With essays by Akin Adesokan, Imraan Coovadia and Ngugi wa Thiong’o bound together, Sean O’Toole examines idiosyncratic writing styles and “the intellectual nature of postcoloniality”.
A young boy grows up amid the “unplanned spectacle of the expressive everyday”, a kind of ecstatic fluorescence of culture – music, films, art – that is snuffed out by a military coup. What to do? Like so many people, now and before, African or otherwise, Akin Adesokan endured. He remained in Nigeria.
A young adult living in the wake of Nigeria’s collapsed Second Republic, he wrote mostly journalism, but also fiction. His 1996 debut novel, Roots in the Sky, won the Association of Nigerian Authors’ prize for fiction. Two years later, after a brief detention by the military junta, he received the PEN Freedom-to-Write Award and decamped for graduate school in the US.
“I realised I could no longer live an intellectually productive life in Nigeria. Graduate school was the least parasitic place to be,” explains Adesokan, who lives in the college town of Bloomington. “We’ve come a long way from the time that Walter Benjamin weighed many options – including joining the Communist Party – in order to find a job, and my own options were prosaic by comparison.”
In the US, Adesokan, a comparative literature professor, has dedicated himself to understanding “the intellectual nature of postcoloniality”. At least, this is how he accounts for himself in Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics. Text and moving image largely occupy Adesokan’s attentions and, of the two, it is the former that ultimately dominates this collection of six scholarly essays. The bias towards written texts is, in some senses, unsurprising. As much as postcoloniality might be a lived experience, it is also a markedly ephemeral concept.
Always arriving late, after the fact, writing’s slowness is essential to transform the slackness of experience into something more taut and defined: coherence. This tension – between litheness and rigidity – underpins the construction of Adesokan’s book. Unlike Imraan Coovadia’s recent book of essays, Transformations, a collection of limber texts that explores the ideology of literary style, the constrained academic voice of Adesokan’s important book feels limiting at times. It deserves a wider public. Adesokan is cognisant of the dilemma:
Global Aesthetics is a book I needed to write that way if I wanted to be able to write subsequent books the way they would come to me. To make a place for myself as someone whose first novel was published to scattered attention, I knew that I could not hold a university job without the option of tenure. It was a matter of fashioning a topic that I would write on even if I didn’t need tenure.”
This clear-sightedness also characterises Global Aesthetics. The book opens with a focussed reading of the Afro-Trinidadian polyglot, CLR James, whose “politically committed cosmopolitanism” helps Adesokan build a bridge to the recent and diverse literary work of the prolific Kittian-British writer, Caryl Phillips. Like Adesokan, Phillips is an intellectual vagrant of sorts. He has lived in Leeds, Edinburgh, London, Amherst and New York; he is currently a professor of English at Yale University in New Haven. Adesokan praises Phillips’s “concern for the aesthetic quality of his work”, the way he exceeds “the ordinary duty of chronicling his travels” and evidences the potential of aesthetics “to be politically constitutive”.
Spanning a roiling historical period that encompasses both decolonisation and globalisation, Adesokan’s book repeatedly draws the reader’s attention to the instabilities of a world “no longer determined by the unitary conceptions of identity”. These instabilities reveal themselves in the recurring tensions between worldliness and exile, homelessness and cosmopolitanism that mark the writings of his subjects, many of whom function as literary mentors.
That writers read other writers is self-evident. That they read them more closely than the general reading public is also true. This focus can lead to arguments. The belligerent review is an obvious forum for argument; but it is the essay, that interested-in-everything literary dawdler, that is the best vehicle for enraptured argument. For the young writer especially, it can function as a device to explore the borders and outer limits of a seemingly endless expanse of talent and formidability. It puts the writer in the position of cartographer, or discoverer.
Coovadia’s discoveries in relation to Coetzee have been the subject of some discussion in South African literary circles. Although he denies it, Coovadia – an elegant, ranging, sometimes-argumentative prose stylist – has been in a protracted argument with Coetzee.
Following the publication of Transformations, which includes his meditation on “Coetzeean shame”, Coovadia wrote a feisty newspaper review of JC Kannemeyer’s “star-struck” biography, Coetzee: A Life in Writing (2012). Its forthrightness caused a brief literary commotion, including the strategic deployment of Pierre Bourdieu – like a consultant from McKinsey & Co sent to an ailing corporation or government department – by one antagonist. Similar to Adesokan, Coovadia is a university-bound novelist – the Yale-trained writer is head of creative writing at the University of Cape Town. The campus is a peculiar habitat: it demands explication and science, even of things that resist it. Unlike Adesokan, who produced a considered academic text, Coovadia opted for a more slippery proposition: a book of literary essays.
“The essay,” offers Coovadia in the introduction to Transformations, “knows to be brief. Its form is nothing but the shifts and turns in topic which come through a writer’s hand.” Dawdling in this manner, Coovadia pauses on Vladimir Nabokov’s “sonic prose” and imprecise liberalism, only to move on to a clock brought back from Mecca by his mother and Thabo Mbeki’s literary habits. He also pauses, briefly, to consider the matter of post-colonial style.
It is a “heated” and “muddled” style, he writes, pointing to the writing of Hamid Dabashi, a “flamboyant” Iranian born comparative literature scholar at Columbia University. He is not being unflattering. “Since much of the literature of resistance was written in the thick of battle, there is an understandable tendency to concentrate on its combative, often strident assertiveness,” observed Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism (1993).
Both Adesokan and Coovadia read Said, for insight but also for the pleasure of his disciplined style, which effortlessly montages his great learning. Transformations demonstrates Coovadia’s learning too, his awareness that literary style can function as a kind of aristocratic or apolitical redoubt, something Jacques Rancière has noted of Gustave Flaubert, and Coovadia himself shows to be true of Nabokov.
Interestingly, neither Adesokan nor Coovadia mentions Ngugi wa Thiong’o, that irrefutable Kenyan novelist who, like John Berger and Rebecca Solnit, has allied his idiosyncratic style to an ethical imperative. (It is not only right wingers who write well!) In Globalectics, a concise book of four essays, Ngugi uses spare sentences to recapitulate debates on post-colonial theory and literary studies. Ngugi is not so much interested in the theory and practice of world literature, which is more Adesokan’s domain, but in, as he puts it, “the organisation of the literary space and its impact on the politics of knowing”.
That he sets out to achieve this by way of the essay evidences a kind of quixotic faith on Ngugi’s part. Essays have long been treated as epistemologically suspect, if we draw on Ngugi’s language about knowing. Take something offered by one of the form’s prime exponents. Speaking at his investiture as chair of literary semiology in 1977, Roland Barthes wondered about his suitability for the job: “I have produced only essays, an ambiguous genre in which analysis vies with writing,” he said.
On balance, Ngugi is more interested in analysis than in writing, the issues of fine style mere “ornaments” in his view. Ngugi’s Hemingway-esque austerity might make one hanker for Coovadia at times. To singularly fixate on Ngugi’s style, however, misses completely the ethical imperative at stake in his work. Ngugi wants readers to pay attention.
Close reading, he writes, “can turn every text into a treasure house”. It also serves a deterrent function, preventing theory from “becoming the kite that has lost its moorings”, and critics from becoming “attorneys and judges who argue their cases, in prosecution, defence or judgement, without adducing reasons from the evidence”.
Sean O’Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town.
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