Eileen Julien sees the search for oral origins in African literature as a quest for African authenticity. She critiques and revises the conceptual category of orality as it has been understood and used by scholars, stressing the transformation of narrative genres as an index of socio-political relations and authorial vision.
Julien examines the premise that the connection between oral tradition and the novel is a sign of continuity and authenticity; she demonstrates that the premise is, in part, a response to the dominance of Eurocentric criticism. Critics in the West and in Africa have come to accept an essentialist view that writing is European and orality, African. Thus studies of the relationship between oral and written texts are often tautological (the novel is European, "orality" makes it authentically African). Or they lead to problematic or simplistic conclusions: the "incorporation" of oral materials sometimes enhances the novel, sometimes menaces it. African Novels and the Question of Orality argues that the adaptation of oral narrative genres is not a necessary feature of the novel but is, rather, an arbitrary one that expresses an imaginative solution to aesthetic and ideological problems: manipulation of genre reflects an author's narrative goals and social and ideological visions. Julien's argument emphasizes the writer's intent and allows for more complex interpretations of his or her work.
In part II of her study, Julien selects three generic tendencies (epic, initiation story, and fable) to use as the basis for detailed study of six novels. She reads each novel not as a "natural" derivation of an oral tradition but as a meaningful reappropriation of an oral narrative genre. That is to say, these genres may have origins in oral traditions, but they are adapted and transformed differentially--in specific, intricate, and significant ways. The novels of epic tendency, Hampate Ba's L'Etrange Destin de Wangrin (1974) and Ousmane Sembene's Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1960), reveal a range of adaptation. In the first, the categories of hero and object of the quest show degradation and thereby signal a decline in possibilities for heroism under colonialism. In the second, categories of hero and heroic action are revised, challenging the hierarchical norms implicit in the epic. The initiation story also bears evidence of differential adaptation. Camara Laye's Le Regard du roi (1954) nostalgically seeks to assert the old order, in which community and nature are one and supreme, while Jean-Marie Adiaffi's modifications in La Carte d'identite (1980) signal important changes in contemporary society--heterogeneity and new forces and issues--changes for which this metaphysical form seems inappropriate. In her examination of the fable, Julien shows that in the neo-colonial context, this genre lends itself to sophisticated experimentation in political discourse. Sony Labou Tansi's La Vie et demie (1979) and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Devil on the Cross (1982) caricature the puerile representatives of political and economic power through grotesque physical appetites and bodily deformations.
"This is an extremely well written and carefully argued book that is quite persuasive. It should be essential reading for every scholar in African literature.O NResearch in African Literatures O ... a bold challenge and a tool for the student as well as for the scholar in African literature, and also a veritable tour de force in comparative literature.O NWorld Literature Today OEileen Julien has produced an astute, well-researched, and lucidly written text on issues of orality in African literature.O NInternational Journal of African Historical Studies O ... a joy to read because of the precious clarity, infectious liveliness and concision with which Julien writes.O NAfrican Studies Review The search for oral origins in African literature is a quest for African authenticity. In a critique and revision of the conceptual category of orality as it has been understood and used by scholars, Julien stresses the transformation of narrative genres as an index of sociopolitical relations and authorial vision.