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article imageInterview with Sierra Leonean academic giant Eustace Palmer Special

By Gibril Koroma     Aug 19, 2010 in Arts
It’s not everyday that one gets to interview Professor Eustace Palmer, one of Africa’s intellectual heavyweights, academic giants and distinguished son of Sierra Leone, a small country in the west of Africa.
In this rare and revealing encounter with Professor Palmer he talks about his childhood and schooling in Freetown, Sierra Leone, his studies abroad and his career as one of the pioneers in the study of the African novel. Here is professor Palmer:
Gibril Koroma:Thank you very much for granting us this interview, Professor Palmer. We would first of all like you to tell us about your childhood in Freetown; the area of the city you were born, the schools you attended and so on.
Eustace Palmer: I was born in Freetown; actually my parents lived in the Central Area, in a house at Bathurst Street. I was the older of two twins, thirty minutes older than my sister, Eustacia. I can remember events going as far back as when I was three years old. I say this because I can remember the funeral of one of my aunts, which happened when I was three and a half. Since I can even remember events happening well before this, such as when she was suffering from a long lingering illness, I conclude that my memories go back to when I was just about three. The first school I attended was the Wesley Primary School, in the basement of Wesley Church, when my sister and I were still under five years old. My elder brother was attending the school, and since my mother thought that my sister and I were too much trouble at home (she by then also had a toddler who was just over a year old), she thought it best for us to go to school. In December of that year we moved to Cline Town in the East end of Freetown, and so my sister and I transferred to the Bishop Crowther Memorial School when we were just over five years old. I spent five years at Bishop Crowther, getting right up to the end of my standard three year, having had double promotion one year. I then transferred to the Ebenezer Methodist School where I spent my standard four year under a very distinguished Headteachedr the late D.J. Bankole Pearce, and was lucky to be selected to be among the first Sierra Leoneans to take the selective common entrance examination to secondary school in standard four. Before this, students normally took the examination in standard six. I passed for the Prince of Wales School, obtaining a partial government scholarship in the process, and so when I got to form one I was in class with boys who were, some of them, about three years older than I was, since they had taken the examination in standard six, and in some cases were repeating form one. Throughout my schooldays I was almost always the youngest in the class, and so was made by the teachers to sit right in front, not at the back where the bigger boys sat. I suppose the teachers did not want us, the smaller boys, to be corrupted by the bigger, but, quite often, less clever boys.
Generally, I enjoyed my schooldays very much indeed. I was liked by all, both students and teachers, and ended as a prefect and Deputy Senior Prefect. In some respects, I was a kind of guinea pig, that is always one of the first to do certain things. Thus, I was one of the first students to take the common entrance in standard four, one of the first to take the West African School Certificate (though it was still administered by Cambridge university) emerging with a grade one certificate, and one of the first to take the Cambridge higher School Certificate (after two years in form six) in Arts subjects. I was the first boy to pass the HSC in Arts subjects (although I actually did English, Latin, Maths and Chemistry), the other successful candidates being three girls from the Annie Walsh Memorial School.
I also valued the way in which the Prince of Wales School prepared us for leadership through the Literary and Debating Society where we were trained to hone our oratorical and other skills.
Another thing I liked about my childhood was singing in the choir. My father was Assistant Choirmaster at our church and he insisted that all his boys enroll as choristers. My brothers and I were very regular and punctual at church services and choir practice and I particularly enjoyed the majesty of the Christmas and Easter services and the choir festivals.
My father, who was a strict disciplinarian both at home and in his very successful career in the Civil Service (he was one of the first Sierra Leoneans to move up into the Senior Civil Service and to own a car) was a pronounced influence on my life. So was my mother. I think I owe my sense of rectitude to my father and my love of reading to my mother. She loved the novels of Jane Austen and the works of Shakespeare, and I remember even reading her issues of “Woman’s Friend and Glamour” after she had finished with them.
GK: You had your university education at Edinburgh university in Scotland and then returned home to teach at Fourah Bay College. Please tell us something about your student days in Britain at a time when many African countries were regaining their independence from Britain.
