Saturday, 4 July 2015



Overview by O Bolaji

When should litany of literary essays/studies/books start gushing forth as regards pertinent writers? Some pundits posit that ideally, an author should have published a solid body of work, many books, before such a process is set in motion.       

But this is not necessarily the case. Emily Bronte for one, published only one major work, Wuthering Heights; yet many dozens of full length studies and books have been published on her and her work. The same applies to Leonard Woolf, mainly on the strength of his novel, The village in the Jungle...etc.   
In Africa, the same essentially applied to Tsitsi Dangarembga after she published her famous novel, Nervous Conditions; and by the time Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published her first two novels, full-length study books were already being published on her work.   
Coming back home as it were, the SA writer and critic, Ishmael Mzwandile Soqaga has published four tentative books thus far; all of them somewhat celebrating African writing. This essay attempts to trace his literary progress so far, mainly through the eyes of some contemporary reviewers and critics.

Soqaga’s first published book was the study, Omoseye Bolaji: A voyage around his literary work. Incredibly, Pule Lechesa often referred to as a “ruthless renowned critic” actually over-praises this work in his review:
“This is the type of book that really whets the appetite of lovers of quintessential literature! Free from the clutter of peripheral rubbish that characterizes inferior stuff these days. Mr Soqaga has shown the way ahead with his debut book.

Often, when we read something these days we see the work tinged with inconsequential, ignorant tosh; the worthless trimmings are more than the quality. But this is the real deal! A book that advances literature. ..
“Soqaga really researched this work for years, and it shows in his final product. His intelligent analyses show that he is no man’s fool and he is an avowed Africanist who does not suffer fools gladly. The first parts of this work (Introduction, Foreword) are a joy to read, and shine with real research.
“In fact I was reminded of important studies published on other African writers as I went through this book. Firstly I really relish Robert Fraser’s analysis of Ayi Kwei Amah’s early works; a timeless book. Here there is an earnestness and labour of love that can only be replicated after intrinsic hard work and research. The same applies for Soqaga’s book.
“Again my mind went to Dr Adele King’s superb book on Camara Laye too as I went through Soqaga’s new book-length study on Bolaji. King really loved her topic and did the background research; and her illuminating essays on Camara Laye continue to stand the test of time after decades.
“Yes, as usual the book is not immune from criticism, but the overall picture is a brilliant work that adds cubits to our literature. Soqaga cosmetically appears to over-praise Bolaji, but when you look at the latter’s achievements and impact, can it really be dubbed over-praising?
“Also the author (Soqaga) as an established pan Africanist, seems to overstretch allied ideas in this wise many times – eg his analysis of Bolaji’s Tebogo and the bacchae – where Soqaga spends too much time on Pa Phafoli’s death because he was an intrepid freedom fighter, Africanist and sage, etc. But at least the author is true to his ideals…”

Raphael Mokoena also commended the book; as his review reveals:

“Here is yet another book that takes a look at Mr Bolaji’s literary corpus; or put in another way, this is the latest study on Bolaji’s work in book form. And this new work is as close to a panegyric as anything.

“The author in his powerful Introduction (which it appears we must read together with the “Overview”) explains that it has taken him about five years to put this book together. This shows that here is a writer who takes pain with his writings; and there is enough evidence here to show Soqaga is an avid researcher too.

“Soqaga has in fact been known in the Free State for his Pan-Africanism – which with him comes close to being a dogged defence of more or less everything “African”; his approach (as revealed in his publications in newspapers etc) is quite reminiscent of the old Negritude in Africa. He is also a humanist (think ‘ubuntu’ here, in South African context) and again this is clear from his varying analyses in this work. His critical essays here keep on harping on ideas of humaneness, pacificist trends, and he applies this to examining the fictional works of Bolaji.

“Despite his intense critical mind, the author actually heaps lots of praise on Omoseye Bolaji as a writer in this work. The praise is direct, quite gushing and would probably be embarrassing to a Eurocentric critic or commentator.

