[Blackstudies-l] Francis Abiola Irele: Tribute by Simon Gikandi

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Wed Jul 19 10:32:38 EDT 2017

lisaparavisini posted: " We mourn the passing of Abiola Irele, a great
friend and supporter of Caribbean literatures and cultures. This past May,
I had the pleasure of seeing him together with Equatoguinean writer Donato
Ndongo, brimming with energy and plans. He will be sorely"
Respond to this post by replying above this line
New post on *Repeating Islands*
<http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/> Francis Abiola Irele:
In memory of the doyen of African literature
lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>

[image: B1.jpg]

We mourn the passing of Abiola Irele, a great friend and supporter of
Caribbean literatures and cultures. This past May, I had the pleasure of
seeing him together with Equatoguinean writer Donato Ndongo, brimming with
energy and plans. He will be sorely missed.

This tribute by Simon Gikandi appeared in the *Daily Nation*
as part of an issue dedicated to a celebration of Irele's career.

The recent death of Abiola Irele, the distinguished Nigerian literary
scholar, at the age of 81, represents a major loss to the fraternity of
African letters, and marks the end of an era in the institution of literary
criticism in Africa.

More than any other scholar of his generation, Irele brought a forceful
intellect, a cosmopolitan outlook, and authoritative voice to the study of
African literature in the 1960s and 1970s, a period when it seemed to
suffer from a crisis of identity as writers and critics struggled to emerge
out of the shadows of colonial English and French studies.

Born in Ora, in the Middle Western part of Nigeria in 1936, and educated in
a Catholic high school in Lagos, Irele was a child of the late colonial
period, and he grew up with a sense of both the long history of British
colonialism in West Africa and its inevitable end. He was one of the first
generation of graduates at the new University College, Ibadan, where he
followed in the footsteps of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, and was a
contemporary of J.P. Clark, John Munonye, Christopher Okigbo, and Flora
Nwapa. Like Achebe and Soyinka, Irele could claim to be part of the
generation that invented African literature in the European tradition.

Driven by the fervour of nationalism, Irele’s commitment, like that of
other African intellectuals of his generation, was to an idea of Africa
liberated from colonial fantasies and post-colonial mythologies. As a
student at the University of Lagos, Irele was editor of The Horn, a student
journal founded by his classmate, J.P. Clark. The journal was the conduit
for the earliest writing by some of the most prominent writers of the
period, including Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Christopher Okigbo.


In a way, I became a literary scholar because of Irele, whose name I first
came across in 1979 when I was working with Henry Chakava and Laban Erapu
at the Nairobi offices of Heinemann Educational Books. I vividly remember
when the page proofs of Irele’s collected essays, The African Experience,
arrived at the Heinemann offices on the ninth floor of International House,
and the excitement it generated among us. Here was a mode of literary
scholarship that was informed by a keen sense of language (English, French,
and Yoruba), a broad sociological imagination, and an unapologetic
Pan-Africanism. Irele’s work stood out for its ability to find connections
in traditions that were supposed to be disparate and a powerful
understanding of the intersection between writing and the drama of African

Concerned with the relationship of local events and universal experiences,
Irele saw literature as both an intense linguistic act and part of the
imaginative representation of the larger ideological movements, most
notably Pan-Africanism and Negritude, that were central to the constitution
of African identities in the long 20th Century. Of particular note were
Irele’s essays on Negritude and Francophone writing in the Caribbean. His
translation of the poems of Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire’s famous
poem Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (Notebook of a return to the Native
Land) introduced Anglophone readers to the tradition of African and
Caribbean writing in French.

Above all, Irele will be remembered as the scholar who refused to work
within the boundaries that he had inherited from his colonial education. He
rejected the assumed division between writing and orality, insisting on
their interface as one of the distinctive aspects of African writing. He
rejected the colonial division of Africa into Francophone and Anglophone
zones, producing translations and essays that establish the ideological
connections between the two traditions.