EP: I thoroughly enjoyed my seven years as a student in Britain. I found out that the background I had been given at the Prince of Wales was very good and I was able to compete quite successfully with the British students. Indeed, in one year I got the class medal in Latin, that means I was top of a class of one hundred and fifty in Latin, and was the only one in the class to get what was called a first class merit certificate. Latin was always my best subject, and I had originally obtained my scholarship to read for honours in classics (that is Latin and Greek); however, I changed to English just before leaving for Britain because I thought I could do much more with English than with Latin. I am very much indebted to the kind of teachers I had at Edinburgh, teachers who were world famous in their respective fields of specialization and had written several books. For instance, the immediate supervisor of my Ph.D. studies was Professor John Butt, Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature (Regius meant he was appointed by the crown and was one of two or three such professors of English in the entire country, the others, as I recall, being at Oxford and Cambridge), who had published, among other things, the definitive annotated edition of the works of Alexander Pope and was working on the eighteenth century volume of the Oxford History of English Literature when he unfortunately passed away. Another great teacher was Professor John Mackintosh who had a worldwide reputation in linguistics and the English language. Indeed, they boasted at Edinburgh that a Britisher only had to say a few words and they could, like Professor Higgins in Shaw’s “Pygmalion”, tell precisely where he came from within a radius of about seven miles. At Edinburgh at the time they had developed a machine called PAT, the Parametric Artificial Talker, which could compose poetry, and so they were a world leader in artificial intelligence. But all this was going on within the Linguistics and Language Department. (Incidentally you will recall that it was at Edinburgh that Dolly the sheep was cloned.) So I got superb training at Edinburgh. I particularly liked the tutorial system. This meant that apart from the formal lectures, every class was broken up into small groups of about six or so students, each group meeting a tutor once a week to listen to an essay written by one of the group and discuss the main topic for the week. I did extremely well in my final honours examination and was awarded a commonwealth scholarship to pursue postgraduate work. In those days in Britain, if one did very well in one’s first (honours) degree, one could go straight to the Ph.D., which was what I did. I valued my Ph.D. training not just for the insight it gave me into my area of specialization (which incidentally was eighteenth century English Literature) but the way in which it enabled me to apply the skills I had acquired to other areas of literature, such as African literature. I was thus able to apply them to African literature and to become one of the pioneer critics of African literature, although I never studied African literature at university.
I also valued the social life at Edinburgh. I was in a Hall of Residence for five years, a Hall that was exclusively male and that had developed certain traditions such as formal dress for dinner, very formal dress for the special dinners at Christmas and at the end of the term, very formal dress for the balls such as the Charities Ball (there was also, of course, the fancy dress ball at one of which my partner and I won the first prize for going as Othello and Desdemona), standing up at out tables of six or so students until the members of the Senior Common Room (who were all unmarried male faculty) had come down from the common room in order of seniority after their daily pre-dinner drink of sherry, and until the grace had been said in Latin. This added tremendous grace to university life, and prepared me for my role as Hall Warden at Fourah Bay College.
At Edinburgh I was also active in student politics. I was President of the Cosmopolitan and United Nations Club, Chair of the Overseas Presidents’ Committee, Secretary of the Student Christian Movement and a member of the Student Representative Council, the student parliament, as it were.
GK: You taught English at FBC for many years until your relocation to the United States. Please tell us about your days at FBC and why you left.
