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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Coetzive Mythopoeia and Obiechina’s Transfiguration

By Obiwu

"Whereas in the kind of game that I am talking about, you can change the rules if you are good enough. You can change the rules for everybody if you are good enough.
You can change the game."
- John Coetzee

Coetzee reportedly makes the preceding epigraphic claim during a writers’ workshop on March 6, 1984, at Lexington, Kentucky, United States.1 This essay argues that J. M. Coetzee’s writing demonstrates abiding faith in the praxis of fiction as a manipulative language game. From one novel to another Coetzee consistently proves that his artistic originality is especially founded on the reinvention of the western master’s wheel. As a Europhilic postcolonial subject, he repeatedly invokes the coercive (qua “Coetzive”) objectification of the other that unabashedly structures the four-century old literary gamesmanship of his canonical models, beginning with John Lok in 1561, through Ihon White, Thomas Hariot, John Barrow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad, Andre Gide, Karen Blixen (“Isak Dinesen”), Joyce Cary, to Hannah Arendt. Given his derivative antecedents there would probably not be much in common between Coetzee’s literary praxis and Professor Emmanuel Obiechina’s. With Coetzee, however, it always already suits the mischievous Agwu, Ate, or Hecate to invent the impossible.

Coetzee’s “Elizabeth Costello” (2003), both as character and fiction, says everything the South African (and Australian) writer has been trying to say in so many words since the publication of his first novel Dusklands in 1974: “I am fed up with Africa, their Africa!” He does not couch his primary literary purpose exactly in those words or that particular inflection, but he could not have said it any better। Coetzee is mythopoeic. The lead black African character of his second novel, In the Heart of the Country (1977), is a man who “growls” like a “distempered dog” or “ape.” The African protagonist of his fourth novel, Life & Times of Michael K (1983), is a “hare-lipped” “wild man” who burrows into the earth like a “worm” with his pumpkins. His fifth novel Foe (1986) is the story of a post-Shakespearean Caliban and postcolonial bastard named Friday, who is tongueless and stupidly cuddles a flute though he lacks the judgment, aestheticism, or taste to distinguish between music and an interminable monotony of humdrum. In his ninth novel, Disgrace (1999), a white female doctor works all day round to euthanize a constant flow of sick animals – again, mostly distempered dogs – in a South African veterinary clinic, while a white male professor assists her in disposing of the carcasses at a nearby incinerator.2

Coetzee’s aforementioned tenth “novel” Elizabeth Costello is unique by its insistence in the unmasking of its heroine and her author। His infantile and speechless artist of the earlier novel Foe has, in Elizabeth Costello, been replaced with an equally undeveloped African artist, an “old man with the stained teeth.” The arthritic black Joseph is a lonesome copycat who lives out his “uncreative” life in an unlighted and cobwebbed “corner” where he mass-produces miniature crucifixes “over and over again in different sizes and different woods.” At a rare moment of illumination, Joseph disdainfully defies his interrogator’s inquiry about carving animals: “Animals is just for tourists … No, no tourist art.” But Elizabeth Costello has already drawn a final judgment on her dying subject: “It is Saturday, her last full day in Africa … We will not see each other again … not in this life.” With that inglorious swan song creature and creator – Costello and Coetzee, subject and signifier – turn their stiff backs on their Africa.

Evidently, Coetzee still loves his animals as usual in the novel, but they are no longer metonymic animals। They are no longer animals in black African flesh and voice, or African caricatures pretending to be humans. They are natural animals, endangered, piteous, and in dire need of the urgent interventionism of the protagonist white female professor and animal rights activist Elizabeth Costello, who does little to veil her presence as an alter-ego, if super-ego, of her conscientious creator Coetzee. Her strident voice and barricade-storming swagger are a defiant re-invention of the “lost” vision behind the composition of Dusklands three decades earlier when the writer was a placard-carrying anti-war protester against the Vietnam War in New York. Elizabeth Costello’s unequivocal militancy is hardly evident in defense of Coetzee’s animal-African characters in the in-between novels of 1977 to 1999, and the writer himself is not known to have ever marshaled his prior anti-Vietnam rhetoric or disposition in any of his discourses on apartheid. He has instead frenetically defended his intellectualized passivity towards the late reprehensible system, and on several occasions disturbingly accosted the antiapartheid activism of such fellow white South African writers as Breyten Breytenbach and Nadine Gordimer. Elizabeth Costello the novel is therefore signifying since it marks Coetzee’s first notable open assault on black African literary praxis and scholars outside South Africa, which curiously comes on the heels of his emigration to Australia in 2002 and his award of the Nobel Prize in literature in 2003, the same year as the publication of his faction.

