23 September 2007

Creating Our Own Foundations: The History, Present, and Future of Gambian Literature

by Rosamond S. King, Ph.D.
Adapted from a Presentation at a University of The Gambia Seminar Co-Sponsored by The US Embassy in The Gambia, 23 May 2007, Kanifing
Usually when I tell someone I am researching Gambian literature, their response is – is there any? Unfortunately, even other Gambians are not aware of our novels, poems, and plays. There is indeed Gambian literature, and it includes more than 75 texts published over 200 years! This brief essay, adapted from a talk I gave in May at the University of The Gambia, will share with you some of my research – an overview of the literature’s history and its current trends. In the original talk I also showed clips from some of the more than a dozen interviews I conducted, dvd copies of which are now part of the National Library’s Gambiana collection.
The title of this talk is taken from interviews I conducted with Nana Grey-Johnson and Swaebou Conateh. When I asked Grey-Johnson to describe the state of Gambian literature, he said “We are creating our own foundations.” And Conateh compared writing to constructing buildings – putting words together is, he said, like building blocks. I think the phrase “creating our own foundations” also works as a metaphor for our literature – The Gambia is seen as having very little that does not come from abroad or is not overwhelmingly influenced by foreigners. But Gambian literature was and is, by definition, created by Gambians. Gambians themselves have built the foundations for present and future writers. I hope my research in some way also contributes to these foundations.
My research focuses on published Gambian literature written in English for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the majority of written (as opposed to oral) Gambian literature is in English, and English is the country’s chosen official language and medium of educational instruction. I strongly encourage criticism of the small but growing numbers of written texts in other Gambian languages. Gambian orature, the rich oral traditions which include poetry, stories, praisesongs, and riddles, can be linked to literature, but it is a genre unto itself and deserves separate analysis. I also want to say a word about the term literature – Gambians tend to think of literature as any kind of writing published in book form. My work, though, focuses on creative writing, that is poetry, fiction, and plays.
The very first published Gambian author was Phillis Wheatley, a young girl captured in the Senegambian region and taken to what is now the USA as a slave, who later became both educated and a celebrated poet. Scholars have written a lot about her poetry and life, and she is also claimed by Senegalese and African Americans in the USA, but Gambians claim her largely because of her reference to the Gambia River in her poem “Phillis’ Reply to the answer”.
More than 100 years later, and after The Gambia came into existence as an independent nation-state, the first contemporary creative works by Gambians were published. In 1960 the Heinemann African Writers Series (AWS) published William Conton’s The African; in 1965 and 67 the same publisher released Gambian Lenrie Peters’ novel The Second Round and his poetry collection Satellites. Also in 1967 The Philosophical Library published Augusta Mahoney’s play The Rebellion. (A number of people do not count Conton’s books as Gambian because he was born here but raised in Sierra Leone, where the book is set. Some do not consider Peters’ novel The Second Round to be Gambian either because it is also set in Sierra Leone.) These three early Gambian texts share notable similarities. All concern Africans who travel abroad to be educated, and who return home. Also, all were published abroad within a few years of The Gambia’s 1965 independence. As with many Anglophone former colonies, this initial burst of publication (which was also accompanied by an increase in popular theatre) can be linked both to a drive to create a national culture for the “new” nation, and to the creation of the Heinemann AWS. The location of their publishers meant that these writers immediately were exposed to a readership beyond The Gambia. But it also meant that in their native land the books were difficult to obtain and expensive when they were available. Interestingly, although it was not published by the specialist and prestigious AWS, Mahoney’s play had the greatest African and Gambian audience of those early texts – because it was performed within the country and in Senegal at the famous Black Arts conference.
Reflecting their times, all three texts also engage the themes of national and personal independence, as well as how the two are related or conflict. Not surprisingly, Mahoney’s Rebellion also addresses women’s independence. Though only a few books by Gambians were published in the 1960s, those produced provide an important and engaging testament to their time.
Propelled by the excitement and momentum of an independent Gambia and its first contemporary literary works, in the 1970s a group of authors formed the Gambian Writers Club, whose main purpose was to publish Ndaanan. The effort was named after a Wolof word for “accomplished griot.” While only seven issues in five volumes appeared over six years, Ndaanan continues to be very important because it was The Gambia’s only professional literary journal.
The themes addressed were numerous. In the 183 pieces published in Ndaanan, topics ranged from the universal love, moon, and motherhood, to Black nationalism, to more specifically Gambian (or West African) subjects such as jali, Fula traditions, weaver birds, and popular local folktales.
Recent Gambian Writing
You could say that Gambian literature ended the 20th century with a big bang because of the relatively large number of texts being published, and because of the type of literature being produced. In these twenty years more than a dozen books were released by Gambians, in The Gambia and elsewhere in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the USA.
This generation of writers are more likely to write poetry and plays, more likely to be women, and are almost exclusively self-published. They include Baaba Sillah, Baba Galleh Jallow, Ramatoulie Othman, Ebou Gaye, and Fodeh Baldeh. This most recent generation is also more likely to openly criticize the government than earlier writers and to address controversial political issues (e.g. sex tourism and female circumcision in books such as Costly Prices, The Sun Will Soon Shine, and Dying for My Daughter).