EP: I obtained my Ph.D. when I was just under twenty seven and went back immediately to teach in the English Department at Fourah Bay College. I must say, that in spite of everything, I enjoyed teaching at FBC. The students were very eager to learn although, as the years went by, they had to do so under very arduous conditions. I also found out that the students were highly appreciative of the efforts that we, the faculty, put into their education. I discovered that the students revered the good teachers, and went to their classes eagerly and regularly. One did not have to have an attendance policy to compel students to go to class. I will never forget the fact that the students, both those whom I taught and those whom I did not, referred to me fondly as “Doc P,” even when I became a full professor, and I still wish to remain “Doc P. When I first joined the faculty there I was, as I have said, very young, and looked even younger than I was. I was hardly distinguishable from the students. I remember going up to the top of the Kennedy Building with the Late Michael Crowder, who asked me with a smile what course I was studying. I remember on another occasion, when I had become Chair of the English Department, and had developed a reputation for being very strict about admission to the English Department, going up to the department on the seventh floor in the elevator with a new student who was desirous of getting into the English department. One could see nervousness written all over him and he said in conversation with a friend who was also in the elevator, “I am going to see that Doc P, to see whether he would take me into the English department. I hear that that man is as strict as the devil himself. I do not know what I will do if he does not admit me.” His friend tried his best to nudge him into realizing that he was standing next to the devilish Doc P, but he did not seem to be aware of what his friend was after. I, of course, said not a word. You can imagine his chagrin when he came into my office and saw that I was the devilish Doc P. Fortunately for him, he had the qualifications we were looking for and I had no qualms about admitting him into the English Department.
Of course in those early days, things were not as bad as they became later. All the students had scholarships and stayed in single rooms. The food was also excellent. I remember having a steward who was very good at making friends with the students and the kitchen staff. I went back to my Warden’s apartment one day to get something I had forgotten and found him having breakfast which he had got from the leftovers in the kitchen. Believe me, that young man was sitting in front of a mound of scrambled eggs and bacon—the leftovers after the students had been served. I later found out that every day he went to the kitchen after I had gone to my office to get some of those leftovers. Of course, I did not interfere, but this gives you some idea of the quality and quantity of the food in those early days. Of course, things became much worse once the situation in the country as a whole deteriorated. Students had to share rooms, and quite a few could not afford the cost of accommodation. For the few who had scholarships or whose parents could afford for them to stay in the halls conditions were deplorable. The students now had to buy food, the quality of which left a lot to be desired. Power outages were more the rule than the exception and books were in short supply. There were times when I would be teaching a final year class of thirty and only three copies of each text were available. Of course, the students were great in sharing their texts among themselves. All this placed great demands on the faculty who were looked up to more and more as sources of information. It was amazing that in spite of these deprivations, we managed to keep standards quite high. However, faculty gradually started to leave and go to other places. The main reason was that their salaries could simply not cope with the high cost of living. Faculty left not just for the United States of America and countries like Britain, but other African countries like Nigeria and South Africa. It often occurs to me that if all of us who were teaching at FBC during its heyday had stayed, that institution would have been about the best institution of higher learning in the whole of Africa. I think, for instance, of the Department of Mathematics where people like Dr. Leopold-George, Dr. John Simbo and Dr. Abimbola Young, all of them with first class honours degrees and Ph.D.s left for universities in Southern Africa or Nigeria. I stuck it out for as long as I could. In all the years I was there I only left once for a sabbatical year at the university of Texas at Austin, my main motive being to earn some money to complete the construction of my house, since I could not do it on the salary I was earning at FBC, and to be able to replace the old car I had used for about fifteen years. Eventually, even I was forced to leave because of the desperate political, moral and economic situation. Even so, I had planned originally to return, once I had earned enough money to secure a comfortable retirement. But then the war intervened. Let me also say that apart from my teaching duties, I also enjoyed being Hall Warden of Solomon Caulker Hall. I particularly liked the preparations for the annual sports meeting, and, although the competition got rather boisterous at times, I liked the celebrations at the end when all the halls, losers as well as winners, danced down from Kortright. Of course, I became very well known for encouraging those students who participated in sports, drama or music. They were given the best rooms in the Hall, facing the sea, while others had to content themselves with facing the rocks. I had a rich and eventful life at FBC. At one time I combined being Professor and Chair of the English Department with being Dean of the faculty of Arts and Hall Warden of Solomon Caulker Hall.
GK: The name Eustace Palmer is almost synonymous with African Literature. Please explain your interest in this particular field of study and what it is all about for those who don’t know.
