Are you a Ghanaian? Do you enjoy speculative fiction? Ever heard of Bernard Kojo Laing? No? Sadly, you are not alone. Until news of his death reached me from the unlikeliest of news sources on Facebook — the African Fantasy Reading Group — I had no idea who he was. But it gets worse from there, and that is how and why I cared. Bernard Kojo Laing, formally known as Kojo Laing, was reported to have died on Thursday, 20th April 2017.
But who exactly was he?
Kojo Laing was a highly-acclaimed novelist and poet whose works have been described as perceptive in homage, lyric in style and stunningly original as he draws inspiration from the influence of surrealism on occasion, and masterfully combines elements of the fantastic, the real and the futuristic in a landscape of supernatural realism. He was a linguistic mastermind “in a class of his own.”
His first novel, Search Sweet Country, was published in 1986 to critical acclaim and accolades as “one of the greatest novels ever to come out of the African continent.” Uzodinma Iweala, writing for the Slate Book Review, described its allure in the surreal as like “reading a dream”, for “each page delivers an intense blast of vivid imagery, a world in which landscapes come to life when inanimate objects receive human characterizations.” It’s layered complexity was lauded by Publishers Weekly as an “intricate, beautifully rambling novel” that “weaves together philosophical musings” to “create an atmosphere of simultaneity” in “a compelling and rewarding read.” With the publication of his third novel, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars in 1992, a futurist novel set in 2020 AD, Kojo Laing by rights entrenched his mark as one of the great pioneers of Afro-futurism and African Speculative Fiction in general.
But more fundamental to his works is the fact that Kojo Laing was a Ghanaian. Born in Kumasi in the Ashanti Region, his works solemnly reflected his African heritage. So, it is little wonder his second novel, Woman of the Aeroplanes, published in 1988, was “firmly rooted in Asante folklore”as his work “weaves a narrative out of the lives of more than a dozen characters in and around Accra” and Ghana. Case in point, Kojo Laing was a Ghanaian, not only Ghanaian by his origin, but a Ghanaian by his works. His works sung of the land of his birth in the literary heights.
Sadly, he is no more! Will the land sing him a deserving elegy in recognition of his stellar achievements in homage?
Geoffrey Charles Ryman, a Canadian writer of science fiction and fantasy laments in the aforementioned literary group: “Really depressed over Kojo Laing. Searches for news of his death in Ghanaian newspapers produces nothing.” And he was spectacularly right. As far as I could tell, the collective Ghanaian media eerily echoed the sound of silent on the matter. So, Ryman rightly asked, “His death is not news in Ghana?”
This lament is not only apt but also drives home to the heart of the state of the literary landscape in Ghana where many would rather wade in the quagmire of unproductive click-bait entertainment than opt to read or write something worthwhile. Indeed, you will be hard pressed to find any recognition even for Laing’s recent work, Big Bishop Rokoand the Altar Gangsters, published in 2006 by Woeli Publishing Services, and the 2012 reissued Search Sweet Country, in the Ghanaian mainstream media. The foreign press has largely digested and analyzed his works, even in constructive criticism of his bewildering and dense prose that “should carry a warning.” Yet, the Ghanaian press keeps warm in their shroud of apathy and sleeps blissfully to their song of silence.
Should this be the case for one whose work Binyavanga Wainaina, a winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, described in his introduction as the as “The finest novel written in English ever to come out of the African continent”?
Here is an undoubtedly cultural gift in a man of immense talent whose passing away should ignite a national zeal for the literary heritage he left behind, that even the unacquainted should get wind of his footprints in the arts, and come to know of his deserved legacy in the pioneering of speculative fiction in African Literature. The glaring absence of this cries a bitter truth: the Ghanaian literary atmosphere seems to be sadly and unapologetically under a deep veil of the indifferent darkness. The flames have long grown dim and the remnant embers struggle to keep alight.
Whatever happened to literature in Ghana.
To be fair, all hope is not lost. There is much that is fair in the latent and upcoming literary enthusiasts that inspire optimism. The team at siro360, freshly founded by Rita Kusi, for instance, aims to encourage “storytelling. . . to tell and share Ghanaian stories and stories from Africa that redefine us.” A redefinition, they say! How very appropriate. This is as appropriate as the title of the initiative suggests, that Ghana indeed needs a 360 turnaround especially in the literary and creative space among the young generation. A testament to their success since their launch two years ago is embossed in the fact that the winner of their inaugural writers’ challenge, Michael Osei Agyapong, and a runner-up to the second edition the following year, Nana Yaa Asantewaa Asante-Darko, went on to win the prestigious national prizes of the Ghana Writers Award and the CEGENSA “Ama Ata Aidoo Short Story Competition” respectively in pole position last year. This is surely a promising start to the redefinition they dream of.
The redefinition of the state of literature in Ghana that longs for tomorrow and breaks the night.
May the death of Bernard Kojo Laing and its exposure of the negative attitude towards literature in Ghana set ablaze all who yearn for innovation, inspiration, and imagination, that the sparks in literary and creative enthusiasm may be salvaged and harnessed to grow ever brighter and brighter, and herald a new dawn in a renaissance of the literary arts and beyond.