PAWA Conference 2022: Swedish author, Bernth Lindfors, highlights the growth of African literature in 60 years

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AFTER the first conference on African literature and writers held in Makerere, Uganda, in June 1962, African writers from 38 countries gathered at the University of Ibadan, June 23-25, to discuss the achievements of the Makerere conference and the path traveled by African literature. .

At this 1962 conference, writers who are known today as the ancestors of African literature were present, including Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark, Obi Wali, Christopher Okigbo, Bernard Fonlon, Frances Ademola, Cameron Duodu, Kofi Awoonor , Ezekiel Mphalele, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Dennis Brutus, Arthur Maimane, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Robert Serumaga, among others.

This conference, which was the first major international gathering of writers and critics of African literature on the African continent, also coincided with the period when most African countries were gaining independence from their colonial masters.

Among the questions raised and debated at this conference are: what constitutes African literature? Is it literature written by Africans, literature that portrays the African experience? Should African literature be written in African language?

At this conference, several nationalist writers refused to recognize any literature written in non-African languages ​​as African literature.

In fact, Ngugi wa Thiongo noted the irony of the title of the conference, in that it excluded a large segment of the population that did not write in English while trying to define African literature, but accepting that it had to be in English.

Today, 60 years later, 80-year-old Swedish author Bernth Lindfors in his virtual presentation, “The Emergence of African Literature as a Robust Academic Discipline,” described how African literature is has been developed over the years.

Lindfors said when the Makerere conference was held in Kampala for a week on June 11, 1962, he was only a day’s drive away in western Kenya, but could not take time off to attend. .

“I was then starting my second year of teaching English and history in a boarding school for boys in Kisii, a small town not far from Lake Victoria.

“As well as preparing Year Four pupils for the upcoming Cambridge School Certificate exam, I was also directing a production of the school play, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which was a set book for that exam.

“But the main reason I couldn’t leave was that my wife had just given birth to our first child on May 30, Remembrance Day, less than two weeks before the conference, so I had an obligation to stay home to help with the basic mechanics of diaper service.

However, Lindfors admitted that he read a lot of African literature at that time.

“It was at Makerere that I started reading African literature during a six-week orientation program we had there before going to our school.

“At that time, Makerere Library had an enlightened lending policy allowing anyone who had been associated with the university to borrow books anywhere in East Africa that person was located. I took full advantage of this privilege by ordering two books almost fortnightly while teaching at Kisii, using Janheinz Jahn’s chapter on African Literature in his recent Muntu: An Outline of Neo-African Literature as a guide. of purchase. So I would have known works by some of the writers, especially Nigerians, who were going to be there.

“My inability to join them was particularly disappointing because, due to the reading I had done, I was already beginning to look for an American university with an English department that might be willing to grant me the opportunity to write a doctoral thesis on this exciting new literature as long as I fulfilled all the normal disciplinary requirements in American and British literatures when I resumed postgraduate studies the following year, I was lucky that my dream would come true. At that time, the University of California, Los Angeles was setting up an ambitious African Studies program, and the English department there felt it had enough flexibility to accommodate my interests. I graduated with a PhD in my pocket in 1969, to my surprise I found that I had no trouble getting a university job, I ended up accepting a very generous offer from the Uni University of Texas in Austin, which included a teaching leave during my first year so that I could create a research journal on African literatures which would be distributed free of charge to institutions and individuals.

“I recite these autobiographical facts to explain how a teaching experience in Africa changed my life and put me in a position to observe patterns and trends in the emergence of African literature as a robust academic discipline since during.

“When I moved to Texas, the nature of my involvement in African literary studies changed abruptly and almost entirely. I moved from the micro-world of painstaking textual analysis of novels in Nigeria – the subject of my dissertation – to the macro-world of attempting to engage in all African literatures simultaneously.

“As Editor-in-Chief of Research in African Literatures, my job was to house sound knowledge of all types of African literature, oral as well as written, old and new, and expressed in the language in which it was produced. was a very big task, but the colleagues who helped me get started were generous with their time and talents, and since the journal was free and sent to all African universities, it didn’t take long before we were beginning to receive excellent contributions from scholars based in Africa.

The author said that from this period things began to change with regard to literature in Africa, adding that “to accommodate this rapid rate of proliferation of scholarship in African literature, the University of Texas Press decided in 1977 to increase the number of RAL issues from two to three per year, with each issue ranging from 144 to 166 pages.

“This new arrangement only lasted three years before the journal became a full quarterly. This growth contrasts with the experience of a number of new literary journals that are beginning to emerge in Africa.

“Kole Omotoso once remarked on an Abiku complex in publishing African journals. A promising new literary organ would be born only to die prematurely, then be reborn in much the same form. This curse was often the result of insufficient funding. Paid subscriptions were not enough to keep them alive for a long time.

“Another sign of the times has been the growing number of cultural festivals held not only in Africa, but also internationally. This phenomenon originated with some force in the 1960s and early 1970s in places like London, Dakar, Algeria and Ile-Ife, but it may have peaked at FESTAC in Lagos in 1977 and in Berlin in 1979. This kind of activity was the many academic conferences on African literature held during this period, some of which resulted in the formation of official organizations or societies dedicated to promoting the study of African literatures.

“Of the 32 works of Nigerian fiction that I examined in my doctoral dissertation covering the years 1952 to 1967, only the four novels by Chinua Achebe survived as suitable subjects for further study. Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard might still hold some interest among scholars as an example of the transition from oral to written storytelling, and Gabriel Okara’s The Voice might still have some lifespan due to its experimentation with the English language. Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters was not a great novel, but it was written by a great writer, so it can continue to be examined as a lesser part of his legacy. But no one would be tempted to write a comprehensive history of Nigerian fiction today because there are now too many Nigerian novelists to include, some of whom live and work outside Nigeria. And that should be cause for celebration, not regret.

“In fact, the proliferation of African literature in English in the 21st century is something we should cherish, for there are now more writers producing more quality works than ever before, and their achievements are heralded by a new generation of scholars of African literature who want to draw attention to themselves.

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