Review: Long Drums and Cannons by Margaret Laurence
Title: Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952 – 1966
Author: Laurence, Margaret
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Literary Criticism
Publisher / Year: University of Alberta Press / 2001 (originally published in 1968)
Source: The World’s Biggest Bookstore
Why I Read It: On my hunt of Nigerian-Canadian authors I didn’t find any I could pick up on short notice… but I did find this!
Date Read: 29/06/11
First of all, happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canadian readers! I have to say that I am (usually) very proud to be a Canadian and so am always happy when this day rolls around. I knew that I wanted to feature a Canadian today on the blog, but I was conflicted because I also didn’t want to break my Nigerian Literature Friday feature – the solution seemed easy enough, I simply had to find a Nigerian-Canadian author! Sadly I wasn’t able to find anything on short notice that I could pick up locally but I did find this volume of literary criticism that Canadian author Margaret Laurence wrote in 1968 and thought that would be a great work for today. I had no idea that one of our famous authors early on wrote about Nigerian lit and that her own work was so influenced by it!
In the introduction Nora Foster Stovel includes a quote from Laurence’s memoir where she says:
Long Drums and Cannons was never intended to be a deep analysis. It was, rather, a survey and an interpretation, from the viewpoint of a reasonably skilled reader who stood outside the culture and who hoped to make these works better known and more accessible” (Dance 285).
And I think that Laurence succeeds remarkably well in this regard. This is definitely a book that I will come back to again once I’ve finally read all of the works discussed. Laurence includes full chapters for Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark, Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, and Cyprian Ekwensi. In her final chapter she talks of emerging voices in Nigerian literature and discusses the first works of T. M. Aluko, Elechi Amadi, Nkem Nwankwo, Flora Nwapa, Onuora Nzekwu, and Gabriel Okara. In each section she talks first of the writer and their background, talking about their schooling and location as well as other relevant information. She then talks about all of their published works at the time of her writing (1966).
What is most interesting about this book is that it focuses on such a small group of writers, the first generation to be published and available around the world. In reading these works Laurence is able to show the priorities of writers during the years between independence and the Biafran war. Her work is remarkable also in that historic way of seeing what she and others thought, and how Nigeria’s literature was received and thought of, just before the conflict started. She talks about the lack of tribalism or inner-tribal animosity. In a lecture she gave a year later after she talks about how in the future it might be a topic more often and how:
If so, they will be telling the rest of the world something about a subject which we, too, desperately need to understand better, for their dilemma is not theirs alone. It is very profoundly mankind’s. (page 231)
And that, I think, is why I love this work best of all. Laurence is always clear that the dilemmas faced in Nigeria and which these authors write about are dilemmas and issues faced by all of us around the world – the inability to get along, corruption in politics, the generational breaks and lack of communication between them, and the breakdown of communication in other ways. Throughout the book the themes are always specifically related to Nigeria, but they also, as any great literature, relate to all of us. For example, when speaking of Amos Tutuola she says:
His forests are certainly and in detail the outer ones but they are, as well, the forests of the mind, where the individual meets and grapples with the creatures of his own imagination. These creature are aspects of himself, aspects of his response to the world into which he was born, the world to which he must continue to return if he is to live as a man. (page 131)
Throughout this book while Laurence talks about these writings she praises the use of English and how Yoruba, Ijaw, or Ibo thought processes or myths are built-in to the story and talks about how fantastic this is that these authors have been able to write in a way that is not only accessible to her and others outside of the country but still also recognizable and real to those within. She shows respect at all times for customs and religions, quoting Ghanaian scholar Dr. J.B. Danquah:
‘If we are to pay due compliments to one another’s gods we should call them by none but their proper names.’ He was objecting, with justification, to people who referred to the Akan supreme deity, Nyame, as ‘the Sky God’. He claimed that this patronizing name gave an impression of naiveté to a concept which was no more naive in fact than the Heavenly Father of Christian doctrine. (page 19)
Later on when discussing the works of Achebe she talks about his portrayal of life she praises the way his stories teach so much without us even realizing that he’s been passing on this cultural knowledge, and how real and relevant he makes it. Nothing is exoticized it simply is. She says:
We see the old religion not as a set of distant oddities, not as ‘customs’, but as faith, which is a very different thing. (page 111)
Like this she was constantly pointing out and speaking against the stereotypes and prejudices of others, as well as their cultural colonialization. She also combats the suggestions that these authors were simply parroting successful European works. She shows, for example, how John Pepper Clark was influenced not by Greek drama but rather by West African sources such as Ijaw masquerade drama. She is always clear to explain the roots of these novelists inspirations as internal to their own African societies and cultures as opposed to coming solely from outside.
Laurence’s enthusiasm for Nigerian literature is definitely catching in this book. If I hadn’t already been reading it and in the pursuit of the books she discusses, I would be now. Numerous times she talks about how important this book is and how that book should be required reading in every school system and etc. There is so much that I could say about it but I have already taken up quite a bit of space here so I will simply say that if you want to know more about these early Nigerian writers, or if you are a fan of Margaret Laurence and want to know more about works that had a large influence on her writing, or if you enjoy literary criticism, or if you just want a really interesting read… pick up this title! I just hope that some day I can speak so knowledgeably on the topic