On Nigerian Literature: The Significance of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka
I must confess, my initial intention was to write an essay on African literature in general, not on Nigerian literature in particular. But then, I checked myself. I stopped myself from making the same mistake that almost every other person living outside the continent of Africa makes. That is the mistake of referring to or taking the entire African continent to be one, which, needless to say, is not true.
I do not know why, but people (living outside of the African continent) usually discuss African traditions, customs, religions, geography, ethnicities, languages, songs, and everything else as if they were all part of one and the same country. Literature, too, has been a victim of such generalization. One often hears another refer to Nigerian, Kenyan, South African, Ghanaian, or Senegalese literature, even individually, as African literature and nothing more, without giving the individual countries and their writers their due credit. Such reference, of course, is not wrong at all. And neither am I opposed to it.
But, I believe, it is also important to understand that Africa is a huge, diverse continent consisting of several little and large nations with their own individual identity. The Africa that Chinua Achebe wrote about is quite different from the Africa Doris Lessing wrote about. And the Africa Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee wrote about is distinct from the Africa Ayi Kwei Armah or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Wole Soyinka wrote about, which, in turn, is distinct from the Africa Taha Hussein or Ibrahim El Koni or Assia Djebar or Abdulrazak Gurnah wrote about. They are all different Africas but at the same time one and the same.
Referring to every African nation’s literature only as African literature would be like referring to Indian or Chinese literature only as Asian literature, or like regarding the works of Charles Dickens or Voltaire as European literature. But the truth is that European literature is rarely subjected to such categorization. Voltaire is associated with French literature and Dickens with English literature, Calvino is associated with Italian literature and Goethe with German literature, Cervantes with Spanish literature, and so on and so forth.
And so, in order to avoid this tempting trap, this mistake, this obvious folly, I would like to address only Nigerian literature in this essay of mine, while maintaining the hope that one day I will get around to writing about the beautiful literature produced by other African nations as well.
Now, before I begin, allow me to make a disclaimer. For obvious reasons, I will not be attempting to write down the entire history of Nigerian literature in this essay. Firstly, I do not have enough knowledge of Nigerian literature in order to undertake such a grandiose task. Secondly, I cannot pretend for long to have such in-depth knowledge of Nigerian literature in order to undertake such a grandiose task. And thirdly, it is a job better suited for a serious historian or academic.
Also, in case you are hoping that everything I shall address in this essay will be wholly accurate and without fault or inconsistencies, please allow me to burst your bubble and squash your hopes, for I refuse to take the risk of making or assuming such bold claims. I am human, and a highly flawed one at that. And I only have limited time and resources at my disposal. So please ignore and forgive me for any inconsistencies you might discover, for I am only trying my best to honor the great literature of a great nation.
And because of my obvious limitations, I shall restrict myself to the impact of postcolonial Nigerian writers, namely, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.
Now, I am aware of the fact that Nigerian literature is as diverse as the country itself. I am aware of the fact that there are numerous other great and important writers from Nigeria. And I am also aware of the fact that I have only named (and will be discussing) writers who prefer to use the English language as their medium of expression. I know this is an obvious drawback that might harm the credibility of this essay. But please look at it from my perspective and try to understand. It is easier for me to read and understand these writers (as they write in English, a language I tend to understand), while it is impossible for me to read and understand other great writers who choose to express themselves in Yoruba or Igbo, or Hausa or Urhobo or Nupe, or some other native language I am not aware of.
And although I am sure many such works written in a native language have probably been translated into English, I think we can all agree on the obvious limitations imposed by translations on even the greatest of works. That is, much of the greatness of the work often gets lost in translation.
And now that I am done with my winding, boring monologue (a major flaw that all my essays share), let me get to the point.
Nigerian literature, or, more precisely, Northern Nigerian literature, can be roughly divided into four main periods. The first period is known as the 14 Kingdoms Period, dating from around the 10th century until the 19th century. This period falls under the pre-colonial history of Northern Nigeria, that is before the British colonized the nation.
The reason why this period is known as the 14 Kingdoms period is fairly obvious. There were fourteen kingdoms (or states) that dominated and ruled over Northern Nigeria. Out of these fourteen, seven were the Hausa states of Rano, Daura, Zazzau, Kano, Biram, Gobir, and Katsina. And the other seven states were the so-called Banza Bakwai (meaning Bastard Seven), which were Gwari, Nupe, Zamfara, Ilorin, Kwararafa, Kebbi, and Yauri. Several books relating to mathematics, history, astronomy, theology, diplomacy, biography, language, and poetry were produced during this period.
The second period is the Sokoto period which lasted from the 19th century onward until the 20th century. This period began after the Sokoto Caliphate was founded by Usman dan Fodio (a Fulani religious teacher, scholar, and promoter of Sunni Islam) during the jihad of the Fulani War in 1804.
