By David G Maillu
One time, the retired American Professor Bernth Lindfors, who was by then teaching African and Caribbean literature, expressed his disappointment about my new work when the British publisher, Macmillan, published my works in the Pacesetters series.
He told me, “David, frankly speaking, the natural Maillu has been watered down by foreign editing.” He had in mind my self-published works as the ones bearing the African spirit in which, he stressed, I spoke the indigenous spirit.
Referring to my self-published works it was that time he published in an academic paper on me, “Maillu the moralist, Maillu the practical psychologist, Maillu the homespun philosopher, Maillu the comedian, Maillu the publisher…”
I can’t remember how I reacted to his claim of being watered down by foreign publishers; however, his statement remained registered in my memory up to this day. The truth was and still is that when I started writing, I was not writing to please any foreigner. To be precise, I wrote strictly for the African in the South of the Sahara, far away from any imagination of appealing to impress Europeans and their literature prizes.
Using me as a sample, Lindfors was making a claim that foreign publishers doctored African creative works, and in that doctoring the African aesthetics were tampered with. He was particularly referring to the African Writers Series published by the British, Heinemann Publishers. No wonder that, in given time, that great series collapsed upon the rising of new African publishers in Africa who were faithful to the aesthetics of African creative spirit.
However, during my career time, I have interrupted with many African writers writing with the dream to please the White man’s readership and, perhaps, quietly dreaming one day they would win White man’s literature prizes that on top has the Nobel Prize. There is a story told about the history of Heinemann’s African Writers Series. Research revealed that 95 percent of the sales went to Africa. The remaining 5 percent were consumed in Europe by the African Diaspora, not by white readership. In my royalty statement from Macmillan UK, the “home-sales” (Britain sales) show that only 4 or 5 copies are sold there. The rest are exported to Africa. This, indeed, is not good news for African writers aiming at attracting White man’s readership. For them to expect White man’s readership to appreciate African fiction is like expecting them to appreciate eating ugali or githeri.
A man who is courtship a girl for marriage knows the importance of engaging a language which would impress her. He talks, walks, eats, and dances in the style that would please her. However, in the course of that style, his true colours remain hidden. That is true of the African writer writing to please the White man for whatever course. His creative authenticity and fineness is gravely edited out. The Nobel Prize has been extraordinary bait for African writers to subscribe to the literary appreciation of the White man. But the things is, at what expense of African aesthetics? Of course, it is at the cost of losing African authenticity, integrity, and aesthetics. Result? Creation of fake or plastic writers.At the expense of doctored works, and lost generation of genuine creativity.
Cultural adulteration is one thing that the White man would not even attempt in his creative works. He creates and writes religiously in promotion of his own cultural values, while many Africans write ir-religiously hoping it would promote his literally image before the White man’s world and earn the White man’s literally prizes. Here again the White man beats the African who employs foreign cultural instruments to express himself. That is tantamount to telling foreign prize givers, “Your mother is more important than my mother.”
In 1970s one African who sang like a copycat of the American Jim Reeves was invited in England to sing in a nightclub. The sing burst at the stage blasting like Jim Reeves, but the organizer didn’t even let him finish the song before he cried, “Stop! If I wanted Jim Reeves to sing in this club I would have invited him directly. The purpose of my inviting you is for you to sing African songs. If you can’t sing them, please get out of the stage and disappear.” In other words, what would and should be appealing from the African creativity is nothing else other than genuine creativity, be it in music, painting, sculpturing and literature.
It was interesting to hear what the Frenchman, the latest Noble Prize winner in literature said. He publicly admitted that he was surprised to receive the Prize because he had never even dreamt of getting it. Furthermore, all that he did in his writing business was to express himself deeply on issues that mattered in his heart and in the heart of his community. It was his sense of originality and trust in himself that earned him the prize.
There was a terrible disappointment when Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who had been anxiously waiting to win the prize, was hit by the storm that the prize had gone to a French. Why not to an African, others lamented. Of all the people why to an unknown French writer?
The little that I know regarding wa Thiong’o is that he did not write his earlier books dreaming of courting the White man’s Nobel Prize or any other Mzungu literary prize. Bad luck if he did otherwise. Personally, I would have celebrated if my contemporary writer got the prize and, at this juncture, let me sent my sympathy to him. Nevertheless, now that he didn’t get it, he, together-with-us, should let it go with the knowledge that the omission does not reduce wa Thiong’o an iota from being a great African writer. After all, the Nobel Prize is a White man’s prize given to whomever they choose. An African shouldn’t cry when a white mother is breast-feeding her baby because he has a black mother too who has got plentiful milk in her breast. There is nowhere written that any African writer, for that matter, has the right of claiming over any White man’s prize in whatever field. If Africans feel discriminated they should put in place their own grand prizes.
Now that Ngugi here didn’t reach the grapes, new critics have emerged saying that the graves were unripe. They say Ngugi didn’t reach the grape because his works have been viciously critical to White man’s imperialism and colonialism. If that is why Ngugi did not get the prize, I salute him because he has spoken for African ancestral spirits.
I once crossed path with Wole Soyinka at the African Writers’ Conference in Stockholm before he got the Noble Prize. The strength with which he reported to the audience about having been named but having fallen short of the prize, left the conference audience very much aware that Soyinka was dying to get the Prize. The conference was an opportune for him to talk about it especially because he was in the host country where the Nobel Prize is given. Soyinka has been trying his best to please the Whiteman, his African critics have claimed, more than to please his fellowmen, particularly through his employment of his masterly of English language whereby he becomes outrageously pompous besides using difficult English words, although he knows too well that English language l is a second language in African. Nonetheless, for whatever and whomever Soyinka has been writing, Soyinka has also made African proud.