“But this is precisely the point. Soqaga’s approach is completely ‘African’, and singing the praises of “heroes” comes naturally for Africans. Can we for example imagine a white praise-singer in Europe or America? Soqaga set out his stall long ago (In other writings) and makes no apologies for this…”

Julia Mooi, a woman also reviewed Soqaga’s maiden work. Inter alia she commented:

“I was particularly happy that Soqaga dwells in length on the novel, People of the townships which is a favourite of mine. There is some disagreement on the way Bolaji portrays women in his fiction; but I think that it is obvious he enjoys portraying most central women in his books as the so-called femme fatale. This is particularly clear in the Tebogo Mystery series.

“From Susan in Tebogo Investigates (2000), to Neo in Tebogo and the epithalamion (2009) these “irresistible women” often cause havoc, and Tebogo’s weakness towards these women (though he is happily married) can hardly be concealed.

“In the latest Tebogo book, Tebogo and the bacchae (2012) we have at least two examples of femmes fatale that stand out. Lolita, early in the book; and then of course Thobeka. There is thus nothing to suggest Bolaji would change this approach in his works in general.

“Hence, People of the Townships (not a Tebogo adventure) is intriguing in his own way. The protagonist, John Lefuo has been rightly described as a misanthrope. This negative approach seems to affect even his “romantic” life, or the lack of one. His erstwhile girlfriend, Alice Memela has a child by him but despite this John certainly does not like her.

“So can we then assume (though never stated) that Alice was a sort of femme fatale too?; or how else could a man of apparently high moral values like John have been attracted to her initially? The problem in the narration is that John’s (now) strong dislike for her colours the way she is presented. If it was true that she was piling up boyfriends so easily, does this not suggest that she was a lovely, charming lady?

“And there are other questions we might still ask. Why is the baby being brought up in the Lefuo household? What was the real reason that made John break up with her apart from her “promiscuity”?

“Many readers, especially we females of course, were not happy that John Lefuo kills Alice in the end; mainly because of the possible future plight of their child. It is a concern critic Ishmael Soqaga shares in this new study. Soqaga writes:

“It is very sad John would have to go to jail for the murder he had committed against Alice the mother of his daughter. To many, it is extremely unbelievable that a person like John will do such a horrific, malicious act against a woman. John in the first place was a decent man who dislikes “immoral” acts, he is brilliant and he always has a good vision about the spread of literature among the blacks in the township. He likes to read and is quite frank that he knows lots of things but is quite surprising at the very same time how John decided to end the life of his ex-girlfriend...

“It might be argued that John was supposed to let Alice live and ignore her as he did with other girls like Rose and so on and allow her to live the life of “fun” as she preferred. What is the point here? John, as his mother worried about him when she was still alive, and knew very well that he was only partially accepted in his family house. Also, what about his daughter who will be in care of John’s family? One hopes that John will continue with his ambitious adventure of reading and writing books in jail...”

In 2013 Soqaga published his second book, Promoting Quintessential African writing. It has been well received too; for example PAUL LOTHANE commented in part:

"Going through this work reveals that … the author in not only doing his research for the book, but also unearthing some fascinating facts about “African literacy and writing” over the centuries. Of course in modern times many African writers from all the continent’s countries have published hundreds of books; thousands actually.

"And this is where Soqaga comes into his own element. It is clear that he appreciates the world of literacy and creativity, and he is utterly impressed with the fact that the African continent has produced so many fine writers and countless books too. The lesson for Africans here is that whilst they continue to “worship” Eurocentric authors,they must remember that Africa has many outstanding writers too.

"Soqaga singles out “five case studies of outstanding African writers”– Chinua Achebe, Armah, Wole Soyinka, Es’kia Mphahlele and Ngugi. It is an illustrious list, but this might itself spark controversy. The problem is that there are many other outstanding African writers over the decades – for example Zakes Mda and Ben Okri are also among theall-time greats. And what about Nobel Winner Naguib Mahfouz?

"There appears to be a general trend among lovers of books, writing,literature, who happen to be Africans. Talk to most of them about their favourite authors and books, and one can be certain they will invariably reel out Eurocentric authors and their books. Many of them will go into raptures over the “classics” without even realizing that
there are scores of African classics too.