Who else but a foundational scholar in the development of the African literary academy could ensure an optimal impact in Coetzee’s calculated challenge to African literature? He finds his mark in the thinly disguised persona of the eminent Professor Obiechina. Emmanuel Nwanonye Obiechina was born on September 20, 1933, in Southeastern Nigeria. He received the B.A. Honors, English (London) from the University College, Ibadan, Nigeria (1961), and the Ph.D. English from Clare College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England (1967). He taught in universities in Africa and America, including the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas; and University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Among many distinguished positions, Obiechina also served appointments as Director of the Nigerian Universities Office and Education Attaché, Embassy of Nigeria, Washington, D.C., and fellowship to the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Washington, D.C. His honors include a festschrift entitled Meditations on African Literature (2001),3 an award for “Humanistic Perspectives on Contemporary Society” from the Ford Foundation, and a W. E. B. DuBois Fellowship at Harvard University. Obiechina is an elected Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters (FNAL).

Obiechina wrote his undergraduate special topic on “Nineteenth Century English Novel, with Special Emphasis on the Novels of Charles Dickens,” and his dissertation on “Cultural Change and the Novel in English in West Africa।” Obiechina’s name is, indeed, synonymous with African literary scholarship. Proud at the incredible advance of African literature as an academic discipline under the guidance of the first generation native African critics, younger scholars of my generation like to boast that Professor Obiechina was the first black man to get a doctorate degree in African literature from Cambridge at a time when the university could only recognize such a tropical beast as a subspecies of social anthropology.4 Obiechina now has a threefold impact on African literary scholarship: founder and purveyor of the Onitsha Market literary school; chief interpreter of Chinua Achebe’s fiction; and a leading master of the African critical tradition.

What would be the current status of African critical scholarship without Obiechina’s foundational texts on the discipline, including Onitsha Market Literature (1972) and Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel (1975)? With these two books, Obiechina founded one of the earliest canons of Nigerian literature। At the height of the global crosscurrents between what Raymond Williams describes as the imperial metropolitan and the periphery, in Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (1958) and The Country and the City (1973), Obiechina similarly embarked on identifying and mapping the structures of the cultural phenomenon that became known as the Onitsha Market literature. The genre, according to Obiechina, was impacted by “Western-oriented education, modern information media, and the changing cultural habits and attitudes which have given rise to many points of conflict between old and new values and have confronted young people with the problem of adjustment.”5

Two correspondences I received from a professor at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, on May 27, 2008, and September 19, 2009, are a testimony to the transatlantic spread of Obiechina’s intellectual discovery। The correspondent, Onookome Okome, was involved in a project on “global popular print culture.” The organizers had made Onitsha Market literature part of the project and they needed Obiechina’s participation to give it a boost. Okome concludes the first correspondence by stating that, “Two of my PhD candidates are also working in this area and I think the presence of Professor Obiechina will be a great impetus for their work. It is for mine anyway.” The second correspondence reinforces the first: “Researching on the subject of the Onitsha market arts as I do, I have come to note the singular and resourceful critiques of these art forms that Prof. Obiechina and Prof MJC Echeruo did when many Nigerian scholars were keen only in rehashing The Iliad and the arcane world of other European text. I am indebted to them in many ways – that is their pioneering spirit.”6

Professor Obiechina is one of a quartet, including Professors Michael J. C. Echeruo, Abiola Irele, and Ben Obumselu, whose names are often mentioned in the same sentence as among the foremost masters of Nigerian and African criticism.7 Much has been made about the critical influence of F. R. Leavis and Matthew Arnold, the latter of whose work the first home-grown generation of Nigerian critics discovered as undergraduates at the University College, Ibadan.8 Available evidence, however, gives equal credit to the young Leavisites Raymond Williams and L. C. Knight both of whom Obiechina met as a graduate student at Cambridge. On the one hand, Williams’s thesis on the “culture of feeling” had far-reaching impact on literary exegesis in the 1950s and 60s. On the other, Obiechina attended the very popular open lecture series on “Literature and Society” which Williams and Knight gave at Cambridge. “My dissertation,” said Obiechina, “was possible because of the ferment of the period.”

