African Literature Faces Culture Gap

By Jim Bencivenga, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 1992 | Go to article overview

African Literature Faces Culture Gap


Jim Bencivenga, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


IF African literature has a difficult time speaking for itself in the United States, one reason is that so few critics here have spent any time "experiencing the African reality," says Bernth Lindfors. He spoke at a symposium on the subject held recently at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "It is a failure of scholarship and criticism," he says. The result is what he calls "a telescopic vision," seeing a literary text in relation to other world literature, "but only the larger monuments, not on the ground within the culture, emotions, and passions of a people."

Such cultural shortsightedness can result not only in misunderstanding, but also in undervaluing the unique contribution of African literature on the world stage, says Mr. Lindfors, a literature professor at the University of Texas. And the challenge is compounded for African literature in that "some of its greatest sources of criticism are from outside the continent itself," he says. This presents a potentially challenging and unusual problem for the development of African literature.

This concern is not shared by Chinua Achebe, perhaps the greatest living African writer, author of "Things Fall Apart" and "Anthills of the Savannah."

"I don't feel the threat," he said in a telephone interview from his home on the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he is Charles P. Stevenson Jr. professor of languages and literature. "No one can become a gatekeeper to African literature if more and more people participate in the discussion."

So long as critics are reading the text, the journey to the truth will manifest itself, says Mr. Achebe.

Certain "understandings" might come easier for an African critic than for an American one, but just as it is difficult to give advice to a cross-cultural reader, so it is for cross-cultural literary criticism, he says.

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