without any particular intent, it is still interesting in that it reflects the notion that certain regions might share certain literary traditions. While breaking down Africa into four compass-point regions is of course an over-simplification of African social realities, there are certain strengths to this approach. It allows the juxtaposition of some stories that deal with similar themes. For example, two of the West African Stories, one by Sembene Ousmane and the other by David Owoyele reflect on the role of Islam in society, even if the former does so in a much less serious manner. Similarly, discussions regarding the relationship between Africans and the Europeans are more prominent in the South and East groupings. Yet, regional differences in these works are not particularly acute. In many of the stories, in fact, it would be very difficult to place a story within the continent studying the text alone, at least omitting references to places, character names and so on. Indeed, many of the stories could be set any where in the world, dealing as they do with all manner of universal human themes; love, parenthood, betrayal and so forth.
Innes and Achebe’s qualification for an African appears to be those who were born in the continent and have also written there. While the definition is perhaps slightly narrower than it could be, it does at least provide a workable basis for selecting the stories.
Beyond the obvious requirement for the stories to be African Achebe, in his introduction to the book, states that the main “criterion was ultimately literary merit”, although he does admit that he and his co-editor were also “mindful of the advantages of representing writers of different regions, sexes and generations” . These goals seem sensible enough, and the desire to represent female writers equally could be seen as very admirable, given widely acknowledged gender imbalances in the production and consumption of literature in Africa. There is however, a slight danger that this well-intentioned political correctness could hamper the main objective of the book. If the book is intended to offer a representative selection of African literature, then imposing Western ideals regarding gender could be a distorting influence. Such a criticism, however, fails to acknowledge the rich vein of female literary talent that Achebe and Innes are able to mine, and their choices are justified by the quality of the stories.
It is doubtful that a book written in a myriad of obscure African languages would make a serious impression on the best-sellers list published weekly in many broadsheet newspapers, so it is for practical reasons that the anthology is published in English – although an anthology in French would probably be equally viable. Obvious a feature it may be, the fact that the stories are in English is an interesting subject, and one that raises a number of important issues. Perhaps publishing a book of African stories in a ‘non-African’ language needs to be justified.
In common usage, English is not referred to as an African language – reasonably enough, given its European origin, but in many ways, it can be describe as such. It is, after all spoken by a large number of Africans in many different part of the continent, at many degrees of fluency. It is a national language of many African nations, such as Tanzania – along with Swahili - and many Africans will use it in their everyday lives. It cannot be logically dismissed as a language foreign to Africa because of its provenance unless we are also to deem modern Swahili foreign, containing, as it does, much vocabulary derived from Portuguese and Arabic.
Even if it can be said that English is, in certain ways, an African language, it is still one that is alien to many African people, and few, if any, of the events articulated in the book would naturally occur in Africa being spoken and thought in English. It is also important to realise that while English may be spoken by many Africans, it may well be spoken in different ways and in different contexts. An accountant in Dar es Salaam, for example, may write formal English in the workplace everyday, chat in Swahili to his or her colleagues and perhaps speak a ‘tribal’ language at home with his or her family. This could mean that however excellent his grasp of proper English, his may never have used spoken English in a colloquial way. This tendency to be more familiar with English in a formal context is perhaps reflected in the slightly stilted dialogue that can be found in some of the stories. For example, in Ama Ata Aidoo’s ‘Certain Winds from the South’, the conversation between mother and son reads oddly to a native English speaker. A sentence such as “That is why I am coming now”4 would almost never appear without the common contractions, i.e. ‘That’s why I’m coming now’, in realistic dialogue in a British novel. Interestingly, the style of dialogue, and indeed prose in general sometimes evokes a more classical style familiar to readers of 18 and 19thth Century authors like Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. One could suggest that such a similarity is more than co-incidence and is in fact a product of the style and content of teaching during the colonial era, although without more detailed study into the background of each of the authors than the format of paper permits, such a suggest remains speculative, though plausible.
The wider question of whether or not African authors should write their literature in English issue of considerable contention and controversy. It has been suggested by writing in the English, French or indeed any other tongue that is a ‘language of the oppressor’ one is compromising in a serious, fundamental way part of their identity. Notably, Ngugi wa Thiong’o decided that it was no long acceptable for him to express himself in a literary context in English. While there is undoubtedly symbolic political value in choosing to writing in one’s own language, the argument that certain ‘African’ ideas can only be expressed in a language indigenous to Africa require critical evaluation. In particular, it has as a premise the notion that certain ideas are inalienably African. Niyi Osundare, writing about Yorùbán poetry, asserts that that "there are Yorùbá ways of thinking which have produced a certain science of being, a certain blend of wisdom and philosophy, certain moral ideals and a certain epistemology - certain Yorùbá ways of segmenting experience and cognising the world"5. This view contrasts somewhat with Femi Oyebode’s more universalistic, and perhaps more realistic and less romantic view of African literature. While Osundare’s argument of a Yorùbá mindset that is distinct from all other ways of thinking is perhaps overstating cultural differences and understating fundamental similarities, his comments on translation are particularly salient in this context.
It is, of course, a cliché to say that a certain ideas are ‘lost in translation’, but in an instance where the destination language lacks a term or idiom that captures the full meaning of the source term, this is very much the case. Similarly, if a language has a particular quality, such as Yorùbá’s tonal, melodic nature; an attribute that leads Osundare to call the Nigerian language “the missing link between music and speech"6, then this too may fail to leap over the linguistic chasm, instead plunging to a fatal contact with the rocks of translational oblivion.
