Of Africa — and Writing

With the venerable Soyinka now 78, I wish I could report that his new volume of sweeping reflections is of the same stature as his best work, but sadly it is not. The book is vague, ponderous and awkward. Soyinka never says “house” when he can say “habitation,” “native” when he can say “autochthon,” “dominant” when he can say “hegemonic.” Phrases in quotation marks float free of any source. When he makes broad generalizations and criticisms he sometimes expects the reader to mentally provide specific examples. (Do you remember exactly what President Obama said in Cairo in 2009? I had to look it up.) The book abounds in passages full of 10-dollar words that have to be read two or three times to figure out what they mean. About contentions in Christian theology, for example, he says:

“These all-consuming debates and formal encyclicals are constructed on what we may term a proliferating autogeny within a hermetic realm — what is at the core of arguments need not be true; it is sufficient that the layers upon layers of dialectical constructs fit snugly on top of one another.”

That’s Adam Hochschild discussing Nigerian writer and 1986 Nobel laureate for literature Wole Soyinka‘s new book Of Africa in the New York Times Book Review.

In just two paragraphs, Hochschild manages to distill a lot of the comments I often write on student drafts about the use of business speak in writing — e.g. “There is a perfectly acceptable, plain-English substitute for ‘utilize’ that’s four letters shorter,” “It is not the reader’s job to understand you; it’s your job to make yourself understood,” and so on.

Adam Hochschild, in case you are not familiar with his work already, writes frequently on Africa, and he is the author (among several other Africa-related books) of King Leopold’s Ghost.

This past weekend’s New York Times Book Review also reviewed Chinua Achebe’s latest book, There Was a Country, about Biafra.

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