If the first decades of Gambian writing are a source of controversy regarding the “Gambianness” of the content or the writers’ biography, these concerns are no longer relevant. The texts printed or published in the 1980s and 90s were largely by writers born, raised, and living (with the exception of Sillah and Sallah) in The Gambia, and whose works typically include Gambian details in their language, setting, and plot.
This detail is all the more interesting because several recent Gambian books became very popular outside of The Gambia. Mahoney, Peters, and Conton were published in England and the USA in the 1960s, and enjoyed some readership abroad. But in the 80s and 90s, Ebou Dibba, as well as Sheriff Samsideen Sarr and Sally Singateh, were published and widely read in Africa. In particular, Dibba’s Alhaji, Sarr’s Meet Me in Conakry, and Singateh’s Christie’s Crisis all remain in print and sell large numbers of copies in Western and Eastern Africa.
A number of factors account for this shift in readership. Both African and non-African publishers have increasingly recognized the large reading markets of countries such as Nigeria and Kenya (who alone contain millions of literate people). The short, fast-paced young adult novels Alhaji, Meet Me, Christie’s) are perennially popular with teenagers, even though they are not Dibba or Singateh’s best books. (I should note that you can get these books, and most of the others I am mentioning, here at the National Library.)
We are only seven years into the 21st century, but it seems the trends of the last 20 years are continuing. The majority of Gambian literature is now self-published, including first books by promising authors Mariama Kahn, Baaba Sillah, and Baba Galleh Jallow. There are two major exceptions. The first is the reissuing of Nana Grey-Johnson’s The Magic Calabash by MacMillan Publishers in 2004, which means that his novel will have a new and broader life in African classrooms. The second exception is Reading the Ceiling, Gambian Dayo Forster’s first novel, published in 2007 by Simon and Schuster in London. Over the last 200 years, Gambians have published serious literary poetry and fiction, young adult novels, light or “popular” literature, and a small amount of critical work (mostly by Hassoum Ceesay, Cherno Omar Barry and Pierre Gomez, both professors at UTG). So we cannot deny that by the beginning of the 21st century, a Gambian literature does exist and is continuing to develop – even if most Gambians and others remain unaware of its existence.
That is a very brief description of the history of Gambian literature. I want to begin discussing some of the important issues relevant to Gambian literature by letting the authors themselves speak via the interviews I conducted.
One issue raised by several authors is that of language – and some of you may know this is an issue many African countries argue about. All of the writers agree that, in general, the English used by Gambians and in Gambian literature could be better. Fodeh Baldeh argues that Gambians should not be expected to write English well because most of us do not live in English, but only use it at school and work. He says that Gambian schools should teach Jola, Mandinka, Wolof, etc., and that these are the languages Gambian literature should be written in. Nana Grey-Johnson agrees that most Gambians do not live in English. But he argues that The Gambia has chosen English as its national language, and that it is a “universal tool” that can help the individual and the nation. He says we need to “fall in love” with English – and his argument implies that English should be taught better in schools, and that Gambians’ general attitude towards the language should be improved. What do you think?
Another major issue raised is the role of the writer and of literature in society. All of the writers I have interviewed believe that the writer has a responsibility to Gambian society to produce literature that is educational and positive. Where they differ is in whether the writer’s responsibility to society is greater or lesser than the responsibility to themselves, to their own vision. Some believe that literature has such a potentially large impact that the greater responsibility is to the society. One author specifically argued against “first amendment” writers who would put freedom of individual speech ahead of responsibility to community. But another argued that if the writer’s first responsibility is not to her or himself, then what is produced is not really literature from the author’s mind, but is instead the copying of other people’s beliefs. Again, I am interested in what you think.
Those are a few of the issues being discussed in terms of Gambian literature’s “present,” or Gambian literature now. But what about the literature’s future?
When I asked Gambian writers what Gambian literature needs, several ideas were repeated. A publishing house or cooperative to get manuscripts into book form, and to edit and proofread the writing. More Gambian literature in the schools. A national theatre to produce Gambian plays – and more Gambian content on local radio and television, including GRTS. More contests and prizes to encourage young Gambian writers – and perhaps another journal.
And I am going to add to this list more criticism of Gambian literature – to which I hope more Gambians will contribute. Criticism is important because it provides context for literature – in relationship to history, society, and politics, and in relationship to other literatures in Africa or around the world, Criticism can also help build the readership of Gambian literature at home (through reviews in newspapers, for instance) and abroad (through conferences and articles).
But what Gambian literature needs most to continue growing is for more Gambians to write! I want to end with some of our esteemed writers offering advice for people who want to write, or are secretly writing. Several writers eloquently discussed the importance of Gambians telling our own stories. o I end with that encouragement from the present generation of Gambian writers and critics to the next generation. For us to together continue building on the foundations of Gambian literature.
Rosamond S.King, Ph.D., a Gambian, is a scholar of international arts and culture, as well as a writer and performer. Her essays and articles on visual art, dance, and literature have appeared in numerous magazines and journals.

