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Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952-1966:
edited with an Introduction by Nora Foster Stovel


by Margaret Laurence
270 pages,
ISBN: 0888643322


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Brief Reviews
by Raj Mehta

African Postcolonial

Margaret Laurence lived in the British Protectorate of Somalia and the Gold Coast (Ghana) in the 1950s. Already during this time, she worked on Somali translations of folktales and poetry for A Tree for Poverty, which became her first published book in 1954. She also engaged her African interests in a series of short stories that were compiled in 1963 in The Tomorrow Tamer and began work on her novel This Side Jordan (1960). Her intrigue with the historical past, freedom and the role of tradition pervades much of her work and is informed by her study of the then contemporary scene of Nigerian writing. The African texts that Laurence wrote far outnumber those readily available and the Mills Memorial Library at McMaster University now houses a vast number of them. But it is her 1968 study of Nigerian writers, Long Drums & Canons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952-1966, edited with an Introduction by Nora Foster Stovel (The University of Alberta Press, 270 pages, $29.95, paper, ISBN: 0888643322), that is acknowledged to be her most sustained work of literary criticism and most indicative of her own perspective on writing.

While the book was among other important studies on African culture and literature that had begun to emerge¨notably Ulli Beier's Introduction to African Literature (1967), Jahnheinz Jahn's Literary History of Neo-African Literature (1969), and Judith Gleason's This Africa (1969)¨Laurence's tractate was perhaps the most sympathetic analysis of the lot. This might well seem an exaggeration, but it must be said that Laurence's critical language wades in a tone of perceptivity and empathy that is exemplary. The book encompasses the period from 1952 to 1966, a period Laurence dubbed "a kind of renaissance, the flourishing of a new literature which has drawn sustenance both from traditional oral literature and from the present and rapidly changing society." The ethos of neo-colonial educational institutions in Africa and the general role of English literary studies in service of empire building underpin the ideological struggles of these changes. And this context of debates about language, literature, and culture, especially at the University College and MBARI Club in Ibadan¨a vibrant collection of intellectuals, novelists, performers, dancers and musicians¨was pivotal to the emergence of a new literary sensibility in Nigeria that shapes the contours of Laurence's focus.

The book, we learn, began as a series of scripts for the BBC and was eventually turned into a full-length study. Sadly the book, which was issued as Nigeria was in the midst of civil war, never reached as wide an audience as it surely deserved. Laurence would observe:

How much everything can change in a couple of years! Chris Okigbo is dead, fighting for Biafra. Wole Soyinka, undoubtedly the best writer that English-writing Africa has yet produced, and one of the best anywhere, has been in a Federal jail in Kaduna for more than a year. Chinua Achebe, that excellent and wise novelist, isn't writing for himself these days¨he's doing journalism for Biafra, and all one can hope at the moment is that he manages to survive.

And it is also the case that only recently, really since the publication of Edward Said's pivotal Orientalism in 1978, has there been an explosion of excitement¨and to an equal degree skepticism¨around the field of postcolonial studies and its various cognates. So this is a timely release, and one hopes that in light of the book's initial fate, this republication will merit favorable attention. It is long overdue.

Nora Foster Stovel, who provides an elaborate and fascinating introduction to Laurence's book, has deftly edited Long Drums & Cannons. There is also a Preface by Christian Riegel, a Foreword by Douglas Killam, and a short essay by Abdul-Rasheed Na'Allah. Published for the first time in this edition is the essay "Tribalism As Us Versus Them", which Laurence first read at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, England, in 1969. The essay reflects on the book in light of the civil war in Nigeria. The text comes with substantial annotations, a detailed glossary, and appendices that provide biographical, bibliographical, historical and cultural information detailing the background of the writers covered: Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark, Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, Cyprian Ekwensi, T.M. Aluko, Elechi Amadi, Nkem Nwankwo, Flora Nwapa, Onuora Nzekwu, and Gabriel Okara. These so-called Šfirst wave' of Nigerian writers have by now of course, been complemented by succeeding generations of writers like Kole Omotoso, Tunde Fatunde, Biyi Bamidele-Thomas, Stella Oyedepo, and more recently Wale Okediran, Shola Osofisan, Harry Garuba and Toyin Adewale (to mention but a few). Yet this does not in any sense diminish the vitality of this book, and it is not as if the study is now gone to seed (so to speak), or in any sense outmoded. Indeed, the text is very much more proximate to the writers discussed than many more current takes on the period.

Perhaps the most captivating aspect of Laurence's study is that of Chapter 6, a part that divides what at the time were new voices from those more established: Aluko, Amadi, Nwankwo, Nwapa, Nzekwu and Okara. Her consideration of these writers in particular demonstrates Laurence's fastidious and subtle regard for the nuances of local politics and traditional religious concepts, her delight in irony and humor in the writing she interprets, her compassionate take on the only Nigerian novel written by a woman at that time (Flora Nwapa) and her careful attention to the experimental dimensions of the writing¨her attention, for example, to the playful constructions from the Ijaw language in Okara's work. Long Drums & Cannons is a testament to the allure of Africa in Laurence's work and will command those interested in not just the Nigerian writers she here portrays, but also those piqued by the artistic measures that inform her own writing. ˛

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