Review: The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness by Wole Soyinka
Title: The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness
Author: Soyinka, Wole
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays, Politics
Publisher / Year: Oxford University Press / 1999
Source: my TBR pile
Why I Read It: I had heard a lot about Soyinka so was anxious to read something by him… but then it languished on my tbr pile for ages.
Date Read: 03/08/10
This was a collection of three short essays. The first was the one for which the book is titled and was, to me, was by far the most interesting. This first essay discussed the difference between reparations and reconciliation in light of the Truth and Reconciliation going on in South Africa, and the long-term effects of such an idea. He is not sure that reconciliation without reparations is really possible. He says on page 13:
Truth as a preclude to reconciliation, that seems logical enough; but Truth as the justification, as the sole exaction or condition for Reconciliation?
When crimes committed even flouted the laws of the time, he asks, how can truth be the only requirement of full reconciliation? Can that ever be enough? The essay talks about this in great detail and also compares that thought to other atrocities that have happened through Africa. He asks on page 19:
Would the Truth and Reconciliation ethic have been applicable, even thinkable in post-Acheampong Ghana? In post-Mobutu Zaire? Will it be acceptable in post-Abache Nigeria? That circumstances may make such a proceeding expedient is not to be denied, but we must not shy away from some questions: would it be just?
And that is what he discusses. The justness and the long-term implications of simply allowing truth to be the condition on reconciliation. What does that do to the idea of justice? One way it helps, he maintains, is by reminding us and ensuring that everyone knows what happened. Only by hearing and acknowledging – and maintaining – the truth can we try to avoid the same scenario in the future.
Soyinka also spends some time talking about reparations though and about who is blamed for different events and who is the true victims. If Jews are still reclaiming their property from the Holocaust, why not slaves from when they were sold in to slavery? And, he says, it is important to remember that Arabs were also a part of the slave trade and shouldn’t be left off as easily just because they have become more assimilated. The other thing he talks about a lot is the current slavery performed by African leaders still today – dictatorship governments cannot try to claim reparations for their people as they are still enslaving them.
Basically there were so many threads and discussion topics that were incredibly interesting. I am sure I missed a lot in this essay, and I will certainly be coming back to re-read it in the future. So much to think about!
The second essay talks about the Senegalese writer Léopold Sédar Senghor and compares him and his image of forgiveness to Martin Luther King. Both have religious backgrounds and that, Soyinka says, is something that has to be kept in mind when looking at the extend of forgiveness that they give to their oppressors. Senghor went even further by fully identifying with and completely exonerating France over other countries. This essay didn’t resonate as much with me and I didn’t retain a lot from it. Senghor’s love and admiration of France was a large part of what alienated the younger generation of writers against Negritude, the author argues.
The third and last essay talks about Negritude and literature around the end of the colonial period. I found it really interesting hearing about how the literature and salons grew and developed and the cross pollination of ideas and themes. What I found especially interesting to note was that English Africa didn’t have as many writers – of course I find this most interesting because most of the African writers I know of now are Nigerian, Kenyan, or South African.
In the colonial period, however, France’s colonies in Africa and the Caribbean were considered territories and the subjects were actually citizens. By being citizens and being given administrative positions in other colonies they came to know each other and talk with others from other areas. They also identified more with the Americans in wanting to regain their independence outside of this citizenship that was forced on them, unlike those in British Africa who were never considered citizens, they always kept their races, tribes, and identification as the other. This, Soyinka says, makes their struggle different and explains more fully why the black Americans identified more with French Africa and Caribbean peoples than those who shared their language.
Very fascinating essays of which I’m sure I only scratched the surface of understanding. I would love to hear more opinions on this book. Definitely worth a read, though very high level and