There are few people that can make a first impression so lasting that it makes you see your craft in a whole new light.
I first became aware of Prof. Kofi Awoonor when I heard that he was to speak and have a masterclass at the Storymoja Hay Festival. I became interested in his work after reading a study of his work, ‘This Earth, My Brother’.
His masterclass on ‘The Responsibility of the African Writer’ was especially revealing. Here was a man who had written longer than my country had been independent. He represented a link with the past, with the age-old traditions of singing and performing poetry that are now classified dryly as ‘Oral Literature’. The fact that these poems and songs of Africa have influenced genres as varied as spoken word, hip hop and rap show that African literature has a profound contribution to make to the rest of the world.
He was a man who found humour in everything, even in the fact that his name had been misspelt in the event programme.
He was also a man who loved language. He spoke 5 Ghanaian languages fluently, along with French, German and Dutch. Remarkably, at his age, he was also learning Portuguese to translate and promote his work in Portugal. He confessed that he counted himself incredibly lucky to have never been rejected by an editor. His dedication to his work, and the lengths that he was willing to go to were legendary.
One thing that he loved though was to read. In his opinion, the best way for a writer to build up his work was through reading the works of others. He started with the classics, with Jane Austen’s love affairs and James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the course of his reading, he encountered interesting, sometimes subtle themes. He pointed out that Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, for example, contains an interesting narrative about colonization and language, where Caliban’s freedom and rule over the island is broken by Prospero’s sorcery. When Prospero lands on his island, Caliban treats him well, and Prospero in return teaches him a language with which he could express himself. The way the English language was imposed on Africa, however, led to an interesting side effect: we were able to talk to each other directly, providing a convenient point of exchange.
However, even when we talked to each other in English, we still remained in touch with the creativity that our languages possessed. Where direct translation failed, we often resort to imagery.
Prof. Awoonor’s provocation to write was from a sense of obligation. One of his grandmothers was a priestess who performed incantations, while the other was a dirge singer. He felt that he needed to contribute to the culture of his people by promoting their poetry, both in the original language and translated to English. Another provocation to write that he shares with Chinua Achebe was the need to go against the prevailing opinion that Africa had no culture. Achebe had written ‘Things Fall Apart’ in response to ‘Mister Johnson’, a story of a bumbling African clerk that made so many mistakes that his life became a farcical representation of how the colonialists viewed Africa.
Ultimately, the heart of the masterclass was the fact that we all have an obligation to write as Africans. In order to do this, we need to answer four questions.
1. Who are you? Not just your name, but the sum total of your identity. If you don’t know who you are, then you are lost. You need to have confidence in yourself first before you write, and this arises from your understanding of what you are made of. One of the ways to answer this is to look at where you come from, the people who have gone before you. Everyone has ancestors with whom we share an inescapable link, and identifying these connections makes it easier to identify who we truly are.
2. Where do you call home? We all carry our homes around with us, like a snail with its shell. Home is where your art, your being and your true purpose lie. Home is part of identity. This is why the most eloquent stories that we can tell are those around us, those that contain in them the things that we are most familiar with.
Even for people who would consider themselves rootless, the people who live in cities like Nairobi who feel rootless also have a home that they can find and connect with.
3. What makes you think you can write? Until you can answer this question, anything you say will lack conviction. We all have stories that we can tell, but that alone is not reason enough to write. We should write because we have things that need to be said. He summed this up with a saying, ‘I have something to say, and I will say it before death comes. Let no one say it for me.’
4. What would you want to write about? He noted that there are many things that can be written about, ‘as many as the range of human emotions’. Every emotion is legitimate, and so it comes with its own story. Stories are a testament to the human condition, where conflict is engrained, and that is why we are happy when they are resolved. Good stories can also leave the situation hanging for the reader to resolve on their own. Every writer contends with his historical background and uses it as a source for his writing. We need to write more of our own stories, to share our perspectives as African writers with the world.
Stories are after all about meetings and partings, where we are introduced to the characters in the beginning, go through the story with them and say farewell at the end. How we feel towards them, how we feel towards the situations they are in, that is something that is brought out by how it is written.
His love for poetry showed in his lament for how it is taught. Taking the art of the poem and making it a dry, complicated matter was especially painful to him, starting with nursery rhymes. Poems are made to be performed, to be sung out loud and given the dignity they deserve. Poems, he said, are religious experiences that deserve to be treated with respect.
When writing, he suggested that first drafts should be used as a guide. He was always editing his work until right before he needed to send it to the publisher, and even after it had been published, he still found edits that he made and incorporated in various edits. He also dedicated himself to popularizing poetry, even though he knew, and acknowledged with a laugh, that there was no money in it. Poetry, according to him, was art for its own sake.
Professor Awoonor was a champion of African literature, and he will be sorely missed. To honour him, I suggest you read some of his work. And every time you write, be true to yourself.
‘This Earth, My Brother’ and more of his work are available on Amazon.
Farewell, gentle soul.