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David Brokensha discusses African literature and writers ; part 1

BROADCAST: Dec. 19, 1960 | DURATION: 00:31:36


David Brokensha discusses the books "The Palm Wine Drinkard" by Amos Tutuola, "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe, and "The Dark Child" by Camara Laye. David Brokensha reads excerpts from "The Palm Wine Drinkard" and "The Dark Child".


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


David Brokensha "I was a palm wine drinkard since I was a boy of 10 years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm wine in my life. I was drinking palm wine from morning till night and from night till morning. By that time I could not drink ordinary water at all except palm wine. So my father gave me a palm tree farm which was nine miles square and it contained 560,000 palm trees and this palm wine tapster was tapping 150 kegs of palm wine every morning. But before 2:00 p.m. I would have drunk all of it. After that he would go and tap another 75 kegs in the evening which I would be drinking till morning. So my friends were unaccountable by that time and they were drinking palm wine with me from morning till a later hour in the night. But when my palm wine tapster completed the period of 15 years that he was tapping the palm wine for me, then my father died suddenly and then the palm wine tapper went to climb a palm tree, he fell down unexpectedly and he died at the foot of the palm tree as a result of injuries".

Studs Terkel So this rather fascinating and strange beginning of one of the most celebrated of West African novels The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tituola. Our reader this morning, our guest, is David Brokensha professor of sociology at the University of Ghana I believe, Mr. Brokensha.

David Brokensha Yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel And I know your theme this morning and the conversation of the various three, specifically three novelists of West Africa. What of Amos Tituola and this book The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

David Brokensha I started with him because I think he's probably the best known of the three in the states. He's -- since his first book which was published in 1953 which is this one I've been reading from, The Palm- Wine Drinkard, he has published another one, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and as well as one or two others, they all much the same. I think that he, he, his reputation was exaggerated in the beginning. He was hailed as a great writer which I do not think he is. I think he's very amusing very entertaining very suitable for reading to children and many of the less sophisticated Africans have appreciated him but he's certainly not in the same class as the other two writers.

Studs Terkel Well before we come to the other two Mr. Brokensha, the matter of Amos Tituola, for those who may not be aware of his work and the kind of writing he does as well as the literature of West Africa itself. He's from Nigeria.

David Brokensha He's from eastern Nigeria. He was born in 1920. He had little formal education and he went as a young man to so -- as a soldier in World War II. He came back then with, with all sorts of rather vague ambitions, he wanted to do more than be an ordinary clerk as he had been and he started writing. He writes in this rather quaint West African English he doesn't use his own English. Drinkard

Studs Terkel Drinkard for drunkard.

David Brokensha Yes, and many other such usages. Some English writers heard of him and encouraged him to publish his works and he has achieved a, as I say, a rather inflated reputation.

Studs Terkel Well does Tituola write in English?

David Brokensha He writes in English, this is -- these books are published as he writes and they are not edited at all. But with his lack of formal education he uses this very expressive English, but I think it does, I, my main criticism would be it does tire after a time and one could open any of the books at any page and they much the same.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of a story of his I read, it was in the Chicago Review, a magazine, the University of Chicago some time ago. And it was -- I don't remember the title, it dealt with an elephant woman, a woman had turned into an elephant and it, it I'm sure had all kinds of folklore and perhap -- possibly in our day psychiatric connotations.

David Brokensha Well at, I think that this was exaggerated too, that many writers at the beginning say that here was a great folklorist and that this was a very important book for anthropologists, which of course it isn't. It's, it's quaint and curious more than, than formidable, more than significant in an academic sense.

Studs Terkel So then he, he was just, he's an overrated

David Brokensha Well I think that it's unfair to him that he has been over, he was unjust, he was overrated in the beginning. And then the critics, his severest critics by the way have been Nigeriens, the more sophisticated Nigeriens who write themselves in impeccable English and who resent the way that the English readers have taken this man up. They regard him as rather a bushman, he can't even write proper English.

