THE DEAD{Nadine Gordimer} AND THE UNDEAD{Wole Soyinka} : A TRIBUTE

This two piece, curled from The Nation Newspaper and Premium Times respectively, is a tribute to the Dead and the Undead. Written by Biodun Jeyifo, currently a Professor at the Departments of African and African American Studies, and Comparative Literature, Harvard University, Biodun Jeyifo is one of the most important contemporary African literature critics and cultural theorists. He has taught at several universities around the world, including Cornell University, Oberlin College, University of Ife and Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY). His research interests are: African and Caribbean ‘Anglophone’ literatures, theatrical theory and dramatic literature, Western and non Western, comparative African and Afro-American critical thought, Marxist literary and cultural theory, colonial and postcolonial studies, etc. Jeyifo is world

renowned as the foremost Soyinka scholar. His publications on Soyinka include, Wole Soyinka, Politics, Poetics, Postcolonialism (2004), Perspectives on Wole Soyinka: Freedom and Complexity (2001), Wole Soyinka: A Voice of

Africa (1990).                                

Nadine Gordimer, 1923-2014: white

African, incandescent writer and

revolutionary humanist

Posted by: Biodun Jeyifo

in Biodun Jeyifo, Sunday 4 days ago

[A Tribute]     

Then I discovered the truth, which was that in Zambia I was regarded by black friends as a European stranger. It is only here (South Africa) that I can be what I am: a white African.

Nadine Gordimer, in a BBC interview It is surely one of those great ironies of life that just

as we were celebrating the 80th birthday anniversary of Wole Soyinka on our continent and the world was rejoicing with us, we would almost at the same time

be mourning the death of Nadine Gordimer at the age of 90 and the whole world mourns with us. Like Soyinka, Gordimer was one of a kind. From very early in her life and career as a novelist and activist, she was completely on the side of justice, respect, and dignity for all women and men, without any qualifications based on race, class, gender, nationality, and ethnicity. To the very end, she stuck to this early intuition without ever wavering. And like

Soyinka whose fight against injustice, abuse of human rights, corruption of political leaders and the terrible suffering of the majority of his fellow citizens

was and is legendary, Gordimer was also an implacable foe of apartheid in her homeland who

saw, with prophetic vision, that it was a doomed system. Her novels and short fiction are unmatched in their combination of radical or even revolutionary politics

with extraordinarily well crafted, luminescent writing. Unlike J.M. Coetzee, her fellow South African Nobel Laureate, she wrote about real, everyday people and their struggles against, or witting or unwitting collusion with apartheid. As a matter of fact, she

admitted that one of her most successful works of fiction, Burger’s Daughter, was partly based on the legendary Bram Fischer, the white lawyer that famously defended Nelson Mandela at his treason trial. This may be the explanation for the fact that during the apartheid era, many of her novels were banned and then unbanned and then banned again. She joined the ANC, significantly at the time when it was a banned organisation and became a lifelong friend of Nelson Mandela. She was quite easily one of the most prominent white members of the ANC. Characteristically, within the ANC both when it was a movement and when it became a governing party, Gordimer was a rallying point of criticism against and dissent from the party’s departures from many of its founding noble aims and ideals. She was very critical

of Thabo Mbeki’s retrogressive ideas and policies about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and she has in particular been fiercely critical of the current President, Jacob Zuma.

Personally, I was deeply drawn to and influenced by three of Gordimer’s novels, Burger’s Daughter, Julys People and The Late Bourgeois World which all explore both objective and subjective, subtle changes and transformations that revolutionaries

