“Ben Okri is wrong about European and African literature’s greatness (and its relationship to form and subject”)

There’s much to chew on, but little to agree with in Ben Okri’s recent essay on greatness (or lack there of) in African and Black writing – much of the problems already eloquently addressed by Sofia Samatar in her rebuttal, but I wanted to drop my two pence into the debate, so here goes. Okri commits a fallacy when he suggests that work like the Iliad, the metamorphoses, and Shakespeare’s stories were not caught up in the themes and politics of their time. Shakespeare, we know, was an arch propagandist for the tudor court, giving us our until recently, altogether unsavoury impression of Richard the III. Similarly, metamorphoses are greek myths, taking place in a world of gods that would have been very real to the first people to hear of them; these were not necessarily (at least, not only) metaphorical interpretations of the world, but literally true ones as well. Europe, and the classical world that it seems Okri would like African writers to reside in does not get to escape the ever present artistic tension between representation and transcendence.

Of course, Okri’s suggestion is that it is a particular audience that refuses to let African writers transcend their subjects.That trap has only ever been in the minds of those unable to admit the full humanity of the African experience. This category sadly includes many Africans, as well as non-Africans. I have experienced the sublime in the writings of many a black and African writer including Toni Morrison, Bessie Head, and Ama Ata Aidoo; all their writings delve into suffering, but with the insight and transcendence of great writing. All great writing is obsessed with subject – the writing that transcends its immediate subject to tell us something about our common humanity is what all great literature is about, creating a false division between African writers and other writers is a disservice to all literature. Toni Morrison’s novels, Paradise, Sula and Song of Solomon, are exquisite novels not because of their subject, but because of their sublime language, the experimentation with the form of the novel.

That these works capture the experiences of black people neither makes them parochial nor time-limited. Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, one of the most beautifully written epistolary novels in history cannot be read purely for its subject, but for its invitation into the intimate world of women, it is a novel in which subject acts upon form, and form on subject. If its sensationalism that Okri objects to, this is hardly an original sin of African literature, we can think of the recent works of Martin Amis, Hillary Mantel amongst other writers, to see how grasping sensationalism may seize the hour but rarely carry the long day of literary memory. When Okri concedes that sometimes a great and enduring work may have an important subject, we come to the nub of the issue – the question of what will endure. The great subjects and dilemmas of our age and time are reflected as much in the pages of black and African writers, as much as others; which of these works will survive the judgement of time, is as Deng Xiaoping said when asked about the effects of the French revolution on China in 1979 – it is much too soon to tell.

Okri is deeply disingenuous to suggest any of the works he mentions have no rootedness in their time – Pushkin reflects the ennui of a bloated aristocracy; Tolstoy’s War and Peace, an exploration of the Napoleonic Wars, at the time, the defining experience of pan-European identity; Sophocles may write about a great king’s culpability, but it makes sense of Greek history. The point is that history is never separate from the mind of great and good writers, but form and language are the tools for making an enduring monument from temporal material.

The question is who reads black and African writers only for their subject? Here, Okri has a point – the writer in and of Africa has too often been in a shackle of perception; recently I was privy to a conversation where a certain up and coming American-Nigerian novelist who writes for The New Yorker, was told by a Nigerian reader of his, that he writes “like a white writer for a white audience”. His experimentation with form, language – and indeed, subject – had been zoned by his Nigerian reader into the realm of “whiteness” – there certainly was no space for the consideration that the complexity of the work could be an African perspective. Ultimately, Okri’s point is about the gaze that is set upon African literature, and that gaze is predominantly white and western. Perhaps as the importance and dominance of the “white and/or western gaze” diminishes, African writers will be celebrated for their formal and transcendent qualities as well as their subjects. When that happens, I suspect a few of Okri’s ‘enduring’ works may very well be toppled from their venerated spots, being too pre-occupied with the subject of European experience.

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