Studs Terkel In the, is an inference here that perhaps the English critic, I think I should point the three writers you're talking about, all three are black Africans.

David Brokensha Yes,

Studs Terkel In contrast say to white South African or like Alan Paton or Dan Jacobson.

David Brokensha Yes.

Studs Terkel But I'm curious now as to this point, is there a feeling among the Nigerians or the, the educated academically trained Nigerians, that the feiting of Tituola by the English was a bit patronizing

David Brokensha Yes, yes I was going to come on to say that. That they, that they, they say that this confirms the Englishman's or the, the white man's image of the African as a charming peasant, but essentially a peasant. One who can't write, who can only tell a rather garbled folkstories in misspelt and quaint English.

Studs Terkel Perhaps even a child too, the idea of

David Brokensha Yes, yes and this is an image which of course they want to get away from. The other two are, are college graduates, very sophisticated people, masters in the use of, of English language and they, they would despise this sort of writing. This is folk [stuff?], it's -- and not even, they say, authentic.

Studs Terkel This is pseudo folk really.

David Brokensha Yes, yes that would be it. It is, I think it's, it's, as I say, amusing reading. He, the Palm-Wine Drinkard deals with the hero's search for his palm wine tapster who died, and then he heard he went to the Deads' Town. And this is, of course most Africans believe in some life after death, that the spirits join, go to a special place. But it's rather garbled version and it's a, a long complicated account of the man's journey, meeting various mythological creatures and people, eventually finding his tapster in the town of the Deads and meeting with the Red King and the White King and all sorts of fearsome creatures. I think too much was read into it at the beginning. If one takes it as a, as a, a sort of fairy tale for children I think it's fine on that level. But I think it

Studs Terkel If one takes it as a very profound anthropology or mythology then

David Brokensha That, that will be a mistake, yes.

Studs Terkel But folklore as such is not looked down upon is it by the other two writers we're coming to in a moment?

David Brokensha I don't, I didn't hear about them but I think in Africa there, there is considerable ambivalence about this. That on the one hand, they want to be like the white man, like to have the same standards of culture and education as an American or an Englishman. But on the other hand, the other half of the split personality, wants to express what they call the African personality and they, they never define this process.

Studs Terkel But as you're saying this, I worry a little, I mean just to worry just from a distance, the matter, this wanting to be like the white man or like the Europeans. Isn't this a denial of

David Brokensha Yes of course it is. Yes, it's, it's a denial of the effect of this mysterious thing called the African personality. Here is somebody here, Amos Tutuola, is somebody who certainly does express the, one facet of the African personality, but he, he is immediately spurned by these others. And if they are going to be writers, they say they want to, to write perfect English and to be judged as writers of English not as, not as African writers. And so it's, it's a curious dilemma, yes.

Studs Terkel Did, do you agree? Well, I'll come to your feeling, perhaps we'll come to yours later as we go along. Well, what, what is your feeling now, I'm curious? Which do you think, is there such a thing as an African personality?

David Brokensha I think there is, I wouldn't care to define it myself. But I think that, that obviously, the fact that a man has been born in Nigeria and not in Illinois makes a great, considerable difference to the way he writes. I mean this is putting it at its crudest level. His cultural background is different, this will affect

Studs Terkel Well is this denied by the two other writers? We'll come to them now

David Brokensha Oh no,

M4 no, It's,

David Brokensha No they, they, they, they accept it. But, I don't know quite what the attitude is to the African personality, it's usually the politicians who, who are more, who feel the split more strongly than the writers.

Studs Terkel Than the writers. What of the other two whom you consider, and Nigerians consider, more important?

David Brokensha Well the other one is Achebe, Chinua Achebe whose first novel was published in the, also in the United States in, last year in 1959. Things Fall Apart it was called. He's also from eastern Nigeria from, from Igboland. And he gives an extraordinary coherent account of life in an African village at the turn of the century. He gives a, I think it's a, a real tour de force the, the way he presents the account of all the squalor and nobility of the life as it was, the traditional life, and showing, as the title suggests, how once the missionaries and the white administrators came, the whole fabric of society was torn apart. Things fell apart.