and ordinary people experience in the struggle against apartheid. This pertained to both black and white protagonists but was more focused on whites who, in resolutely taking up the fight to end apartheid found that they both had to give up all their white privileges and, in effect, fight against their own people. In this respect, Julys People in particular, in my own opinion, is an extraordinarily powerful and enigmatic novel. Again in my own judgment, I think there is no book, fiction or non-fiction, as important as this book in exploring all the ramifications of what, historically, it means to be white and African, to be a white person who has not come to Africa to exploit it or is just passing through the continent as an exoticist or a flanneur. This observation brings me to the heart of this tribute which is based not only of my reading and teaching the works of Gordimer but also on my meetings with her. We met only twice. The first of these two meetings took place in 1992, two years before the formal end of apartheid and the inception of democratic majority rule in South Africa. A few years ago, I met her again at Harvard when she and other African, African American and Caribbean Nobel Laureates were honoured by Harvard’s Du Bois Institute in an unforgettable ceremony full of glitz but also of gravitas. Since she was in the midst of a great number of the Harvard and global intellectual and social glitterati during this second meeting, we hardly talked beyond exchanging greetings and a few pleasantries. Thus, it was the first meeting that left a lasting impression on me by confirming and

solidifying all that I had expected Gordimer to be from reading her works. The meeting took place in Harare, Zimbabwe. Abiola Irele, Femi Osofisan, Kole Omotoso, Niyi Osundare and I had been invited as the Nigerian delegation to a UNESCO-sponsored conference that was meant to be an encounter between South African writers and intellectuals and their colleagues in other African countries to deliberate on what impact, what reconfigurations we could expect in African writing and thought with the end of apartheid. Thus, there were delegations from other African countries beside the Nigerian delegation. However, because at that time South Africa was embroiled in a terrible social and political turmoil, the South African delegation was very small, the smallest in fact from any country. But to my great satisfaction, Nadine Gordimer, who had the year before won the Nobel Literature Prize, was present. Simply stated, she was the most approachable world class writer I had ever met. And also a great conversationalist, completely frank in expressing her views and genuinely interested in whoever she was conversing with. It was a complete surprise and a revelation to me how very quickly and easily we fell into conversation about small and great things; about Nigeria and about South Africa; about African

literature and writings from other parts of the world. When I told her which of her novels and stories I fairly regularly taught in my classes, she was very curious to know what my students made of each novel or short story. And she was very, very willing to discuss her own writings, something, by the way, that WS doesn’t much like to do. At some point during our conversation, I suddenly realised that Gordimer was actually saying things about her writings, about what to expect in a post-apartheid South Africa and about our world that other people, a much wider audience should hear or read. I then asked her if I could have a recorded interview with her the next day. Without the slightest hesitation she agreed – which further amazed me given the fact that we had just met and before the meeting she had never heard of me. We duly had the interview the next day and it was published in a special issue of the journal, Callaloo,

the premier African Diaspora literary journal that publishes original creative works and critical studies of and by African and black writers worldwide. I mention this fact because in that published interview, the only important disagreement that I had with Gordimer arose from some comparative reflections that she made on the question of the uses and meanings of race among South Africans and black Americans. More precisely, the issue bears directly on an aspect of this tribute that is captured in two words in the title of this piece and is directly expressed in the epigraph to this article. The words are “white African”. Let me explain. Is there a difference between “non-racialism” and“multi-racialism”? In my published interview with her, both Gordimer and I agreed that there was indeed a difference between the two words and that difference had everything to do with the pasts and futures of race respectively in South Africa and America. In the new constitution that was then being drafted for post-apartheid South Africa during that meeting with Gordimer in Harare in 1992, it was explicitly stated that the goal was to build a “non-racial” South Africa. In my comment on this, I pointed out to Gordimer that “non-racial” or “non-racialism”had been rejected in America by all those – black, white, Native American, Latino, Asian and others -struggling against historic racism and its contemporary legacies. This was because it was felt that non-racialism conceptually or definitionally denied the existence of race when so much in American society, economy and politics was still based on race and racism. For this reason, anti-racist Americans of all races and ethnicities preferred to talk of “multi-racialism” which, to them amounted to a frank recognition of the reality of race, of there being many races so that racial difference can be

