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Opinions of Saturday, 15 October 2011

Columnist: Tawiah-Benjamin, Kwesi

Re: Why Use the Name DAWSON For an African Novel?

I thought black America would descend on Republican presidential hopeful Hermann Cain, like hungry hyenas, when he called them brainwashed and not open-minded. And, frankly, I hoped they did, but now I am beginning to see his point. African-Americans may have been brainwashed into voting Democrats, but some Ghanaians/Africans have also been brainwashed into believing that any African who does not have an indigenous African name is necessarily brainwashed. And as if imperialism did not slap us in the face hard enough, they have the temerity to literally wash their brain at public forums and spit out the tissues for all to see how brainwashed they really are.

Kwei Quartey has done what appears to be an instant unputdownable: Children of the Street. It is his second. He had ventured into the virgin genre of crime fiction. We don’t have many of these. Denis M’Passou’s Murder in the Interest of the Church is old enough. Quartey’s is a bold attempt at a thriller. And it is a good size, too: 335 pages of readable fiction by a medical doctor who has the intellectual flexibility to keep the stethoscope around his neck while ‘recollecting emotions’ in the laboratory. The Kofi Amenyo review (I am looking forward to meeting this man) had made scholarship come alive in Quartey. This is the kind of stuff that receives praise and commendation in the book review segments of The New York Times and the Guardian in England. A good work deserves a Mazal tov.

Not on our side of the Jordan. Instead of using her fine language skills to aid Amenyo’s efforts, a poetess sits in the comfort of her living room in far away Pennsylvania and queries: “Oh! African intellectuals! Why even use the name Dawson?” Is that all she could see in the review? Amenyo had taken pains to present a clear, tasteful picture of the suspenseful details in this thriller. He had done this in succinct, creative diction. None of these makes sense to Akadu Ntiriwa Mensema. She would rather Kwei Quartey had changed Dawson’s name to Opanyin Aboagye or Owura Danso-Abeam

What is wrong with the name Dawson? And Rockson. And Peterson. And Smith. And Benjamin. And Sonnet. Just about a fortnight ago, I made public my own insecurities and suspicions about the reason behind the removal of the N word in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The N word (the reason why the book was banned) was historically and contextually accurate for the period of Finn. Does changing the N word to anything else correct the evils of slavery? Some critics think it is an unfortunate bastardisation of history.

Let’s assume Quartey had used Opanyin Aboagye in place of Dawson. Is nomenclature the only thing that defines our traditional African/Ghanaian identity? After Akadu, another had commented that the setting of the book is not appropriate. He thinks it should be set (both in time and place) in Brooklyn, NY. In all, Amenyo’s brilliant efforts received 9 comments on the ghanaweb forum. Only one of these was a compliment. The rest were bitter critiques expressed in satirical, hyperbolic prose...well poetry.

Oh! African intellectuals! Professor Akadu Mensema is a global asset and a public intellectual. That is not being charitable at all, even though I like to think of many budding pre-scholars as intellectuals of repute. She is an intelligent lady. I don’t take a PhD for granted. Not me. I don’t have one. I find I need some unlearning to do to start learning again. She teaches Africa area studies at a university in America. I am wondering how many times she has volunteered on her sabbatical to teach her brand of poetry at University of Ghana or Cape Coast. I benefited from the lectures of Ama Atta Aidoo, Kofi Awoonor and in a second-hand sense, Wole Soyinka. Many an Akadu would feel honoured to teach for free at Harvard than volunteer at next door University of Suhum, where students are always in need of lecturers.

The world may be far from a global village because globalisation has not quite succeeded. But globalisation, if it ever works, both in concept and in practice, would mean that Ghanaians should feel comfortable borrowing from the systems and development paradigms of other countries. You are not less African if you make a hero of Clinton instead of Kufour. Never mind that not many Americans have African heroes. You are not less Ghanaian if you name your child Alistair Smith-Yeboah or Velma Tabiri. Soon, globalisation may even mean some Ghanaians calling themselves Jesus, a name that is so common is Spanish speaking countries. Is Jesus Tweneboah Kodua such a bad name for a member of parliament?

They have often talked of a slave mentality if an African dines with the former colonial powers. From the days of the House Negro, we have lived on suspicions of misplaced loyalty and negotiated identity. Today, we may not live in the house of the master to be called a traitor, but these suspicions still follow us. Must a novel necessarily portray Okwonkwo, Ananse, or Anowa to be deemed African? Things Fall Apart was a classic. And it was not because of the multisyllabic names of Obierika and Ikemefuna, or Okwonkwo’s yams. It addressed important issues. Kwei Quartey has told a good story in Children of the Street. Does it matter whether it is a Dawson?

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin

Ottawa, Canada