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Nigeria RPCV Charles R. Larsonís The Ordeal of the African Writer
Nigeria RPCV Charles R. Larsonís The Ordeal of the African Writer
By Benjamin Kwakye
Charles R. Larsonís The Ordeal of the African Writer is a must read. Larson combines thorough research, writersí personal accounts, and perceptive analyses to expose both the overwhelming odds facing the African writer and, like the continent itself, the writerís heartwarming endurance. Larsonís account is both depressing and inspiring. But it is this quality, and the bookís blend of accessibility with numerous accounts of writersí personal experiences that give it an inescapable human quality. To suppose, however, that aspiring writers might be discouraged from pursuing the craft after reading the book, misses the point. Amid overwhelming difficulties, African writers continue to endure and to pursue their craft. It becomes obvious that such writers are inspired by something greater than their difficulties. And herein lies the triumph and hope for the present and the future. It is hope somewhat captured in Larsonís suggestion for the establishment of a Pan-African publishing house devoted to the publishing and promotion of African literature. Even if, given the history of failed attempts in the past, this suggestion might be deemed Utopian, it still calls for a positive rejoinder.
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It is evident from reading The Ordeal of the African Writer that you have a strong personal interest in African literature. How did this interest develop?
My strong personal interest in African literature goes back to 1962, when I arrived in Nigeria as a Peace Corps volunteer and taught English at a boysí secondary school in southeastern Nigeria (Oraukwu Grammar School, Oraukwu) for two years. But Iím equally interested in this material because African writers need to be read more widely in the United States. For close to 40 years, Iíve worked to get their books in print in the U.S.
What motivated you to write the book, and what do you hope it will accomplish?
I was motivated to write The Ordeal of the African Writer out of a concerned feeling that African writers are not on an equal playing field with those in the West. I hope the book will convince Western publishers to publish African writers and do everything they can do to nurture African literature.
In parts, The Ordeal of the African Writer is very disheartening, especially some of the heartbreaking personal accounts so vividly summarized in the book. Do you have any concerns that an aspiring African writer would read it and decide that itís not worth the trouble?
African writers will always write, thank God. But they need to know that there are obstacles which they will face that have nothing to do with the quality of their writing. In other words, donít give up! Talented African writers will eventually find publishers interested in their work.
What, if anything, surprised you the most about the difficulties of the African writer?
I am surprised by nothing in Africa or African writers. The continent is fabulous, the people are wonderful Ė given proper leadership there will be a true African Renaissance.
What makes the African writer endure amid all his or her challenges, and is any of this unique to his or her situation?
All writers survive on hope, for their own work and for their countries, a double burden for African writers. I could be crass about this and say that African writers (living in Africa) can live on less than Western writers living in Europe or America, where things are more expensive. But that's not fair. African writers need the same things that Western writers do: recognition, readers (their own people), money.
Short of the Pan-African publishing house that you suggest to publish and to promote African writing, is there anything that can be done to improve the situation?
Yes, governments can say that writers matter. Why can't the Nigerian government issue a postage stamp with Amos Tutuola's face on it? Why can't Guinea issue one for Camara Laye? What would that cost? Why can't African nations honor their artists (not just writers)?
You argue clearly that despite the difficulties, thereís a great deal of talent on the continent. Still, without strong support systems what, in your view, is the future of African writing and publishing?
The future of African writers is not good. Books are so expensive in Africa that most Africans cannot afford to buy them. Last year, Things Fall Apart sold 100,000 in the United States and 2,250 in Nigeria. Thus, Chinua Achebe (to over-simplify the issue) lives where his readers are. Bottom line: How can African writers become known in their own countries if their fellow countrymen cannot afford to buy their books?
Do you see the Internet as an option for writers from Africa to get published and find a wider audience?
No, I do not see the internet as an option for African writers -- not at the current time. Too many African countries do not have reliable sources of electricity and phone lines. What does an internet connection cost in Mali? Who has access to these luxury items? Bottom line: produce books that Africans can purchase for 25 cents or 50 cents and then you'll have African readers.
Some have criticized your book for over-dramatizing the difficulties of the late Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola in the first chapter of the book. The critics say that you pay too much attention to the inability of the African writer to support himself or herself when, in fact, that may not be unique to the African writer. Your response?
Amos Tutuola was NOT appreciated by his people. That cannot be denied. Nigerians ignored him, except during those times when the press called attention to his obscurity. He died in poverty; a collection had to be taken up (in the West) for his funeral. These are indisputable facts -- and he was treated badly by his Western publishers. All writers everywhere want to be read by their people and they want to earn enough money to live comfortably from their work. Tutuola was not read by his people and he could not live comfortably from his work -- indisputable facts.
Any closing message to the American audience about African literature?
Obviously, Africans living in the United States need to read African writers but, more importantly, whenever they return home to their own countries, their suitcases should be filled with copies of books by African writers. Take books to Africa!
Interview by: by:
Benjamin Kwakye, author of The Clothes of Nakedness, published by Heinemann. He is senior editor of "Book world" for Afriscope Radio and Afriscope Weekly which features reviews, and interviews with authors of Black titles. We encourage authors of Black titles to send to us for consideration transcripts of interviews with fellow writers about their craft. Please include a daytime phone number for confirmation. Email to:firstname.lastname@example.org