Studs Terkel Would you mind, Mr. Brokensha, repa -- reading perhaps a, a -- is there an excerpt from this that, that you could read? From Things Fall Apart. Give us an idea of Achebe's style in contrast say to Tituoloa's.

David Brokensha Well the central character is Okonkwo who's a, a famous man. He has been a famous wrestler a member of the secret societies. He's taken many of the titles, he's achieved renown for himself, and then one of his greatest sorrows is when his son Nwoye joins the white man's mission and thereby renounces his, the cult, the traditional cult of the ancestors. And Okonkwo is very, very worried about this and very, he's furious with his son. And this is the extract I'd like to, to read: "As Okonkwo set in his hat that night, gazing into the log fire, he thought over the matter. A sudden fury rose within him and he felt a strong desire to wipe out the whole gang. He saw clearly in it, the finger of his personal God. For how else could he explain his great misfortune and exile, and now his despicable son's behavior? Now that he had time to think of it, his son's crime stood out in all its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one's fathers and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like hens was the very depth of abomination. Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye's steps and abandon their ancestors. Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect. Like the prospect of annihilation, he saw himself and his fathers crowding around the ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days. And his children the wild prey into the white man's God. If such a thing were ever to happen, he, Okonkwo would wipe them off the face of the earth." And so on it goes, it continues in this strain.

Studs Terkel Cause as you, it naturally, the feeling -- and I'm the audience now listening to you read. There's more I want to hear and know of this man. The writing is so, just as you, the bit you've read is so straightforward, so

David Brokensha Yes I think, I think that myself, I think Achebe is a writer of not any considerable promise but considerable performance. And I haven't read his second novel which has just come out, but this one certainly is, I think, very success- successful. And showing too he, the values of the old way of life, showing that, how Okonkwo, by his [lights?], was a man of considerable stature. Showing how his way of life was doomed when it came into contact, that he's not taking sides. He's not saying the one is better to the other, better than the other. But he does say, he mentions when Nwoye, the son I mentioned who joined the, the Christians, he mentions earlier in the book some of Nwoye's conflicts that he feels about the, the old customs and perhaps if I could read another

Studs Terkel Please.

David Brokensha - little extract which, which brings this out. Nwoye was very friendly with another youth who was captured in war and, as the custom was, grew up with, with him as their family. Okonkwo, his father, was very fond of this youth as well. He had all the qualities that he, he liked in a boy. And yet when the oracle ordered that this boy after some years should be killed as expiation for some crime, he himself took part to show, to show the others that he was not, he was not a weakling. He was not a woman. He took part in killing this boy who was like his own son and this was something that's represented that he never recovered from. And his own son was, was horrified as this, Nwoye. "As soon as his father walked in that night, Nwoye knew that Ikemefuna", that is the, the boy "had been killed and something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping of a tightened bow. He did not cry. He just hung limp. He had had the same kind of feeling before. They were returning home with baskets of yams from a distant farm across the stream when they heard the voice of an infant crying in the thick forest. A sudden hush had fallen on the women who had been talking and they had quickened their steps. Nwoye had heard the twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away in the forest. But he had never yet come across them. A vague chill had descended on him". And then the writer later, Achebe later mentions this, that the boy had, as doubtless had happened at this time, that many boys and men had not accepted all the, blindly all the dictates of the tribe. They were unhappy about

Studs Terkel But here, isn't this perhaps one of the questions that faces Africa, affairs of the world really, the question of Europeanization. Not that, you know, modern,

David Brokensha Yes, yes, yes - he puts a

Studs Terkel You said a civilized coming naturally. You say the boy did not accept the brutal, medieval customs of the past, but when you deny all of it, don't you deny a bit of yourself?

