IF African literature has a difficult time speaking for itself in the United States, one reason is that so few critics here have spent any time "experiencing the African reality," says Bernth Lindfors. He spoke at a symposium on the subject held recently at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "It is a failure of scholarship and criticism," he says. The result is what he calls "a telescopic vision," seeing a literary text in relation to other world literature, "but only the larger monuments, not on the g round within the culture, emotions, and passions of a people."
Such cultural shortsightedness can result not only in misunderstanding, but also in undervaluing the unique contribution of African literature on the world stage, says Mr. Lindfors, a literature professor at the University of Texas. And the challenge is compounded for African literature in that "some of its greatest sources of criticism are from outside the continent itself," he says. This presents a potentially challenging and unusual problem for the development of African literature.
This concern is not shared by Chinua Achebe, perhaps the greatest living African writer, author of "Things Fall Apart" and "Anthills of the Savannah."
"I don't feel the threat," he said in a telephone interview from his home on the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he is Charles P. Stevenson Jr. professor of languages and literature. "No one can become a gatekeeper to African literature if more and more people participate in the discussion."
So long as critics are reading the text, the journey to the truth will manifest itself, says Mr. Achebe.
Certain "understandings" might come easier for an African critic than for an American one, but just as it is difficult to give advice to a cross-cultural reader, so it is for cross-cultural literary criticism, he says. The written text must be the final word in any case, and for any culture, according to Achebe.
What should a Western reader look for in one of his novels that might otherwise be missed because of cultural blindness? Achebe offers two examples.
"It is easier to draw the line clearly between religious and secular art in the West," he says. There isn't such a clear line in Achebe's Africa. "The world tends to be seen as a whole. We don't even have a word for religion in Ibo."
Anything sacred in African art immediately partakes of the serious, he says. "It is an aspect of the totality of life," which can't help but be carried into art. For Achebe, it is easier to talk about religion in his culture in terms of "important or frivolous, what is serious and what is light."
Then, there is the difference in emphasis on individuality. "The idea of the individual is not specifically Western," he says. Achebe cautions Westerners against writing or speaking of individuality as if "it were a qualitative difference in the West." It isn't. "It is one of emphasis," he says.
For Achebe, the notion of the individual looms very large between the two poles of community - the self and the other. In recent times the emphasis in the West has been placed on the individual, "almost to the exclusion of the rest of society." But "the individual is not only answerable to himself," he says. "A person is a person only because of other persons."
In his own writing and in the works of other African authors, there is "this understanding of the critical importance of others," Achebe says.