Anglophone Cameroon Literature: the Travails of a Minority Literature

[Part 1]

Oscar C. Labang

For a very long time now, I have struggled with inner pressures not to join in this theoretical quibbling about Anglophone Cameroon Literature and just content my soul in a quiet corner and make my modest contributions (whatsoever) to projecting it to the heights that it deserves. I have tried not to enter the debate but to use the usually very informative and enthusiastic arguments to develop something.

This escape is somewhat part of my upbringing. My father was a teacher with a Psychology (Education) background and he often thought me that life is made better by doing your share to the best of your ability not by asking who has not done their share. It is pretty interesting how boyhood scolding can resurface now. As much as I try to avoid asking the questions, it seems the critical effort just like its seismic half never goes away when you want. Consequently, I have chosen to develop a series of short follow-up essays on what is clipping the wings of Anglophone Cameroon Literature (ACL). Evidently, I am plucking my immediate inspiration from Dibussi Tande’s interesting and cogent argument titled Soaring with “Clipped Wings”: Anglophone Cameroon Literature on the Move.

The truth is that we are soaring. But the question is Can we soar better and higher than we are already doing? My answer is a quick and strong affirmation. Then, my research question follows: what is clipping our wings or stopping us from achieving these higher heights? As of this moment, two defining causes have come to mind— what I term lack of apologists and academic gangsterism. In this essay I will be concerned with the lack of apologists as a factor that prevents a minority literature from soaring very high.

Lack of Apologists

Anglophone Cameroon Literature (ACL) can comfortably be classified under Minority Literature. The definition and very nature of this literature justifies this position. No Minority Literature can survive without apologists. It needs critics who are dedicated to writing, commenting, reviewing and critiquing this literature in other to give it currency in the literary market place. It needs Journals, Reviews, Newsletters, Blogs and Notebooks dedicated to the publishing of any “trash” written about this literature. It needs writers’ associations, literary interest groups, genre associations/clubs, and literary pressure groups. It needs awards and prizes, honors and rewards. It needs conferences, symposia, readings, writers meetings, cafés, discussion and workshops. Anglophone Cameroon Literature is deficient in much of these.  

The first proof of life and need for survival of a minority literature like ours is the need for a band of individuals who are dedicated to writing, commenting, reviewing and critiquing this literature in other to give it currency in the literary market place. The absence of reviews, commentary, and critique of a literature in the market place of literary culture is a clear indication that such a literature does not exist. Literature exists when people read it, mock it, play with it, evaluate it and celebrate it. When I talk about dedicated individuals, I mean people who love this literature for the sake of the literature and not out of need for promotion in the academia, or to achieve a particular political goal or as a favour to a colleague, or need for friendship.

Writing academic papers on a literature is the surest way of exposing that literature to a world of scholarship. But the problem with the way it is handled in ACL is what leads to problems. Much of academic writing on ACL is not born out of genuine love for the literature or the work in question but out of what I call “academic gangsterism”, which I will discuss in a later part. This attitude which presupposes that you belong to the academia to have your work read and interpreted by a scholar is a stifling attitude in ACL. I dare to borrow Guattari’s phrase to call this tendency “powerful signs which massacre desire.” (qtd. in What is A Minority Literature, 13). It massacres the desires of the writer who does not belong to the academia, as well as massacres the desires of readers who look to academic scholars to recommend beautiful works to them for consumption.

Many essays have blamed the Cameroon public for not reading ACL. The public has a reason, and a good one for the matter. The public does not have critics or reviewers or commentators who can tell them which book is good, for what reason and why. Let me give you a practical example; I read Bole Butake’s The Rape of Michelle as a secondary school student because I had heard waves about the great playwright at the University of Yaounde 1; then read Epie Ngome’s What God Has Put Asunder as a freshman, (thanks to Mbuh T. Mbuh who kept talking about this great play, and later flushed it down our throats against our desires. He had a good cause!!!). Besides these two playwrights whose other works I read for personal vanity, the others have been Bate Besong and John N. Nkengasong.

More than a decade after, it still lingers in my subconscious that these are the only readable playwrights. WHY? The answer is simply, the critics who projected these works to the masses and students have either turned to academic gangsterism or have given up the supreme task they took or have simply remained parochial. This means that Mathew Takwi, John Ngongkum Ngong, K.K Bonteh and the host of other playwrights I do not know have to sing their own songs. God forbid that the writer becomes the spokesperson of his own work.

