[Addressed to a conference of Africanist sociologists (1984)]

The present discussion confines itself to the example of Nigeria, a modern African state comprised of many different ethnic groups – each with its distinctive literary and cultural tradition. In the ‘bad old days’, that is ten or fifteen years ago, it was common to assume that the burgeoning literature in English written by Nigerians was largely derived from European models, and that literary forms, as well as techniques, had been taken over, more or less, wholesale. That assumption was, in the main, made by European/North American critics and commentators. As yet no one has seriously challenged the idea.

Arrogance and misplaced pride cannot be wholly discounted, but there are other and reasonably pertinent explanations also to hand. For one thing not enough works have yet been published from which to conclude a clear and detailed pattern. The examination and analysis of insufficient data often leads to overgeneralization, and sometime even false conclusions. Other impediments stem from romantic and very Nineteenth-Century preconceptions of nationhood as well as of oral tradition. Then the ‘folk’ were thought to have a common culture and identity, which constituted nationhood, but we ought to be mindful that the attitudes and processes which attended the crystallization of modern Germany (The Nibelungenlied) or Finland (The Kalavala) in the last century are not really relevant to contemporary Nigeria.

Literature, both oral and written, is certainly allied to ethnic and cultural identity, but its importance lies is the fact that it is the expression of a people, acting and interacting within both social and aesthetic convention. There is nothing abstract or absolute about any given literature – none can exist apart from the society in which it was conceived. Nor is it subordinate to, or explainable as, a mere function of society. The romantic view of national (folkloric) literature, however, has, according to Ruth Finnegan, always emphasized its artless spontaneity and the yearning for a more organic world than the one in which the listener lives.

This sort of ‘folklore’ – national epics, ballads, folk songs, local stories –
seemed to mark a continuity with the longed-for lost, other worlds or organic and emotional unity, so that here contact could be made with the natural and primitive depths, as distinct from the externally-imposed, mechanical and rationalist forms of the contemporary world. | 1 |

1 | Oral Poetry, Its nature, significance, and social context. (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 34.


In such a view, not only the nature and function of oral literature is subverted, but also the nature and function of its relationship to society.

One might well agree that the oral literature of an ethnic group is an important factor in understanding its culture and world-view, and that oral tradition might, although not necessarily, have some influence on its written literature – either in the mother-tongue or in a second language. Questions do arise, however, as to the viability and validity of available approaches in analyzing the effect of oral on written tradition. A more important question is the relative compatibility, or incompatibility, of the two genres. Does the fact of anonymous authorship matter in any significant way? Is the relationship of literature to society significantly altered by a shift from oral composition to written forms? Is oral literature really confined to pre-literate (‘primitive’) societies, or does it flourish and function effectively in modern, industrialized, and urban-oriented communities – alongside written tradition?

It is difficult to accept the concept of group authorship in oral literatures. Accomplished poems and stories are not usually written by committees, but rather by artists who are recognized as individuals only in so far as a particular society’s view of literature, and indeed of individual creation, permits. A comparative view of oral tradition, in as many societies as possible, is essential to an understanding of that genre as well as to the particular forms developed by disparate cultures.

In early medieval Japan, for example, poetry evenings were normal entertainments for nobles who composed Renga. A conventional theme suitable for an open-ended ode was proposed, and each guest, in turn, contributed a line composed of a five & seven syllable hemistitch. This case, which is well documented, is, of course, far a-field from the artless spontaneity of folk expression asserted by incurable Romantics. Oral literature is communal, however, in the sense that stories and poems must appeal to, and be taken up by, the community. The process of selection is crucial since only sanctioned texts survive. Of course, inferior texts do get ‘lost’, but can be re-assessed and even revived from written records.

Another sense in which oral literature can be seen as communally composed is through the process of its transmission. Verbatim reproduction is humanly impossible, but performances often shares in the creative process by freely ornamenting the texture (language), elaborating on, or even inventing detail, and altering the given structure to suit a personal fancy or a particular audience. The text is cobbled together on the spot from an accepted set of conventions and procedures. Performances are valued not only for the degree of aesthetic pleasure afforded by the text, but also for the acting skill of the performer as well as immediate relevance and emphasis of meaning given to a basic scheme or design. Oral tradition always offers a spectrum of possibilities –­ from skeletal structures to infinite re-interpretations. In every case the common feature is the centrality of performance – the art of intermediation between text and audience.

