LAST week, Alan Riach introduced the poems of Niyi Osundare from the book City Without People: The Katrina Poems (2011). Now Alan places Osundare’s work in the larger context of modern African literature in English

IN his essay, “Singers of a New Dawn” in Thread in the Loom: Essays on African Literature and Culture (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 2002), pp.59-83, Niyi Osundare provides an outline of modern African literature in three stages. We’re talking here about writers, poets, playwrights, novelists and story writers who published in English and addressed an international anglophone readership, bringing the experience of Africa and different parts of Africa to a global provenance in ways that had not happened before.

First there were the pioneers: Cyprian Ekwensi (1921-2007), Chinua Achebe (1930-2013), Christopher Okigbo (1932-67), Wole Soyinka (b.1934), J.P. Clark (b.1935) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (b.1938). Soyinka described the African writer of this era as “the voice of vision” and Osundare tells us that while this “voice” is “polyphonic, heterogeneous, vigorous and turbulent” it is also possessed of “a universe of common fears and shared aspirations”. These are writers everyone should know, especially every reader in Scotland: there is so much we can learn from them.

And the connection with Scotland is long-established. As early as 1955, Hugh MacDiarmid saw and understood this prospect, writing in his epic poem In Memoriam James Joyce of “Amos Tutuola, the Yoruba writer, / Who has begun the structure of new African literature …” Tutuola published his first amazing book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard in 1952 and it was welcomed by Dylan Thomas as well as MacDiarmid.

The book’s title continues: “… and his dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town” and that gives you some sense of the story’s dangerous magic. The Drinkard’s profession is to drink palm-wine but when his Tapster dies he has to go to the place of the dead to rescue him.

We might translate: the artist needs inspiration and when that dies, he or she needs to find it even if it means visiting the dead. Or we might think of Orpheus in the Underworld, searching for Euridice. Robert Henryson’s 15th-century Scots language recasting of the story is home-grown but such Europeanisations don’t give you the flavour of palm-wine. Ever since I read Tutuola’s phantasmagorical book I’ve wondered what it might taste like. Exoticism is in the spelling – not “A Drunk Man” looking at a “Thistle” but a “Drinkard” looking for a Tapster in “Deads’ Town”. The tale is universal: we all need life’s elixir. But this is Africa.

And not mere novelty. The blend of native traditions and international provenance is carefully made.

When Wole Soyinka translated D.O. Fagunwa’s novel “Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale”, he chose not to give a literal version of the title, “The Forest of Four Hundred Deities’ but rather “The Forest of a Thousand Daemons”: “The spelling is important. These beings who inhabit Fagunwa’s world will demand at all costs and by every conceivable translator’s trick to be preserved from the common or misleading associations which substitutes such as ‘demons’, ‘devils’ or ‘gods’ evoke in the reader’s mind.” The translation must “transmit the reality of their existence with the same unquestioning impact and vitality which is conveyed by Fagunwa in the original.”

Another world is out there waiting for us. The forest is deep.

The second stage of modern African writing came in what Osundare calls “an angry generation” including “womanist-feminists”: Flora Nwapa (1931-93), Tess Onwueme (b.1937), Ifeoma Okoye (b.1937), Buchi Emecheta (1944-2017), Zaynab Alkali (b.1950); socialist-realists: Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-95), Kole Omotoso (b.1943), whose 1971 novel The Edifice is partly set in Edinburgh, Festus Iyayi (1947-2013); and magical-realists: Ben Okri (b.1959) and Biyi Bandele (b.1967).

Bridging first and second stages, as an epigraph for his collection of stories Stars of the New Curfew (1988), Ben Okri selected these lines by Christopher Okigbo: “We carry in our worlds that flourish / our worlds that have failed.”

It is not simply coincidence but an affinity of understanding, I believe, that had led the great Scottish historian, critic and poet, Angus Calder to place that same quotation as an epigraph to his most monumental work (916 pages of sheer brilliance), Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English-Speaking Empires from the Fifteenth Century to the 1780s (1981).

In the present state of things, we might think of the obverse intelligence: “In our failed world, this broken British imperium, we carry a flourishing Scotland, waiting to come out of the forest.”

Overlapping with and continuing after this second stage of African writers is a third generation whose writing “ranges from angry through desperate to despondent”: Femi Fatoba (b.1939), Femi Osofisan (b.1946), Obiora Udechukwu (b.1946), Tanure Ojaide (b.1948), Stella Oyedepo (b.1949), Olu Obafemi (b.1950), Odia Ofeimun (b.1950), Olu Oguibe (b.1964) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (b.1977).

OSUNDARE tells us these are writers who “have no time for iregbe (dilly dally, idleness)” and they rise from the previous “stage” as Adichie acknowledges, addressing Buchi Emecheta: “We are able to speak because you first spoke. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your art. Nodu na ndokwa.” (May we always remember.)

In Adichie’s famous novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70 alters the lives of three characters: Ugwu, a poor village boy, Olanna, a young middle-class woman, and Richard, a shy colonial “incomer” enthralled by Olunna’s twin sister.

Divided loyalties, commitments, beliefs are tested and torn. Grief and despair, misery and hope arise in their stories, coming out of the depths. It’s a historical novel but its pertinence is close.

If the population of Scotland remains divided on the question of the future, we’d be wise to learn about how loyalties are formed, and how they might legitimately change through an understanding of what self-determination means.

Differences always need accommodation for progress to proceed. And learning through reading is surely a better way forward than having to learn from violence.

Osundare (b.1947) arises in the second of these three stages but as we saw last week with his Hurricane Katrina poems, anger at injustice and the murderous behaviour of bad governments has its counterpart in praise for the good. There is always more to learn from firm, widely experienced, deeply held understanding of matters of value, and how high that understanding can raise our spirits, for the right thing, at the apt moment.

His poem in praise of medical science shows how.

Such a canter through the names of three waves of the literature of a continent – and only that available to readers of English – is a mere indication of riches. Another year of lockdown would not be enough to let the mind encompass these writers’ works and draw their value into our own understanding of the world.

But their experience speaks to us directly. Prejudice, racism, thuggery on the streets, illegality in government, the emphatic persuasiveness of power, the glamour of pomp and glitter, the military threat, the technology of arms, all have their proximities in Scotland today.

If MacDiarmid welcomed Amos Tutuola in 1955, he was no less welcoming in 1974, in his Foreword to the anthology Poets to the People: South African Freedom Poems, approvingly quoting the proposition that the poet – the writer, the artist – in whatever country, system or continent “is the same, the same breed continues to love beauty and hate oppression, to believe in spiritual values and the mind’s affinities, to recognize and appreciate each other in ‘this terrible age’.”

He concludes: “I express my solidarity with, and send my fraternal greetings to, all the contributors to this volume. We shall overcome!”

There is no less to overcome today.