Remarks at the Launch of All the Good Things Around Us- An Anthology of African Short Stories & May Their Shadows Never Shrink- Wole Soyinka and the Oxford Professorship of Poetry.
Houses of Parliament, Palace of Westminster, London.
August 15 2016
It is with pleasure that we have in this Parliament, the King of Ashanti, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II and the Nobel Laureate for Literature- Prof. Wole Soyinka. The former is the guardian of an ancient African political heritage and the latter a primogeniture of his generation’ arts and letters. Soyinka has for over sixty years defended this heritage that the King protects even if through its Yoruba equivalent.
His fifty year old famous play, Death and the King’s Horseman is partly about the dignity of African kingship. The Seven Signposts published decades ago is in defense of African traditional religion. It sets out precepts that most African religious beliefs identity with. It was partly written in anger following denigration by some scholars that indeed ancient Yoruba system of beliefs “did not qualify for consideration as religion because” they said, “it had no written scriptures.”
His rejoinder: “study the spirituality of this continent.” And if we do and for instance visit the palace of the Ashanti King for the Awukudae festival or the Akwasidae one, we would realize that the rituals and practices all lead to a compatible end with others. The Ashanti King is as much a Christian and head of the Anglican Church in his ancient kingdom as he is also a modern traditional leader who plays golf.
Before the Keeper of Heritage and our Cultural Antiphonist speak, I must explain the importance in the context of the second part of the programme. The literary arts in Africa would progress or otherwise in the paradigm of politics and economic choices. Navigation towards retrogression as sources of creativity whether in Nurudin Farah’s Somalia or the moral fragments of Maiduguri could only be shifted to happier centers with better social and economic conditions. And with it, creative sources and consumption.
May Their Shadows Never Shrink and All the Good Things Around Us published by Ayebia Clarke Publishing here in England is what are on offer today.
The motivation for coauthoring the first with Lucy Newlyn, a good friend professor of English Language and Literature and a Fellow of St. Edmund Hall at Oxford was to make the point at least from my perspective which is that, in the history of the Nobel Prize for Literature, no recipient has been as productive in aftermath acknowledgement the way our guest of honour has. Lucy and I we were lead campaigners on his behalf in the Oxford Professorship of Poetry contest in 2015. He later told us that if we wanted to win the election, we should have had some training in Nigeria.
The book reflects our anxieties and alas, our coming to terms with politics of home-grown interest versus internationalism. The other book, a 400 page anthology is a carriage of inter-generational creations- of the past, the present and future of African writing with a generous Foreword by Soyinka.
I would like to thank the contributors who have made it what it is and recognize the presence of some who are here:
- i.Tiziana Morosetti from Italy and a tutor in Africa Theatre Arts at the University of Oxford.
- ii.Ellen Banda-Aaku from Zambia, Macmillan Award winning author and Holder of Zambia’s Arts Council’s Ngoma Award for Literature.
- iii.Yaba Badoe, from Ghana, a novelist and an award winning film-maker.
As we do so, I would also like to mention Dr. Augustus Casely –Hayford, who introduces us to these works; and from a family of long-standing cultural mediators. Over a century ago in 1895, if I may not remind you Otumfuo, his grandfather, the London practicing Gold Coast (now Ghana) lawyer and thinker, J.E. Casely-Hayford, served as a legal advisor to the delegation sent here by your great uncle, King Agyeman Prempeh I. The British had closed in on Asante and declared it a protectorate or the destruction of your eventual inheritance. Though Prempeh would be exiled to the Seychelles as a weakening strategy , it made the elder Casely- Hayford an anti-colonialist who wrote on the customs and cultures of Africa. A grandson follows that long family lineage as an interpreter of Anglo-Saxon psychology not least with the BBC television presentation, The Lost Kingdoms of Africa but is also a jurist of the continent’s Literature.
Whilst here, there is also a matter of a little memoir. If the Imperial Age infringed on the basis of fundamental rights in the colonies, we witnessed an ironic advocacy for their restoration in post-colonial conditions. It was after all, from this Parliament and White Hall that the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson disturbed about the effects of the Biafra Civil War on civil liberties, sent a protest letter in 1969, that is, forty-seven years ago, to the Nigerian leader, Yakubu Gowon. He requested of Gowon nothing less than the release from prison and for the seek of his freedom of expression, Wole Soyinka.
It could be very Orwellian. In India, its Salman Rushdie’s the Empire Writes Back. In Africa, it’s Soyinka’s response to negritude and from the shores of Trinidad, we remember V.S. Naipaul’s, “ The world is what it is.”
Indeed, it is so in the times we live in .The invitation for this event went out with MP Diane Abbott as Shadow Secretary of International Development. The rebellion in the Labour Party changed it to Health. If the markets detest uncertainty it also affects planning. We were not sure what her title would be on the eve of today’s event. That she still peddles her canoe on a long journey of almost 30 years since that historic election of her parliamentary career, is a measure of integrity across the sunset of time. We can only wish her well and our gratitude for hosting this event which she has for a long time wanted to put together with her colleagues.
In Asante, it is said that you cannot thank the King enough. And so we will leave it at not thanking him enough. Nothing however prevents us from doing that with Soyinka. So we thank him both for his master spirit in the present and the guidance of the past.
Indeed, all of us have a connection or reason for being here. At least we were invited and the numbers-a representation of thirty countries make a cosmos.
May it be well with us this afternoon.