Sunday, March 22, 2015

Response to Ben Okri's lament about "Black Writers"

On 27 December 2014, the UK's Guardian newspaper published an opinion by the acclaimed author, Ben Okri, titled " A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness".  He lamented what he perceived as the monotony of African and Black writers in terms of subject matter.  He noted for instance:

"The black and African writer is expected to write about certain things, and if they don’t they are seen as irrelevant. This gives their literature weight, but dooms it with monotony. Who wants to constantly read a literature of suffering, of heaviness? Those living through it certainly don’t; the success of much lighter fare among the reading public in Africa proves this point. Maybe it is those in the west, whose lives are untouched by such suffering, who find occasional spice and flirtation with such a literature. But this tyranny of subject may well lead to distortion and limitation.

It is a curious fact that the greatest short stories do not have, on the whole, the greatest or the heaviest of subjects. By this I mean that the subject is not what is most important about them. Rather, it is the way they are written, the oblique way in which they illuminate something significant. Their overt subject might seem slight but leads, through the indirect mirror of art, to profound and unforgettable places. The overwhelming subject makes for too much directness. This leaves no place for the imagination, for the interpretative matrix of the mind. Great literature is almost always indirect."

You can read the full article at the link below:

A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness | Ben Okri

Living as we do in troubling times, we look to writers to reflect the temper of the age. The essential thing is freedom. A people cannot be great or fulfilled without it. A literature cannot be great without it either. The basic prerequisite of literature is freedom.


Ben Okri is, as I imagine we all know, an artistic writer - a brilliant one at that. So it is not surprising that he would take a stand for fiction-writing as as an end in itself. However, I have the following objections to his article:
1) The broad-brush generalisations about the aim of literature is nonsensical at best. Literature is itself art, the very crafting of a novel need not have stylistic-artistic appreciation as its sole fact, literature would be poorer if that were the case. Another function of literature is indeed the recording of history e.g. Dickens' portrait of a poverty-stricken England, Achebe's explanation of the impact of colonialism on the colonised.
2) Okri's yardstick of artistic brilliance is mainly the art that emanated in an overly-pretencious European art endowment that was created against the backdrop of tyranny and oppression....and by artists highly-favoured (and, so, commissioned by dictatorial monarchs). That is, art cooked in an anti-freedom kitchen! The fact that these artworks serve as the standard-setters (as opposed to Benin bronzes, Egyptian and Sudanese pyramids, or the likes) in Okri's imagination is itself a product of a mind, however utterly brilliant, unfree!!!
3) Whatever disdain Okri may have for some writers who happen to be African (or "black" which he supposes is a different thing or an acceptable tag!), Okri, as a competitor of these writers, doesn't get to adjudicate literary merit...I don't believe such power comes with winning the Booker prize.
4) Okri's article seems to suggest that once the subject is heavy, the art will suffer. However, writers such as Salman Rushdie and Wole Soyinka (incredible writer even if not primarily a novelist) have produced artistic works that are nevertheless centred on heavy subject matters.
5) Writers, like all artists, need inspiration. And many find inspiration in the things that affect them and matter to them. How then should the fact of colonialism not have weighed heavily on the hearts of colonial and post-colonial African writers? Or slavery to have escaped the attention Toni Morrison? Can Adichie really have ignored the tremendously destructive war fought in the aftermath of Biafra's demand for independence?
Not every African writer writes about the heavy subjects or does so without art. Amos Tutuola wrote about a man intoxicated on palm wine in a book published during Nigeria's colonial days (which Okri himself mildly alludes to)!