What the Wares of Mister Blonde Beard told Me

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One cold afternoon in Berlin, I discovered that a second-hand book could bring first-rate news.

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I had been living in around Kreutzberg for about a week when I noticed the area hosted a second-hand bookstore not far from the subway. Inside, a blonde-bearded man sitting in a space made too small by all of the books surrounding it murmured his price. He sounded impatient, as though he had to go back to the hardback in his ancient hands.

“Two euros each,” he growled in German-accented English.

I found some room and began to scour the wares of Mr. Blonde-Beard.

About an hour later, I handed one of my purchases to my host and friend. It was an erotic novel I had read a long time ago. It was the type of book a kind of man gives a woman with just enough suggestibility and deniability: The first by its undeniable sexual content; the other by the book’s fine prose. She accepted it with a smile and started reading. I opened one of mine, an anthology of African writing, and was greeted by this sentence on the first page:

[T]he world of African writing is, in some measure, a different world; a world where, outwardly at least, many writers appear to have small desire to see their work in print and literary laurels are of little moment.

The writer quoted was an editor. The sentence is from the introduction to “Darkness and Light: An Anthology of African Writing” (Faith Press, 1958). From the story told in the opening pages, an editor named Peggy Rootherford travelled around the continent speaking to writers some of whom were subsequently collected in the book. “Would you like to suggest something of your writing for the anthology?” she asked. One of the responses she received was: “There are others who write better.”

I imagine her shock at this show of modesty. In her culture of writing in the English language, few had similar pretensions to modesty. Most claimed greatness. There was the hot-headed novelist Norman Mailer about to publish a first collection of essays and other writing. The title of his debut book? Advertisements for Myself. Mailer has always struck me as a type of clown and learning the title of this book had prompted a shake of head even as I admired his hubris. But he would go on to be one of the greats of his generation, living up to his own self-announcing prospects.

The closest contemporary example of this type of bravado, founded essentially on untested grounds, is today’s pop star claiming a song’s hit status before it reaches radio and then seeing it happen. In Africa, the humble writer — chucking his manuscript under his mattress, afraid of the spotlight or perhaps ashamed of this foreign language — still was dominant.

Earlier, in the same decade, Ernest Hemingway, in the famous New Yorker profile — “How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?” — bragged to Lilian Ross about his involvement in a duel with the European greats Maupassant and Turgenev, saying, “I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal and I think I had an edge in the last one.” Always the pugilist, Hemingway had outfoxed and out-boxed his contemporaries and was wrestling at the moment of Ross’s interview with the ancient gods of Western literature. He was making space for himself in the pantheon.

How do you come from all of that to “There are others who write better”? What do you say next? The answer our editor provides is simple: “You persist.”

After a four-year exertion, during which our editor-heroine falls sick and at one point is spirited through a street in futile search for a certain writer, the anthology is published in 1958.

Now, we know this was the same year ‘Things Fall Apart’, the novel destined to hold an entire continent in its thrall, got published.

The author of that novel, the celebrated storyteller Chinua Achebe, is not collected within the anthology. And it is enough to wonder if the last lines of Ms. Rootherford’s introduction refer to his book: “Many times when the end seemed to be in sight, the promise of something new, of something even better, perhaps appeared tantalisingly over the next rise. But there comes a time when a halt must be made and, for a while at least, one must pitch camp and go exploring no more.”

If it does, her anguish must have been considerable. How close and yet.

Achebe’s countryman, the less celebrated Cyprian Ekwensi, credited here as C.O.D. Ekwensi, is present. As is Amos Tutuola. But it is a book thin in well-known personalities. There are entries named “An Ibo Poem”, “A Yoruba poem”, “A Nupe folk tale” — all with no attribution. One story receives a mononym, Gbemi — later identified and further mystified in the “About the Authors” section as “the pen name of a young West African woman living in Ibadan”.

Such was the lay of the land that writers were either self-effacing, mononymous or anonymous.

Before publication, other frustrations were visited on the editor. Having convinced a writer (or translator) to send a manuscript, she waited and waited. “Months disappear” until a response comes: “I must apologize for the delay, but I have discovered rats in my roof and during repairs all my papers have been moved into positions whence it is impossible to redeem them.”

And another: “I greatly regret to state that I will not be able to accept the offer to contribute to your anthology, because I am occupied with the feudal tenure lawsuits; secondly because the temporary peripatetic court, of which our area forms the borough, is very far where bridle paths are slippery on rainy days and streams are not bridged.”

“And so we must compete,” the editor sighs, “with the rains of Basutoland, the rats of Cape Town, to secure the attention of the African writer.”

How far have we come? At the first Ake festival, back in 2013, I saw a young writer go after an agent, fiercely hawking his wares. He had no novel and had barely been published but no matter. No longer bogged down by rains or rats, the African writer seeks respect, craves the reputation conferred by publishing.

Today at Freedom Park, Lagos where literary conversations are frequently held, publishing in international magazines rank high on topics discussed. If “there are others who write better” was the prevailing ethos in the 1950s, today the dominant sentiment is “how did that guy/gal get published? Modesty has given way to disbelief; competition has replaced camaraderie. And I daresay, the literary culture is better for it. There are friendships and community within the Lagos literary space. But there is also unsparing judgment. In these private conversations between members of the Lagos literati, what counts is what goes on the page. Just how good is the writing? I assume this goes on in most other literary spaces on the continent.

The downside to this is the perception of arrogance by readers and writers alike on certain members of the writing clan. It is inevitable as it is unfortunate. Everyone arriving at the decision to have a go at writing has to have a surfeit of esteem in his psychic pouch. How else do you deal with rejection? How else do you think you have something to be said that deserves to be heard above everyone else knowing that the world has many books? The more successful the author, the more this perception grows. Of course, one advantage of being a lesser-known writer is the freedom it grants you to be cutting to your betters. I sense this each time I am told by someone about a more popular author whose stature they are willing to bet is down to everything but the ability to put a sentence after another.

So that today in lit-gossip Adichie may be targeted for her easy confidence, Cole for his scholarly assuredness, Wainaina for the conviction of his opinion, Igoni Barrett for his swaggering indifference — all of these qualities bunched brusquely into arrogance. The arrogance, that is, of the new African writer — compounded in some cases by the perceived arrogance of Nigerians.

It’s the case that with book chats going on the internet, that premium medium of democracy, more people throw such words into the fray through comment sections, blogs and social media. Arrogance may be perceived within a work of fiction and forgiven (’tis a matter of style, goes the excuse) but condemned in a writer’s remarks and interviews. Little wonder then that few African novelists regularly pen personal essays. Nothing is more likely to raise the ire of denizens of the comment section than an opinion, passionately held and voiced with some eloquence. “Shut up and write a book,” they say. This reaction is unfortunate and a faulty summation borne of a naive sensibility.

What the audience misunderstands is that the writer’s allegiance is to her ideas, whatever the mode of expression. Maybe this behaviour is arrogance, or its cousin pride, but writers from the continent are merely doing what writers have always done. Because “what matters finally is not the world’s judgment of oneself,” as Gore Vidal wrote in 1960, “but one’s own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive very long…”

This quality of assertion, from evidence provided by a publisher’s introduction to a 1958 anthology, has only just been learned by the continent’s writers, give or take a few outliers; it is perhaps not even 50 years old. The trait may be called arrogance. Although I prefer to think of it as progress — an inevitable development for a keen group playing catch-up since the 1950s.

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Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer. Business: www.criticsandbylines.com.

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