The third period is the Colonial period which began in the early 20th century when the British and Germans, in 1903, conquered and annexed the territories falling under the rule of the Sokoto Caliphate.
And then comes the fourth period which we will be dealing with in this essay, that is the Post-Independence period from the 20th century onward up until the present day.
The beginning of this period of Nigerian literature is widely believed to have been heralded by one very significant writer, the great Chinua Achebe, whose 1958 debut novel, Things Fall Apart, changed the face of not just Nigerian literature but African literature as a whole. The success of Achebe’s work threw light on the continent’s literature and brought it international attention for the first time in history. The novel depicts pre-colonial life in the southeastern part of Nigeria and its subsequent invasion by Europeans in the late 19th century. Achebe’s novel is considered the epitome of the modern African novel.
No African literary work before Achebe’s masterpiece had been able to achieve such a giant feat. Things fall Apart was lauded across the world and was an unexpected critical and commercial success, throwing Achebe into literary superstardom and making him one of the most admired, talked about, and important writers of the 20th century. Since then, Achebe has been regarded as the founding father of African literature and the father of the African novel in English, and the father of modern African literature (although Achebe himself denied such titles). And for the first time in history, African literature was put on the global map.
Now, I know I shouldn’t be talking about African literature as a whole after my silly monologue. But, please understand, I am doing it only for a reason, which is to reveal the true importance of the work that gave voice to an entire continent. It was the first time that the story of Nigeria (which could easily represent the story of Africa) and its people was said through the eyes of a native Nigerian (or African). While prior to that, the story of Africa and its people was always said from the perspective of the white man.
Achebe’s subsequent works were also of equal importance. His novels such as No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah, deal with post-colonial, modern Nigeria and often expose its corruption, bureaucracy, and socio-political issues.
Achebe, as a writer, has influenced countless other writers of great significance such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Margaret Atwood.
And now onto a contemporary of Achebe, the great Wole Soyinka, who became the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. Soyinka is a prolific writer of plays, poems, novels, memoirs, and essays. More than that, he is also an activist who took an active part in Nigeria’s campaign for independence from British rule and then in Nigeria’s political scene after independence. In 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War, he was arrested and put in solitary confinement for two years by the federal government of General Yakubu Gowon.
Soyinka has also been an open critic of successive Nigerian (and African) governments. On several occasions, he has openly criticized the military dictators that sprang up in Nigeria in particular and throughout Africa in general. When Soyinka was forced to escape Nigeria during the rule of General Sani Abacha, Abacha proclaimed a death sentence against him in absentia. Such was the power and influence of Soyinka’s words.
Much of Soyinka’s writings deal with this issue of oppression, regardless of the color of the person oppressed. His works involve a lot of references to Nigerian (and African) traditions, customs, rituals, and myths, all explored from a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones. His plays such as The Lion and the Jewel, A Dance of the Forests, Kongi’s Harvest, and Death and the King’s Horseman, are perfect examples of his style and manner of bringing to light the drama of life and existence in Nigeria (and even Africa as a whole).
Soyinka has written several poetry collections, essays, short stories, novels, and memoirs. He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest African writers ever and an enduring literary icon across the world.
Achebe and Soyinka pioneered Nigerian literature into the forefront of the international literary scene, thereby attracting immense attention toward not just Nigerian literature but African literature as a whole. The two of them acted as a catalyst for a significant change in the landscape of Nigerian and African literature, forcing the world to take the continent’s words and voice seriously.
This change had an obvious effect on Nigeria. Writers of great importance emerged from its soil to carry forward the literary torch that Achebe and Soyinka had lit and carried for so many years. Writers such as Buchi Emecheta, Ben Okri, Helon Habila, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came in their wake, following their footsteps and spreading the message of Nigeria and of the African continent across the world.
And, one must admit, they have done a great job, having accomplished even more than their great pioneers. They have made an even greater impact on the world through their writings and have successfully carried forward the tradition of Nigerian literature. So much so that, probably, out of all the other nations in Africa, one can hardly deny the fact that Nigeria has produced more writers of significance than any other nation. Nigeria’s writers now represent the thoughts, voices, emotions, and feelings of an entire continent, thereby becoming pioneers in themselves.
These great Nigerian writers have even succeeded in inspiring me, an aspiring Indian writer living in a country not short of its own literary icons. And this is what Nigerian literature has managed to achieve. Not only does it inspire the African continent and its writers, but also other continents and its writers. The writings of these great Nigerian writers seem to represent me and my country as well, and possibly even all other countries that suffered from the yoke of colonialism.
And so, I would like to end this essay by proclaiming and expressing my love and admiration for not just Nigerian literature but African literature as a whole, for it has given me, and countless others like me, voice and meaning, and hope. Hope that no matter which country or continent one belongs to, their writings can be understood, loved, admired, respected, and shared across the world and that their writings can represent and give voice to any person living anywhere on the face of this earth and beyond.