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A Survey of African Poetry in the London Times, Sunday Times, Financial Times, the Times Literary Supplement 1865-1985

On impolite literature: The portrayal of Taban Lo Liyong in Times Literary Supplement and The Sunday Times, 1970-1976

Author(s): Anena, Ber

Subversive literature, and works that fall within the realm of impoliteness, have always been a contentious undertaking.The backlash for such works could be intense. For the rubble-rousing writer, questions will arise about their intellect, the quality of their work as a whole, and whether they are indeed concerned about the subject they're scrutinizing or simply seeking to gain literary capital. South Sudanesepoet, critic, and academic Taban Lo Liyong is one such writer.

Those familiar with the East African literary scene, or even that of Uganda where the writer grew up, would have come across his ouvre of political commentaries and creative work that span 20 books, and include eight poetry collections such as The Cows of Shambat (1992), Words that Melt a Mountain (1996), Carrying Knowledge Up a Palm Tree (1997), Corpse Lovers and Corpse Haters (2005), and After Troy (2o21). In 2001, Lo Liyong translated Wer Per Lawino (The Defence of Lawino), a poetry collection by the acclaimed Ugandan writer Okot p'Bitek.

From the 1960s, Lo Liyong established himself as a criticof the post-colonial education system, self-serving politicians, and the exploitative influence of the West on Africa. Perhaps the most controversial of his critical works at the time was a paper he wrotetogether with Kenya's Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Henry Owuor-Anyumba. Titled "On the Abolition of the English Department," the 1968 paper sought to center African culture in the study of literature and education generally, and to set up the department of African Literature and Language in place of English departments. The trio's quarrel was that despite African countries getting independence from the West, the former colonizers were still entrenching imperialism through English texts and post-colonial education systems. The paper was not well received by the former colonizers and their agents. Unsurprisingly, the group was accused of advocating for "cultural and racial purity" in academia. Nonetheless, that paper was foundational in the teaching of literature on the continent and remains instructional to date.

With that background, it was not a shock to come across a 1976 article in the Times Literary Supplement by D.A.N. Jones thatquestioned Lo Liyong's intellect for editing and writing a hard-hitting foreword for Ham Mukasa's book, Sir Apolo Kagwa Discovers Britain. It is about a visit by Sir Apolo Kagwa (then prime minister of Buganda Kingdom)to the United Kingdomfor the 1902 coronation of Edward VII.

In his article, titled "Through a gloss darkly," Jones wrote:

The author, Ham Mukasa, is reporting a conversation between his companion, Sir Apolo Kagwa and "five of the judges of Glasgow." These five men asked Sir Apolo many questions, such as: "Are there many drunkards in your land?" Later, reports Mukasa, these judges asked: "Do you have drunkards in your Parliament?" Sir Apolo replied: "A drunken man cannot come into our Parliament." Mukasa goes on "They were very pleased at hearing that drunkards were not allowed in our Parliament, and that the Parliament itself did not like there being drunken men in our country; and told us how they themselves imprisoned drunkards for two or three days...

Being the no-holds-barred writer that he is, Lo Liyong seemed to have thought that interaction spoke of the prejudice the British held against their former colony, Uganda. Why didn't they, for instance, ask how people in Buganda Kingdom viewed their political and economic future? Lo Liyong's foreword alluded to that incident in not very polite words, underscoring the fact that mighty Britain had flaws too, but that it wouldn't admit it to their colonial subjects.

Jones quotes Lo Liyong's excerpt thus:

Europeans in Africa masquerade as Gods, they act in a stylised manner and want to look larger than life. You can only see them for the ordinary humans they are when you see them in their natural habitat....In Edinburgh, the Mayor asked Sir Apolo what he did with drunken councillors. To Sir Apolo, the idea of a drunken councillor was preposterous. He said: "We simply don't have drunkards in our council...."

Unfortunately for Lo Liyong, mixing up the two cities—Edinburg and Glasgow—was not going to earn him any marks. Jones wrote: "One looks for the relevant section. Chapter 9 is entitled "Glasgow City Councillors are Drunkards". This may be true, for all I know, or may have been true in 1902. But Edinburg is not Glasgow."For this‘literary crime' Jones opens the book review with a damning declaration: "There is such an air of unreliability about the product that one hesitates to pass on any of the information it offers."

