L-R: Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nadine Gordimer, Ezekiel Mphahlele.

Once in a while, an essay comes along, stinging and unrelenting, that tears readers into camps of agreement and disagreement. Three days ago, UW-Madison professor Ainehi Edoro, founder of Brittle Paper, came up with such an essay. Published in Africa Is a Country, “Gods of Fiction: African Writers and the Fantasy of Power” uses Chinua Achebe’s positioning of the novelist as teacher to critique the assumptions and practices that defined the relationship between the African writer and the African reader in the first generation of modern African literature, and of the language used by the writer to create a hierarchy in that relationship.

“Gods of Fiction” goes further to point out how the use and normalisation of such language and unequal relationship have led to contemporary novels that make you “want to get out your check book and send a donation to a humanitarian organization,” turning “the act of reading into the study of social ills and moral virtue.”

“As students, African readers are placed in a developmental trajectory, always working their way up to becoming better people and better readers,” Ainehi writes. “The problem with this setup is that the novelist has no incentive to change his or her vision of the reader. A teacher is not a teacher without students, so if the African writer wants to stay in business, he or she has to keep readers in their status as students. Four decades after Achebe instituted his pedagogical regime of literature, Nadine Gordimer is still complaining that the African readership is at a ‘primer-book and comic-book level.’”

Expectedly, the essay has set off reactions on social media.

Here is a Twitter thread by Zimbabwean novelist Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, who uses her the reception of her novel House of Stone to address some of her concerns with the essay:


Ainehi replies:



Dami Lare, a reader, chips in:

There were agreements with Tshuma’s reading:

Kenyan writer Mehul Gohil tries to limit the problems to realist literature, contending that speculative fiction exists beyond the major concerns:

Nigerian writer Molara Wood broadens the geographical scope of the conversation:

Nigerian writer Kola Tubosun finds a humourous angle to the conversation;

The conversation touches on that review of We need New Names that inevitably enters most conversations on the idea of “African Writing”:

Over on Facebook:

Benson David, an editor of 20.35 Africa poetry anthology, writes:

Finally we can talk about this.

One of the very first rites of initiation into the study of literature at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is getting ceremoniously introduced to Achebe’s flimsy and ultimately damaging dismissal of the mis-received idea, arts-for-arts-sake, as “deodorized bullshit,” that is, even before you have a chance to be properly introduced to the idea itself and what it really means, and that is, if you are lucky enough to be getting introduced to it by a person like Prof. Akwanya (who is treated as an intellectual outcast of sorts for trying to import western literary ideals into the den of African literature): every other person will most likely be toeing the line of Achebe–dismissing it, only this time more out of bigoted ignorance–or trying really hard to maintain a middle ground and be failing at it, because it is difficult in all honesty to find a middle ground in this case.

For four years, with like-mindedly troubled colleagues, I struggled rather rigorously with similar questions as Ainehi’s essay poses: between the novelist (or generally, the ‘artist’) as an instructor, historian, anthropologist, moral conscience etc, and the novel (or generally, the product of the ‘artist’) as an expression of culture, history and experience, where do you place the literary text itself as a work of art?

That is to say, if this is the artist, and this is what his product is, then where is the art?! If it is art, why is it not first and foremost defined by the principles of what it is named???? Why must art be art-for-education, art-for-instruction, art-for-the-preservation-of-history, art-for-enrichment-of-life, or art-for-anything-you-need-to-use-it-for before it can be valid as art? Why, for example, define art by its (I must say, coincidental) ability to preserve history, when we have historians and their history books? And if it is for moral instruction, then it can’t be art if it does not morally instruct?

You see, something does not add up. But your favorite African professors and postcolonial-type critics will never admit it. This was why, for four years, it was so easy for me to want to disagree with Achebe–the critic–while revering Achebe–the novelist. I think we are moving on from this though, howbeit slowly. For one thing, we have an essay like this one by Ainehi interrogating the assumptions that inform our passionate claim to a type of literature that is wholly African.

I am reminded now of a fight that happened about four or five years ago on this platform. It was amongst a relatively small circle from which came a set of people who I believe are taking (major) part in currently defining how we will think of African literature in the next fifty years, or less: on one side was the more traditional group who thought of the art of writing in strictly prescriptive, thematically restricted, “African” sense, and on the other side was the rather rebellious group screaming for art that is free of the burden of prescription. We are getting there.

See, if it is going to be called art, then it must first, foremost and uncompromisingly be defined by its ‘artness.’
(link to the essay in first comment)

This is a splendid essay. I love it’s composition. I just disagree with some of it’s views, that’s all.

The point of seeing arrogance in men who chose to truthfully portray their country the way it was (the way it still largely is), that is just unnecessary.

Yes, I understand the need for equality, beauty, sugarcoatings and everything else contentment and patriotism apparently entail. But in Achebe and Ngugi’s writings, we should not see proud ‘god aspirants’ because they loved hard enough to want to fix the broken. Africa was sick, our cultures were dying. And when we wrote we did not write ‘our own’.

Achebe saw the country for what it was. I am happy he made attempts to ‘fix’.

But, good essay still. Good essay.

READ: Gods of Fiction: African Writers and the Fantasy of Power

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