24 May 2012

Africa: The Caine Prize and Literary Tensions


Accusations are flying about African writers and intellectuals telling lies about the continent to their Western audiences, thus confirming age-old racist stereotypes. There are claims of plagiarism as well.

Towards the end of last year, Nigerian writer Ikhide R. Ikheloa published a series of essays in which he accused the Nigerian author Chris Abani of "Graceland" fame of telling lies and engaging in exaggerations http://bit.ly/LI9dsh relating to his admitted imprisonment in Nigeria's most notorious hell hole prison, KiriKiri in 19xx.

"It is one thing for Abani to tell a lie and then move on with his life. It is another thing for him to continue to perpetuate the same lie at the expense of Africa. It is obnoxious and offensive, and if he was white, it would be considered racist. Since the confrontation/intervention in 2003, Abani has gone on to conduct moving interviews and given speeches expanding in graphic detail his alleged experiences. As I said earlier, the details get more fantastic in the re-telling and details and dates change each time. It is comic really."

In a follow up blog post he repeats his allegations against Abani and further accuses, but does not name [I would like names please - if Abani is to be outed as a liar why not the rest?] "a tiny cabal of African writers" who "seem willing to wheedle, lie and steal their way into stardom on the tortured back of Africa."

Ikheola's anger at Abani's goes well beyond the alleged lies to the consequences both at home and internationally which once again raises important questions on who should write about Africa, how and what we should be writing [see Ikheola's essay "[url=Email from America: The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences[/url]".

'As a result, Africa and Africans are being doubly victimized. In the decaying classrooms of Nigeria, children born into a war schemed by thieving politicians and lying intellectuals are being taught that dead white men discovered places like River Niger. And abroad their sons and daughters are assuring their white counterparts that in Nigeria 14-year olds are routinely executed by means so brutal and primitive, they reinforce the truth that Africa is a land of darkness. That is what Chris Abani http://bit.ly/Jq1YU4 and his roaming band of Diaspora literature pimps are telling young impressionable Westerners every day in classrooms. We should be outraged. If you do not believe me, http://bit.ly/MK9ZEB is the official website of Professor Chris Abaniwho now teaches this kind of false odium every day at the University of California, Riverside."

Taking the time to read through Ikheola's blog http://bit.ly/LtSk1C helps put some context to his Abani ramblings. He is repeatedly critical of what he considers is the narrow way Africa is being viewed through the work of a small group of African writers who have "unfettered access to Western publishers and arts patrons" and the general stereotyping of Africa as a place so burdensome to it's citizens as to drive white folks either to pity us to the point of adopting [in this case] writers as literary pets or create NGOs with the aim of saving us from our misery - ourselves. His essay, "Email from America....." addresses these tendencies as they are performed through the Caine Prize for Literature. Emmanuel Iduma http://bit.ly/KC2edj takes up the challenge of unpacking Ikheola's criticisms by complicating our understanding of the word stereotype.

"The dilemma we face is the challenge of distinguishing between writing a "story" and writing "stereotypes." It is clear that the divide, and the constructs, exist. It is also clear that both merge and are almost inseparable. For instance, I might decide to write a story about incest and child witch-hunt in Esit Eket, thereby writing an African "stereotype" or I might decide to tell a story of a deaf man who hears a single song, thereby writing a "story." This is a fashionable divide, sometimes bedeviling, other times accommodating. But I consider this divide more intricate than superficial.

Let me make assumptions for what it takes to write stereotypes, and write a story. To write a stereotype, one mixes fact with fiction - narrating, on the one hand, a considerable navigation of the known world and on the other creatively repeating that known world. This is perhaps an art in itself, and essentially accommodating, I think. Or perhaps stereotypes get their essentials from "political correctness" - which suggests that "stereotypes" can fall within the category that encompasses the media, Westernization, Neo-colonialism, and whatnot. The other realm, of stories, demands extended imagination - we find ourselves making our special known worlds, giving no quarter to political correctness, living in a (re)imagined state. This second realm, unlike the first, becomes celebrated only because those who read us find in it an escape from "reality."

