Wole 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.