For Biyi Bandele Thomas, other literary exiles into great beyond
Biyi Bandele

Adebayo Obajemu

The past one decade has been a mixed grill for lovers of literature and the arts on the African continent.

It has been a period that has witnessed a flowering of new talents, but also tragically a decade that has seen the passing on of giants of our culture and literature, icons that have made Africa proud .

Each of the departed literary greats in the last one decade has enriched through their writings our literary heritage, and contributed in their own way towards building African literary culture as we know it today.

Their passing though painful, but we are consoled by the fact that they have entered the pantheon of immortality.

And as Famished Road writer, Ben Okri writes: “The real literature of a people begins with the passing of writers into the realm of ancestors. Literature begins with the dead.”

Biyi Bandele Thomas belongs in the generation of writers following Ben Okri’s, the emergent writers of the 90’s who began to bloom and flowered enriching our literary repertoire.

Bandele cut his novelistic and dramatic teeth at the then University of Ife, where he had the privilege of being coached by avant-garde such as Biodun Jeyifo and others, and in 1989 he won the prestigious BBC writing competition.

He had forged an affinity and lifelong attraction to the theatre working with the Royal Court Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, in addition to writing radio drama and screenplays for television. Among his rich repertoire are: Rain; Marching for Fausa (1993); Resurrections in the Season of the Longest Drought (1994); Two Horsemen (1994), which had the honour of a selection as Best New Play at the 1994 London New Plays Festival; Death Catches the Hunter and Me and the Boys (published in one volume, 1995); and Oroonoko, an adaptation of Aphra Behn’s 17th-century novel of the same name.

In 1997, Bandele undertook an an ambitious project which turned out a success, the highly acclaimed dramatization of Chinua Achebe’s classic, Things Fall Apart. Brixton Stories, Bandele’s stage adaptation of his own novel The Street (1999), premiered in 2001 and was published in one volume with his play Happy Birthday Mister Deka, which premiered in 1999. He also adapted Lorca’s Yerma in 2001.

He was a writer-in-residence with Talawa Theatre Company from 1994 to 1995, resident dramatist with the Royal National Theatre Studio (1996), the Judith E. Wilson Fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, in 2000–01.

He also acted as Royal Literary Fund Resident Playwright at the Bush Theatre from 2002 to 2003.

Talking about influences in one of his interviews, he mentioned the impact of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger on him.

Among his prose endeavors are: The Man Who Came in from the Back of Beyond (1991) and The Street (1999), which have been described as “rewarding reading, capable of wild surrealism and wit as well as political engagement.”.His 2007 novel, Burma Boy, reviewed in The Independent by Tony Gould, was called “a fine achievement” and lauded for providing a voice for previously unheard Africans.

His directorial debut film, Half of a Yellow Sun – based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – was screened in the Special Presentation section at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and received a “rapturous reception”. His passing is yet another sad blow to African writing.
But then, in the last one decade, the continent has tragically travelled the tortuous road of loss and despair.

Ferdinand Oyono started the round of losses in 2010 when he died . The popular author of House Boy was one of Cameroon’s greatest diplomats. He once served as the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Culture. His first novel, Une vie de boy was published in 1956 and translated as Houseboy by John Reed for the Heinemann African Writers Series in 1966.
2010.

Lewis Nkosi was a great South African author whose works were under censor and total ban under South Africa’s Suppression of Communism Act. He was the first black South African to receive Harvard’s Nieman Fellowship and spent 30 years in exile abroad. His novel Mating Birds (1983), which examines an interracial affair, is perhaps his most notable work. His Home and Exile is an influential work.His most popular play The Rythm of Violence is a powerful indictment of the evil of apartheid. He died in 2010.

In 2011, the African writing lost Kenyan writer,Margaret Ogola, whose first novel, The River and the Source, won The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, Africa region, in 1995. Get this: she was also a pediatrician and the medical director of a hospice for HIV and AIDS orphans! Google honored her with a Google Doodle on her 60th birthday.