David Brokensha Exactly, that is that, that Nwoye had, had taken to the missionaries at first when they preached that everybody, the value of individual life, the dignity of individual life, the worth of every life. This was something which he had been looking for all his life. And this is something which did happen, I know, to many Africans, they seized on it. But it meant renouncing, as you say, certain other customs which

Studs Terkel So this question is the, this is, is this the problem then that Achebe faces, or, or he meets it, as a writer.

David Brokensha Yes and as a, as a writer I think he does it superbly. He's, he is commenting. I think that his book is much, of much more use to the anthropologist than Tutuola's. I think this is a problem which faces African society.

Studs Terkel A question arises, it may be ridiculous. Here is Achebe writing of, of clinging, the need to cling onto the goodness of customs of Africa. You know, and to the abandoning of that which is brutal to the vast -- you know, at the same time ignoring that which may be pallid from the Europeans that may dilute the richness of

David Brokensha Yes.

Studs Terkel Yet he, you say he writes this in English.

David Brokensha Yes and very good English. He himself is, I think, a graduate of the College of Nigeria. He's a master of the English language, there's no doubt about

Studs Terkel But what of, now this question may sound ridiculous, what of the native languages and dialects? What is the Nigerian language?

David Brokensha Well he would speak Igbo. He is an Igbo, which is the, the main tribe of Eastern Nigeria. But there is very little written in Igbo. They write in English as the people from the French, former French speaking territories write in French. They have been educated from about the fourth grade in English so it is their language.

Studs Terkel So English then is pretty much the language.

David Brokensha Yes.

Studs Terkel But Igbo would not be. It's not a question then of preserving a culture, that would be unnatural to preserve, is that it --to write in Igbo would be unnatural then?

David Brokensha No, they would write, certain things are written in Igbo. But this is written for a world market as, as well as for Nigerians.

Studs Terkel But Nigerians who read books or read in English pretty much.

David Brokensha Oh yes, yes there's very, there isn't -- well they would read in their vernacular as well, but they would have a much wider range, of course, in English and even amongst their own writers, the best would be published in English.

Studs Terkel Thus far, Mr. Brokensha, two writers. One better known in America, yet the lesser of the two, Tutuola, as against Achebe. Now we come to the third. Who is Camara Laye?

David Brokensha Camara Laye is, at the moment, one of the ministers in the Ghanaian government. He was born in the northern part of Guinea in West Africa and was educated at his village in the north of Guinea and then at the, at Conakry, at the capital, and then he was selected to go to France on a scholarship to a university in, in, in France. And this book is not a novel, it is really an autobiographical fragment, again most successfully done I think, which describes his, his childhood and boyhood and ends with him getting on the plane to go to Paris. In a way it's also a story of things falling apart. Because his -- although his parents want him to have education, the more education he has, the more he is drawn away from his family. And his book too is, I think, of considerable value to the sociologist as presenting a, a, what seems to me a completely authentic story of what it is like, it gives us also a coherent story what it is like to be an African boy growing up in a village 10, 15, 20 years ago. And many, most parts of Africa, I think it's worth saying this, are still, most Africans rather, still live in these rural villages, simple lives. Leading the sort of life that this man did as a young boy, helping his brothers and uncles on the farms, reaping the crops, sharing in the ceremonies, taking part in the initiation and circumcision ceremony, as well as, as receiving his formal education in the new ways. And in this eventual estrangement between him and his people. And I think it's, I do recommend this book. I think it's

Studs Terkel a The

David Brokensha The Dark Child, yes.

Studs Terkel Before you read an excerpt Mr. Brokensha, I was thinking as you're saying this, the abandonment of an old custom, perhaps village custom, and the, the line between the man who is finding himself, Nwyoe, and that of his family. I was thinking of the movies of the -- are you, are you acquainted with those? Perhaps you might be of Satyajit Ray, the Indian filmmaker?

David Brokensha Yes.

Studs Terkel Isn't that a similar problem in a way, the world of Apu?

David Brokensha Yes, yes, yes, yes, it is, yes.

Studs Terkel So I wonder if this isn't a, an African -- Africa Asian problem both.