Relatively fixed forms of oral literature such as epics and ballads pass fairly easily into written literature because they rely least on extra-literary devices – techniques of performance. On the other hand, they gain immeasurably in effect when such resources are called into play. Certain forms, normally thought of as written – theater, radio and television drama, or film – can be thought of as oral literature although printed texts do exist. The scripts for Shakespeare’s plays are merely guides to a fuller realization through performance. Oral and written literatures are, indeed, compatible and partake of the same nature. They differ only in the techniques used to actualize them.

The point of what would seem a tangential argument is to arrive at an evaluation of the influence oral literature has on written forms, not to mention the relationship between literature and the community which produces it. As asserted earlier, oral literature is an important factor in understanding any given culture or world-view, but does not reflect the reality of that society to any greater extent than does written literature. There is no evidence that oral literature is the unaffected expression of the soul of a people. It is merely an activity which moulds and re-moulds their external world – making that world intelligible – and through which they try to control it. Using constructs of verbal signs and symbols, people create and recreate their world, but that world is not quite the same as that which is actually experienced. This is, of course, the point at which social science and the arts part company – and with mutual misunderstanding. An anonymous Chinese poet of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600-1028 b.c.) made the point perfectly.

Art produces something beyond the form of things.
Though its importance lies in preserving the form of things,
Poetry gives us thoughts beyond the domain of art,
But is valued in that it exhibits the characteristics of art. | 2 |

2 | Quoted in [Robert] Lawrence Binyon, The Flight of the Dragon, The wisdom of the East series (London; Murray, 1911), p. 84.

Works of literature set out to reflect society and some even succeed, but the degree of faithfulness to exterior reality remains uncertain because of both human subjectivity and the ambiguity of signs and symbols. When rationalizing, remodeling, or controlling reality, authors often leave the world they actually live in far behind. Literature is a creative art and should be analyzed for its inherent quality and character – not accepted as literal evidence of actual circumstances. In the case of oral tradition literary critics and sociologists/ethnographers are especially dependent on one another. The critic must have external evidence of cultural values in order to understand the relevance of subjects and methods of composition.

When considering Nigerian literature in English, the heart of the matter is to draw conclusions about ethnic and national identity. Sociological features are either stated or implied within any body of work, but the recognition of a more subtle layer of influences only comes to light in an examination of the differing oral traditions and the cultural values which produced them.

It is a commonplace, for example, to maintain that the novel is a foreign concept in Africa. It does not follow, however, that the narrative of the folktale has had no influence on contemporary novels written by Nigerians. P.N. Paredes is quite right in saying –


It is when written literature gets farther and farther from the spoken word
that we must invent devices to hold the reader’s attention, to excite his
emotions and imaginations, all with those little black marks upon a piece of
paper. In fiction we move towards new narrative techniques, seeking to gain the sense of immediacy that was lost when the written word took the place of the living narrator, who acted as well as narrated. | 3 |

3 | ‘Some Aspects of Folk Poetry’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language
( Austin, TX; University of Texas Press, 1964), p. 6.

Many Igbo novelists use a loose, episodic structure which is usually held to derive either from the European, picaresque tradition – or from aesthetic incompetence. The form could, just as easily be traced to a linear accumulation of individual tales which shares, very probably, the same origin in European cultures. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is so organized, yet Ernest Emenyonu argues that that novel is specifically Igbo, rather than Nigerian. | 4 | 4 | The Rise of the Igbo Novel (Ibadan; Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 43.
He sees the basic pattern of Igbo novels as having just such a circular structure: an individual disrupting society which leads to disorientation/fragmentation and returns from some sort of exile to re-establish wholeness by reaffirming traditionally sanctioned behavior.

In so far as subject matter is concerned there is also a disparity between contemporary Igbo and Yoruba literature in the depiction of madness. Early Igbo prose narratives make much of that singular condition while Yoruba writers do not. Crazed (anti-social) behavior, of course, occurs in both societies, and the outward manifestations are fairly similar; nakedness and a predilection to travel ‘the road’. Exposing one’s genitals is the strongest possible denial of participation in society, and the road connects/links markets (centers of civilization and legitimacy).

In Yorubaland the main marketplace is traditionally situated near the king’s (or head man’s) compound. In Igboland the marketplace is the site of the supreme goddess’s shrine. For the former madness is simply another behavioral pattern, however antisocial, but accepted as yet another self-identification in a pluralistic pantheon. Cures through sympathetic magic abound and are reasonably efficacious – with about the same degree of success as in European psychiatric practice.

Igbo tradition (eminently hierarchical) has it, that once a crazed person reaches the market place, the condition is irrevocable. Might there be a connection here with the cast system which condemned ‘ritual slaves’ of various shrines/gods to inferior status, and who remained, hereditarily, outside accepted society?