better understood as a way of coming to an embrace of the things that make all of us members of only one race – the human race. To her great credit, Gordimer in the interview conceded the validity of the argument about multi- racialism, only insisting that because the Boers had historically made use of the reality and existence of many races to keep South Africans apart and white-dominated, it would take a long time for South Africa to “evolve” to a concept of multi-racialism that could itself lead every South African to accepting and acting of the belief that we are all members of the same race. I cannot but think that Gordimer made this “concession” because this question was one that she personally and heroically had settled for herself

decades ago, early in her career. She was white and she was African who belonged to the same single human race with all her fellow South Africans, black, white, brown, colored, Asian and others. In the long years and decades of the struggle against apartheid, there were many white South Africans who belonged to this illustrious group of proponents and activists of non-racialism, among them Bram Fischer, Joe Slovo, Ruth First and many others too numerous to name here. Nadine Gordimer was a towering presence within that group. She belonged first, proudly and responsibly, to our continent; from this, she took on some of the outstanding issues of our times and our common human community.

Biodun Jeyifo

bjeyifo@fas.harvard.edu

For WS @ 80: Baroka and the long road

to and beyond his age

Posted by: Biodun Jeyifo

in Biodun Jeyifo, Sunday 11 days ago

Last semester, I taught Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel for the first time in about thirty years. Though I do like the play a lot, it is not one of my favourite Soyinka plays, not one of his dramatic writings that I regard as some of the best plays ever written. I believe that the last time that I actually read The Lion and the Jewel was around the late 1990s when I was completing the first draft of what would eventually become my full-length book on all the writings of Soyinka titled Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, Postcolonialism. At any rate, when I re-read and taught the play recently, I was in no small measure tantalised by the fact that though I had long reached and passed the age of 60, I was startled by the realisation that I am much older than Baroka, the quintessential “old man” of all of Soyinka’s plays! To be exact, I felt at one and the same time shocked and elated: shocked that I am now and have been for a long time Baroka’s elder; elated by the rather deeply personal and existential proof of the old, hallowed Latin proverb concerning the relationship between art and life, “ars longa, vita brevis”. The phrase

literally means “art is long, life is short”. The central meaning that has traditionally been ascribed to is the view that while life, lived human life, is short, art lasts for ever. Additionally, the phrase also implies that that the life of the artist and the epoch in which he or she lived is preserved permanently in his or her great works. In other words, let life be as short as it

usually biologically is; great art makes life imperishable. More on these later in this short tribute

to WS at 80; for now, back to my disbelief that I’m now the “elder” of Baroka. Definitely, speaking for myself and those of my generation of writers, critics, actors, artistes and “groupies” who have been close to WS, from now on, any time that a discussion of the characters of Soyinka’s plays comes to a conversation about the

crafty “lion’ of Ilujinle, some self-referential vibes will go through us when he is, yet again, identified as an “old man”! WS, why didn’t you make Baroka 80? A futile, perhaps even fatuous wish! For the fact is that Baroka will always be 60 anytime he is performed or

read in the play. If Soyinka had made him 70 in 1963 when the play was published (it had been performed many years earlier before its formal publication) he would still be 70 today. He will always be, now and forever, any age that Soyinka had given him when he wrote the play – 70, 80 or 90, any age he was given at his imaginative “birthing” by WS. Perhaps the most astonishing thing of all in what I am here catachrestically calling Baroka’s “birthing”by WS is that Soyinka was a young man in his early 20s when he wrote the play and yet he wrote

compellingly, memorably about an old man of 60. Let us set aside the fact that he wrote a self-serving craftiness with not a small amount of conservative power lust into Baroka’s captivating senescence. The point remains as indisputable as it is also astonishing that in his early 20s WS could enter so completely into the emotional, psychic world of an old man. To this we should counterpoise the fact that Lakunle, the young man who at that stage in Soyinka’ career was much closer in age to WS was made the butt of the jokes of all the other characters of the play and the hapless victim of Baroka’s wily stratagems. WS will have to both believe and forgive me for saying this, but since my very first reading of The Lion and the Jewel I have always thought that Soyinka took sides with Baroka against Lakunle not only because the foppish and naive village schoolteacher was everything WS did not want truly radical and progressive members of his generation to be but also because WS was looking well into the future and

seeing himself in those aspects of Baroka that defy age when it comes to matters concerning members of the opposite sex! As a teacher of literature for five decades now, I know that characters should not be confused, not be conflated with their authors, but I am giving my honest opinion here. [If a libel suit is served on me for making this “aspersion”, I will have

Femi Falana tie up the lawsuit in an endless, irresolvable knot in the law courts!]