Come to think of it, it IS shameful that so many of us who claim to love books hardly know anything about African authors and their work. The majority will probably know about Achebe and Ngugi, but will they know more than a couple or so of books they have published? Remember even Achebe and Ngugi between them have published almost 100 books! How much more any knowledge about the many other fine writers Soqaga introduces in his book?

"Such prolific African writers Soqaga mentions in his book (including titles of many of their books) include Naguib Mahfouz, Ngugi wa Thiongo Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Taban Lo Liyong, Kole Omotosho, Meja Mwangi, Buchi Emecheta, Ama A. Aidoo, O. Bolaji, David G Maillu (who has published some 60 books!), Cyprian Ekwensi among others. ..”

On his own part, Raphael Mokoena believed that “ Soqaga is an author who does not compromise in any way when it comes to promoting what he believes is “African”.” He adds: “ Inevitably he would step on some toes and probably irritate some in the process, but from the point of view of Black Africans (who for centuries have had a raw deal in world history) his commitment is very much welcome.

"But what actually impressed me most is the last part of the book, where the author goes into details on “prolific African writers” over the decades, including many of the books they have published. This is very informative and timely, especially nowadays when younger African readers lack guidance in the world of literature; and many other
general lovers of African writing are also in the dark too.

"Hence this new work fills a gap, and the gap in question is not just a question of a few years, or a few countries. Soqaga compiles a list of many African writers who hail from all over the continent – from the vibrant west Africa; north Africa, East Africa (eg Ngugi, Meja Mwangi, and David Maillu) – to Southern African writers too. This is not only excellent as a guide for us all, but also for further reference and research purposes.

"I have mentioned David Maillu above; (no, I must confess I did not really know about him before) as an outstanding and very prolific African author. But thanks to this new book, I can appreciate Maillu’s feats now. It is also encouraging to see that a number of prolific African female writers are included too, like Ama Ata Aidoo and Buchi

"The reader of this book is also struck by the fact that the focus is Afro-centric; not local, regional or national. It appears that for Soqaga Africa is one; its travails and achievements, which includes arts and culture. Hence he even goes down memory lane to centuries ago when Sankori University was apparently very famous (that’s in current
Mali, I believe)

"Another thing is that Soqaga talks about Africans in Diaspora, including the millions of “blacks” in the USA who have never, and will never visit Africa – as if they were all authentic Africans. This can be a bit confusing a-times but the logic is understandable; Africans in Diaspora are largely offspring of African slaves whisked away overseas centuries ago. Hence Soqaga can boast about the contributions to literature by African-Americans like Du Boise, Ralph Ellison and Booker T Washington.

"The overall picture that emerges is that it is unwise to undermine Africa, past and present where literature is concerned. The author is not even afraid to take on the late, illustrious Saul Bellow (Nobel Laureate in Literature) who apparently was no great fan of African Writing, among others. There is also an interesting Appendix, or rather “Further Reading” at the end of the book, which one would find useful if one could lay hands on some of these works!...”

Leke Giwa was “struck by the approach of the author – when near the end of the book, he refers to case studies of five “outstanding African writers” – Achebe, Ngugi, Ayi Kwei Armah, Es’kia Mphahlele, and Wole Soyinka. This is followed by a long list of “prolific” African writers. ..”

Giwa however found a glitch here: “The problem is that many a-reader could be confused here; thinking that the “outstanding” writers should not be prolific; or/and the “prolific” ones might lack enough quality. This is not the case. The first thing to point out is that largely, even these “outstanding” writers are prolific themselves.

“Chinua Achebe, though famed globally for “Things fall apart” published many other books; at least 20 of them, including other brilliant novels, essays, short stories, criticism and the like. The same applies to Ngugi wa Thiong’o who has published some 30 books too. South Africa’s Es’kia Mphahlele, a literary pioneer during his lifetime, published all this and more too; at least 20 books in his case!

"As for Ayi Kwei Armah, the Ghanaian writer, he might not have published up to twenty books, but we must remember that the world class novels he is now famous for were largely published within a period of ten years (around 1968 to 1978). The works include The beautyful ones are not yet born, Fragments, 2000 seasons, and The Healers) Armah also later published other novels which further put him on the map.

