One afternoon, months ago, I walked into a second-hand bookstore in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin. An hour later, I took a few books home. When I opened one of them, I was greeted by this sentence:
[T]he world of African writing is, in some measure, a different world; a world where, outwardly at least, many writers appear to have small desire to see their work in print and literary laurels are of little moment.
Those words are part of an introduction to Darkness and Light: An Anthology of African Writing. In 1958, an editor named Peggy Rutherfoord travelled around the world in search of African writers. After a four-year exertion, during which our editor-heroine fell sick, she found a Sierra Leonean writer in Cambridge, a South African writer who waited till night time to read ‘the Milton, the Blake, the Maupassant’ in a Johannesburg slum, a pastor-writer in the rural South African province of the Orange Free State, and a young farmer-writer in Lagos, Nigeria. Given the extent of her travels, it seemed apt that I would find her book, six decades later, in Germany.
The publication process was not easy. Having convinced a writer (or translator) to send a manuscript, she would wait and wait. ‘Months [would] disappear’ until a response came, such as: “I must apologise for the delay, but I have discovered rats in my roof and during repairs all my papers have been moved into positions whence it is impossible to redeem them.”
And another: “I greatly regret to state that I will not be able to accept the offer to contribute to your anthology, because I am occupied with the feudal tenure law suits; secondly because the temporary peripatetic court, of which our area forms the borough, is very far where bridle paths are slippery on rainy days and streams are not bridged.”
“And so we must compete,” Rutherfoord wrote, “with the rains of Basutoland, the rats of Cape Town, to secure the attention of the African writer.”
When she finally does get their attention and asks: “Would you like to suggest something of your writing for the anthology?” one of the responses she received was: “There are others who write better.”
Imagine Rutherfoord’s shock. In her culture of writing in the English language, few had similar pretensions to modesty. American hothead Norman Mailer published a collection of pieces a year after Darkness and Light. Its title? Advertisements for Myself. Mailer, still in his mid-30s, was prepping himself for a lifetime of laurels (his books won a National Book Award and two Pulitzers). The closest contemporary example of this bravado would be a pop star claiming a song’s hit status before it reached radio, and then seeing it happen.
Earlier in the same decade, American writer Ernest Hemingway, in his famous New Yorker profile “How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?” bragged about his duels with European greats, including Guy de Maupassant and Ivan Turgenev. Ever the pugilist, Hemingway had out-boxed his contemporaries and was now wrestling with the ancient gods of Western literature, making space for himself in the pantheon.
How do you come from all that egoism to a group of writers who claim, ‘There are others who write better’? What do you do?
“You persist,” said Rutherfoord.
African writers were so self-effacing, mononymous, or anonymous that Darkness and Light is a book thin on well-known personalities. There are entries named “An Ibo Poem”, “A Yoruba Poem”, “A Nupe Folk Tale”—all with no attribution. One story receives a mononym, Gbemi—later identified and further mystified in the “About the Authors” section as ‘the pen name of a young West African woman living in Ibadan’.
Rutherfoord’s collection gives the impression of a scarcity of African writing, but the anthology was published in 1958. This was the same year Things Fall Apart was published. Four years later, the author of that novel, the celebrated storyteller Chinua Achebe, would attend the first African Writers Conference at Makerere College and become the founding editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series.
Yet, Achebe is not collected within the anthology, though his countrymen, the less celebrated Cyprian Ekwensi – credited as C.O.D. Ekwensi – and Amos Tutuola, are. And it is enough to wonder if the last lines of Rutherfoord’s introduction refer to Achebe’s book:
Many times when the end seemed to be in sight, the promise of something new, of something even better, perhaps appeared tantalisingly over the next rise. But there comes a time when a halt must be made and, for a while at least, one must pitch camp and go exploring no more.
If it does, her anguish must have been considerable.
How far have African writers come in regard to modesty? A considerable distance, I’d say. In 2013, at the Ake Book and Arts Festival, I watched a young writer who had no manuscript and had barely been published online go after an agent, fiercely hawking his sparse wares. No longer bogged down by rains or rats, the African writer today seeks respect and craves the reputation conferred by publishing. At Freedom Park, Lagos, where informal conversations around the arts are frequently held by the Lagos literati, publishing in international magazines ranks high among the topics discussed.
Modesty has given way to disbelief; competition has replaced camaraderie. The sentiment today is scrutiny: ‘How did that person get published?’ Prizes, which were once of ‘little moment’, now cause controversy.
Of course, arrogance is still an accusation, never mind that anyone who decides to write needs a surplus of self-esteem. How else do you deal with rejection? How else can you think something you have to say deserves to be heard in a world suffused with words? And there might be a directly proportional relationship between success and these accusations—if only because one advantage of being a lesser (or lesser-known) writer is the freedom it grants you to be cutting to your betters.
Arrogance perceived within a work of fiction may be forgiven (’tis a matter of style, goes the excuse), but condemned when found in a writer’s remarks and interviews. Little wonder, then, that few African novelists pen personal essays. Nothing is more likely to raise the ire of denizens of the comments section, that medium of chatty democracy, than an opinion passionately held and voiced with forceful eloquence. “Shut up and write a book,” they say.
So today Binyavanga Wainaina might be targeted for the conviction and brilliant conveyance of his opinion, A. Igoni Barrett for his swaggering indifference, Teju Cole for his scholarly assuredness, Chimamanda Adichie for her easy confidence—all of these qualities brusquely bunched into arrogance. The arrogance of the new African writer—compounded in some cases by the infamous superiority of Nigerians.
What this audience misunderstands is that writers from the continent are merely doing what writers have always done. Because “what matters finally is not the world’s judgment of oneself,” as American writer Gore Vidal wrote in 1960, “but one’s own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive very long…”
This quality of assertiveness, based on evidence provided by a publisher’s introduction to a 1958 anthology, is perhaps only a half-century old. It may be called arrogance, but I prefer to think of it as progress—an inevitable development for a group playing a kind of catch-up.