The Liberian Literary Tradition

12 July 2009 at 12:01 pm (News, Writings) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Guanya Pau Cover“Hi E.G. I was doing a Google search of Liberian comedians and stumbled across your your name and your pieces. Man, you fascinate me. I am a student of literature and it saddens me everytime I search for liberian literature to find virtually nothing or just mediocrity. I am very excited to find that there is a guy with a liberian background doing such work as yours. I really like your self interview with Sha. keep on the good work. Liberia needs and deserves guys like you.”

I recently received this comment on my Wordlife blog/site. Always a good way to start the day, reinforcing your commitment to the passion you are constantly flaming. I struggled with the same thing when I was a student at Notre Dame University. I was an English and Philosophy major, and constantly scoured the mammoth Notre Dame Library for any evidence of Liberia literature. I coursed through countless African literary anthologies. There was a dearth of Nigerian, South African, Senegalese, Kenyan, and numerous others, but never any Liberian writings. We had to suffice with ‘proverbs’ and ‘folk tales’, of which there would be a smattering, and only at the beginning of the anthologies, as though Liberia did not have any contemporary literature. Or they would anthologize Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. I remembered thinking, “Could they really believe, and be saying, that there was no significant literary output in Liberia beyond the folktales that are hundreds of years old.” Granted Liberia as yet to produce a literary giant such as Achebe or Soyinka or Senghor or Césaire, but there must be some, or at least one, literary figure worthy of consideration, especially if you are anthologizing a cross section of African literature, that even if was not comparable to these esteemed figure, could at least stand out in his or her own country. I refused to believe that none existed, or that such a thing as a Liberian literary tradition was not possible. It is not an easy search because most production of literature related to Liberia is literature about Liberia, as opposed to creative work, or work by Liberians themselves. Also because the discussion on Liberia tends to center on its relation, and relationship, to America, and/or the settlement of freed slaves in the country. Later the discussion would shift almost solely to the coup, and subsequently, the civil war that ravished the country.

But Liberian poets, novelists, and essayists, do exist. In 2000, J. Kpanneh Doe wrote, “The writing of novels is rather new to the Liberian literary genre. Except for Murder in the Cassava Patch, a Liberian literary classic, there aren’t many others that can be grouped or classified as Liberian literature, or for that matter, constituting a literary tradition.” This is simply not true, and one can only assume it’s a lack of knowledge,  perhaps access. One should consider Bai T. Moore, the author of Murder in the Cassava Patch, who also anthologized Liberian poetry, published his own collection, wrote novels and short stories, and contributed to the documentation of Liberian folktales. One should also consider, Wilton Sankawulo, Roland Dempster, Edwin Barclay, and a number of other poets, writers and playwrights. Also, Guanya Pau, the first novel written/published by an African, is by Liberian author, Joseph Walters (pictured above). Their work may not be readily available or easy to find; you may read about them more than you will read their work. That does not take away from their contributions. There are contemporary Liberian writers that are beginning to gain some prominence, such as K. Moses Ngabe, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, and most recently Helene Cooper for her memoir, The House on Sugar Beach. If this stretch of literary output from 1891 to present, spreading across the various disciplines, does not constitute a literary tradition, I don’t know what can. Further, how can the first country to produce the first published African novelist be said not to have a literary tradition?

I sometimes wonder if part of my decision to become an artist, was to contribute to the Liberian literary tradition, and show that such can, and does, exist. It might require something akin to an archeological expedition, or one might have to look to the new generation of Liberian artists scattered across the Diaspora, to bring that tradition to prominence. But it is there, and with the proper resources it could be brought to light. Some might question the validity of any contribution I make to Liberian literature, or literary tradition, due to the fact that I left the country at such a young age, and having grown up in a primarily white middle class background. A telling example of this is an experience I with a University of Minnesota student, who I met by chance at a performance of a visiting, I believe, South African troupe. When she learned I was Liberia, she asked how long I had been in the US. I have become accustomed to these kinds of questions because I do not look or sound like your typical Liberian. And I could have almost guessed what was next. When my answer to her was that I had been in America for over twenty years, she replied, ‘So you’re basically American.’ I told her that I am Liberia, have always been Liberian and will be Liberian until I die. As will my children. You can insert African in here as well. This is not to negate my American heritage, because as I always say, I own that too. Therefore, the East and the West, the African and American, are my domain. They are mine to celebrate and to challenge. I finished the conversation telling her, ‘When you’ve been in America for over 20 year, let me know if you’re still Liberian.’

I cannot even begin to consider myself in the company of African scribes that my taught me, inspired me and secured me, from Achebe to p’Bitek, from Kenyatta to Bessie Head, but I hope that I can at least make some modicum of contribution to the literary works of my people, even if it is just the Mano/Gio people of Liberia. Albeit not all my work is about Liberia, but I am not sure that it needs to be in order to be part of the tradition. We are in a new age, part of a new generation, and many of us are transplanted across the global, and depending on the environment in which we live, our themes cannot always be about home. However, our address is still part of the chorus of voices of our people, no matter where they reside, no matter what age and time they occupy, no matter what struggles they face. Responses like one above give me encouragement that I am making even the slightest difference.

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