I read an interesting article the other day although the title of the said article escapes my fast aging mind. The author was quoting an African publisher who was giving a rundown of the state of African literature.
In the midst of his otherwise happy analysis was his wry comment that every upcoming African writer was trying to become a Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka.
The two tower over the literature landscape so prominently- sort of literature Gullivers- that everyone is trying to mimic them in style and substance.
On the one hand, this is not particularily suprising. Critical and commercial acclaim will often inspire imitators. And it would be difficult to argue that Achebe and Soyinka aren't worthy of the compliment.
They are both tremendous writers who have moved and inspired millions for decades. It is fitting to a certain extent that many would-be writers look to them for inspiration and guidance. That said, the publisher's comments did make me wonder about the negative side of this phenomenon.
Slavishly trying to copy the two literature giants is an enterprise that is surely going to strangle creativity and originality. How many would-be writers are afraid to try something new and develop their own style and stories?
How many use books like 'Things fall apart' not as an inspiration but as a template? Obviously such things are hard to quantify- we would also have to consider unpublished manuscripts for example- but I feel it’s a more prominent problem than people realize.
It is not something that is limited to Africa. For example, in South America, the success of Gabriel Garcia Marquez had every aspiring novelist; trying to write the next magical surrealism masterpiece.
Plenty of people tried to copy the Marquez voice and turn their work into little more than a shrine to him. Quite a compliment to Marquez no doubt, but not something that is likely to seriously benefit literature on the continent.
A literature landscape filled with wandering Marquez clones is a depressing thought, even if you are a fan of his writing. In Africa, the drive to be the next Achebe or Soyinka means not only trying to write exactly like them, but returning to the themes that transformed them into a global force.
So that often means further attempts to tackle issues like colonialism and the subsequent culture clash. A fascinating topic no doubt but it creates a sort of time warp and writers start echoing each other.
It also means repeatedly returning to political satire and making fun of the 'big man' syndrome. Again, an interesting topic, but one that has been done to death.
It is not only our voices that fail to break the chains of mimicry, but our themes as well. For example, I find myself thinking: where is the African science fiction? Or horror?
Granted as themes, they don't make for the most comfortable cultural fit but it is the writer's job to soar past such constraints. As much as I hated Ben Okri's 'Famished road' I did at least admire the originality of it.
It was a unique voice, albeit one I was in no hurry to encounter again. For African literature to move to the next level, we need to have fresh voices not afraid to take the road less travelled and not afraid to create their own voice. Copycat literature is not the answer.