Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 5,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."

Screen Shot 2017-02-20 at 12.02.29 AM

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 AigbokhaevboloAlso: 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 UzorThe 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 NwokoloWhy [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 AigbokhaevboloI 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

Tags: , , , ,

Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

5 Responses to “From Tutuola to Binyavanga: Literary Experimentation or Bad Writing?” Subscribe

  1. Mwinji February 27, 2017 at 2:20 pm #

    Human beings don’t always follow rules in life and they make mistakes and I think its okay,actually its good when that extends to writing.sometimes when a piece of writimg is too stuck in rules and tradition-traditional storyline,traditional use of language,stereotypical characters,you know sticking to the script-you can forget that it was written by a human being.or if its too perfect.I like writers who write like human beings,and who make charactersor stories that only a human being who has experienced life could long as I can feel that Human touch when I read your work its beautiful sometimes “experimental writing” fails to do that when its done just for the sake and sometimes “traditional” writing fails to do that when its done for the sake and not because thats how the writer wants to bin and chimamanda are equallu gorgeous writers in my opinion for instance because they always get that.

  2. Chimka February 28, 2017 at 12:01 pm #

    I really don’t care about style or what have you, just give me a great stories to read, or thought provoking articles shekina.

  3. Cheta Igbokwe March 1, 2017 at 11:28 pm #

    I was almost disappointed on Binyavanga’s essay, until I read the lines where he mentioned his deflected use of commas and semi-colons. His use of unconnected lines, and unorganized paragraphs are intentional -perhaps to break the rules of convention.

    The truth is that, such break of rule poses a big distraction to the readers, and this shouldn’t be. Now, here is the effect: while we could have been busy talking and analyzing his story line, we are here rather, talking about his breaking of the rules of grammar.

    As long as Binyavanga writes in English, he should stick to the rules. If not, let him declare to us the language of his writing. It must be something else.

  4. Pearl Osibu March 13, 2017 at 5:26 am #

    What Cheta Igbokwe said. I agree with breaking the rules, so long as you know them to begin. However, I resent how distracting this is when I just want to stick with the story and not get overwhelmed with ‘isthisamistakeorno?’ Binyavanga’s writing makes me feel like a child all over again reading the Palmwine drinkard and telling my mum in my ten year old voice ‘mummy, this writer cannot even speak English.’

  5. cheap electricity rates texas December 17, 2018 at 9:01 pm #

    Green living ideas are very important in showing people the way to conserve energy and turn that
    conservation into meaningful energy savings.

    Many of those free energy generators have been built world wide
    by individuals that rely on them to drastically reduce their energy bills and even completely get
    rid of them depending on the scale of implementation. You can find out more about
    how this alternative energy system works within my website link below.

Leave a Reply

Welcome to Brittle Paper, your go-to site for African writing and literary culture. We bring you all the latest news and juicy updates on publications, authors, events, prizes, and lifestyle. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@brittlepaper) and sign up for our "I love African Literature" newsletter.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."


Dinaw Mengestu, Mia Couto, Laila Lalami & Others Featured in The Decameron Project, a Collection of COVID-19 Inspired Stories


If there’s one thing we know for sure about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it will mark our imaginations […]

What Does Tragedy Have to do With Grief? — Prof. Ato Quayson on a New Episode of Critics.Reading.Writing

Professor Ato Quayson YouTube Channel Critic, Reading, Writing (1)

The first episode of Professor Ato Quayson’s youtube show is up! Ato Quayson is a Professor of English at Stanford […]

Saara El-Arifi’s Signs 2 Six-Figure Deals for Her Debut Novel The Final Strife

Saara El-Arifi's The Final Strife Double Six-Figure Deals

Sudanese-Arab-Ghanaian-British author Saara El-Arifi won big last week. Her debut novel The Final Strife landed a double six-figure deal in the […]

The Nigeria Prize for Difference and Diversity Announces Judges and Advisory Council

The Nigeria Prize for Difference and Diversity Announces Judges and Advisory Council (3)

The Nigeria Prize for Difference and Diversity has announced the judges for the inaugural award and the advisory board. The […]

BBC 4 to Broadcast Reading of Abi Daré’s The Girl with the Louding Voice

BBC 4 to Broadcast The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

Abi Daré’s The Girl with the Louding Voice will be narrated on BBC 4 by actress Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo. The novel […]

The 2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize is Now Open for Entry

Apply for the 2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize

The Aspen Words Literary Prize is open for entry as of today. The $35,000 prize annually rewards an “influential work […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.