Does Chinua Achebe really need an introduction? No! The doyen of African literature departed this planet earth in 2013 to commune with the ancestors. He will be remembered for a number of earth-shaking works like Things Fall Apart, Arrows of God and others. Arguably the most famous African author.

In 2014 we lost Kofi Awoonor to the madness of terror when he was tragically killed in the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya.

He was a Ghanian poet, novelist, and scholar whose works include translations of Ewe dirge singers. He was imprisoned in 1975 on the suspicion of being involved in a coup, but released in 1976. He served as Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil and Cuba. He was one of Africa’s greatest poets and dramatists.

Mbulelo Mzamane was a South African author, poet, and academic who, like many anti-apartheid activists, spent a fair amount of time in exile. Among his awards are the African Literature Association’s Lifetime Award and the Mofolo-Plomer Prize for Literature. Nelson Mandela called him a “visionary leader and one of South Africa’s greatest intellectuals.” He died in 2014.

Nadine Gordimer was a white South African writer who won Nobel Literature Prize. Like most writers critical of apartheid, her works were also once banned by the South African government. In interviews, she admitted that she never intended to be a writer whose works are considered political, but she came to realize that South African society didn’t allow for apolitical writing.

Chris van Wyk , a South African novelist, poet, and children’s books author died in 2014. He’s most widely known for his poem “In Detention,” a poem which satirizes the bizarre reasons provided by the apartheid government for the deaths of political prisoners. His poetry collection It’s Time to Go Home (1979) won the Olive Schreiner Prize.

In 2015, André Brink, the South African author also died .He began writing in Afrikaans but turned to English when his works became censored by the South African government. He was part of Die Sestigers (“the Sixtyers”), a literary group that aimed to revolutionize Afrikaans literature. His novel A Dry White Season (1979) was adapted into a film starring Marlon Brando.

Also died in 2015 was Grace Ogot , a Kenyan author who was a nurse by profession and who later became a member of Kenya’s National Assembly. She was the first woman whose fiction was published by the East African Publishing House and her numerous short stories offer insight into traditional Luo life and its conflict with colonialism and modernity.

Chenjerai Hove was a Zimbabwean novelist, poet, and essayist whose works shone light on the lives of his fellow citizens under colonialism and Robert Mugabe’s rule. Surveilled and harassed under Mugabe’s rule, Hove left Zimbabwe for exile in Norway in 2001, where he remained until his death in 2015.

Elechi Amadi was a Nigerian playwright and novelist renowned for his historical trilogy about traditional life in the villages: The Concubine (1966), The Great Ponds (1969), and The Slave (1978). His only nonfiction work, Sunset in Biafra (1973), recounts his experiences as a soldier and civilian during the Biafran War.He joined his ancestors in 2016.

Isidore Okpewho was a Nigerian author and critic whose works won him the 1976 African Arts Prize for Literature and the 1993 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Africa Region). His scholarly work on African oral literature garnered him, among others, a Guggenheim Fellowship. Tragically we lost him in 2016.

Peter Abrahams was a South African journalist and author whose writings addressed the intricacies of racial politics and the injustices of apartheid. In the introduction to his memoir, The Black Experience in the 20th Century: An Autobiography and Meditation (2001), Nadine Gordimer declared him “a writer of the world, who opened up in his natal country, South Africa, a path of exploration for us, the writers who have followed the trail he bravely blazed.” This pioneering writer who authored the famous Mine Boy died in
2017.

Buchi Emecheta really needs no introduction. She is one of Africa’s most popular female writers. She wrote The Slave Girl and the Joy of Motherhood among others. She died in 2019.

Miriam Tlali was the first black South African woman to publish a novel in English in South Africa itself in 1975. Originally titled Muriel at Metropolitan and reissued in 2004 under the title Between Two Worlds, the novel depicts daily life under apartheid, particularly how it hinders black women’s employment opportunities. For her writing, Tlali was persecuted by the apartheid government and brutally beaten at her home in Soweto several times, but she bravely refused exile. Her death was a big loss to African writing.