Critics, reviewers, commentators etc cannot exist without a means of getting the word out to the public. This is what brings the medium of publication to the forefront of how a minority literature needs to survive. Every minority literature needs Journals, Reviews, Newsletters, Blogs and Notebooks dedicated to the publishing of any “Trash” written about this literature. I have chosen to call it trash because a sophisticated name will limit the ability to comment or review to a limited group. Not everybody can write a scientific paper but everybody (including those given with the rear fine power to write scientific paper) can write Trash. But as far as I am concerned, trash is not Trash, because technology has given room for continuous recycling which in turn has given value to trash. Can you remember “Trashy” literature that now has a place of its own in world bibliographic literary data? Think about Onitsha Market Literature, if you want to know its international status visit the University of Kansas Library or just google Onitsha Market Literature. That is the power that such a medium of publication can bring to Trash in an age like this.

What happened to The Mould? Was it just one of the ladders? What happened to The Mongo Review? Did it die to prefigure the collapse of the bridge or the union? And most recently, (to my own very Kang) what happened to Palapala? (Let me tell you why I prefer to call you Kang, instead of Kangsen. In my village the kang, is the name of the leading juju, i.e. the captain). I, like others, have always seen/respected you as the leading online magazine personality in Cameroon literature because some of the most provocative essays of our time on our literature featured in Palapala; some of the finest pieces of art and poetry were published in Palapala until the morning I read your farewell note, (which I decided not to talk about it then because I was angry). There is not a single journal on Cameroon Literature; there is only one review (The Ngoh-Kuoh Review), there is only one magazine now (Bakwa Magazine), there is only one blog (Cameroon Literature in English) and one Personal journal (La Bang), there is an open column (Up Station Mountain Club),there are no Newsletters, and no Notebooks.

How can a minority literature with such limited representation be known or take its place in the context of world literatures. So where is this literature talked about? In classrooms and amphitheatres? In very limited and skeptical ways. In literary circles? None exists beyond the KIF /Miraclaire monthly poetry reading (Café). In beer parlors? No, there is much politics to talk about. So where then? NOWHERE!

So why are we so conspicuously absent, or do I say insignificantly present on the techno-media landscape. An outsider may be tempted to say that it is because we don’t write. Such an outsider will be right if we go by the amount of exposure our works – single poems, collections, plays, short stories, novels and criticism – have nationally and internationally. On the contrary, we do a lot of writing. The main problem is that Anglophone Cameroon writers still revere writing and publication. What I mean here is that we still think parochially that our works need to be published in international magazines and journals. We still believe that great literature is that which is published out of Cameroon; we still think that online magazines are not worthy channels to publish our works; we still think that the magazines, reviews and journals run by Cameroonians are not academically sound enough to publish our works. The issue is not with the qualification of the person who manages the review or journal or column or newspaper; the issue is the quality of the work.

For example, this year The Ngoh-Kuoh Review submitted some short stories for the 2012 Caine Prize, those short stories will be judged not on the strength of the Review but on the creativity of the story-tellers. The stories might not win or even be shortlisted but the judges go home knowing that entries came from Cameroon this year. That might be the beginning of their interest in that literature as a whole.

If we must soar higher than we are already doing then we need to break out of this narrow-minded reverence of our works; break away from the sentimental attachment we have with our works. A good example of a poet who is breaking out in daring ways is Wirndzerem G. Barfee who has the courage to share part of his work in progress on Facebook. The commentary that followed might seem insignificant but you can never tell what it did to the imagination of those who read the poems. Some writers fear plagiarism. What? So out of the millions of poems online only yours can be plagiarized? Well, I do not deny the possibility; I just think that it is too slim a possibility. Joyce Ashutantang’s blog has readings/performances of her poems. I am yet to hear that they have been plagiarized. Let us loosen-up the grip on our works if we have to be present on the world’s stage.

As a minority literature, ACL needs writers’ associations, literary interest groups, genre associations/clubs, and literary pressure groups to carve out avenues for its propagation. The Anglophone Cameroon Writers’ Association (ACWA) is definitely the body that should play this role. When Nkengasong, like the biblical Prophet Ezekiel breathe life into the dry bones of ACWA, I am sure this is what he had in mind. These dry bones have grown to a skinny creature that lacks sufficient flesh and energy to carry itself along successfully. Also, this is the only writers’ association that exists or that comes out fully and that is why too much is expected of it. Why is there no Anglophone Cameroon Female Writers’ Association? Are there no female writers? Why are there no literary Cliques? Why are there no Novelists, or Poets, or Playwrights Associations (genre associations)? I know there is a young writers’ association (or something of the sort) in Bamenda and the Yaounde University Poetry Club (which is gradually gaining ground again after a long hibernation). The absence of such groups beside ACWA has a deadening effect on ACL.

