Isidore Okpewho’s Myth in Africa (1983)

Some more Okpewho for you today…no introduction needed…

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Myth in Africa

Isidore Okpewho

London: Cambridge, 1983


Here, Okpewho takes the opportunity to drive in the point that he concentrated on in the previous work The Epic in Africa (1979), which is that the practices of oral literature are not solely related to religious ritual. He cites well known and respected anthropologist Ruth Finnegan, who has done quite a bit of work in Africa but, according to Okpewho, still gets it wrong. (And I gotta say, I’m starting to have some stray thoughts of possible misogyny in Okpewho’s work. How are there NO WOMEN in this whole book, despite the fact that Harold Scheub’s extremely influential work concentrates HUGELY on women storytellers in South Africa…? Here we have the ONE female scholar cited, and she is swiftly dismissed. Just saying…it’s something to think about…) Anyway, this beginning put a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, because he seems here to be setting Finnegan up as a kind of straw (wo)man. In fact, these words he seems to feed her are not even her words. The statement she makes, which Okpewho finds so objectionable, is actually someone else’s, with whom Finnegan is only tentatively disagreeing.

Why am I mentioning this? Because I think we don’t often enough take the time to really consider the prejudices and the blind spots of our authors. (And by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’…)

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Isidore Okpewho’s The Epic in Africa (1979)

After a fair bit of study during my undergrad and MA (the latter with Harold Scheub who has recently retired), I had almost entirely forgotten the fascinating body of work dedicated to African oral literature.

Oral? Literature? Did I hear you right?

Yes. Yes you did. Because despite not being written down, this rich body of tales, legends, myths, epics, folktales and fables are considered “texts” by those who study them.

Cool thing about oral literature? It has no definitive edition. So it’s like the difference between reading Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenin and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina. (I prefer Garnett, to be totally honest, if for nothing else than the way she translates Russian peasant speech into London cockney.) Except instead of a different word or phrase here and there that leave academics in fisticuffs, vast swaths of the story can change. There are people who spend oodles of their time (like entire academic careers) comparing these different versions of a story. Frankly, that is not my thing. That is far too frustrating. But I do find the questions arising from these different oral texts fascinating.

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Maryse Condé, desire, return

If you’re familiar with Guadeloupian writer  Maryse Condé, you might also be familiar with the striking similarities between the female protagonists in both En attendant le Bonheur (originally published as Heremakhonon, 1976) and Histoire de la femme cannibale (2005). Both Véronica of the former title and Rosélie of the latter travel an uprooted Pan-African non-trajectory, originally beginning in Guadeloupe. Both maintain a complicated relationship to their ‘roots‘ – searching for them while simultaneously rejecting any notion of belonging as being essentializing. And both tend to overemphasize their sexual relationships in the making of important decisions. (Girl, please.)

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And seemingly superficially but perhaps most importantly, both women like to inwardly scoff at people who could not locate Guadeloupe on a map, while also consistently portraying their homeland as a place that wouldn’t really be worth the effort of finding it on a map. Véronica uses the phrase “poussière d’îles” to describe the Caribbean, but it would appear this phrase is not used ironically (even though it references its own irony), and that they are, as DeGaulle claimed, only a little dusting of islands for her. She finally submits that this dust is the only viable “chez moi” she could hope to find. But she’s not happy about it. And neither Véronica nor Rosélie return to Guadeloupe.

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so…should prosper mérimée be considered an abolitionist writer or not?

You’ve probably read Christopher L. Miller’s The French Atlantic Triangle, yes? (No, you are NOT a francophone African/Caribbean literature scholar, you say? You stumbled onto this blog because you heard there’d be cake? There is cake too. There is definitely cake.)


The book is taking me all summer to read. But not in the bad way. In the way that it is getting my full and undivided attention while I’m reading, and I’m only giving it a few hours a week because there are more pressing books at hand. Books I can skim. Books that get about half my brain while the other half is thinking about what to do with the fresh basil and eggplant in my fridge. Books that stand untouched on my desk until I have done the laundry, cleaned the bathroom, organized my closet, found all my missing jewelry, made a pie, rearranged my pictures, and checked email eight times because I don’t want to read them but I know that I have to. (*cough* Heidegger *cough cough*…) Books that I simply have to get through so that I can read other books about them. (It’s a charmed life or something…)

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the local is not the national; the national is not the local


I’ve been reading quite a smart book lately that engages a question running through African literary theory, which could essentially be summed up as “How useful is the nation as the principle structuring concept of the African imaginary?” The nation was the most important structuring concept during the period of independence from colonial powers and the ensuing processes of decolonization. However, there is an argument to be made that geographical demarcations and their political structures do not fully encompass the vastly complex experience of identity formation in the postcolonial world. The counter argument to this cites the overwhelmingly powerful processes of globalization and the influx of Western culture upon Africa – this, of course, would come along with obvious neocolonial elements – and espouses the importance of the nation as a local phenomenon.

In The Pull of Postcolonial Nationhood by Ayo A. Coly (2010) the complex notions of nationhood are specifically explored in the work of female writers who either have lived or are currently living in European countries. Essentially the question becomes: what is the nation when you’re not living in it? There are many things to discuss, and most importantly, Coly addresses the extremely important and extremely overlooked question of how your status in the nation changes depending upon your gender.

While her theory is sound and her ideas are  interesting, I want to take issue with one small point, which is a subtle conflation of “local” and “national” – specifically as it pertains to Fatou Diome.

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