Abiola Irele was a Nigerian scholar perhaps best known for his work on the concept of Négritude. His books include The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (1990) and The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora (2011). Upon his death, Wole Soyinka wrote a poem titled “Olohun-Iyo” as a tribute to him. He was widely considered the doyen of African literary criticism, and his influence on African writing is often compared to that of Northrop Frye in European literature. Tragically we lost him in 2017.

Between 2010 and Bandele’s death in 2022, there are other eminent writers that left us for the great beyond.

Keorapetse Kgositsile was a South African poet and essayist whose writing explored the idea of Pan-African liberation. His verse distinctively combines South African and Black American structural and rhetorical traditions. He was named South Africa’s poet laureate in 2006. 2018.

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik was one of the few Egyptian authors to publish extensively in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. A doctor by profession, Tawfik once said that “[his] English was not good enough to read horror literature, so [he] started writing it [himself].” He has published over 100 books. He died in 2018.

David Rubadiri who died in 2018 was a widely-anthologized poet and diplomat who served as Malawi’s first ambassador to the US and the UN. He left government service in 1965 following disagreements with then-president Hastings Banda and subsequently taught at Makerere University, the University of Nairobi, and the University of Ibadan.

Seydou Badian Kouyaté was a Malian politician and writer who composed the lyrics for Mali’s national anthem. He won the 1965 Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire for his book, Les dirigeants africains face à leur peuple. He was exiled to Senegal following the 1968 coup. He left the world in 2018.

Charles Mungoshi was a Zimbabwean author who wrote novels and
short stories about colonial and post-colonial struggles in both Shona and English. His works have won him the Noma Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and International PEN Awards. He also left in 2019.

Pius Adesanmi was a Nigerian scholar and columnist whose satirical writings for Premium Times and Sahara Reporters took for their target various aspects of Nigerian society and politics. His works include a poetry collection and several essay collections. He was, unfortunately, a victim of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash.

Bernard Dadié was an Ivorian poet, dramatist, and novelist whose works explored African oral traditions. He was the founder of the National Drama Studio in Côte d’Ivoire and served as the country’s Minister of Culture between 1977 to 1986. In case you didn’t notice from the dates above, he lived till the grand old age of 103! In 2019.

 

Gabriel Okara who died in 2017 was a Nigerian poet and novelist often dubbed the “first Modernist poet of Anglophone Africa.” He is perhaps best known for his novel The Voice (1964), which distinctively imposes Ijo syntax onto English. He was also the director of Rivers State Publishing House in Port Harcourt from 1972 to 1980.

Binyavanga Wainaina was Zimbabwean Caine Prize winner. A TIME 100 Most Influential Person and founding editor of Kwani?. He was the author of “How To Write About Africa.” He was an avid champion of gay rights. He left us in 2019.

Molara Ogundipe who died in 2019 was a Nigerian poet, critic, and editor perhaps best known for the concept “Stiwanism” (Social Transformation in Africa Including Women) which refers to, among other ideas, a resistance of Western feminism and the foregrounding of an indigenous feminism that has always already existed in Africa.

Tejumola Olaniyan was a Nigerian academic who held the position of Louise Durham Mead Professor of English and Wole Soyinka Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books includeTaking African Cartoons Seriously: Politics, Satire, and Culture (2018) and Arrest the Music!: Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics (2004). He left us in 2019.

Harry Garuba who breathed his last in 2020 was a Nigerian poet and professor who served as the Director of African Studies, among other positions, at the University of Cape Town. His books include the poetry collections Shadow and Dream & Other Poems (1982) and Animist Chants and Memorials (2017) and the academic monograph Mask and Meaning in Black Drama: Africa and the Diaspora (1988).

 

Elsa Joubert was a South African author who was also a member of “Die Sestigers” and was known for her anti-apartheid novels. Her novel, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena (1978) was adapted into a film in 2019. She passed away from Covid-19-related complications.

John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, more popularly known as J.P. Clark, was a renowned poet, playwright, and professor. His work focused on themes such as insitutional corruption, violence, and colonialism, and he was also an outspoken activist for the rights of the Ijaw ethnic group. He received the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award for literary excellence in 1991. He was the third leg of the quartet of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, all archetypal figures in African writing.

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