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Thursday, February 29, 2024

There was a book

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Imagine if there was no book, we would perhaps not know who created us, and how we belonged to a family set-up, yet we continue to maim, and torment each other in a bid to assert influence and respectability in a materialistic universe. Without a book, we would not have the power, the mind and poetic licence to bastardise the conventional grammatical rules often linked to reading, writing and speaking. Without a book, we would not know how others in very far-flung communities lived in their own yards. But I am yet to understand how books have been used to ridicule society and society in turn, turn against writers whose books are not meant to be read. The publication of Satanic Verses by Salman Rushide some years back inflamed over-zealous followers of the religion, and in the end, the writer found himself in a box – a death sentence hanging over his head. Isn’t it dangerous to underestimate the impact of books?

Readers often swallow the sweet aroma of the lessons they receive from books, albeit, they know the piece of literature in their possession was written by someone with strong feelings for what they are good at. Around the world, books and writers have emerged quintessentially to espouse a cause, or to provoke the sentiments of a society accustomed to ‘leaving things as they are’. Realizing that Salman Rushide was literarily lynched for the ‘damning book’, Europe’s nouveau riche paltry reformists such as GW have trump up a famous slogan: ‘chase and challenge THEM where ever they are – WHO are they?’  Otherwise, why is GW hell-bent on challenging or changing a way of life? Today’s emerging writers may be tempted to soup on the leftovers of dangerous or reckless rhetoricians so that the writers may be considered as classicists.  

Therefore, it behoves the reader and the writer to discern what way to follow: the path many are treading on and the other, adventurous steeped in darkness. I think the question is often hypothetical if we are to ask what makes a book good, widely read and popular.  Indeed, the differing answers would be manifestations of the undocumented aspects of the text, the writer and what ‘we’ make out of a book after reading it. Years of advanced studies showed beyond any reasonable doubt the power of literature and how we should read and understand the symbolic bond that binds readers and writers. Indeed, there was a book that has changed the way we hitherto imagine certain aspects of our existence, and this transformation has taken us to another level of awareness and consciousness.

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As the international community mark book day, let us also reflect on the millions of books that may be written by generations yet unborn; what types of books will they write and how will they react to what had been written in the past?  At the heart of this raucous introspection, communities, institutions and individuals have been moved by the power of the pen; they are literarily conscientised about a part of the world they don’t know exist, or a people lost in linguistic exile. Books have opened the eyes of readers to imagine and see; books have virtually addressed every other aspect of human instinct and pursuits. At the highest level bedecked with ornaments and symbolic handshakes, books are celebrated; writers are artistically rewarded for portraying a dominant or largely unpopular narrative on a system of life.  

The message contained in most of the books we read are often peppered with information about the political conflicts of life, sex, power, crime, marriage, religion, dominance, triumph, the known and undiscovered world. Who are these writers writing for? For fun and for money. Around the African continent, there was a book, and a writer whose ‘DNA’ was an African writer from the embryonic era of his life-long career. In his high school days, the highly acclaimed Nigerian novelist, author of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, had a reputation for questioning the books he read. During his time, Achebe’s literature course had a famous book on its syllabus, Mr Johnson by Joyce Cary. Wasn’t it a battle of a lifetime that from a very tender age, Achebe had used his own pen to paint a picture of the missing Africa yet to be captured in good books written by outsiders? In his widely published essay, ‘My Home Under Imperial Fire’, Achebe’s confessions and revelations of the past, is a manifestation of the power and influence books have had on him. However, through Joyce Cary’s book, Achebe saw the aberrant neglect and ignorance foreign writers like Cary left on the conscience of the native people of his country under colonial rule. For Achebe, the geographical entity and the composition of the people, their customs and traditions, their land, their challenges were not thoroughly expounded by the writer of a literature book that was studied by people who knew what the writer did not know. No wonder today, the immortal words of ‘if you don’t write someone’s book, write your own’ stand the test of time. It took several years before, Achebe wrote his own book, whose provocative Yeatism, ‘Things Fall Apart’ rocked the world with one single sentence – alas! There is a book about Africa and the world by a native African. Within the African continent, Achebe was credited for taking a bold move to explain a society that had a voice but was not given the tools to be heard or speak for itself.  And outsiders hailed the book for the comprehensibility of clear expressions and vivid description of a people before and after Western lifestyles permeated the community. In many books, Africa is often derided as hopeless continent, where so many people are dying. Any book from Africa which highlights the true picture of the situation on the continent without mentioning ‘dictator’, ‘famine’ ‘refugees’ may  gather dust in elite bookstores. In other words, there is no better way to do than to follow the dominant and popular narrative and not a detour.