Though it has largely flown under the radar, the publication of Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello expands Obiechina’s scholarly legend to mythical dimensions।9 The second chapter of the novel takes its title, “The Novel in Africa,” from the lecture title of a certain “Emmanuel Egudu, a writer from Nigeria.” The fictional “Emmanuel Egudu” is said to be a professor and a fine figure of a man who has become “an habitual exile.” He has taken to making a living on the international lecture circuit, including cruise ships. Among issues in the presentations of both “Emmanuel Egudu” and the novel’s protagonist Elizabeth Costello, are Amos Tutuola and his novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Ben Okri, négritude, Chiekh Hamidou Kane, the language of African literature, oral tradition, books, publishing, writing, and reading in Africa. Coetzee understandably conflates the facts of his novelistic invention.

Significations merge in the characterization of the mythopoeic “Emmanuel Egudu।” The most notable “Emmanuel” in Nigeria literary scholarship is Professor Emmanuel Obiechina, but Romanus Egudu is the name of another distinguished Nigerian scholar-critic and colleague of Obiechina’s. The cruise ship for the lecture circuit is named the SS Northern Lights, though both Obiechina and Egudu are from Southern Nigeria. The mythical “Emmanuel Egudu” is a “dissident intellectual” who is unwelcome in Nigeria. He is the author of novels, poems, plays, and winner of a Commonwealth Literary Award. In point of fact, Obiechina has written, edited, and published poetry and fiction volumes, including Locusts (1976), African Creations (1982), and Masksong for Our Times (2003), but his creative work has received neither equal attention nor wide recognition as his critical studies.10 Contrastively, Obiechina’s compatriots and colleagues Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, are both renowned as award-winning, multi-genre creative writers, acclaimed essayists, dissident intellectuals, and famous exiles.

Coetzee’s narrative in Elizabeth Costello raises eyebrows when the Australian Elizabeth Costello dismissively remarks that her black male co-lecturer and ex-lover “Emmanuel Egudu” is not a writer but an “entertainer।” She irrationally pushes Australia as a model that African writers should “learn from” in developing “a home-grown literature,” instead of accepting the “role of interpreter” and performing their “Africanness” in their writing.11 “Why are there so many African novelists around and yet no African novel worth speaking of?” When Elizabeth Costello gripes about Emmanuel Egudu “acquiring American papers,” we are mildly reminded that J. M. Coetzee himself had to leave the United States and his assistant professorship position at the State University of New York in Buffalo to return to his native South Africa following the failure of his American residency application. He left South Africa as “an habitual exile” again in 2002 to settle in Australia where he was granted citizenship in 2006. In the face of such discomforting overlap of fact and fiction one wonders if the chapter on “The Novel in Africa” is not Coetzee’s own repressed aggressivity emanating as pseudo-flyting – like the hip-hop artist’s “dissing” or the jazz player’s “dozens” – on African literature, with a veiled “talking down” of its signifying figures. One critic rightly notes that Elizabeth Costello is novel, but is it a novel?

Among some of Obiechina’s essays which could have been the subject of Coetzee’s mimicry are “The Growth of Written Literature in English-Speaking West Africa,” “Amos Tutuola and the Oral Tradition,” “Language and the African Novel,” and “Politics in the Early African Novel,” all published in his book Language and Theme: Essays in African Literature (1990)। The same case could be made for such Achebe’s essays as “The Novelist as Teacher,” “Thoughts on the African Novel,” “The Writer and the English Language,” and “Publishing in Africa: A Writer’s View” (published in Morning Yet on Creation Day, 1975), and “Work and Play in Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard” (published in Hopes and Impediments, 1988).12 One of the sources that Coetzee acknowledges at the end of his “novel” is Towards African Literary Independence (1980), by the Nigerian critic Phanuel Egejuru, who is a protégé of Obiechina, Echeruo, and Achebe.13 Another possible source material which Coetzee does not acknowledge, if he was aware of it, could have been the exchange between the distinguished African historian Basil Davidson (Can Africa Survive?, 1974) and Obiechina (Africa Shall Survive, 1980), in which both scholars attempt to articulate “Africa’s protean predicament.”14

