The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora

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F. Abiola Irele. The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. xviii + 296 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. No price reported. Paper.

Abiola Irele's critical examination of African literature is an interesting collection of essays written from 1981 to 1994. Published in 2001, these essays come across as a nice way to review some of the essential literary and cultural events that have influenced contemporary African literature. In other words, Irele is not breaking new ground, but rather refreshing one's memories. His intellectual insights, as always, are well worth the reading time.

In the preface and again in chapter 1, Irele informs us of his purpose in putting together The African Imagination. The work responds to two ways of looking at African literature. The first is to challenge the view of the African experience, both on the African continent and in the New World, as a collective experience, a type of cultural monolith. This position, he notes, has been taken by Europeans such as Janheinz Jahn and by those Africans who garner their literary experience from the négritude movement or who have at least been influenced by this Francophone phenomenon. The other cultural monolith he notes is the Black Aesthetic movement of the 1960s found primarily in the United States. A second group that Irele challenges comprises the contemporary literary critics of the 1980s and 1990s who have grown out of structuralism, deconstruction, and Marxism. These critics, he explains, are more interested in literature as a form of sociological development than of aesthetic expression. He does not ignore or deny these other positions, he comments, but he will not pursue them for their own sake. He has decided, rather, "to explore the terrain of African literature in the widest acceptance of the term and to arrive at a sense of its possible boundaries" on both the African continent and in the New World (4). Further, he maintains that the term "African imagination" is more appropriate than "African literature" because it allows for a "wider scope of expression of Africans and people of African descent, which arises out of . . . historical circumstances" (7).

Chapter 2 addresses the issues of orality and literacy and their relation to the two interpretations of African literature, Western and African. Irele allows Ruth Finnegan, Jack Goody, and Walter J. Ong to state the European view of the orality-literacy connection, while the African perspective is conveyed by D. O. Fagunwa, Thomas Mofolo, J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, and Irele himself. This discussion sheds light on the cultural complexity of literature, especially on the African continent with its hundreds of languages. Often the critics that Irele questions in the preface, especially structuralists and poststructuralists, lose sight of this complexity because of their own redefined cultural perspectives. …