What happened in 1986 was phenomenal, a renowned Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, was elevated with a Nobel Prize in literature. While many hailed Soyinka as one of the finest writers in the world, many readers know that it was also a celebration of the books that change minds and societies.  It was the first time a black African had captured the coveted prize. 

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The great question for a very long time is: how should a book about Africa be written? Kenyan award-winning writer-cum-satirist stormed the literary community after the now famous essay entitled: ‘How to Write About Africa?’ Binyavanga Wainaina’s tiny book addresses some of the fundamental concepts highlighted in various ways by others before him, for example, the denigration of the African system of life in Heart of Darkness by Conrad. Was Conrad not tackled by Achebe?  In taking the debate to another level of sophistication, Wainaina eschewed the template adopted by the establishment, instead he focused on the images writers deploy to nail the African story.  In the essay, the Kenyan writer revealed how the various regions in Africa are partitioned and categorised. It was fun-filled day in class when assistant professor, Dr Stephen Ney, at the University of The Gambia, two years ago, introduced the essay to students studying literature.  For an emerging writer of Wainaina’s pedigree to pen how the West read and classify African literature is promising, in the sense that alas an African writer has stepped up the plate to conscientise us!  For the sake of the record, here’s a brief citation on Wainaina’s ‘How to Write About Africa’: “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book or in it, unless the African has won the Nobel Prize.  In your text, treat Africa as it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.”

From this citation, the issues are quite implicit; it will probably take time before other African writers come to the realisation that there is a wide gulf between us and them. What we read is what they tell us about us. In The Gambia, a young student having done his advanced studies at home for the first time in the history of the nation was compelled to write a fascinating book on his experience.  Momodou Sabally’s Jangi Jollof defied all odds by putting into perspective history, education and an enviable career that led him to the golden fleece. Years after the publication of that book, the University of The Gambia has blossomed to a level that has surpassed expectations. 

Some books that have changed us must not be thrown away. While in India for a short duration course on development journalism, I bought the autobiography of a book by the father of India. MK Gandhi or ‘Bapuji’ as he is widely called transcends the Indian sub-continent, his God-given gift of humility and honesty endeared him to millions of people. One of the most touching aspects of Gandhi’s immortal words is this confession: “I have nothing to teach the world, truth is as old as the hills.” Despite his large following, Gandhi humbly tackles mundane issues and leaves a word of caution to readers in The Story of My Experiments With Truth: “If anything that I write in these pages should strike the reader as being touched with pride, then he must take it that there is something wrong with my quest, and that my glimpses are no more than a mirage. Let hundreds like me perish, but let truth prevail. Let us not reduce the standards of truth even by a hair’s breadth for judging erring mortals like myself.’ 

The publication of Hundred Years of Solitude by the renowned Colombian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who died last Thursday) brings to sharp focus the unending debate on the influence of writing and how imaginative writing enlivens hopeless and depressed communities under the colonial yoke. When Marquez went into hibernation to write the book that defined Latin America’s literary sophistication, it was an epoch-making era in his native Colombia. As a native African who grew up partly in the village, Marquez’s book underlines the core issues prevalent in most African societies – an extended family system struggling in new frontiers amidst adversity. 

Concluding my essay on International Book Day, I wish to pay a glowing tribute to Marquez and I have decided to cull the last paragraph, and how the inevitable end came for the protagonist in Hundred Years of Solitude: “Macondo was already a fearful whirlwind of dust and rubble being spun about by the wrath of the biblical hurricane when Aureliano skipped eleven pages so as not to lose time with facts he knew only too well, and he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as he were looking into a speaking mirror. Then he skipped again to anticipate the predictions and ascertain the date and circumstances of his death. Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave the room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”


Ebrima Baldeh, is a career journalist at GRTS-TV, he studies history at the University of The Gambia.

By Ebrima Baldeh


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