What is often under-stated, however, is that certain things can also be gained in translation. Most obviously, writing in English gives the African author a much broader potential audience than if they were writing in their own language; an important consideration if an author has any kind of persuasive political agenda. This particular advantage is, however, somewhat mitigated by the fact the use of English may well give the author a narrower audience within their own land.
In conceding that "English is a highly flexible and accommodating language"7, Osundare remains open to the suggestion that African ideas express in English may have considerable artistic merit in their own right. Maybe it is not possible to represent certain African traditions in English, and maybe the English produced in the attempt will not be of classical literary virtue. What might however be created is third genre – one that is neither wholly ‘African’ nor wholly ‘English’, but partly both; a medium that can be both culturally revealing and artistically satisfying. It is from this perspective that the African Short Stories can be most insightfully studied and enjoyably consumed.
‘Taking it apart’ – a closer study of some of the texts
The Senegalese author Sembene Ousmane contributes ‘The False Prophet’ to the collection. He tells the story of a dishonest trickster who moves to a new town, and pretends that he is a great Imam. The inhabitants fall for his tricks and he is able to fleece them out of good will, hospitality and money. When he grows bored and leaves the town, he does so without warning, taking his riches with him. However, he himself is conned into giving up his gold by a robber pretending to be the voice of God. In some ways this story takes the form of a moral fable, with the central character’s dishonesty proving his fatal flaw. It also contains a degree of poetic justice, as religion is both his weapon for stealing and the source of his downfall. The style of the story, however, is not of a dry, moral sermon, but a lively, earthy and amusing anecdote. Despite the fact that the story is told in the third person, the voice of the anti-hero can clearly be heard in the text; particularly when he is expressing his scorn for those he is forced to live with. The text also hints at the racial issues that pre-occupy some of the other stories in the anthology. Part of his dislike of his neighbours takes the form of him expressing their own racial inferiority – he himself is of Arab descent:
[The] “ebony skinned men were his inferiors, only good for guarding the harem after having been castrated which eliminates disputes over the paternity of the children”8
Despite this bitter comment, and other similar asides that punctuate the story, the story maintains a largely light-hearted, humorous tone.
Leonard Kibera of Kenya also discusses racial themes in his story “The Spider’s Web”, but in a much darker manner. His contribution is the story of a servant working in a well-off house of his White master. The servant’s holds a pessimistic view of the future. For a short time, the White family who live in the house are away on vacation. This cheers the servant, but he finds that a wealthy black family move in for this period and assume the role of the White oppressor. His view that the structures of power imported by the White imperialist are permanent and will be sustained long after the Europeans themselves have departed is expressed in despondent terms, as he talks about the wealthy, powerful African mothers:
“as he looked at their pregnant wives he could foresee nothing but a new generation innocent snobs”9
The author’s lack of hope for the future is perhaps best articulated in the narrative structure of the story. While the hero begins with optimism of being able profit from the arrangement with his masters, he is eventually driven by their arrogant behaviour to attempted murder. This action leaves him no alternative but to take his own life; a powerful metaphor of the violent and often futile nature of resistance against the colonists.
Kibera deals with a very African theme, but it is worth briefly mentioning a third story to demonstrate that many of the stories deal with more universal subjects. ‘Certain Winds of the South’ by Ama Ata Aidoo from Ghana discusses the delicate, agonising power relationships within families. The father of a newborn child is leaving – his wife and his mother both recognise the need for him to work in the city, but both are reluctant to sanction the move. The theme of urban migration is of course an issue of political and sociological interest, but its role is this story is merely to demonstrate how decisions are made by families when the members have competing agendas. One exchange between mother and son eloquently expresses the kind of conflict that everyone will be familiar with:
“Nothing was said about this struggle, but then one does not say everything”10
‘Putting it back together’ – a conclusion of sorts
The short stories in the anthology contain a wealth of literary talent, and raise a whole range of cultural, literary and social issues and, as such, they present a diversity that makes them challenging to summarise. Perhaps the best way to evaluate the collection is to reflect on its aim, as stated in the introduction by Achebe: that is to provide “a manageable and enjoyable introduction into the art and the world of African fiction”11. The issues it deals with suggest that Africa is a unique place with many unique issues, but perhaps also that the most important issues are the ones that are universal to everyone.
The range of exciting prose and inventive storytelling showcased in the anthology make it difficult not to enjoy. As an introduction to the wider world of African writing, the collection certainly provides some signposts for the audience to read further, and some indication of what lies ahead. It may not be the case that the anthology is a totally representative range of African literature, but this in no way detracts from is virtues as an accessible collection of stories are as artistically rich as there are stylistically and thematically diverse.
Chinua Achebe and Innes, CL 1987 African Short Stories. Heinemann, London.
Herbst, J 2000 States and Power in Africa - Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Chichester, Princeton: Princeton University Press
Niyi Osundare 2000 Yorùbá Thought, English Words: A Poet’s journey through the tunnel of two tongues in Kiss and Quarrel: Yorùbá /English Strategies of Mediation ed. Stewart Brown
Femi Oyebode 2000 – Is there an African Aesthetic in Kiss and Quarrel: Yorùbá /English Strategies of Mediation ed. Stewart Brown
Student Reference Number: 513355 – Date of Submission: 28/4/04 - Page of