Abiola Irele: 1936-2017 by Adéléké Adéẹ̀kọ́

Olabode Ibironke's picture

"the elephant is more than something of which one says, ‘I caught a fleeting glimpse;’ if one saw an elephant, one should say so."

The African Literature Association regrets to announce the death of Professor Francis Abiola Irele, 17th president of the association (1991), and recipient, in 2015, of its highest service honor, the Distinguished Membership Award. Resilient eminence are the two words that come to mind when one reflects on the life and work of Professor Abiola Irele, doyen of African literary and cultural theory and criticism, publisher of note, frontline academic editor, great teacher, category-bending anthology maker, and one of the deepest among Africanist thinkers. Indeed, to describe Professor Irele as one with an inexhaustible fund of achievement epithets will be far from an overstatement. African Literature just got poorer with his passing. World Literature has just lost one of its cardinal bearings.

Abiola Irele’s legacy is vast and deep. He read fluently and wrote dexterously across many  modern literary traditions, earning advanced degrees at the University of Paris in French, and becoming one of the most important proponents of Francophone writing of the last half a century, often in predominantly English and Anglophone university environments in Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe. As professor, mentor, and administrator, he was at the forefront of the struggle to make African imagination the centerpiece of high scholarship at Ibadan, Legon, Ife, Dakar, Ohio State, Cambridge (UK), Harvard, and Kwara State University (Nigeria) where he served as the founding Provost of Humanities and Social Sciences. Perhaps because he saw as imperative the need to construct a unified African imagination, he also brought the most sophisticated critical reading apparatuses to the study of literatures and oratures in African languages.  

Irele’s many essays and numerous books on négritude, including The African Experience in Literature & Ideology, remain the beginning point for studying that foundational literary movement in modern African Literature. The historical approach in The African Imagination is magisterial. His editions of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Aimé Césaire’s classic of négritude, French, modernist poetry, Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal are praised ceaselessly by all. The Norton Anthology of World Literature that he co-edited with other scholars lives up to the world coverage ambition of its title. 

Of course, Abiola Irele can never leave us. How can Irele be said to have left us when the records of his work as editor stare us in the face at Benin ReviewResearch in African LiteraturesTransition, and Savannah Review. Abiola Irele cannot be said to have left us, as long as we remember that his New Horn Press introduced Harry Garuba to the world, gave us the first glimpse into Femi Osofisan's fiction in Kolera Kolej, brought Sembene Ousmane's Money Order to the Yorùbá reading (and speaking) world as Sọ̀wédowó, and midwifed the Yorùbá language translation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as Ìgbésí Ayé Okonkwo. Abiola Irele shall continue to live at the annual Abiola Irele Seminar in Theory and Criticism at Nigeria’s Kwara State University. Every aspect of the institution of literature making, physical and intellectual, gained some substantial inheritance from Abiola Irele.

To his immediate family, we extend our deep sympathies and pray that the memories of his time here on earth bring them comfort at this time.

The ALA will compile and post tributes commemorating Professor Irele on our website. Please submit tributes, 500 words maximum, by email no later than July 15, to Beth Willey at ann.willey@louisville.edu.

Adéléké Adéẹ̀kọ́, President
African Literature Association