“In fairness to author Soqaga, he does at least point out briefly that in the case of Wole Soyinka, he has been very prolific too: “On my own part I am very proud that many African writers have been prolific in their output…David Maillu for example, has published over 60 books; and Nobel award winner Soyinka might well have surpassed this figure (60)…” (Page 30, Promoting Quintessential African Writing, by I.M
Soqaga). And no one would doubt the shining quality of Soyinka’s works despite his being prolific! But perhaps we should not dwell on prolificacy too much. ..”

Giwa concludes: “Whilst bearing this in mind, one should still commend our African writers, especially those who are BOTH qualitative and prolific; I am sure the author, Ishmael Soqaga will appreciate my perspective here.

Soqaga’s third book (2014) was intriguingly titled: Ishmael Mzwandile Soqaga
Approaching this work, one is reminded of a comment from Google Books on the work: “The thing about Mr Soqaga is that he never compromises where black dignity is concerned. As we see in this work, this tinctures everything he writes...”

Indeed, the BLURB of the book is almost effusive:
“This is an excellent introduction to the corpus of writing churned out by black Africans over the centuries, including the prolific authors who now dot the continent in recent times. this is a work that instils pride and satisfaction into every African who has perhaps pondered the crucial question: as to what the people and the continent have contributed to global arts and culture in world history?

The author, Ishmael Mzwandile Soqaga is an essayist, author, pan-Africanist and sports enthusiast based in Mangaung, Free state, South Africa. this is his second book.”

On my own part when this work first appeared, I thought it would include lots of other literary work pertaining to the protagonist. For example his interviews; and also his essays on other writers like Lorraine Hansberry. For me this book is more like a sample, or one that whets the appetite, as it were.

Leke Giwa obviously enjoyed this work too; as he commented on it: “This is a book that celebrates literature, African literature. The enthusiasm of the author is endless, and it can be no coincidence that his comments and reviews are always positive.

"Ishmael Mzwandile Soqaga (by the way, he is a South African essayist and literary critic) is interested in writers from all over the continent. In this book he refers a lot to a wide range of writers and authors.

"Specifically in at least three separate essays, he writes about writers who have died in recent times: "the peerless" Chinua Achebe, Obi Egbuna and Apantaku. He even lists most of the works published by these writers, which is good.   This is how Soqaga concludes about Achebe: "To be honest as a young black South African, I am deeply
proud of the colossal, mammoth, phenomenal and imperative literary contributions of the great Achebe!"

"Soqaga himself has published a number of books, this latest one being the third, I believe. In the early parts of this work we see some essays and critiques on Soqaga's own work. Thereafter he reproduces many essays he himself has penned on a number of books/authors. His language is often colourful, ecstatic and adjectival. Some samples here.

Throbbing South African Black Literature (edited by C Mautjana) "This book is gripping and absolutely whets the appetite for going through it again and again. It is an anthology which contains profound, enchanting essays and reviews from different writers. The book is a panoply of literary appreciation which focuses on the growth of black literature in SA".

Secrets (by Matshidiso Taleng) "As we witness the great thriving moment for Matshidiso, simultaneously we must feel worried about women's conditions in Africa. Many women are experiencing predicament situation in their lives; they are constant abuse victims, rape, molestation and chances for them to blossom are thwarted by an unequal world where man is still predominant. Infelicitous misery and anguish that women are faced with in today's life are unacceptable..."

From "A Trio of Poets": "I really relished reading the poems of the three remarkable bards... They are quite interesting and they are intended to furnish imperative insights into our is good to see African writers unequivocally raising these serious continental issues in their writings; this is necessary as it suffuses awareness about the demon of xenophobia..."

Also: "It will be injudicious for me to avoid mentioning that Thaisi and Mzamo in their poems also pay great tributes to the now late world icon, Nelson Mandela. I strongly believe that the time for our African people at grassroots level to familiarise themselves with literature is imminent..."