J. M. Coetzee’s fiction haws and hums with the predictable monotone of his stock-artists, Friday and Joseph. His source pool of “growling” animals and “speechless” black men must have run low and dry as his Karoo desert. Or, how else does one explain the writer’s late war declaration on African literature and her scholars? In this season of worldwide celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart (1958) as a postcolonial masterpiece, Obiechina’s scholarship is at the fore again since he is the lead dissertator on the spirit and place of Chinua Achebe’s fiction.15 Professor Emmanuel Obiechina was there at the beginning of the Nigerian critical scholarship in the mid-twentieth century age of African decolonization and wars of independence. He is there today as a guiding light to African literary praxis in the twenty-first century age of confession and psychic recovery.16

1. See Dick Penner, “Epigraph.” Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee (New York: Greenwood P, 1989)
2. See J. M. Coetzee, Dusklands. New York: Penguin, 1974; In the Heart of the Country. Middlesex: Penguin, 1977; Life & Times of Michael K. New York: Penguin, 1983; Foe. New York: Viking, 1986; Disgrace. New York: Viking, 1999; Elizabeth Costello. New York: Viking, 2003.
3. Dubem Okafor, ed., Meditations on African Literature (Festschrift in Honor of Professor Emmanuel N. Obiechina). Westport, CT; London: Greenwood Press, 2001.
4. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., uses the hostile experiences of Obiechina, Soyinka, and himself at Cambridge University to illustrate the suspicion toward black literature which was once pervasive in the western academy; see “Tell Me, Sir, … What Is ‘Black Literature.’” Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 87-105. Nowhere is the western skepticism more banal than in the ferocious assault of Hannah Arendt in her anti-Fanonian book, On Violence: “African literature, and other nonexistent subjects will be interpreted as another trap of the white man to prevent Negroes from acquiring an adequate education” (New York: A Harvest Book – Harcourt Brace, 1970. 96)
5. Emmanuel N. Obiechina, “Introduction.” Onitsha Market Literature. Ed. Emmanuel N. Obiechina. London: Heinemann, 1972. 1-30. See also Obiechina, Commentary, Notes, and Exercises to James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. London: Longman, 1966; Literature for the Masses: An Analytical Study of Popular Pamphleteering in Nigeria. Foreword. Chinua Achebe. Enugu, Nigeria: Nwankwo-Ifejika, 1971; (eds, with Echeruo) Igbo Traditional Life, Culture, and Literature. Enugu: New Paltz, NY: Conch Magazine, 1971; An African Popular Literature: A Study of Onitsha Market Pamphlets. London: Cambridge UP, 1973; Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 1975; Christopher Okigbo: Poet of Destiny. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Pub, 1980; Africa Shall Survive: Essays, Tales, and Lay Sermons about Africa and the African. Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1980; (ed.) University of Nigeria, 1960-1985. Oxford, UK: African Books Collective, 1986; Language and Theme: Essays on African Literature. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1990; Nchetaka: The Story, Memory, and the Continuity of Igbo Culture (Ahiajoku Lecture). Owerri, Nigeria: Imo State Government P, 1994.
6. Onookome Okome, “Re: Professor Obiechina.” Email (Tuesday, May 27, 2008); Okome, “Re: Request for Permission.” Email (Saturday, September 19, 2009). For his continuing indebtedness to Obiechina’s work in Onitsha Market literature see Okome’s forthcoming essay, “Reading the Popular: Onitsha Market Romance and the Practice of Everyday Life.” MLA (Chicago, December 2009): 386-402. I sincerely thank Professor Onookome Okome for his invaluable assistance in a portion of this essay and for granting me the permission to reproduce parts of his correspondences with me.
7. See Abiola Irele, “Literary Criticism in the Nigerian Context.” Perspectives on Nigerian Literature, 1700 to the Present, 1: A Critical Selection from the Guardian Literary Series. Ed. Yemi Ogunbiyi. Foreword. Stanley Macebuh. Lagos: Guardian Books, 1988. 93-105; Biodun Jeyifo, “Abiola Irele: The Scholar as Critic.” Perspectives on Nigerian Literature, 1700 to the Present, 1. 130-4; Obiwu, “Ben Obumselu: The Responsible Critic.” The Guardian (June 19, 1993): 19; Okpewho, Isidore. “Michael J. C. Echeruo: The Dignity of Intellectual Labor.” Perspectives on Nigerian Literature: 1700 to the Present, 1. 142-51.
