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Soyinka or Achebe? Who is Africa’s literary greatest of all time?

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Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are widely recognised as pioneers of Africa’s literary rebirth. I call it a rebirth because the Nile Valley civilisation, which emerged along the banks of the River Nile in Egypt around 3100 B.C.E (Before Common Era or Before Current Era or Before Christian Era), had developed hieroglyphics, a writing system.

A collection of related regionally distinct cultures, formed along the length of the Nile Valley from its headwaters in Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to its mouth in the Mediterranean Sea, to birth Africa’s literary greatness.

Achebe and Soyinka’s writings should be seen as a continuance of this tradition. Their shared literary authority, influence and historic legacy remind Africans, as singers Brian McKnight and Diana King would say, of when we were kings.

Achebe or Soyinka? A Study in Contrasts by Kole Omotoso takes the measure of these two literary titans.

It reveals how each represents a tendency in Nigerian writing. Albeit inadvertently, it expounds on distinct poles in African writing.  

Soyinka’s imagist play on words expresses his native Yoruba culture, while Achebe’s literary prowess owes much to Igbo cultural traditions.

Kole Omotoso puts his own expert pen to the service of disentangling what brings these two men together, as he considers their differing literary styles and vision.  He, with a degree of verbosity, looks at their formative years, their cultural influences and standpoints with respect to the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, fought between Nigeria and the Republic of Biafra, a secessionist state, which had declared its independence from Nigeria in 1967.

On a global stage, Achebe and Soyinka’s politics also fall under a spotlight, which shines forth their contribution to the language debate in African literatures.

The writings of Achebe and Soyinka are viewed through the prisms of the pan-African agenda, the Nigerian nation-state agenda, and the ethnic-national agenda. We also read about their responses to their critics.

Soyinka or Achebe?

Ugandans are big fans of Achebe’s books, especially Things Fall Apart.

His storytelling gifts have not only shaped how we understand our own circumstances, they keep giving us ways to make sense of post-colonial Africa. 

His simple use of language, proverbs and African symbolism, resonates with Ugandans, as it does not levy too much of a challenge on our understanding. Indeed, his writing is straightforward and accessibly nuanced.

In the 1993 movie, Philadelphia, Denzel Washington plays the role of a trial attorney, who asks his clients to explain their situation to him “as if I were a six-year-old”. This is precisely what Achebe does in his writings.

Soyinka, on the other hand, is less heralded by Ugandans. True, we are grateful that in December 2018, Ugandan writer Ber Anena (née Harriet Anena) was named winner of the 2018 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa for her book, A Nation in Labour, published in 2015.

However, Soyinka’s writings remain largely unfathomable to Ugandans as to their poeticisms, which blend the grandiloquence of European literature with Yoruba literary devices found in proverbs, iconography and songs.

Father of African literature

The nimbus-haired Soyinka rejects the notion of the late Achebe being labeled the “father of African literature” as a “primogenitorial distraction”.

Soyinka, the first African to win a Nobel Prize for literature, also dismisses calls for a posthumous Nobel Prize for Achebe.

Many Nigerians believe that Soyinka, having won the award in 1986, has a whip hand to guide Achebe to the Nobel brass ring.

It is believed that he can nominate future laureates to the Swedish Academy.

“Let us quit this indecent exercise of fatuous plaints, including raising hopes, even now, with talk of ‘posthumous’ conferment, when you know damned well that the Nobel committee does not indulge in such tradition. It has gone beyond ‘sickening’. It is obscene and irreverent. It desecrates memory,” Soyinka said shortly before Achebe’s burial in May 23, 2013.

“This conduct is gross disservice to Chinua Achebe and disrespectful of the life-engrossing occupation known as literature. How did creative valuation descend to such ordinariness? Do these people know what they are doing – they are inscribing Chinua’s legend in the negative mode of thwarted expectations. I find that disgusting.”

Soyinka, whose Nobel citation hails him as an author “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones, fashions the drama of existence”, asked if the award was really “what the literary enterprise is about? Was it the Nobel that spurred a young writer, stung by Eurocentric portrayal of African reality, to put pen to paper and produce Things Fall Apart?”

Who is the literary G.O.A.T?

The value of Achebe’s contribution to literature cannot be gainsaid. His work is a cornerstone of African literature and continues to influence generations of writers, scholars and everyday people. We quote him on a daily basis, referencing the simple sophistication of his words.

However, Soyinka has a point in saying that the rich diversity of African literature puts paid to any possibility of reducing the same to the singularity of a single author’s work.

“Those who seriously believe this must be asked: have you the sheerest acquaintance with the literatures of other African nations, in both indigenous and adopted colonial languages? Education is lacking in most of those who pontificate.”

Title: Achebe or Soyinka? A Study in Contrasts

Author: Kole Omotoso

Pages: 188

Price: 280,000

Availability: Amazon

Published: 1996