The very existence of ACWA is a threat to such other associations. Efforts to create such associations are interpreted as attempts to secede from ACWA, especially if the founder is a member of ACWA. It is clear that ACWA alone cannot organize all the activities, events and readings that can sufficiently project ACL. The online group CAMLIT is a good example of the kind of grouping I am talking about. The unfortunate thing however is that CAMLIT functions more like a dysfunctional ex-student network. What happened to the lofty plans – the journal, the reviewers network, the mentoring/coaching and all what not that we happily aligned with? The answer, my friends, is not blowin’ in the wind. It is hidden in the corridors of our minds.

The existence of the above mentioned groups will bring about new awards and prizes, honors and rewards as well as conferences, symposia, readings, writers meetings, café, discussion and workshops. From the 1994 Yaounde Workshop to 2012, it is almost two decades during which nothing has been done or said about ACL. The annual or biannual meetings proposed in the CAMLIT forum would have given ACL a dimension and projection that is unimaginable.  Individual papers have been presented in conferences and published in journals or conference proceedings but to pull writers and critics together has proven to be a very difficult task. Is it that it is so difficult a thing to do? I really do not think so. We simply do not have the will.

Presently, there are less than five (5) literary awards and prizes. In fact there is the EduArt Award, and the Eko Foundation/ACWA Award. These are prestigious awards with the potential needed to project ACL to glistering pedestals. The very funny thing about these awards is that the same Anglophone Cameroon Writers for whom these awards are created are skilled at second-guessing the awards or organizers. I know international awards in the US with cash prizes as low as $100 U.S. So what makes us think that awards of 50.000 FRS or 100.000 FRS in Cameroon are small or that recognition certificates are not enough? I am not denying anyone the power of criticism but what is the function of criticism at the present time (to rephrase Matthew Arnold). One is left with the impression that we think that art will be the source of existence for the artist. While we cannot completely dismiss the fact, we must acknowledge those who make the effort to offer awards of any nature – they are vital to the growth and recognition of our literature.

The popular saying in my village and in much of the grass-field of the North West Region of Cameroon goes thus “if you don’t clap for your own juju, who then do you expect to clap for it”. This points to the fact that we are the ones to champion the cause of our literature if we want it to get to the heights where other minority literatures are. We must be dedicated not only in writing, or in inflating our personal egos but in a communal effort to give a louder voice to Anglophone Cameroon Literature. As promised, in the follow-up (part 2) I will discuss Academic Gangsterism as a major force that clips the wings of our literature.

Oscar C. Labang is winner of the Bernard Fonlon Poetry Competition (2005) and author of This is Bonamoussadi (Poetry), The trial of Bate Besong (Drama),” “The Visit (Short Story), Riot in the Mind (Criticism), and Editor of Emerging Voices: Anthology of Young Anglophone Cameroon Poets. He lives in Kansas.

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4 Comments

  1. You have said it all. How can we go forward when academics with little writing talents yearn to dominate and desecrate Cameroon’s literary landscape with abandon? Look at the books recently prescribed for GCE O/L & A/L literature in our country. The criteria for selection were well outlined, but during the selection processes, those called to select were baffled with dictatorial tendencies bordering on no artistic merits and, eventually, new texts were forced on their throats at short notice. Some panelists, most of whom confided to me, pledging anonymity, were very bitter and dissatisfied. With such gimmicks, who can respect the literary tradition in this country? That sort of epileptic assessment of literature can never happen anywhere in any English-speaking African country. We have lost genuine respect for values and to bring this in the domain of art is pure lunacy, if you ask me. These so-called self-imposed academic writers, have invaded our markets with prosaic write-ups. Literature, full to the brim with trite; pedestrian compositions, coming out from the nooks and crannies of our beloved Republic with no one to caution that we are erring in the extreme. Who dares hold these buzzing neophytes in esteem, safe their adherents and offspring? Some are learning how to write while retired. What a joke, if really, we are talking of literature that shows depth, sublime style, a good command of the subject matter,etc.
    I am not pessimistic. However, unless talent and talent alone is glorified in our literary pursuits, no respectable literary trends will thrive in this land even in the next 50 years to come. All efforts will come to very minimal recognition.

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