Sometime ago, I asked a friend if he knew Chimamanda Adichie. His response gutted my being. For context, he is a student at the Kabarak University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business. He said he had never heard of such a name. It is as simple as he has no knowledge of her and has not read her.
I traded other names of African literature writers and he hardly knew any. I was disappointed in my friend as I realised that his knowledge of literature is limited to a few authors who were introduced to him courtesy of the secondary school education English curriculum. I found this worrying. As a result, I called him a failure, and he, of course, protested furiously of my assertion and sought to exonerate himself of my judgement. At the time, my reference to him as a failure was rather loaded as a matter of deductive logic because as the conversation with him progressed, I felt i was justified in my statement. In retrospect, my response could have been better.
How does a university student regardless of their specialty, not know the author of Half of a Yellow Sun, Americannah and Purple Hibiscus? How serious should we take such a student? Not to be judgmental but using this as a benchmark, we are drawn to a reality that is the disregard for art, soft power machinations, books and consequently, reading. This is especially true given the wide berth given to humanity at many tertiary institutions in Africa. That is a whole debate altogether which cannot be prosecuted now.
My friend had argued that he was not a literature student — which happens to be my major but also doubles as my area of interest — and that his course of study, something along the lines of accounting, does not require him to read my kind of literature.
Personally, I believe that this kind of disciplinary essentialism and fundamentalism is aiding a culture of laziness. Reading is not only for literature students. Reading is a duty we must fulfill in an attempt to deal a blow to ignorance, and this goes beyond academic preoccupations to reading for other purposes.
Let us turn to the reality of the work of literary awareness. This is the active initiative of trying to raise a consciousness of creative and imaginative artistic influences and visions as found in books. The aim is to ensure that we have a society that is predicated upon knowledge and information and individuals who are intellectually furnished.
Literary awareness is a venture that seeks to raise the level of appreciation of literature in our society. It involves various activities ranging from literal activism, book clubs, spelling bees, literary trivia and other activities which would be superfluous to mention. Literary awareness is awareness like any other form of awareness.
Literary awareness is not only good for an individual but for the society. On the individual level, it contributes to self actualization postulated in the musings of Maslow in his theory of needs and their hierarchies. In principle, this is of benefit to the society by way of association, as society is made up of individuals.
For those of us in tertiary institutions, societies creme de la creme, this is important as these institutions are whetstones of enlightenment and infrastructural spaces in the pursuit of communal life and truth. Literary awareness means using information and knowledge preserved creatively in books, in different storytelling format, to understand our histories and identities.
Value creating education
Beyond primary and secondary school education, we need to lay emphasis on developing a reading culture at the tertiary institutions. A reading culture that isn’t limited to students key modules. This is important because reading opens up a person’s view of the world, enables one to situate his or herself in other cultures and identify with the characters through pity, sympathy and empathy.
Reading also eliminates thought barrenness and opens up new possibilities in a world where information has been very democratised. This means we are able to review our understanding of phenomena and learn things while unlearning what we already know. The idea and notion of critical thinking and thought is conditioned by reading, and not just subsistence reading but critical reading.
Personally, I buy the idea of subject autonomy but I also acknowledge that one way or another, all disciplines are interlinked. Thus, by reading a literary text you interact with characters which are experiencing life right from economics (business/economics), politics (political science), religion (religious studies) and stress (psychology). This shows how ignorance of literature on the basis of disciplinary praxis, is misguided and misinformed and ultimately fatal.
Literarise our minds
Literary works stimulate humanistic beliefs and values in the consciousness of the people. This is highlighted by Godwin Siundu — a teacher of literature at the University of Nairobi — who in his attempt of exploring the stem vs humanities debate, paraphrased Obi Wali, a Nigerian critic, by stating, “no country in human history had risen to greatness without the contribution of its writers who, collectively, create national narratives that instil national pride and a sense of belonging to their compatriots.”
Reading with a critical attitude means that you engage your mind while reading. This is not for a literary critic alone. Books are not written to be judged by academics, literary critics and activists. They are meant for all and sundry. Critics and reviewers generally provide for understanding of the texts as they presume, giving their interpretation and appreciation of a literal text. Therefore, it only makes sense to engage a book with a critical attitude as there is always a different message in a book for different readers.
It’s dangerous to limit one’s reading to a particular genre. Books are situated within infinite possibilities of what is and what can be, and offers a minuscule understanding of the world by authors whose thematic preoccupations are the reality of our lives.
Limitation to career texts a travesty to thinking. Read, just read everything. Geography for orienting ourselves with physical features and spatial realities, self help books for disambiguating personal life predicaments, religious texts for spiritual nourishment and development. The point is that any literature, as in all that is literalized, is important and not to be dismissed.
Publishing ventures need to embrace and pursue literary merit. As gatekeepers, they should endeavour to stretch imagination rather than confining it. The canonized way of looking at literature needs a shift from the traditional publishing schematic. The whole process needs to embrace literature as in the contemporary dispensation. This for example will stimulate literary production and thought. This will have the domino effect of redirecting the public mind and public life narratives to embrace literature and birth literary interest.
The education system, institutional frameworks and cultures need to shift their lenses. In Kenya for example, Tom Odhiambo — who teaches literature at the University of Nairobi — decries the fact that literary quality is sacrificed at the altar of procurement. He goes ahead to suggest reasons why we should take literature more seriously, noting in particular, that what’s needed is a literary balanced diet.
This interest needs to be nurtured by schools as well. Children need to be introduced to stories and books from their formative stages. Research has shown that formative age texts are very essential in the development of individuals. It ingrains in them a culture of reading whilst improving their intrinsic abilities, capacities and skills.
Familiarity with authors is important for they are a critical mass with a wealth of knowledge on our cultures. Their commentary on our cultures is part of the archive within which we can locate our identities, histories and try to eavesdrop on the future. They also reflect our lives and provide a means through which we can view our experiences by immersing ourselves in other characters. As Charles Buskowsi said, life without literature is like hell.
Bindra, S. (2021, September 04). Knowing just when to persist and when to desist: A book lover’s tale . Retrieved from https://nation.africa/kenya/blogs-opinion/opinion/knowing-just-when-to-persist-and-when-to-desist-a-book-lover-s-tale–3537936
McLeod, S. A. (2020, March 20). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org
Moss, Joy F. “Literary Awareness: A Basis for Composition.” Language Arts, vol. 55, no. 7, 1978, pp. 832–836. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41405413. Accessed 5 Sept. 2021.
Odhiambo, Tom. “We’ve Got to Take Literature More Seriously than We Do.” Kenya, 11 June 2021, nation.africa/kenya/life-and-style/weekend/we-ve-got-to-take-literature-more-seriously-than-we-do-3433868.
ABOUT WRITER: Wambua Muindi is a life and literature enthusiast. A recent graduate of literature and political science at the University of Nairobi. He is an editor, published poet, writer(non-fiction) on my wordpress blog, digital kamba cultural archivist and literary activist. His poems have appeared in Poetic Africa and Writers Space Africa Magazine. Currently, he is engaged as an Editor at Writers Space Kenya, an offshoot of Writers Space Africa and Publisher and a Senior Editor at Africa in Dialogue, an online interview magazine.
Wambua Participated in Crater’s 2021 Remote Internship for Writers.