This year (2015) Soqaga has published a new book, Glimpses into African literature. Once again the blurb is spot-on:

“This book brings together shorter essays on a variety of South African, and African writers. The writers focused on include Njabulo Ndebele, Mbulelo Mzamane, Flaxman Qoopane, Don Mattera, Grace Ogot, Okot p'bitek, Assia Djebar, Ishmael Mzwandile Soqaga, Amos Tutuola, Asare Konadu, Ayi Kwei Armah, Pule Lebuso, Mariama Ba, O Bolaji, Camara Laye, Peter Abrahams, among others.
The editor, Mr Ishmael Mzwandile Soqaga is an award-winning essayist, literary critic, Pan-Africanist and sports enthusiast. He has already published three books, including the much-discussed work, Promoting Quintessential African Writing. Mr Soqaga lives in Mangaung, Free State,"

Yet again, on a personal note I would have loved critic Pule Lechesa's work, no matter how miniscule, to have been represented here - I have in mind particularly Lechesa"s exclusive interview with legendary Zakes Mda. But it was not to be. But this work does have a pan-African look.

Soqaga in the formal Introduction to the book, in quite emotional vein, writes:
“I truly love African literature - a passion that often makes me rather an odd man out in my society, many times. Others who should know better also try to pull me down, undermine my efforts for our continent but this is part of the tragedy of Africa.

"Nevertheless I remain undaunted by negative forces; I continue to read books, review some of them, and engage in activities that will uplift literacy and literature in our society. I continue to be very excited about our African writers, essays and critiques and interviews on them. ..

Soqaga adds in the Introduction: “I have been a Pan-Africanist for years, hence my vision is not confined only to my country, South Africa. I love reading about authors from all over our continent, and writing about them (e.g my essay on east African writer, Okot p'bitek, is one of my firm favourites and is reproduced in this work.)…”

In a formal Review of the new book, Henry Ozogula writes: “Let us admit it: this book is a very fine introduction to African literature in general; with a title that is both apt and concise.

"What would probably impress the reader most is that the literature -or literatures - described here covers the whole continent. The editor is a South African, and we do have essays on South African writers like Njabulo Ndebele, Pule Lebuso, Don Mattera, Mbulelo Mzamane, Peter Abrahams, Flaxman Qoopane among others.

"But there are many other essays covering writers/and/or their books from east Africa (Grace Ogot and Okot p'bitek). From central Africa Mbella Sonne Dipoko is featured; the late Assia Djebar from north Africa is profiled in this work too.

“West Africa has always been vibrant in literature, and here we have essays on the likes of Ola Rotimi and Amos Tutuola,(both Nigerians) Asare Konadu,(Ghana), Camara Laye (Guinea); and there is an interesting essay on Omoseye Bolaji written by Tiisetso Thiba.  Bolaji himself contributes four essays to this work. ..

“The essays in this work are generally short and very readable. And informative. It is astounding how even the shortest essays here introduce and encourage us to read other works. The essay on Mbella Sonne Dipoko (Cameroonian writer) for example makes references to other writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wole Soyinka, and
Naiwu Osahon.

Mr Ishmael Soqaga the editor of this work contributes six essays (plus the Introduction) - he continues to showcase his love for African literature. This book is certainly a must for anybody interested in African writing over the decades.”

Unequivocally, Ishmael Mzwandile Soqaga’s first four books epitomize what he truly is all about, and his vision: Pan-Africanism; and a consuming love for African literature in

       My profound gratitude to all the reviewers of Soqaga’s work mentioned here, who very kindly gave me permission to reproduce many of their comments in this overview


  1. A sublime package...Mr Soqaga's critical appraisals keep on growing by leaps and bounds...quite uncanny

  2. Stunningly comprehensive..on this evidence even the most hard-headed critic might well be tempted to say: "Soqaga surely destined for greatness"?

  3. Well done again Mr Bolaji! What a 'tribute' to Mr Soqaga! This year Mr Bolaji has penned at least two wonderful essays, one on Mr Qoopane; and now this even longer one on Soqaga. Allegedly 'retired', Bolaji is still doing great things for African literature...