David Brokensha Oh I think so with any developing country, yes. And I think that both these books, I find them very cinematic if I can use that word loosely. I think their wonderful opportunities for any, any one making movies to do this sort of thing.

Studs Terkel I'll ask you about filming later. But well perhaps then an excerpt from The Dark Child of Camara Laye.

David Brokensha Well here's one, he comments on, on the manners of the country people when he's staying with his grandmother. And he says, this book by the way was written in French. It's been translated very adequately into English. He says, "I do not know how the meaning, how the idea of something rustic, I use the word and it's accepted meaning, lack of finesse, of delicacy, became associated with country people. Civil formalities are more respected in the farm than in the city. Farm manners and ceremony are not understood by the city which has no time for these things. To be sure, farm life is simpler than city life, but dealings between one man and another, perhaps because in the country everyone knows everyone else, are more strictly regulated. I used to notice a dignity everywhere which I have rarely found in cities. One did not act without duly considering such action even though it were an entirely personal affair. The rights of others were highly respected. And if intelligence seemed slower, it was because reflection proceeded speech and because speech itself was a most serious matter". And then throughout the book he, he stresses the, the rights of people, the dignity, he comments elsewhere that the women's role is one of fundamental independence, contrary to the usual idea that women have no rights in Africa. He says how his mother and the women generally had this great inner pride. How, he comments, "We despise only those who allow themselves to be despised. And our women very seldom give cause for that". I think that's an important point. The idea of

Studs Terkel "We despise only those who allow themselves to be despised, and our women, our women seldom give

David Brokensha Yes, yes. Yes, yes, yes and the women do have this secure place, the dignity of, of everybody.

Studs Terkel Is society -- this may sound ridiculous. Is society, was it matriarchal in, in--

David Brokensha No, no. They, the women had considerable power but they had power over a certain range of domestic affairs. He, he says how his mother would insist that they didn't cast their gaze upon the guests older than themselves, this is the children. They didn't talk. This was during meal times. That certain rules about cleanliness had to be observed. That after the meal they would say, "Thank you father", and "The meal was nice mother", and this was done every time otherwise the mother would rebuke them. They, they had this formality. This is all mentioned

Studs Terkel Even as you speak of the formality of family life, the writing itself has a formality,

David Brokensha Yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel Is it because it's translated from the French?

David Brokensha No, I think

Studs Terkel Or is it the nature of Camara Laye?

David Brokensha Yes it is, fairly. He mentions, perhaps you'd be interested in, in the circumcision school he mentions and the teaching that they receive as boys. This was when he was, would have been in about the eighth or ninth grade and he interrupted his studies, as many boys did at this time and still do, from studying the modern in the modern educational system to go back into their old traditional ceremonies. And this was even though he was brought up in what is a Mohommedan community, he was not Christian, they were Mohammedans. Yet they still have this old traditional

Studs Terkel So within a certain age,

David Brokensha Yes, at

Studs Terkel The age of puberty, which is, this is the period of circumcision in Africa.

David Brokensha Yes.

Studs Terkel He goes back you say. The approach to manhood then would lead him back to earlier, the observance of earlier rituals,

David Brokensha Yes. And the age old ones. And the interesting thing is, I think, that that this is not considered in any way irreconcilable with studying, with going back to school and continuing his studies in French and his studies of English and Euclid and, and whatever else he's doing.

Studs Terkel Well here then, is this possibly as, as Camara Laye sugges -- Camara Laye suggesting here and you perhaps [unintelligible] that perhaps here could be a, not a solution perhaps, but a, a, a modus operandi, a way of, of both the progress being made, at the same time a retention?

David Brokensha Yes. It is, I think he looks back rather wistfully. He sees that he is leaving this world irrevocably. He sees it can't be artificially kept up. He admires it. He writes of the teaching that they received in the bush and he says, shall I just read a little extract?

Studs Terkel Please.