Iduma concludes by asking whether the way of avoidance of stereotypes, writing "the story that is pleasing and acceptable", will itself not be in danger of becoming a cliché. Nonetheless the daily media onslaught of stereotypes and clichés around 'Africa' is head banging stuff without having to read stories by African writers which act as reinforcements of a largely uninformed western news media.

Fast-forward to the 2012 Caine Prize and another controversy. One Nigerian writer, Ahmed Maiwada http://on.fb.me/KWYipP accuses another Nigerian writer, Rotimi Babatunde [shortlisted for "Bombay's Republic"] of plagerising another Nigerian writer's work, http://bit.ly/KC4yRN, "Burma Boy". From my reading of the argument on Facebook I am confident in saying the lines are unevenly drawn, balanced in favour of Babatunde. I have read Bombay's Republic but not Burma Boy so I cannot comment on the specific. Nonetheless I have complete confidence in those that strongly disagree with his accusation, which is as follows:

"The storyline of Babatunde Rotimi's Bombay's Republic is too close to that of Biyi Bandele's Burma Boy; it is too close for comfort, too close to pass as an original! So, how did it manage to make it through to the final stage of the Caine Prize? It is either the judges are not critical readers, or they are no wide readers at all, or they cannot tell between an original story and the plagiarised. Whatever the shortcoming, this is most unfortunate for African writing!" [Facebook 20 May, 2012]

The accusation is deep and one cannot avoid the tone of vindictiveness as it also implies intent and in Maiwada's words "lifting of text" as opposed to being inspired.

Both Dami Ajayi http://bit.ly/KGLEex and Emmanuel Iduma, editors of Saraba Magazine, came swiftly to Babatunde's defense stating they have convincing email evidence dating from 2005, which predates Bandele's novel. Ajayi admits there are 'thematic' similarities which is a long way from outright theft of idea and text. Comments on Maiwada's Facebook page are full of similar examples between novels and Ajayi himself cites his own experience noting the universality of human experience.

"I once read a story by E.C Osondu which was pretty similar to a story I had published on the Internet. Why did I not scream foul play? The answer is simple and not far-fetched. Fiction is escapism into reality and human experiences are universal. Puberty, childbirth, culture shock are not personalized phenomena, they are experiences that belong to everyone. Mr Maiwada, in substantiating his claims, must do better than poach similarities between a story and a novel. He must raise evidence beyond reasonable doubt, beyond the delusional grandiosity that can compare a full length novel with a short story."

Maiwada remains steadfast in his accusation and "thirst for blood' [plagerised from a FB comment by one Deji Toye] ending invoking God http://on.fb.me/JzYXCe in his vow to cleanse Nigerian literature - spare me, can people not speak without God's name?

"This desperation to win at all cost! God shall have mercy. But Ahmed Maiwada will never back out of this fight; it is his vow to sanitise the contents of Nigerian literature until all works put out there represent the honest and genuine efforts of the writers putting them out"

Bababtunde has responded to the accusations stating he has not read Bandele's novel; Bandele's novel was published after his story was written. He goes on to provide a timeline of his work and ends with a promise to seek legal redress on the matter.

"I will speak with my lawyer. They say Maiwada is also a lawyer so, if he is any competent, he can't turn round to claim ignorance of the gravity of the allegations he has been making. In case he has previously gotten away with levelling these sort of claims against others, let him be aware that I will leave no stone unturned to bring him to book for his malicious statements. Please let anyone who is friends with him bring this to his attention."

Publicly challenging Babatunde's integrity with accusations of plagerism with intent is a destructive and mischievous act particularly as there is no evidence that Maiwada bothered to discuss his concerns with the author before going public. One hopes that these accusations will not prejudice the Caine Prize panel in their choice of a winner. I hope Babatunde does follow through by taking the matter to court although this could take years given the snail speed of Nigeria's legal system!

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