144. Charles Dickens continues to inspire African writers

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 19 July 2021
Publication: Business Day
Image courtesy of: publicdomainpictures.net

As we approach the bicentennial of the birth of the British writer, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) next February, it is interesting to investigate the connections between Africa and, arguably, the world’s greatest novelist. Several African authors have noted the influence that Dickens had on their writing: Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa’Thiongo, and Naguib Mahfouz.

Es’kia Mphalele produced a stage play of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, a revolutionary version of which was performed in black townships in the 1950s, while Ethiopia’s Sahle Sellassie Berhane Mariam translated A Tale of Two Cities into Amharic. Africa’s first Nobel literature laureate, Wole Soyinka, noted that his father had a collection of Dickens’s novels which he devoured as a child.

Many of the themes with which Dickens dealt – poverty, class, exploitation, religion, and emigration – are subjects with which post-colonial African writers have grappled, and contemporary African writers and the broader society are still addressing. Dickens’s posthumously published retelling of the story of Jesus Christ to children every Christmas, The Life of Our Lord, chimes with the core religious beliefs of Africa’s 631 million Christians. His ventures into the supernatural world through ghost stories like A Christmas Carol strikes a chord with Africans who practice traditional religions.

Palestinian-American literary critic, Edward Said’s 1994 Culture and Imperialism, elegantly demonstrated how culture was often used by Western authors in support of the imperial project. He showed how even great works of literature like Dickens’s were used, sometimes unconsciously, in the service of imperialism.

Dickens’s zeal as a social reformer derived from his own difficult childhood in which his father and family were imprisoned for three months due to the former’s indebtedness. He became famous for his social crusading. His rich portrayal of Victorian London’s poverty would fit many of contemporary Africa’s greatest cities: Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, and Cairo. The suffering of destitute and homeless children depicted in novels like Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, and David Copperfield would also find resonance in many of these African megapolises.

Dickens was an abolitionist who spoke out consistently against slavery. He opposed British imperialism which he felt diverted much needed resources from social needs at home. But he was not above embracing some of the jingoism of his Victorian peers: Dickens dismissed non-European “primitive cultures,” and referred to Indians as “dogs – low, treacherous, murderous, tigerous villains.”

South African film director, Tim Greene’s Boy Called Twist, adapted Oliver Twist for the big screen in 2004. The drama is set in a contemporary local context, depicting both Cape Town’s great mountainous beauty and its derelict townships. The mixed race Twist is frequently maltreated in rural Swartland, before escaping to the big city of Cape Town, hitching a ride on the back of a truck. As with Dickens’s gang of Fagin’s child pick-pockets, the South African Twist falls into a gang of young crooks led by a dreadlocked Caribbean Rastafarian Fagin, tutored by the Artful Dodger. Other Dickensian figures such as the gangster Bill Sykes and his prostitute-girlfriend, Nancy, also appear in the film.

Edward Said famously implored the victims of empire to “assert their own identity and the existence of their own history.” Dickens was one of the pioneers of the “Great European Novel” during the imperial age. The first generation of Africa’s post-colonial writers were his true heirs, narrating their own anti-imperial stories from the periphery. In contemporary Africa, a new generation of griots are producing a bountiful harvest of rich writing, some of which can also trace its lineage to Dickens’s genius. Bernadine Evarisato, Chimamanda Adichie, Maaza Mengiste, NoViolet Bulawayo, Namwali Sepell, and Damon Galgut are all part of this great story-telling tradition. Africa’s talented contemporary generation of cosmopolitan global citizens are producing the “Great African Novel” to describe their own post-colonial age of hard times and great expectations.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.