Okri vrs John: Rrrrrumble in the Literary Jungle!!!!

Note: This is a very serious subject, but I honestly can’t bring myself to write about it seriously. I jigga too much. I’m too excited!

Hol muh Guld! Is Jesus dashing Kwanzaa presents so soon? You know today is Kujichagulia (Self-determination) on the Kwanzaa calendar; and how apropos, since two authors went online to duke it out over what it means to be a African writer , and more importantly, a prolific African writer. Where we as generic Africans are concerned, there are certain themes and causes that inspire us to go to war. These include religious dominance, land, tribalism and political affiliation. It’s rare that we wage war for reasons outside of those realms. But my lawd, when we do, it’s a wonder to behold. Have you seen two poets/novelists go at it over art? Not since Achebe and Soyinka. Hei!

This morning, Ben Okri published an article on The Guardian entitled “A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness.”  His contention is that African writers are too preoccupied with certain subjects, like poverty, war and yet more poverty:

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.

As an author myself, I read it and thought he had a point. I agree that we do need to diversify the themes and types of writing we as African writers do. African centered romance, mysteries and sci-fi are gaining more notice and momentum in the literary space, as the literary field where these are concerned has been left wide open for centuries. The void is being filled with the likes of Nnedi Okorafor and Marguerite Abouet, but not fast enough in my opinion. For example, I have often gone in search of humorous or witty novels written by Africans and come up empty handed. The novels that are easiest to find are those with themes centered around that Mr. Okri expresses his exasperation about: war, poverty and suffering. Therefore, I was all ready to crown him as King of the Interwebs for the Day for his thoughtful analysis and keep it moving.

And then Elnathan John brought himself with this series of tweets. (Start from the bottom):

EL4

EL3

EL2

EL1

Oh, dear. Oh my! Did he just say something about big roosters and riding high? Yes, he did…

Suddenly my view was switched and I found myself in support of Mr. John. Obviously Mr. Okri was not insinuating that African writers NOT tackle these ubiquitous (albeit dull and heavy) subjects, but it can’t be denied that he suggested that they would be lesser for it. And that pretty much pissed Elnathan off. For those unfamiliar with the two, Elnathan John is more of a man of the people, whereas Ben Okri would be considered a high brow Returnee.

Bwei! Talk about a war of words!

It remains to be seen if Ben Okri will respond to this series of (not so) sub-tweets. Chances are if he does, it will not be in the public arena – which would actually be a shame. I think we would all benefit from a public discourse on the matter. As both a reader and a writer, it is frustrating that they only sort of African writing that garners international acclaim or notoriety is invariably centered around child soldiers, overcoming the effects of FGM and abject poverty. Why are international audiences so ready to reward writers who dedicate hundreds of pages of a tome to these subjects, rather than love, sex or dreams of space travel? Chimamanda’s Purple Hibiscus was no less brilliant than Half of a Yellow Sun, but it was the latter- a story centered around a brutal war, rather than a coming of age story of an adolescent child – that catapulted Ms. Adichie into the renown she enjoys today.

So who is right? Ben Okri or Elnathan John? Does the African/black writer have an obligation to shun the themes that the West rewards us for writing in order to create “art for the ages”, or is it the job of the African writer to keep on writing these tales – and documenting our truths for as long as necessary? Which would you rather read?

Discuss! ↓