Jones had a problem with Lo Liyong's diction in the foreword, something the reviewer believes can cause an insurrection. He was not impressed with Lo Liyong's argument that the life of the common man cannot be glamourized "unless you are a fool." The common man, according to Lo Liyong "needs leadership. And his intellectual betters, his technologized betters, have to supply these to him." Throughout the foreword, Lo Liyong agitates for young Africans to be aspirational and to look up to leaders within their midst rather than staying hung up on their white colonizers. This overarching point is, however, skipped over by the book reviewer. Jones writes:

His notes and foreword to Sir Apolo Kagwa Discovers Britain create the impression that he wishes to give schoolmasterly advice to young people in Uganda and encourage them to admire noble Africans who achieved power during Victoria's reign, like Apolo Kagwa and Ham Mukasa. This may well be a worthy aim, but the editor's work will set the children of Uganda no example of accuracy, and his political opinions are the sort that provoke democrats to rebellion.

Interestingly, Jones is pleased with Ham Mukasa's writing in the book. He describes Mukasa's voice as "genuine" and applauds both Mukasa and Sir Apolo for the "generous, eloquent Victorian style." He added, "There is every indication that he made a good job of it--his African aristocratic values mingling with his biblical knowledge to produce something rather like a Homeric account of feasts and ceremony, turning the jaunt into a little Odyssey."

Despite the praise, Jones still dubsthe book a "muddle" and "a mess." He believes "Heinemann made a serious mistake in giving Lo Liyong lo Liyong this book to edit," a mistake that makes one feels "a total distrust for the whole product."

Jones' dismay at Lo Liyong's inaccurate reference to a UK city is understandable. For a continent that has borne the brunt of inaccurate, biased, and outright unfair representation by outsiders, Africans know how not getting it right can cause damage. However, Jones' criticism of Lo Liyong and his rubbishing of the book seems based on a bias that he cannot admit.

While Jones is upfront in writing off Mukasa's book, The Sunday Times writer David Williams has a different approach. His tone is ripe with mockery as he calls Mukasa and his narrative subject Sir Apolo "agreeable, intelligent men [who] are lost in wonder, love and praise at what they see."

Williams draws this conclusion after quoting a line from the book in which Mukasa writes: "The Canal is a marvellous thing, and shows how the Europeans can always do what they set about doing." As they traveled to Britain, Mukasa and Sir Apolo marveled at Suez Canal, the Egyptian sea-level waterway that connects Africa, Asia, and Europe. Opened just 33 years before their sojourn to Britain, Mukasa and Sir Apolo must have been genuinely impressed by the man-made infrastructure. It's unclear if David's sarcasm stemmed from a belief that the canal is a developmental given, and that any admiration of its greatness can only emerge from impressionable Africans.

Williams's February 15th 1979 review calls Sir Apolo Kagwa Discovers Britain a "naïve" version of Charles de Secondat's Persian Letters in which the writer recounts the experiences of two Persian noblemen traveling through France. Where Secondat's satirical work has a "deep sophistication" Mukasa's book is considered "effective in its artlessness."

That Williams's review is titled "Innocents abroad," also illustrates perception of the two Buganda royals as clueless less-thans. He writes that "The British nannie-knows-best type of brainwashing has done a good job on them."

The book editor, Lo Liyong, doesn't escape the knife in Williams's review too. His foreword and notes are believed fit "primarily for African readers." His arguments are considered "not new" but delivered with "buoyancy"—a flattery that could as well be regarded as an insult. While Jones thought Mukasa's book deserves no recommendation, Williams prescribes it as "a refreshing and sobering read for ex-imperialists." Even that, one wouldn't take it as a compliment. Lo Liyong's unapologetic manner of writing was never going to get him far in the books of the people he criticizes.

In fact, in a September 18th 1970 article in the Times Literary Supplement, its nameless writer advises the poet to tone down his rhetoric. Reviewing Lo Liyong's book, The Last Word, a compilation of literary criticisms about "African authors and the philosophy of Negritude," the author notes that "There is the same tireless search for what will (it is hoped) shock or offend, the same refusal to lower the voice and speak quietly and confidently to the reader." The article concludes that "If Mr Lo Liyong will both cool and sharpen his wit, he may yet learn to cut deep."

Such a conclusion demonstrates the attacks often aimed at subversive African writers: the casting of doubt on their work and questioning their intellect without engaging substantially with their creativity or the issues that they raise.

BER ANENA is a Ugandan writer, editor, and performer. She's a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Anena attended the MFA Writing program at Columbia University, New York, and holds degrees in journalism and human rights from Makerere University in Uganda.

Works cited

Jones, D. A. N. "Through a gloss darkly." Times Literary Supplement. 19 Mar. 1976. p.316 https://link-gale-com.libproxy.unl.edu/apps/doc/FP1803050521/GDCS?u=linc74325&sid=bookmark-GDCS&xid=d13525a6

Williams, David. "Innocents abroad." The Sunday Times. 15 Feb. 1976. p41


"African theory and practice." Times Literary Supplement. 18 Sept. 1970. p.1042


Lo Liyong, Lo Liyong. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lo Liyong_Lo_Liyong. Accessed 12 Nov. 2022