In an introductory literature class I had the opportunity of teaching, I asked as a way of testing the students’ knowledge what literature is. Without much effort, they all chorused that literature is the mirror of life. I was expecting a more scholarly response, one that is deep and full and comprehensive. But unfortunately, many times, scholarly is not practical.
In retrospect, I realised how really practical that simple response had been. And how wrong of our society to seek deeper answers to simpler questions. It is indeed wonderful how much creative writers have mirrored the society in their works. How much they have pointed to us our dark spots, our rashes and how much we have ignored them!
Generations after generations have ignored writers to their peril, largely due to the unserious attitude the society has developed towards the writers’ works. People conveniently read literature as a form of entertainment, an easy tool of relaxation but rarely as a reflection of what the society is, and as such its instructional essence is taken for granted.
Earlier this year, Nigeria was rocked by a crisis of faith which opened up quite a number of aged wounds. But how difficult is it to draw a parallel between the Busola Dakolo experience and that of Aderopo in Kunle Afolayan’s October 1st? Just that Aderopo’s experience didn’t seem as real to the people to warrant the kind of national discourse Busola Dakolo generated.
When Achebe’s novel, A Man of The People came out in January 1966, the novel’s conclusion would have drawn a scornful laugh from the political class of the time. It’s the best reaction they can give an ordinary literary work. But it would be too late by the time it dawned on them that the novel was a reflection of societal features they were too blind to see.
The coup really came in and swept them like a roaring tide. All that the timber fellers in Akinwumi Iṣola’s Ṣaworoidẹ mean to a lot of people does not go beyond the plot of the novel/movie. But as the discourse on climate change and the role of deforestation in it gets louder, can we really say we weren’t warned?
It doesn’t require much to see the society in our literature. Why then has the society failed in this simple task? Could it be a misplacement of purpose? A wise saying goes that “when the purpose of a thing is unknown, abuse is inevitable.” This raises another important question about what should be the primary purpose of literature. Is it to entertain, or is it something of a graver import?
To understand this, we may need to extend our focus to other works of art. We may need to ask ourselves, is Architecture’s primary aim to provide shelter or aesthetics? Would we rather have a beautiful house that is less effective in keeping out sunrays? I would say Literature is meant to entertain, but not before it informs and educates. And any study of it should be in that order.
Soyinka’s portrayal of Brother Jero is one of the most entertaining effort at dramatic characterisation, but still in that character we are given a glimpse of the society’s problem in religious matters.
This is not a criticism directed at any part of the society. It is a call for a more serious and purposeful look at our literature (this includes movies and music). There is more information about how we interact with each other, and much about how we can confront our challenges as a society and as individuals. The literary world is open to us, to learn, enjoy and explore.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Kayode Oyeyemi Akinwumi studied Yoruba at Obafemi Awolowo University. A music enthusiast, social observer and music freak. He writes on various interests including social commentary and popular culture.