Migrating Bards: Writers' Burdens and a Writers' Body in Nigeria at the Turn of the Century

By Diala, Isidore | Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Migrating Bards: Writers' Burdens and a Writers' Body in Nigeria at the Turn of the Century


Diala, Isidore, Tydskrif vir Letterkunde


Wole Soyinka's 1986 Nobel Prize for literature was received as a well deserved international recognition not only of the distinction of Soyinka's sustained output but also as a tribute to Nigerian and African literature in general. However, given decades of irresponsible leadership in the country, a sober appraisal of the Nigerian cultural and intellectual front twenty years after the Nobel event reveals a shocking impoverishment of the institutions for the production and evaluation of literature. With a collapsed publishing industry and the continuing migration of Nigeria's most distinguished writers and literary critics to the West, Nigerian literature stands the risk of being subject to the dictates of legitimizing foreign agents of literary production and evaluation with the consequent danger of the perpetuation of Western biases of African literary excellence. By its crucial interventionist measures though, the Association of Nigerian Authors continues to strive to transform the socio-political environment so critical for the creation and appreciation of literature, to sustain the ideals of good writing in Nigeria and, moreover, by its annual awards of literary prizes, to remain a prominent stakeholder in the appraisal of literary excellence. Key words: Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Nigerian literature, Nigerian publishing industry, Wole Soyinka.

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The enormous symbolic capital in cultural production has been noted quite often in contemporary literary discourse. Manifest in the assumption of the authority to codify and dictate a hierarchy of literary value, and consequently the power to admit or exclude from the canon, this economy, Graham Huggan (2001: 52-3), citing Pierre Bourdieu and C. B. Lizarribar, contends, is at work in the expectation or even extortion of a peculiar style and tone from African writers by legitimizing foreign agents of literary production; it is consistent with the iconic representation of an "authentic Africa" which conforms to Euro-American pre-occupations of "simplicity" and "primitivism".

So central indeed is cultural production in the concept of postcolonial literature to Charles Lock (2006) that he interrogates the validity of the postcolonial status ascribed to indigenous writers in the colonial period. Writing on the role missionaries played in conveying the manuscripts of the first novel to be published in English by a Nigerian, Amos Tutuola's The Palm-wine Drinkard, to Faber and persuading Faber to publish the work, Lock highlights the crucial indebtedness of that work and similar literature to the colonial heritage of representation and to colonial agents of cultural production. He reappraises the history of indigenous publication that "occluded the mechanism of colonial administration and of economic relations that actually brought those books into being and circulation" (Lock 2006: 182). For Lock, such texts as The Palm-wine Drinkard are indeed "colonial" not "postcolonial." Fifty-four years after the publication of The Palm-wine Drinkard, the status of many literary works published by Nigerians, using Lock's scale of values, certainly remains controversial.

The subtle but fierce contest to control the institutions of production and canonization of texts is in reality a struggle for the power to determine and sanction authorized representations of both the self and the Other; it is thus an endeavor consistent with the struggle for economic and ideological dominance. By placing itself uniquely to project and reward its preferred concept of African excellence by publication, distribution and award of prestigious prizes, the West exercises powers that have implications that go beyond the artistic. Derek Attridge contends that canonization means so much more than the recognition of an author's invaluable contribution to literature by publishers and scholars of literature. He draws attention to the cultural and historical contingency of the canon and links it with wider processes of legitimation within the body of culturally recognized narratives. …

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