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Review: The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness by Wole Soyinka

August 25, 2010

Burden of Memory coverTitle: 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
Rating: 4/5
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

19 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2010 9:55 am

    It sounds like these essays are packed full of thought-provoking ideas. I’m really interested in the concept of reparations in the context of slavery; I’ve never thought it possible due to the large number of countries involved, including Africa itself as well as the lack of exact records due to ignorance and prejudice. Plus, typical reparations focus on “getting back what was yours”, and that’s a bit difficult when you would have to cross an ocean to do it.

    About ten years ago, I took an African History course which discussed this matter, and I remember how divisive people were on the subject no matter the ethnicity of the individual. At one point in the course, people were actually shouting at each other. Ah, the joys of college.

    • August 26, 2010 10:30 am

      Yes Trisha, so many thought-provoking ideas. I can imagine that such a conversation / debate would get quite rowdy! When you think about it, it is really subjective who we say deserves reparations and who doesn’t. The Jews from the Holocaust, for example, but not the Igbo from the Biafran war, or the Armenians from the Armenian genocide, or everyone who suffered in the Balkans war, and etc etc. Slavery is one of those things that really needs to be discussed and reparations made at some point… but how? and to who? and by who?

  2. August 25, 2010 10:52 am

    I haven’t read this piece nor any other Wole Soyinka’s writings except that which I have reviewed, his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn. However, I like your thoughts here and I resonate with most of what he said.

    • August 26, 2010 10:31 am

      There was just so much Nana, it is definitely a book I will want to re-read again to make sure I got everything that he said. And it definitely made me want to read more!

  3. August 25, 2010 10:55 am

    This is the my first comment, will come back and leave another about your review. Wanted to say that whether or not you like to read drama, you must (and I mean must :) read Death and the King’s Horseman by Soyinka. Hardly gets mentioned coz it’s a play but really a classic and seminal work of African literature.

    • August 26, 2010 10:31 am

      OK, you’ve convinced me Kinna! I’ve added it to my wish list :D

  4. August 25, 2010 12:39 pm

    There is a great novel that deals with some of these same subjects that I think you would really like, if you haven’t already read it. It’s called Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, and it has won several awards. It is a very powerful book, and one that will twist your stomach up in knots, but it is a really revealing portrait of modern South Africa and the ideas of reparation and reconciliation. Great review, by the way!

    • August 26, 2010 10:32 am

      Thanks zibilee, that is actually on my wish list :D I hope a copy comes available soonish!

  5. August 26, 2010 4:57 am

    Thanks for the review. Trust Soyinka to not shy away from the truth. I like what he has to say in the first essay. I do think that South Africa took the easier route where the Truth and Reconciliation issue is concerned. What worries most people, in and out of SA, is the issue of property and land and their link to dispossession during the apartheid era. And no matter how the new country skirts the issue, it will have to deal with it in the future. Soyinka is also absolutely right about reparations and compensation for slavery. I don’t even want to think about it given how rotten own African leaders are. On Negritude: everything he says is indeed spot on. In fact, it is due to the global dominance of English that Anglophone African writers are more widely read and more known than their Francophone counterparts. In West Africa, there are comparatively fewer English-speaking countries. Ghana, for instance is surrounded by French-speaking countries. Yet, cultural exchange with Nigeria, two countries from us, is more than with our Francophone neighbors. Their cultural output far outstrips those of the English-speaking countries. I’ve been think about doing a feature on Francophone writers; your review of Soyinka’s essay is most timely.

    Well, that’s all I have to say about that. Quite a long post!

    • August 26, 2010 10:47 am

      Thank you for the wonderful comment Kinna! The property issue is SA is definitely the biggest issue, and Soyinka does talk about that. I thought it was really interesting and is definitely something that needs to be addressed in the future. He certainly doesn’t shy away from anything and I’m really interested in reading more by him.

      When it comes to reparations I think even within the African continent there are so many instances where the issue gets ignored. Tomorrow I’m reviewing Half of a Yellow Sun and reading it so soon after this made me think more about reparations and how we decide who gets them and who doesn’t. So fascinating.

      As to Negritude, obviously I am lacking here! I think most of the African lit I’ve read has been English. The only Francophone writer I can think of is Assia Djebar (who I absolutely adore, one of my top 5 favorite authors). I’d be really interested in a feature on Francophone writers as I need to find more as well.

      • August 26, 2010 11:11 am

        And also (I know, I know, stop already right! lol) what I really liked about Soyinka was not only did he not shy away from issues, he really looked at all sides. Like when talking about reparations for slavery he says that they can’t just let the Arabs off easier because they assimilated more, they were a huge part of the trade. And that native Africans also benefited and that should be taken into account as well. Most of what I’ve seen on the issue is just that the ‘Western world’ should pay back for the evils they did and suffering they caused, he really takes a hard look at how native Africans are also culpable and how that affects things, and how the continuing slavery really keeps exacerbating the issue. Fascinating view of things!

  6. August 26, 2010 1:34 pm

    As always, Amy, an excellent post and an excellent discussion in the comments. I feel like I’m horribly uninformed when it comes to the legacy of colonialism and contemporary Africa, and this book sounds like a good way to begin to fix that. Thank you for bringing it another excellent sounding piece of non-fiction to my attention.

    • August 28, 2010 9:52 am

      Thanks Ana. I especially love the comments :) It is a heavy book to start with, but also incredibly wide-ranging. It is a great one to start with, I think. Soyinka seems like an incredible man and I’m looking forward to reading more by him.

  7. August 28, 2010 5:53 am

    Continuing our discussions :) – I really believe that the whole issue of reparations would go away if Africa got its act together. But therein lies the problem on this continent. Soyinka has been right in fighting against the constant stream of horrible leadership on the continent. The level of betrayal by our own leaders is simply unbelievable and unrelenting on so many levels. But nuff said. Thank you for the review.

    • August 28, 2010 9:53 am

      It might Kinna, that is a good point and something I hadn’t thought of before. There is so much going on in Africa – but also all over the world – in terms of horrible leadership and it’s really hard to know what can be done there and everywhere else to solve it. In some ways, another legacy of colonialism (the mentality of just taking and looking out only for your own tribe or group against others). Thanks for the excellent discussion :D

  8. August 29, 2010 1:09 pm

    There is so much food for thought in this post and in the comment thread — I am thoroughly enjoying it. I am adding this book to my list.

    • August 30, 2010 10:56 am

      Glad to hear it laughingstars66, I’ve been really enjoying all the comments too!

  9. August 29, 2010 1:12 pm

    I just went to my library’s web site to see whether they have this book. They don’t, but I saw Wole Soyinka’s memoir, I Set Forth at Dawn. Have you read it, Amy?

Please share your thoughts, discussion always welcome!

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