Why we should study all ‘literatures’

Isn’t it obnoxiously surprising that literary students at higher institutions of learning, in this part of the world, are unrepentantly disinterested in non-African literatures? Aren’t we depriving ourselves of valued cultural resources?

Of course, there is the argument of how ‘poor reading culture’ has robbed Nigerian universities of intellectual ferment of the days of yore and how it feeds the universities with poor quality students on one hand and why do we have to study all the literatures on the other. Of what use is reading to excavate?

It is against this background that on Wednesday November 13, 2019, the Department of Languages, Yusuf Maitama Sule University organized a symposium, to bring its student back to the noble act of this ‘mental voyage’. The department was dissatisfied, with its students’ responses towards ‘non-African Literature’, and the price the students have to pay for depriving themselves of such priceless cultural resources.

The keynote speaker at the symposium – entitled ‘Why we should study all literatures’ and which took place at the university’s Main Hall, City Campus – was Ibrahim Bello-Kano – a professor of literature at Department of English and Literary Studies, Bayero University, Kano, (BUK) – popularly known as IBK.

The symposium had among its discussants in the Dean School of Postgraduate Studies, Gombe State University, Professor Sale Abdu, and Professor Mustapha Muhammad of BUK.

Drawing references from tens of literary works and theories and smoothing out contours of misperceptions that limit the students to studying African literature alone, IBK took the audience into heart of the matter, by exploring the benefits of studying all the literatures to which many students are blind.

“There is nothing wrong in studying African literature”, the professor stated. “African literature is growing and we need to develop and preserve it, as there are new kinds of writing beyond Achebe, Soyinka, Amah, Nguigi, etc, coming out of African tradition.  Yet there is one danger in limiting oneself to only African literature. Is it even possible for one to study literature by limiting oneself to “African literature”?’

What is the danger the professor was talking about and why the students need to study ‘other’ literatures? The danger is that of parochial attitude and the benefits range from broadmindedness and foresightedness, to discovery.

I have not only shared the same view as the professor on his arguments of how ‘literature’ serves as a key to the vault of other civilizations, discovery, intellectual curiosity, and how it deals with the question of identity or right, but also found them realistic.

Everything equal, how many of us have understood that beyond the text (what Roland Bathes called ‘methodological field’) in, say a novel, for example, according to the professor, the word ‘literature’ which is derived from the Latin word ‘litteratura’ meaning ‘letter of the alphabet’, which has the ability of portraying how human beings across all cultures have to handle the problems of being alive – curiosity and daring all enmeshed in trying to exist.

Literature teaches something. It is this: the idea of ‘human weakness’ portrayed in Chinua ‘Achebe’s Things Fall Apart’, for instance, is similar, on the measurements of destiny to that of Macbeth, the central character of the Shakespeare’s tragic play, Macbeth. 

Okwonkwo’s strength builds up to his tragic flaw and in the final analysis he dies ‘like a dog’. He is hostile to changes. Consumed by ambition, Macbeth ultimately tastes from the cup of madness and then to the death. Human weakness has triumphed upon both.

In Junichiro Tanizaki’s tragicomic novel, ‘Diary of a Mad Old Man’ or ‘Journal of Utsuigi’, a seventy-seven year Japanese old man of refined tastes and who is recovering from a stroke, discovers that as his body decays his libido rages on – the unfortunate is largely sparked by the looks of his daughter-in-law.  

Same is true of the Oscar Lewis’ 1961 novel ‘Children of Sanchez’. Jesuz Sanchez and his children have to slug it out with other social forces in the slum of Tepito. Is this for nothing? No, novel, literature, to Jeremy Hawthorn, novel contains ‘dramatic scene that grips us with their intimacy that an investigation into an issue of human significance moulds a reader into a daring explorer.

Two, ‘if you want to know the secret of a civilization, say for example, western civilization,’ the professor argued, ‘and learn why it is the way it is, go to their literature’. Isn’t imaginative thinking what has propelled the west to so an elevated ladder of technological and scientific advancement? How do we know this? We go to their literature.

A young scientist, out of sheer curiosity to find what is hidden or human’s grasp, embarks upon an unorthodox scientific experiment and creates a hideous monster that destroys everyone dear to him. Finally, there are Victor and his creation, the monster, ‘lost in darkness and distance’ away from humanity.

The pursuit of knowledge is at the heart of Marry Shalley’s Frankenstein. Victor wants to exceed the limit of the accepted norms and is driven by the curiosity to explore beyond the previous human exploration. Hasn’t the same curiosity – the need to know or exceed the limit – led to ‘cloud seedling’?   

Ever wonder why the most read among us are the most travelled? Mental voyage is one of the most proven ways of globe-trotting. “Isn’t it intellectually irresponsible”, asked the professor, “to refuse to learn of how other cultures, civilizations?” Literary works deal with personal development, the question of right or identity.

A commoner like myself needs not to spend years in Chicago’s South Side of the United States of America to learn of how the blacks cope with the issue of ‘freedom’ or ‘rights’, in a part of the world where the blacks, as Ralph Ellison would write, ‘had either to affirm the transcendent ideals of democracy and his own identity by aiding those who despise[d] him, or accept his situation as hopelessly devoid of meaning: a choice tantamount to rejecting his own humanity’.

The character of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, is a product of a dislocated society that he is ‘dispossessed and disinherited man who has to take refuge in violence that has not only claimed his beloved Bessie; the city places before him ‘scabby poverty and gaudy luxury – high idealism and cynicism juxtaposed’.

Similar are the horrors South Africa offers to the central characters of Peter Abraham’s ‘Tell Freedom’ and Mark Mathabane’s autobiography ‘Kaffir Boy’. Apartheid is so cruel that that ubiquitous sign ‘reserved for the white only’ increases the blacks struggle to exist in a society where ‘social equality’ cannot be mentioned above whisper.

Literature, the professor drew the curtain, does not refer to a single civilization or conception, rather it refers to multiplicity and differences that deal with ‘jester to the human imagination’. 

In a more lighter mood, if literature can be a ‘raft of hope, or ‘comical antidote to the ailments of politics’, as Mark Twain demonstrated; and ‘imaginative literature’ has a role in our lives, Nigerian, nay African, students have a duty to seek refuge in world literatures. It broadens the mind.

Abdulhamid writes via [email protected]

Twitter: yassara2013


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