In this interview, she speaks with the authority and self-assurance of somebody who knows Gambian literature inside out. This is hardly surprising because she is a Fulbright scholar who has done extensive research on Gambian literature. She stands out as one of the leading voices on Gambian literary criticism and is one of the forces behind the SABLE LitFest that will start on Friday, 13 July 2007.

What’s Gambian literature?

Gambian literature is the literature that’s produced by Gambians and some of it could also be literature that’s produced by people who live in the Gambia but may not be from here. What most people don’t know is that Gambian literature is actually hundreds of years old. It began with Philis Wheatley who was a woman born in the Senegambian region, taken to the United States as a slave and became the first African-American published poet in the US. A lot of people in the US know her history but a lot of people in the Gambia don’t know her history. She’s one of the first Gambian writers. And then of course we have the contemporary writers: Lenrie Peters, Nana Grey-Johnson, Sally Singhateh, etc. We have a number of living authors who are part of our cultural heritage now.

Can we say then that Alex Haley’s Roots is Gambian literature?

I’ll say that Roots is a book that people who are interested in the Gambia should read but I won’t include it as Gambian literature because its focus is not Gambian – that’s, it’s not written by a Gambian, and its focus is not Gambian. Part of it, in the beginning, talks about the Gambia but its focus was really to write an epic novel that focuses more on the African-American experience in the US. I think for people who are interested in that time period, it would be very useful to read Nana Grey-Johnson’s novel I of Ebony, which tells some of the same story but tells the story of people who actually didn’t leave the continent.

Why haven’t Gambians made their mark in the literary world yet? In Kenya, there is Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, there are Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, and there are Sembene Ousmane and Mariama Ba from Senegal. What do you think is responsible for this?