He rejected the idea that there was an immanent division between African
and European languages, a point he demonstrated through a comparison of the
works of Amos Tutuola, who wrote in English, and that of D.O. Fagunwa, the
most prominent writer in the Yoruba language.

The surprising thing, though, is that Irele, a leading expert on Yoruba
literature and culture, was not Yoruba by birth. Born of Endo parents from
what was the Middle Western belt of Nigeria, Irele grew up in Lagos among
the Yoruba people, he adopted Yoruba as his mother tongue, and celebrated
Yoruba identity as his own.

Growing up and coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s, Irele was, of course,
a product of the colonial school, or to use a famous phrase from Derek
Walcott, the late Caribbean poet, he had a proper colonial education. His
friends and colleagues will recall his spontaneous ability to sing scenes
from operas by Mozart or Puccini, to recite long verses from Dante (in
Italian), and his passion for Shakespeare. And yet this mastery of the
European canon was not a barrier to Irele’s devotion to Yoruba, Nigerian,
and African culture. He could switch from French to Yoruba to English with

A remarkable thing about Irele’s trajectory at Ibadan and after is that
while his classmates took the road to British or American universities for
further studies, he decided to go to study in France. Arriving in Paris in
1960, Irele learnt French well enough to study it at the most advanced
level, leading to the award of a Ph.D. by the Sorbonne, where he studied
under Georges Balandier and Lucien Goldman. During the same period, he
became involved in Pan-Africanist groups in Paris, including the journal,
Présence Africaine, becoming a close friend of Alioune and Madame Diop, the
publishers of the most important African and Caribbean writers in French.

Returning to West Africa in 1966, Irele taught at the University of Ghana
at Legon and the University of Ife before moving to the University of
Ibadan, where he taught until 1989, chairing the French Department for many

In 1989, following the crisis generated by structural adjustment policies
that led to massive cutbacks in funding for higher education across Africa,
Irele ended up in the United States, teaching, first, at Ohio State
University and later at Harvard University. During this period, he
continued to be an important bridge between African scholars at home and
abroad, using his extensive connections in several continents to ensure the
survival of African knowledge in its places of displacement.

Apart from his capacity to build and sustain institutional relationships,
Irele was renowned for his intellectual generosity. He took me under his
fold at a time when I was trying to find a foothold in the American
academy, providing me with the kind of mentorship that one only expects
from former teachers. In the late 1990s, he asked me to write a monograph
on Ngugi wa Thiong’o for the Cambridge Series on African Writers, which he
edited. Soon after, he invited me to join him in editing the two-volume
Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature.


It was during this period of intense collaboration that I came to know
Irele well, and the conversations I had with him at the many conventions
that we attended in North American cities, visiting Europe, or on trips to
African countries, constituted a form of education in itself. Listening to
Irele speak, I always felt in the presence of a walking archive. Who else
could vividly recall Maria Callas, the famed Italian Soprano, performing at
the Paris Opera House in 1964, or provide a dramatic account of being
admonished by Senghor for not wearing the right tail coat at a state
function in Dakar? Irele’s memory and capacious mind were things I came to

There was the fatherly gesture, too. Like that moment when I needed a tie
for an official function in Luanda, Angola, but had forgotten to bring one.
I had naively assumed that in the people’s republic, a Cuban-style
Guayabera shirt was enough. ‘Biola, as we called him, handed me one of his
ties, like a father to a son, and saved my day. His death has robbed me of
a mentor, teacher, and good friend.
*lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>* |
July 18, 2017 at 10:36 pm | Categories: News
<http://repeatingislands.com/category/news/> | URL: http://wp.me/psnTa-weZ

   See all comments

to no longer receive posts from Repeating Islands.
Change your email settings at Manage Subscriptions

*Trouble clicking?* Copy and paste this URL into your browser:
Thanks for flying with WordPress.com <https://wordpress.com>
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://mail.geneseo.edu/pipermail/blackstudies-l/attachments/20170719/883dd3a0/attachment-0001.html>

More information about the Blackstudies-l mailing list