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Myth, Literature and the African World – Wole Soyinka

14 Feb

MythteriesWole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and one of the foremost living African writers, here analyses the interconnecting worlds of myth, ritual and literature in Africa. The ways in which the African world perceives itself as a cultural entity, and the differences between its essential unity of experience and literary form and the sense of division pervading Western literature, are just some of the issues addressed. The centrality of ritual gives drama a prominent place in Soyinka’s discussion, but he deals in equally illuminating ways with contemporary poetry and fiction. Above all, the fascinating insights in this book serve to highlight the importance of African criticism in addition to the literary and cultural achievements which are the subject of its penetrating analysis.

In my never-ending quest to try to learn about everything, it is disappointing that I hadn’t gotten around sooner to exploring Africa’s undoubtedly rich literary identity.  This analysis – first published in 1976 –  of the themes and variations of the physical and ritual and thematic aspects of literature, proves to be an energetic and acute read.

The focus of the first two chapters is on the mythology of the Yoruba and the divergences of those ideas under the religious values of Christianity, both in Nigeria and also the transplanting of those stories to the new world.   That would have consequently have been further diluted by not only the Catholic church but also local traditions as well.

The differences in culture and mindset are myriad, western ideas and morals placed over myths and stories sometimes supersede the original misunderstood content, ignorance and an unwillingness to understand the world as seen by the locals was always the preferred way of those conquerors.  The differences in styles is highlighted throughout the book as the author takes us a brief tour of how dramas were refined from the original ritual acts.

African plays are fascinating as they tend to keep nature and humans in a symbiotic relationship and are interestingly elastic and sometimes multi directional in terms of how the past present and future influence one another.  it is also fascinating how modern advances, rather than ruin a myth actually get subsumed into it; like Sango/Shango the God of storms who now becomes synonymous with electricity, in this way myth and literature are ever-present in life and not seen as separate from it.

Soyinka goes on to talk about the physical aspects of theatre how different playwrights and cultures interpret the space, how crowds play a part in the communal experiences, often about the titanic struggles of the metaphysical realm and the universal themes of good and evil, religion and the cycle of creation and nature.

Any analysis of drama and plays relies on the context of the society from which the writer comes from and through which we view the story, contextually that is probably the hardest but most liberating part of viewing, to put aside one’s own thoughts on a subject and seek to understand ideas on a level we perhaps find awkward or uncomfortable.  This is an informative book for anybody who wishes to understand the redefining and repositioning of African literature – post colonialism – back to its rich heritage.  Recreating the original culture and feel after many years of damage and changed mindsets is a challenge and also a great excuse to go and pick up some African authors.

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35 Comments

Posted by on 14/02/2016 in Art, Plays

 

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35 responses to “Myth, Literature and the African World – Wole Soyinka

  1. Sarah

    14/02/2016 at 13:51

    This looks really interesting. It puts me in mind of Joseph Campbell’s writings and I’d love to read something similar but from an African perspective. Another one for the TBR list!

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    • Ste J

      14/02/2016 at 13:58

      I came across this randomly in a second bookshop, I was alone but still did the whole lunge like my life depended on it thing so as to get it ‘first’. It does explore in a decent amount of depth – the book only being 170 pages long – the history and main ideas of African ideas, although the depth of non African playwrights is also impressive.

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  2. Letizia

    14/02/2016 at 14:43

    I haven’t read this book yet and feel woefully behind in my exploration of African literature. I’ve read maybe twenty books in total, how crazy is that?

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    • Ste J

      14/02/2016 at 14:49

      That’s a lot more than I’ve read so feel superior (yet another gift this blog sends your way), probably only about five or six that I can recall off hand, although I do have a couple that can be reviewed now you mention it. Not forgetting Mungo Park’s travel diary somewhere that needs to be read as well…so many options, yay!

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Letizia

        14/02/2016 at 16:56

        I bet you’ve read more that you don’t realise, such as Coetzee’s works. I’ve read a few books by Egyptian authors as well as Kenyan authors. But there is so much too read as you say, and hooray for that! Happy Valentine’s Day, my friend, so happy for our loving blogging friendship!

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        • Ste J

          15/02/2016 at 10:04

          It is one of those things I tend not to consider, an author is an author, as long as the book is good I’m happy. I think I will look at my shelves and see what gaps I have, those South American authors seem to take up an inordinate amount of shelf space. I treasure our friendship and also our bookship!

          Liked by 1 person

           
  3. Theanne aka magnoliamoonpie

    14/02/2016 at 15:34

    Well I’m ignorant beyond belief…I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever read a “book” by an African author…I’ve read short stories and articles but a book I don’t believe I ever have. SO I will 🙂

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    • Ste J

      15/02/2016 at 10:00

      I am sure you probably have, you just didn’t think about it at the time. Although it is an excuse to pick up a(nother) book as well, as if you needed the temptation.

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  4. Jeff

    14/02/2016 at 16:28

    Does Soyinka’s analysis of literature include much African literary criticism too? We tend to be very Anglo-American or European here. In Sam Willis’s recent BBC4 programme about the remains of sailors being uncovered in Antigua the leading archaeologist is Caribbean himself, and he talked about the need to understand history as a matter of identity, but in respect of questioning the established narratives handed down from the past. I’m not so sure a European would necessarily make this aspect a priority over, say for example, attending to European historical guilt.

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    • Ste J

      15/02/2016 at 10:22

      Yes, there is an examination of the subtle nature in which authors have attempted to use Islamic or Christian beliefs in their stories despite claiming not to be about them and Soyinka also talks about the leaps made to involve new ideas and the matter of identity as one that has had to evolve through Colonialism. I think it makes a much more interesting study as it does here rather than a European writing which would focus on the bad stuff, rather than the art that came from it. This book is right up your street.

