Pragma-Criticism: An Afrieurocentric Reaction to the Bolekaja Agenda on the African Novel

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The trio of Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Madubuike call themselves the Bolekaja critics in their unabashedly polemical book, Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, stating, "we are Bolekaja critics, outraged touts for the passenger lorries of African literature". In this book, the Troika (as they are also called) claim that their mission is to rescue Africa's prose literature from the dominant Eurocentric criticism. Because of certain misconceptions traced to the ideology of the three writers, the book was summarily out-modeled. However, it is clear that in spite of its notoriety, the book could not be easily forgotten as it subjects the tendentious Eurocentricism to the mercy of the rampaging African centered position. This essay, though not extremely Afrocentric in position, stemmed from the need to curb the excessive and indiscriminate (mis)application of Western theories to the generality of African literature. This supposed "misappropriation" of literary theory accounts for why the African novel has become a victim of the Eurocentric theories that have often been mis-contextually applied. This has resulted in the problem of "misidentity" and "wrong" definition for the genre. For instance, while the Western novel is marked by certain structural changes at each stage of its transformation from Defoe to the post-Conrad period of its development, the African novel is conservatively un-absorbing to major structural changes. This is because the genre is not well defined by linguistics, but also by its context of content which is perhaps what explains the similarity between most African novels. It is basically in recognition of this that we have identified pragma-criticism, a conception which encapsulates context-sensitive prognostic critical tools for the criticism of the African novel. This is an attempt at the identification of social and the historical-political conditions that brand the aesthetics for the African novelist.

We must approach African literature with an insight into, and a feeling for, those aspects of African life which stand beyond the work itself, its extension into the African experience, and its foundation into the very substance of African existence.This approach, in its fullest and widest meaning, implies that our criticism should take into account everything that has gone into the work, and specifically for our literature; everything within our society which has informed the work.

- Abiola Irele


Abiola Irele's pronouncement used epigrammatically as a scaffold for this essay is a reminiscence of the influence of the Afrocentric movement on the African literature. Afrocentric reasoning has led to various attempts to dislodge the literature from the canonical influences of the Western literary tradition and criticism. This has indubitably divided the critics of African literature into two broad camps. While some - Izevbaye (1969), Palmer (1981) and Oyegoke (2003) for instance - advance the argument that any conscious attempt to break African literature away from the theoretical postulates of Western criticisms will amount to a suicidal dismemberment from the unified body of literary activities, others like Ngara, Iyasere, Nnolim, Achebe et cetera strongly defend the need to discourage the pseudo-universalist's critical approximations of African literature by the damaging encrustations of the imperialists. These opposing dispositions have resulted into a palpable gulf between the critics of African literature to whom we refer (like the Bolekaja) as either "Eurocentric" or "Afrocentric" critics. The Eurocentric critics of African literature are those who exhibit Western literary attitude in their approach to the literature. Their critical practice places African literature in a literary realm where its aesthetics is evaluated with the postulates of the Western critical theories. The Afrocentic African critics are, however, those who advocate literary/critical autonomy for the African literature. …