Skip to main content

Review of The Languages and Literatures of Africa


By James Gibbs

The Languages and Literatures of Africa. Alain Ricard. James Currey, Oxford, 2004. 230pp. 0-85255-581-4 (pb); 0-85255-582-2 (cloth) £15.95.

In 1968, Janheinz Jahn offered students of African writing a book subtitled ‘A History of Black Writing’, thirteen years later Albert Gérard produced African Language Literature, and now Alain Ricard has taken as his subject a similarly gigantic topic, nothing more nor less than The Languages and Literatures of Africa. This is an impossibly broad subject for one man and 230 pages, but Ricard comes to it with an impressively varied list of achievements. He has written extensively on Nigerian literature, African theatre, Wole Soyinka, Felix Couchoro and Ebrahim Hussein. With Janos Riesz, he edited a book on Togolese writing and a substantial festschrift for Gérard. Who else? As if this were not enough, he has made films about the Happy Stars Concert Party in Togo and Soyinka, and the byline for his Preface, ‘Kigali-Nairobi’, hints at extensive travel and varied residence in Africa. All this indicates that Ricard brings to the task of writing The Languages and Literatures of Africa a wide range of experiences in Francophone and Anglophone Africa, and in the study of different genres from Lomé to Zanzibar. The result is a book that is always stimulating and often provocative, that is informative, theoretically aware, and researched with passion. A ‘lover of parallelisms’ (157), Ricard has an infectious commitment to making links and connections. Inevitably, I will have a few bones to pick with him, but I niggle about absences and issues of translation in the shadow of a major achievement, recognizing not only the scope of his work but also the élan with which he moves between languages and across the continent.

This volume, a joint publication involving publishers on three continents, is the English version of an ‘original edition’, Littératures d’Afrique noir, which appeared in 1995. Ricard recognized that much had happened since he submitted the text for that book and made interventions. However, the up-dating was not thorough-going. For example, the comments on Marita and Guanya Pau (183) are cursory, and the use of ‘recently’ is sometimes inappropriate. It gives the impression that this new-born book (d.o.b. 2004) came into the world aged about 10.

In Ricard’s bibliography and index, readers will look in vain for works (old or new) by Kobina Sekyi, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ola Rotimi, and Efua Sutherland. Given the attention paid to the consideration of African heritage in Chapter 1 ‘On Concepts and Misconceptions’, and to orality and the stage in Chapter 8 ‘Inventing Theatre’, these absences are damaging. The reference to Sutherland alerts one to the ‘regiment’ of African women writers and the extent to which consideration of their work is neglected here. Werewere Liking, Nadine Gordimer and Ama Ata Aidoo just get in; Mabel Dove, Zulu Sofola and Mariama Ba are among those who don’t. On a related issue, it is surprising that Ricard summarises Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah at some length without giving weight to the extensive rethinking of the roles of women that it embodies.

The volume is translated by Naomi Morgan. While she has produced a text that is generally pleasant on the ear, there are points at which further ‘translation’ is needed and these should not be allowed to pass unnoticed. Sometimes the English words employed carry misleading associations, and hint at the possibility that Morgan’s linguistic skills are not matched with relevant social, geographical or cultural awareness. For example, ‘coach station’ is used when I suspect the widely used term would be ‘lorry park’ (172, 188), and one encounters ‘chauffeur’ with all its implications when one might expect ‘driver’ (202). For ‘Akwapem country’ (87), I would suggest the form ‘Akropong-Akuapem’, and, more seriously, ‘the former Sudan’ should have been ‘the former Soudan’ (26). I was taken aback that Ricard allowed the actors taking the roles of women in West African travelling theatre companies to be described as ‘transvestites’ (168/9, 179). The term ‘female impersonator’ is appropriate, and indeed has become established in important ‘recent’ studies, some not listed in the bibliography though, I’m sure, familiar to Ricard.

Ricard writes: ‘Our goal has been to write a comprehensive history where the problematic of exchange and dialogue was not systematically repressed or even suppressed.’ (118) The veteran observer scores highly on many counts with an ambitious book that deserves to take its place beside those by Jahn and Gérard referred to above. However, it should be read with an awareness that it is not a ‘comprehensive history’, and that, as illustrated by the translation ‘problems’, issues of ‘exchange and dialogue’ persist.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 67 (2005), pp. 86-88]

Article keywords:

Article Categories: