Nigerian essayist, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, recently led a rich and illuminating conversation on Facebook about literary experimentation.
Experimentation is the lifeblood of aesthetic innovation. Nothing new happens if someone doesn’t break out of the mold and show us that we don’t have to stay enslaved to convention?
But experimentation has always been a contested aspect of literary practice. James Joyce’s writings had to have sounded like proper gibberish to his contemporaries; yet Virginia Woolf hailed him as the future of fiction writing. However, it took Chinua Achebe decades to publicly acknowledge that Amos Tutuola’s weird stories had any literary value. What are the rules for ascribing value to literary work that resist convention.
This question came up last week after Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay appeared on Granta’s latest travel issue. [Read here if you missed it.] In the essay, Binyavanga gives an intimate account of his experience with stroke and his father’s attitude towards his same-sex relationship. But it looks like what struck a cord with readers was Binyavanga’s unconventional style.
Binyavanga is known for his push-back against conventional uses of language—his intensely lyrical and poetic writing, misspellings, neologisms, lack of punctuations, and so on. His readers have always been conflicted about this aspect of his writing. There are readers who see his language play as refreshingly innovative while others see it as a distracting violation of grammar and writing rules.
Which is it? If it is, indeed, a form of aesthetic innovation, should it set a precedent? Can it be reproduced? Should aspiring writers be encouraged to resist convention? Does every writer have the creative license to break rules? Who decides when it is legitimately experimental writing or when it is just plain bad writing? Last week, a group of writers battled out these questions on Facebook.
It all started with Aigbokhaevbolo sharing Binyavanga’s essay on his wall and tagging the link with this comment:
Do we have many writers like Binj on the continent? Not storytellers—we have a thousand of those per village, now clutching slick android phones—but writers. Writers. Artists who take as canvas the word, the sentence, the paragraph. Folks who appear to be able to do anything because of an unspeakable mastery of the prose form. It may not work always
What follows is a string of responses that addresses the age-old and difficult problem of ascribing aesthetic value to literary forms that radically break from the mold.
[Note: the responses have been slightly edited and rearranged for clarity.]
Immanuel James Ibe-Anyanwu @Binyavanga: why do you punctuate indiscriminately and get away with it? The thing has been paining me all this while reading your Facebook posts. Impunity annoys, true to God!
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo @Immanuel: that may be a side effect of being a stylist. The work is what matters not the Facebook posts. Look at this excerpt from an essay on Ernest Hemingway’s letters: “Considering what a conscientious stylist Hemingway was in his serious prose, he brought little precision or care to his correspondence.”
Immanuel James Ibe-Anyanwu: I wasn’t addressing his Facebook posts even. I saw the same thing in the piece. When I say it annoys me, don’t take it to heart by the way. Point is, it all blends well and the man gets away with it. That’s where my annoyance is coming from.
Kenechi Uzor: Saying he gets away with it, implies that he is doing it wrong. Which is not the case. Punctuation is the writer’s tool to wield as he sees fit. Binyavanga is deliberately creating art by putting punctuation and tenses into subjection.
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo: Also: Do you see that Binyavanga mentions [in the essay] an issue with his semi-colon use? That’s keen self-awareness. I won’t call it “getting away with anything” except I’m talking about his Facebook and Twitter posts. It is an orchestration in this piece.
Kenechi Uzor: The way abstract art look like nonsense, till you try to do it.
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo: The wahala be say somewhere someone is looking at this and thinking: “I can do this; fuck all the rules.” She won’t know there’s no this without that, that is, the formal excellence of Binj’s earlier pieces.
Kenechi Uzor: Exactly, that is my fear. Binj with each piece, starts a new writing movement. Lesser mortals would rush to copy and then successfully derail the movement.
Chuma Nwokolo: Why [Binyavanga’s essay] works well is the intricate marriage of subject-matter and style. In this piece, the “dyslexic” language becomes a major, eloquent character in the emotional drama. The narrator does not tell you about the rebellion of language in the skirmishes of his dozen strokes. You see it. And no, we do not need to master language in order to subvert it. (Although it is always advisable ) Otherwise we would not have had the phenomenon of a Tutuola. But we do have to have a talent that overwhelms the vehicle of language, and covers it like a high tide. Far easier to master language, I agree…
Kenechi Uzor @ Chuma: I agree mostly, but i think deliberate subversion of language requires a mastery of language. Tutuola was not being deliberate. He was writing all he knew and at his best.
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo: Almost immediately after I posted that comment, I figured someone would bring up Tutuola. It’s a fair point you make about talent. I read something in pidgin by a Ghanaian rapper in Chimurenga months ago. It was delightful and while I can’t say I know his prose background, I do know the best rappers have to master some language. All of this is to say I don’t much get the Tutuola tale, but I get Binj’s brilliance. And that may be because he’s brilliant home and away from the subversion of language.
Chuma Nwokolo @ Kenechi: that’s exactly what I said. His talent overwhelmed the vehicle of his written language. But the broader point about Tutuola, which few appreciate is that his work reflected a mastery, not just of story but of the Yoruba language which propelled the English of the written narrative.
Chuma Nwokolo @ Oris: one day, we will talk about Tutuola. Suffice it to say that it may be harder for children of the city to get him. (The African city is in a sense a fatherless child, who cannot, merely my looking at his features, recognize his ancestor.) I did not write to refute Binj’s brilliance in the piece. Merely to explain why a faithful replication of the same technique will fail to achieve the same effect as this particular piece.
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo: I see that Oga Chuma. I’m only insisting that Binj’s achievement here is connected to his masterful handling of English prose with formal dimensions and restrictions. Tutuola’s isn’t—which may be why I don’t much get his genius, pending when you and I get together that is. I’ll bring a pen and notepad.
Post image by Lian Jonkman via Upsplash