“On Autonomy and Networks: A Response to Ikhide R Ikheloa” by Robert Wood


If African writers write to ‘the West’, which mostly means the transatlantic official verse culture power of the United States and Europe, non-white writers in Australia face similar issues of language and the politics of publication when writing back to their nation. I want to highlight both the structural similarities of our positions – our shared lack of market share and authorial autonomy – and also propose a utopian way of thinking against calcified power structures that continue to shape us unjustly. In other words, how might we begin to exist together? How might we find a shared language? And why?

Contemporary linguists estimate there were 500 to 700 languages on the continent of Australia when European colonisation ‘began’ in 1788. To be certain, there had been European ‘visitors’ before that year, and there had long been trade between South East Asia’s Macassans and indigenous Yolgnu, among other groups, from the north. But 1788 was a watershed year in how ‘Australians’ learnt to historicise and for what we think of as the modern state. But there is, of course, a pre-history to Australia, one that does not pay as much heed to European interlopers and recent arrivals. That it remains mainly outside the state recognised discourse on identity demonstrates a racism and conservatism that is boneheaded and shameful. There is, for example, no constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, let alone of the rainbow of people who have made their home here subsequently. Australia still thinks of itself as a white nation. As a non-white person, there seems to be very little space in the official conversation, particularly the artistic one, for someone like me. That is to say, the hegemonic artistic conversation does not often encourage such perspectives. This is not altogether a bad thing. But it gives me a perspective that is consonant with Ikheloa ‘s “Of African literature and the language and the politics of the stories” on a construct like ‘the West’, which is not of course to say, ‘I am African’, but that I relate to this Africa.

I personally don’t write with an audience in mind; there is no reader in my imagination other than my future self. But I have stopped sending my work to the literary bureaucratic establishment in Australia, which is my ‘West’. This means newspapers and journals such as Australian Book Review, Meanjin, Overland and others. I am not willing to make aesthetic compromises that would see me succeed on those platforms. This is not to say I don’t publish in journals that are based on the continent Australia, just not national journals. I routinely publish, for example, with Peril, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain and Mascara. But these are sub-cultural for the most part.

Similarly it might not only be about finding the spaces in Africa that can publish work with an aesthetic integrity and autonomy, and, if not enough of them exist, starting them. But it might also mean denying the well-worn paths of publication and circulation that we associate with success. In other words, why bother with ‘the West’ or ‘the world’ when you can write for ‘Africa’ and ‘history’? It may be some other iteration of the local too. We need to de-hegemonise and diversify our notions of these abstract categories. I gave up ‘Australia’ so I could belong to something better, which may or may not be bigger. It is though, to my mind, a more amenable and receptive audience for my artistic sensibility. This better and bigger does not have a name yet, but it does mean publications like Calabash, Jalada, Counterpunch and others. This is essentially utopian, but if you are not a utopian, why write?

Growing up in suburban Perth, in the world’s most isolated city, my introduction to African literature was through Gordimer, Coetzee and Paton, but I soon shifted to Achebe, Okri and Soyinka. All these writers came to me mediated by Western eyes, through the consecrating power of prizes and the conferment of the status of a ‘classic’, with blurbs and marketing jazz. I didn’t know where to look for ‘good’ writing, so I read the things I could get my hands on. African literature had, and has, to me, an official status that was greater than Australia, hence is more appealing – more interesting language choices, greater emotional resonance and power. It also gives me a way to enter into a network that is less ‘the West’. In Perth, there is no snow. Why should I read about places where winter bit so deep? That is not my life, nor is it there to be found in writing from a great many places in Africa. That I wanted to connect through reading about other places was at once an exoticisation, if not a fetish, and a genuine affection.

I had to console myself that I was not of the nation even as I am not not from it. The consolation was in raced thinking – myself as a hybrid and the great sustenance of Tagore and Naipaul from my mother’s people, and a whole host of colourful other characters including the African authors I have mentioned. But this was misguided too in that I simply replaced one abstract collective with another. But as long as it was not-Australia, I was happy. I was to some extent self-loathing. But my history is my own, my intersectionality was isolating – who are my people? It is not that Africa is speaking to me, but that aine from The Famished Road might keep me company for a little while and in that moment I could glimpse or hope there was someone who was with me. I think that is what gives me strength as a writer and a reader. Who are we speaking to? And how? What are these as specific possibilities? These are the questions.

There is merit in the global Souths approach, merit in finding relationships outside the West that takes world literature in an everyday definition seriously. But there are internal Souths, just as there are internal Wests when we speak about nations and places. I would love to have readers in Lagos and Cape Town, not only Texas and Nottingham. But more than that I would love to have an attentive reader, a close reader, an interlocutor whose name I do not yet know and who might be anywhere and find me anyway they can. I am then looking for a connection, and connections are made as much through our identity position be that ‘African’ or ‘Nigerian’ as they are through idiosyncracies.

What combines us, Ikheloa and me, is not our Otherness to the West, but its Otherness from us. We are central to the story. The routes we take, the roots we make, those are always about engaging the possibilities that will make us the best possible versions of our selves. The key might be how can we undertake activity together, and if we can fight productively. We can do so best by writing literary work that is complex, rich, uncompromising. And that is the task for today for those of us who care about ‘Africa’.

This essay was written in response to a “Of African literature and the language and the politics of the stories” by Ikhide R. Ikheloa published in the Language Issue

Robert Wood has had work published in Jacket2 (US), Lunar Poetry (UK), Counterpunch (US), Southerly (Aus.) and many other journals. He is currently Commissioning Editor of Cordite (Aus.) and on the Faculty of the School of Life. You can read more of his work at: http://www.rdwood.org/writing