David Brokensha "He said that the teaching we received in the bush far from all prying eyes had nothing very mysterious about it. Nothing, I think, that was not fit for ears other than our own. These lessons, the same as had been taught to all who had preceded us, confine themselves to outlining what a man's conduct should be. We were to be absolutely straightforward, to cult -- to cultivate all the virtues that go to make an honest man, to fulfil our duties towards God, toward our parents, our superiors and our neighbors". This is the important thing, that is they have, it's a very stratified society and they have this idea that there is a certain proper way of behaving to everybody. "We must tell nothing of what we learned either to women or to the uninitiated. Neither were we to reveal any of the secret rites of circumcision. That is the custom". This phrase occurs again and again in the book, that is a custom. I do not know why, but that is the custom.

Studs Terkel Here it is, "That is the custom", there's an observance of the custom. At the same time, says Camara Laye, there will not be, he used the phrase, "You will not artificially preserve that which must go".

David Brokensha Yes. He realizes that it is too late. When he, when he gets in, the, the book ends with him flying off to Paris, within his hand a little map of the metro which his French teacher has given him so he'll be able to find his way around to his new college. And this is put there symbolically to symbolize how, how can his old world of his father's pet snakes who come to tell him the words of the ancestors, his father is a goldsmith, these traditional ceremonies of, of harvest and circumcision, how can this be reconciled with a map of the metro system in Paris and an airplane? He doesn't answer.

Studs Terkel He doesn't answer. Does he, does he offer an epilogue in this sense, I mean about himself? He's going to Paris and he sees the Metro and the airplane the mechanized age in which we live, in contrast to the father's early ancient ritual that seemed passé. Will he return? Will he return to his native land?

David Brokensha He did return. He spent several years very unhappy at first in France and then later became much, to, to like the country very much. He graduated, he finished his studies and as I said he's now one of Sékou Touré Ministers in the cabinet. He did return

Studs Terkel He is Minister of Interior then of Guinea in the government of, of Sékou Touré. What is his outlook now? I mean, what is his feelings? He says, "This is the custom", he wrote.

David Brokensha Yes. Well now customs are changed because Sékou Touré has his brand of socialism which is certainly not the custom of the country. And so obviously he, he presumably is a loyal minister of the

Studs Terkel So the order changes.

David Brokensha Country and the order now, there's a new loyalty which is built up to, to Guinea which is an artificial unit in a way, the old loyalties were to the tribe, to the community. Now he's supporting a system in which

Studs Terkel -- And so we come to again another question on my mind, is this not circle law but throughout the [threads here?]. What about the circumcision customs? Will that still be preserved? I mean the return.

David Brokensha No I doubt it.

Studs Terkel Oh this

David Brokensha I've seen in Ghana where, where I where I'm teaching the, many of the boys used to have facial marks either put on by their mothers when they had illnesses collectively called convulsions as, as, as infants, or put on as part of some initiation ceremony. They often had scarification marks on their cheek bones. These are going out now, it is considered by many of my African students that this is a mark of a Bush man. But at the same time, they would say we want to express the African personality. Well here surely is a way they, they can express it but they feel that this, they cannot go and, and come over to this country as graduate students or to, to England with these marks on their faces that might embarrass

Studs Terkel So Mr. Brokensha we come back to the original question, changes taking place as a matter of going to European countries feeling embarrassed because of a mark, a mark that the cultured Africans know is a matter of primitiveness the mark

David Brokensha Well this, this, this varies from throughout the countries, I didn't say it's general. I, one friend of mine is Oliver Tambo who's one of the leaders of the Congress Party in South Africa. He, I notice, has these tribal marks all over his face and he wears them proudly as a badge of the African people. But this is interesting that he comes from South Africa and that there they feel that this is, it is a right.

Studs Terkel Is it because in South Africa there is so much difficulty on the part of the black

David Brokensha Considerable rights within their own spheres and even in the new spheres. We have in Ghana a woman judge. Only one, but it's a, a higher proportion probably than the States.

Studs Terkel Yes.

David Brokensha We have many women doctors. We are although the.