Taban Lo Liyong

views updated


Nationality: Sudanese. Born: Kajo Kaji, in 1939. Education: Bobi Full Primary School, 1945–51; Gulu High School, 1952–54; Sir Samuel Baker School, 1955–57; National Teachers College, Kyambogo, 1958–59, teachers certificate; Knoxville College, Tennessee, 1962–63; Howard University, Washington, D.C., B.A. in literature and journalism 1966; University of Iowa (International Writers Workshop Fellow), Iowa City, M.F.A. 1968. Family: Married 1) Lucy Apiyo in 1964, two children; 2) Janet Khemisa Michael in 1978, four children. Career: Tutorial fellow, Institute of African Studies, 1968–69, and lecturer in English, 1969–75, University of Nairobi; exchange lecturer, University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 1972; chair and senior lecturer, Literature Department, University of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, 1975–77; senior public relations officer, 1978–79, senior lecturer, College of Adult Education and Training, 1980–82, and staff member, 1985–93, Literature Unit, College of Education, University of Juba. Visiting professor of literature, 1995, since 1996 professor of literature, and since 1998 professor and head of the Centre for African Studies, University of Venda, South Africa. Visiting professor, National Museum of Ethnology at Osaka, 1993–94; inaugural visiting professor, Curtin University, Perth, Australia, 1994–95; visiting summer lecturer, University of Western Australia, January 1995. Elected representative of Kajo Kaji Constituency, 1982–85, and chair of Committee of Culture and Information, 1982–83, Southern Peoples Regional Assembly, Juba; chair, Committee of Legislation and Economic Affairs, 1983–85, and acting deputy speaker, 1984–85, Peoples Regional Assembly, Equatorial Region. Founder and editor, with Alan Ogot, MILA, Nairobi, 1969. Address: Faculty of Arts, University of Venda, Private Bag x5050, Thohoyandou, 1950, Venda, South Africa.



Eating Chiefs: Lwo Culture from Lolwe to Malkal. London, Heinemann, 1970; New York, Humanities Press, 1971.

Frantz Fanon's Uneven Ribs: With Poems More and More. London, Heinemann, 1971.

Another Nigger Dead. London, Heinemann, 1972.

Ballads of Underdevelopment: Poems and Thoughts. Kampala, East African Literature Bureau, 1974.

The Cows of Shambat, Sudanese Poems. Harare, Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1992.

Words That Melt a Mountain. Nairobi, East African EducationalPublishers, 1996.

Homage to Onyame. Lagos, Malthouse Press, 1997.

Carrying Knowledge up a Palm Tree. Lawrenceville, New Jersey, Third World Press, 1998.


Meditations in Limbo. Nairobi, Equatorial, 1970.

Meditations. London, Rex Collings, 1978.

Short Stories

Fixions and Other Stories. London, Heinemann, 1969.

The Uniformed Man. Nairobi, East African Publishing House, 1971.


The Last Word: Cultural Synthesism. Nairobi, East African Publishing House, 1969.

Popular Culture of East Africa: Oral Literature. Nairobi, Longman, 1972.

Thirteen Offensives Against Our Enemies. Nairobi, East African Literature Bureau, 1973.

The Universal Variety of Negritude. Port Moresby, University ofPapua New Guinea Press, 1976.

Another Last Word. Nairobi, Heinemann, 1990.

Culture Is Rutan. Nairobi, Longman, 1991.

Reconstituting the Sudan(s). Florida Hill, Vivlia Publishers, 1998.

Editor, Sir Apolo Kagwa Discovers England, by Ham Mukasa, translated by Ernest Millar. London, Heinemann, 1975.

Editor, Women in Folktales and Short Stories of Africa. Pietersburg, Azalea Publishers, 1997.


Critical Studies: "New Poetry: Taban lo Liyong" by Paddy Kitchen, in The Scotsman (Edinburgh), 11 December 1971; "A Collection of Lwo Tales: Eating Chiefs by Taban lo Liyong" in Target (Nairobi), January 1972; "Taban lo Liyong: Another Nigger Dead" by Eldred D. Jones, in African Literature Today, 6, 1972; "The Tabanic Genre" by Chris Wanjala, in Standpoints on African Literature: A Critical Anthology, edited by Wanjala, Nairobi, East African Literature Bureau, 1973; "Poet Who Speaks in Riddles: Another Nigger Dead by Taban lo Liyong" by Patrick de Souza, in New Nation (Singapore), 13 January 1973; "Taban lo Liyong," in Understanding African Poetry: A Study of Ten Poets, by Ken Goodwin, London, Heinemann, 1982; "Bibliyongraphy, or Six Tabans in Search of an Author" by Peter Nazareth, in The Writing of East and Central Africa, editedby G.D. Killam, London, Heinemann, 1984; "Characteristics of Absurdist African Literature: Taban lo Liyong's Fixions-A Study in the Absurd," in African Studies Review (Atlanta, Georgia), 27(1), March 1984, and "Taban lo Liyong's The Uniformed Man: A Reconstructivist and Metafictional Parody of Modernism," in Language and Style (Flushing, New York), 24(3), summer 1991, both by F. Odun Balogun; "Black Consciousness in East and South African Poetry: Unity and Divergence in the Poetry of Taban Lo Liyong and Sipho Sepamla" by Ezenwa-Ohaeto, in Presence Africaine (Paris, France), 140, 1986; "Cultural Synthesis: A Language Plan for the 1980s" by Carol M. Eastman, in ACLALS Bulletin, 7(6), 1986; "Taban lo Liyong's Short Stories: A Western Form of Art?" by Frank Schulze, in World Literature Written in English (Singapore), 26(2), autumn 1986; "Yet Another Word with Taban" by Wahome Mutahi, in African Literature Association Bulletin, 18(3), summer 1992; "Taban Lo Liyong in South Africa" by Stephen Gray, in ALA Bulletin, 23(4), autumn 1997.