I think there are a few reasons. One, we don’t have the arts integrated into the school system in the way, for instance, Senegal has. Senegal has a school for the arts. Unfortunately, we don’t have that here. I think if we have more teaching of the arts in the schools, more encouraging of writing in the schools as well as places where people can go to focus on developing their own craft that will help. The other thing, of course, that’s a problem for us is that we don’t have a publisher here in the Gambia. Macmillan focuses on educational literature, children’s literature. But in terms of literature for adults – novels, poetry – we don’t have any publisher. As a result, people often have to pay for their own publishing. And then of course that makes it very difficult if people have to pay to get published. One of the things that the SABLE Literary Festival coming here will help do is that people will be able to have contact with other writers from other countries. And there’s actually a session where people can discuss with them the logistics of being a writer – how do you become published? How do you approach a publisher? Because we may not get a literary publisher here in the Gambia but that doesn’t mean that we can’t send our manuscripts to publishers outside.

What do think should be done to encourage Gambian publishers like Fodeh Baldeh of Fulladu Publishing to put Gambian literature in the limelight?

Fodeh Baldeh is publishing Gambian writers. I believe he has come out with two books since he’s been back in the country. His publishing house is still subsidised by the writer. So, the writer funds the publisher. It’s still similar to self-publishing; it still requires some income from the part of the author. But I think the encouragement comes from a number of different levels. We need people who want to read literature, so we need to encourage more young people to read literature; we need to have more Gambian literature in the schools; we need to have literary events, festivals, contacts. And we need to have the support of all of the different sectors of society to promote not just literature but reading, because reading is really the root of writing. Every writer that I have spoken to and asked, “Why do you write?” They say, “Oh I was inspired when I was young: I read this, I read that. I was very encouraged by Achebe. I wanted to tell the Gambian story. We want to encourage those people to get their works out as much as they can.

Who’s the greatest Gambian writer?

You’re asking me a difficult question. I won’t single out one person and I’ll tell you why. All of these writers are telling different stories. And we need all of these stories. There is no one person who can tell the one Gambian story. The Gambia is a small country, but we have many, many stories. We have different kinds of people who live here; people have different kinds of experiences. Even individual artists tell different stories. Nana Grey-Johnson’s I Of Ebony tells a story from the 19th century Gambia, but the Magic Calabash is telling a story of contemporary Gambia. Sally Singhateh’s The Sun Will Soon Shine tells a story of contemporary Gambia. All of these voices are important because they are all telling different stories. What I would love is that more than one person can represent Gambian literature and the Gambia. The African Writers Series was a wonderful idea but unfortunately it’s now out of print. What happened was that you had one person from each country who got published and who was put forward. But now we can say, ‘You know what, we have more than more.’ We have Lenrie Peters and we love Lenrie Peters, but we have these other ones as well.

What should be the focus of Gambian literature at this point in time?

I think Gambian writers must look inside themselves as well as around themselves to write the stories they feel need to be told. I think many stories need to be told. And the fact is that we cannot mandate a story to be told. If anyone says that we must write about F,W,Z, yeah, a writer can do that but if they are not attached to the story, the story won’t be interesting, the story won’t be told well. And we won’t want to read the story. The stories that are best told are the ones really close to the heart of the writer. I interviewed over a dozen of the Gambian writers, and they all told me that they were writing for their community. But it also has to be a story they want to tell. So it’s a combination of the desire to tell your story and to tell the story that reflects your community. And then you have the issue of gender that comes up. You have Sally Singhateh and Ramatoulie Othman who writes about the issue of bumsters, a very contemporary issue. Something that people talk about all the time; and this is the first time we are seeing it in the literature. I think there are a number of issues that are both reflected in society and in the literature, because the Gambian writers belong to the society and they are responding to what is going on around them.
Dr Rosamond S. King
The Point
BIBLIOGRAPHY click on Long Island University

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