8. In his essay, “Literary Criticism in the Nigerian Context,” Irele attributes Obiechina’s critical achievement in Culture, Tradition and Society to the influence of Arnold and Leavis (98-9). See Perspectives on Nigerian Literature, 1700 to the Present, 1. In a telephone conversation of November 30, 2008, Professor Obiechina clarifies that Raymond Williams and L. C. Knight had much greater influence on his critical development than anyone else.
9. Neither Professor Obiechina nor Professor Egejuru, both of whom I spoke with on telephone on November 30, 2008, was aware of Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello five years after its publication. I (in the company of Professor Echeruo) attended Coetzee’s reading of Stranger Shores: Literary Essays (2001) at Hamilton College, Ithaca, New York, November 3, 2001, where the writer autographed my copy of the book. I sincerely thank Professors Obiechina and Egejuru for granting me the telephone interviews. I thank Professor Echeruo most especially for the incomparable opportunities he provided me toward the greater discovery of South African literature.
10. See Obiechina, Locusts. Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review, 1976; (ed.) African Creations: A Decade of Okike Stories. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension Pub, 1982; Masksong for Our Times. Trenton, NJ: Africa World P, 2003.
11. See Wole Soyinka’s first novel The Interpreters. London: Fontana, 1980; Soyinka is well known to have been critical of Senghor’s Negritude movement, particularly for its performance of what Coetzee describes as their “Africanness.” See Soyinka’s essays, “And After the Narcissist?” African Forum 1.4 (Spring 1966): 53-64; “From a Common Back Cloth: A Reassessment of the African Literary Image.” In Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture. Ibadan: New Horn Press, 1988. 7-14. Soyinka has since revised his critique of Senghor in “L. S. Senghor and Negritude: J’accuse, mais, je pardonne.” The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 93-144.
12. See Chinua Achebe, Morning yet on Creation Day: Essays. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press-Doubleday, 1975; Achebe, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Anchor – Doubleday, 1989.
13. Phanuel Akabueze Egejuru, Towards African Literary Independence. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1980.
14. See Niyi Osundare, “Squaring Up to Africa’s Future: A Writer’s Reflections on the Predicaments of a Continent,” page 25. Thread in the Loom: Essays on African Literature & Culture. Trenton, NJ: Africa World P, 2002. 21-31. See Basil Davidson, Can African Survive? Arguments against Growth without Development. New York, NY: Little Brown & Co, 1974.
15. Chinua Achebe, Thing Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1959.
16. This is the value of two of Obiechina’s landmark essays: “Cultural Nationalism in Modern African Creative Literature.” African Literature Today 1 (1968): 25-35; and “Poetry as Therapy: Reflections on Achebe’s Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems. Callaloo 25.2 (Spring 2002): 527-558.


  1. The style of writing is toned very well and is apprehensive. The writer uses simple language that is precise enough to understand. The essay has a good attention grabber. The style of writing is formal which makes it understandable. The article itself can be displayed as difficult reading, but it was interesting.

  2. The article seems to contrast the two authors, Coetzee and Obiechina. There are several examples from Coetzee's novel about character Elizabeth Costello, who thinks Australian literature is superior to African literature. She thinks of a colleague as more of an entertainer than a writer. Obiechina on the other hand, seems to be a perpetual "hero" to African literature, not only supporting it, but promoting it as well. He has led the way on making it a valid subject of study. The author presents a good illustration of their ideas and where they're coming from. Not being familiar with either author, I can tell what the author is talking about from the examples given.
    J. Young