More seriously, it strikes me now – and only now -that some of the greatest and most memorable

characters of Soyinka’s plays are all old men whom the playwright wrote into imperishable imaginative existence when he was a young man well under the age 40. Some of these are Forest Head of A Dance of the Forests; Professor of The Road; Oba Danlola of Kongis Harvest; Old Man of Madmen and Specialists; and Elesin Oba of Death and the Kings Horseman.

Parenthetically, I might add here that there are two and only two old women in all of Soyinka’s plays that match the towering presence of the old men in the plays in which they appear and these are Iya Agba in Madmen and Specialists and Iyaloja in Death and the Kings Horseman. But maleness as such is not part of the essence of the old men of Soyinka’s great plays, with the exception perhaps of only Elesin Oba in Death and the Kings Horseman. Neither is age in and of itself the thing that stands out in the characterisation of the old, senescent protagonists of

Soyinka’s great plays. It is something very tragic and at the same time very exhilarating, something in fact deeply aporetic: they all bear the burden of ironic truths and a dazzling wisdom which neither saves them personally nor those who surround them in the expectation that they will fulfill the messianic hopes they inspire. Now I first read all these plays and came across these characters when I was myself a young man, at a time when the formless, apolitical and post-adolescent, non-conformism of my teenage years was being gradually supplanted by a lifelong devotion to socialism in our country, our continent and our world. In that context, these characters of Soyinka’s great plays confused but also endlessly fascinated me. On the one hand, the characters all stood for or in the end inscribed a radical anti-messianism in social contexts that had a surfeit of evil, cruelty and suffering and therefore had a great, overwhelming need to be changed for the better. But on the other hand, the characters each took an unsparing and

savagely corrosive look at the evil in themselves and in their world and refused totally to be “saviors”, even at the cost of being destroyed themselves. In a way, Soyinka can be described as a consistently non- or anti-didactic playwright but he does have some plays and many poems that can be described as quasi-didactic, plays like the Jero plays, The Beatification of an Area Boy and the sketches and revues of the “Before the Blackout” series. But the thing that confounded me when I first read and/or watched Soyinka’s plays in performance was the fact

that it was the group of radically non-messianic and anti-didactic plays that far more fascinated me than the other group. Which is why, in the years of my young intellectual and political adulthood, when, without exactly knowing it, I was on my way to achieving a complex understanding of the role of contradiction and aporia in life, art and politics, those great plays of Soyinka and their larger-than-life “old men” characters were of immense help. WS is now biologically 80. But vicariously, through a life in art of ferocious and stunning imaginative

power, he had already been 80 and older for many decades now, while all the time he retained a

youthful energy and drive that were all the more amazing in that he combined many lives into his one single and exceptional life. His appetite for life is vast, like that of an okanjua, a glutton whose capacity for life and living is matched only by the vastness of his capacity for work and self-renewal. By the law of averages, he should have departed this life

a long time ago. Sani Abacha was not the only dictator who sought mightily to terminate his life, Idi Dada Amin of Uganda having also been one who sought to end what he regarded as his torments at the hands of WS by plotting to have his life cut short. And the accounts are fully documented that Soyinka was not supposed to have survived his detention by Gowon’s regime during the Nigeria-Biafra war. But Abacha went further than any other megalomaniacal

user of the weapon of killing implacable foes by having told confidantes that he would like to be the first ruler in history to have the satisfaction of hanging a Nobel Laureate. Abacha it is that died; WS is 80. And ko tii si iku lo ju e, Ahusubitrue!

Biodun Jeyifo

bjeyifo@fas.harvard.edu

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