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  5. Jill Weatherholt

    14/02/2016 at 17:36

    I love that your quest is to learn about everything, Ste J. Even better, you’re sharing your knowledge with us. Thanks!

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    • Ste J

      15/02/2016 at 09:57

      It would be impolite to hoard all the knowledge, I am a big reader of trivia on cereal packets as well but tend to leave that as a surprise for people to discover themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  6. Sherri

    16/02/2016 at 16:29

    Your quest to keep learning is inspirational Ste. What I know about African literature is woeful, I admit…

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    • Ste J

      17/02/2016 at 19:13

      I love picking up books with subjects that I hadn’t even thought about before. I shall never stop hunting books out that can not only inspire me but others as well, so little time to review them all sadly.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Sherri

        18/02/2016 at 17:09

        You are doing a great job with the time you utilise…I don’t know how you read so much to be honest!

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        • Ste J

          19/02/2016 at 08:38

          I tend to see most things as unimportant and not needing priority, so after doing what I need to live, it becomes all about he books.

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  7. anna amundsen

    16/02/2016 at 23:08

    I am always in between two desires: to know ‘everything’ about something and to know little something about ‘everything’..
    I prefer the first option but it seems I can’t get away from the other.
    I’ve read much about contemporary African literature, about the authors but I haven’t read any actual book yet.. That’s the way it sometimes goes..

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    • Ste J

      17/02/2016 at 19:37

      I wonder why it is that a lot of extensively read people haven’t picked up much in the way of African writers. I think a lot of book shops focus on Europe and the Americas more, unless an African author wins a prestigious prize that is. I would love to be an expert in one thing but its too difficult to decide so I have no choice but to delve into everything.

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  8. macjam47

    17/02/2016 at 00:59

    Thanks for sharing, Steve. I have not read this, and I honestly can’t remember if I have read anything by an African author.

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    • Ste J

      17/02/2016 at 18:53

      It is eye opening, it makes me think there is a massive gap in my literary adventures…and it just won’t do!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  9. Jessica @ Like Bears to Honey

    17/02/2016 at 22:15

    I am currently reading a book by a Nigerian author for my book club, so I have been thinking a lot about how woefully underread I am with respect to African literature. Did you have a hard time following this book without a lot of background knowledge of African plays, etc? I have a hard time “diving” into books on subjects I feel ill-equipped to understand, but I should probably push myself outside of my reading-comfort-zone more. Thank you for sharing this!

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    • Ste J

      18/02/2016 at 09:40

      It was surprisingly easy to follow, Soyinka explains what each writer was going for and provides examples of their work so you never feel lost at all whilst reading. In fact the only thing you need to know is that colonialism happened and Europeans forced their Christian beliefs onto the populace. Pushing oneself is great, I hope so many political, philosophical and Bronte sister books that I need to have a go at as well as pick up some more African authors of course.

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      • Jessica @ Like Bears to Honey

        18/02/2016 at 16:48

        Okay, that’s good to know! I’ll have to add this book to my list then. I just finished Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko, which I enjoyed. We’ll have to come up with a list of African authors to look into!

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        • Ste J

          19/02/2016 at 20:02

          I have started a list of books that take my fancy already but Yejide Kilanko hasn’t come up yet so I will take a look soonest. There is much for us to enjoy.

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          • Jessica @ Like Bears to Honey

            25/02/2016 at 14:53

            I meant to ask if I could see your list! I’d love to see which books have caught your eye.

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            • Ste J

              26/02/2016 at 10:25

              They are, in no particular order: Things fall Apart – Chinua Achebe, What Lies Between Us – Nayomi Munaweera (as she lived in Africa), Americana – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Children of Gebelawi – Naguib Mahfouz. the list isn’t that extensive yet but when I get the time I will be researching the continent’s literary prowess properly.

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              • Jessica @ Like Bears to Honey

                27/02/2016 at 04:02

                I’ve read Americanah & Things Fall Apart, but I will be adding the rest to my list on Goodreads! I’ll do some research too and will keep you posted!

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                • Ste J

                  27/02/2016 at 10:32

                  Excellent, it is good to swap ideas and see what other great works we may have missed, between us we will get a goof cross section Stethinks.

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  10. Resa

    18/02/2016 at 20:27

    I believe I have not read an African author. This book sounds interesting. I like what you say in terms of modernity not burying the culture ie Shango the God of storms becomes synonymous with electricity.
    I had a quick peek at popular books by African authors. Wow, you (we all) have lots to choose from!

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    • Ste J

      19/02/2016 at 20:31

      It’s really exciting to realise there is such a big gap in my reading to fill, it’s like Christmas come early and so short a time into the new year, this will be one heck of a year for reading my friend.

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  11. Andrea Stephenson

    20/02/2016 at 11:02

    Sounds fascinating Ste, you have a very eclectic reading list.

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    • Ste J

      20/02/2016 at 13:55

      I crave new subjects and styles, it’s addictive. I shall carry on introducing more random books at you in the near future.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  12. shadowoperator

    22/02/2016 at 15:34

    Hi, Ste J. Well, I’m totally clueless about African plays and drama, but I have read some world literary short stories from Africa, and I agree with what you say about the symbiotic relationship being seen as essential between humans and nature. I can also recommend a novel, which I hugely enjoyed, called “Things Fall Apart.” The quote from the title is from a famous Yeats poem, called “The Second Coming.” Anyway, I really enjoyed your post.

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    • Ste J

      23/02/2016 at 19:03

      Things Fall Apart is on my wishlist (as are so many others) and I have a feeling there will be a lot more being added soon. It’s a bit disconcerting to have such a gap in my reading that has been there all the time, something must be done!

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