Taban lo Liyong comments:

Banana bye-laws
This shall be proclaimed from
The Papal Sea and the Imam's Minaret
The Jewish Synagogue and the Gentile's Rooftop
The Philistine's Market-place and Kaffir's Palaver
The Military Police's HQ and the Witchdoctor's Den:
The new bye-law is this:
No banana shall be called a banana
Unless it is dressed.
Previously, somethings had passed for bananas
Whereas they were not:
Some were green, yellow, brown, pink, black:
These couldn't all have been bananas.
In order to qualify for a banana
It must be dressed in the specified jacket
Which jacket must be watertight expandable
And made from the best Thai silk.
And the qualified banana-lucky fellow-
Must wear his jacket up to his neck
And it must remain in place all night
Or till the party comes to a close.
Previously all those raw, unseemly naked so-called bananas
Attended parties undressed with disastrous consequences:
Hence the need for this sartorial regulation.
So, boys, if you cultivate bananas
And would like to take them to parties
Make sure you have a wardrobe of jackets
Of the finest make, appropriate size and fit
And party givers must check
Quite early before the party begins
That the jackets are in position
And that the banana is dressed for partying
On no ground should an undressed banana
Be permitted to attend a party:
The penalty for this is death
By the slow wasting away of the trunk.
Given under my seal
He who lives for ever
Akhenaten II, Beloved of Isis
King of Upper and Lower Worlds
Wearer of the Double Diadems
Under Constant Protection of the Ureaus
In His Twelfth Year of Accession:
Good Health and Peace to all.
*  *  *

Taban lo Liyong is a prolific writer. After what he calls the "First Harvest"—a spate of collections published in the 1970s, most of which are no longer available in bookshops—he produced a "Second Harvest" of several titles, four of them poetry, that have been published or prepared for publication, while a "Third Harvest" is being gathered. In itself this seasonal division points both to his originality and to his rootedness in the tradition of his agricultural forebears. Inspired by both traditional forms and modern experiment, he produces subtle and often very funny poems out of, and very much beyond, the pain and confusion that afflict the Sudanese community to which he belongs.

Taban lo Liyong's suspicion of conventional thinking and standard attitudes is obvious in almost everything he writes. It is particularly clear in lines such as

Normalcy, normalcy, normalcy
I detest thee.
Borne of the Joneses who mean well;
The priests of old and juju witches;
The advertising men;
Or, the modern psychiatrists,
I detest thee, normalcy.

It is also to be found in his distrust of the negritude movement: "Yet Sedar Senghor maintains /we are the people of passion." One of his first published collections, Eating Chiefs, testifies to his interest in the cultural tradition of his Luo people. Over the years he has collected and retold creatively an impressive number of tales or epics. While his poems are oriented toward the present and the future, they draw on tradition, not only through references to traditional characters and events and in his fablelike use of animals but also in their form. He uses epigrams that are close to riddles, or he tells moral lessons, often in long "epicaresque" narratives that use to the full the oral devices of repetitions and scansion, sometimes in balanced sentences that acquire the status of proverbs.

Taban lo Liyong is a thinker-poet, but by self-definition he is a "law-less" not a "rule-full" poet. He is a poet within the tradition established by his ancestors, though in the same poem ("The Best Poets," in Frantz Fanon's Uneven Ribs) he goes on to mention the American poets e.e. cummings and Ezra Pound as "the best artisans /with ears for sounds" and ends with an amused flourish:

they write
like me.

Taban lo Liyong is also a teacher-poet. His use of paradoxes and his elusiveness prompt the reader to an increased degree of alertness. From the way they begin, his poems rarely say exactly what readers expect them to say. A true disciple of Nietzsche, he delights in paradoxes, in developing apparently contradictory statements. In fact, he often shifts unobtrusively from one standpoint to another so that the altered perspective makes for a completely different perception. The tone is somehow bent in midcourse and the meaning of key terms twisted around, and eventually the reader is left questioning previously accepted ideas. For instance, he begins the first poem in Another Nigger Dead with fairly sarcastic references to tragedy in relation to "African coups":

it is not tragedy
if the risks are not mammoth
it is no tragedy
>if only few common peoples lives are involved.

Yet tragedy gradually emerges as a major teaching force in man's life. Those who have read too much Sartre or Artaud are, he maintains, "well indoctrinated against shedding tears," "emancipated from feelings," and therefore free to be callous. In a completely different register, the shorter poem that begins "Don't follow the big wheel" records and questions a number of easy slogans and ends with the terseness of a positive exhortation: "Do." In his subtle oscillation between positive and negative poles it is often difficult to determine at which point irony comes into play.

Taban lo Liyong is often bitingly ironical, but his irony does not indicate an absence of concern. In his verse the private man is not kept separate from the public one, and candid autobiographical revelations occur next to his censure of social ills. He is a committed writer and in his way a political activist, but he is one who keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek for fear of its turning into wood, one who makes it a rule always to be utterly unpredictable.

During the 1980s and 1990s Sudan has been torn by fierce civil war fed, to some extent, by international interests. In such a time writers may seem helpless. To Hölderlin's question of the point of writing poetry in times of crises, Taban lo Liyong has given a definite answer: to laugh and make us laugh, to prompt awareness through laughter, as did the fools of old.

—Christine Pagnoulle