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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):





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! ↓



This article has 7 comments

  1. edgothboy

    El Nathan John needs to take a chill pill and actually write something of merit. First of all he fought with Chimamanda and now with Okri?

    I loved the Famished Road because it was a genre bender, it gave many writers the liberty to write about our off despised magic and marry it with lit-fic. Okri practices what he preaches. A message that should have come much sooner.

    if John is that pressed that they are abroad and he isn’t, then he should write something that will merit a foreign teaching gig, otherwise he should take several seats.

    • Malaka

      I honestly laughed out loud at your comment and your suggestion for him have “several seats”. Thanks for sharing your views!

  2. Obisco1

    Write and let write, I say. We can only speak in our own unique voices and if yours is pain and suffering, so be it. If another’s isn’t so be it. We don’t question Jeffrey Archer vs John Grisham…we just read [or not read] their books and enjoy. I love Nnedi as well as Chimamanda and Tricia Nwaubani…there’s space enough for everyone.

  3. Nana Ama

    Both are right. All African writing reflect our reality as a people, recording the good, the bad and the nauseatingly ugly. And not all writers write to seek highbrow acclaim like Okri with his handy social networks hasbeen bestowed with. The majority write. to generate hard cash! How else could B. Obama have jump-started his Presidential campaign without penning his thoughts and memories? What we need more of are editors and distributors. Enough of just religious tracts for our people.There is a huge untapped market out there and only Amazon is reaping the benefits. Oh, I am currently in love with Nana Awere Damoah’s writing. Read the opening chapter of his “I speak of Ghana” on public transport recently. Biiig mistake! I was laughing so much people thought this old lady needed deliverance! I ended up reading a few exercepts to them! Whiled away a few minutes ame helped me prove I wasn’t loco! Told you I am in love with Ghana! I wouldn’t have dared read out loud to my fellow commuters! Now that would qualify me as loco!:)

    • Nana Ama

      *Meant fellow commuters in the West. Seasoned readers may understand my chortles whilst holding and reading a book, but to read pieces from it? My Ghanaian (captive) audience loved it, laughed and repeated bits in Ga and Twi. I am getting more and unconventional in my old age, but I don’t care!

  4. Maame Boa

    Can they both be right? 🙂
    I second what the earlier commentors say: there’s room for everyone. Personally, I’d enjoy more lighter fare as well! 😉

    • Sel

      Agreed. Doesn’t really need to be an either-or.

      I’ve read African authors on a variety of themes so not 100% in agreement with Okri’s premise to begin with. Writers who use present realities as fodder for their craft are no less valuable than those with fantastical imaginations.

      Plus, there’s also accounting for personal preference and interpretation in readers. And at the moment we probably don’t need to be restricting any African literature anyways. The more the merrier, I’d say.

      Having said that, I admit I’m not on the Okri fan-wagon. The Famished Road was just too way out there…couldn’t get through it.

      “Write and let write”

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