EP: As I have said earlier, my first area of specialization was not, in fact, African literature. When I started teaching at Fourah Bay College, modern African literature was just coming to the fore, and we African literary academics were therefore expected to take an interest in it, and not merely leave it to British and American enthusiasts like Bernth Lindfors and Gerald Moore. So I developed an interest in African literature and decided to apply some of the skills I had acquired at Edinburgh university, with some modifications of course, to its study. After teaching one or two texts, I decided to write a book on the African novel, giving my frank views about a selection of African novels. I called it simply An Introduction to the African Novel. It was published by Heinemann and soon became something of a classic, going through several editions. I still derive tremendous pleasure from meeting current specialists in African literature from all over the world at conferences who tell me that their first critical exposure to African literature was through my Introduction to the African Novel. Eventually, I stopped publishing in eighteenth century literature and concentrated exclusively on African literature. As Africans, we have to be interested in African literature because it is our own literature. It is the literature that chronicles our own experiences and the forces that make up our entire environment. As a critic of African literature, I consider it my responsibility to mediate that literature primarily for African readers and to show how that literature reflects their experiences and their environment.
GK: Some people say African literature has dramatically changed over the years from the days of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, to the present. That there has been a retrogression or degradation in the quality of writing coming out of Africa these days. Do you share this view?
EP: I am afraid I disagree. I do not think there has been a deterioration in the quality of African writing. In recent years we have seen the emergence of some very accomplished African writers like Ben Okri (see video), Chimamanda Adichie, Benjamin Kwakje, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and even our own Syl Cheney Coker. I think two phenomena are responsible for the mistaken view that there has been a retrogression. The first is the fault of us the critics. We keep on writing about the older figures instead of paying attention to the great crop of young African writers emerging unto the scene. The second is inherent in the nature of the publishing situation. Those older writers you mention were first brought to our attention by Western publishers like Heinemann who have now largely stopped publishing books from Africa. This means that many new African writers encounter great difficulty in finding publishers for their works, or have their works published in Africa by African publishers. This in itself is a good thing because we must encourage African publishing, but quite often works published in Africa take a long time to be brought to international attention because the African publishers do not have the marketing resources that publishing houses such as Heinemann and Longman used to have. A great number of very good works are being published in places like Ghana, Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa, but they are hardly heard about in other parts of Africa, let alone in the rest of the world. We must do something about this. In fact, I think this ought to become a major preoccupation of the African Literature Association. It was for this reason that some of us who are Sierra Leoneans teaching here in the United States of America decided, some years ago, to start a project foregrounding Sierra Leonean literature at every annual conference of the African literature Association, to bring to the notice of the world the very rich literature being produced by Sierra Leoneans. This has even resulted in a book, Knowledge Is More Than Mere Words, the first Critical Introduction to Sierra Leonean Literature, edited by myself and Professor Abioseh Porter of Drexel University.
GK: You have written and co-authored a number of books over the years. Please tell us about some of them.
EP: My first book, as I have said, was An Introduction to the African Novel. That book was published by Heinemann over thirty years ago. It was a very personal book that was not meant to be a general introduction at all. Rather it was a critical account of twelve novels that I personally liked, by twelve different authors. I was not trying to establish any kind of canon; my intention was merely to give a critical account of twelve books that I found to my taste by twelve different authors. Inevitably, some were left out; this did not mean that they were not good books. At the time, not much had been written about the African novel and my work, to my surprise, instantly became something of a classic. However, it became obvious to me that I ought to write a more comprehensive account of the African novel, one that, among other things, discussed the achievement of each major novelist and that attempted to cover most of the concerns of the African novel. So about eight years later I published The Growth of the African Novel which, in my view, attempted to do just that. In that book, for instance, I discussed all the novels of Achebe, Aluko and Soyinka that had been written then, and I tried to arrange the authors in a roughly chronological order. It was therefore a more ambitious book than An Introduction to the African Novel. For my third book I went back to studying the English novel. I did so because I had been teaching English literature, including the English novel, at Fourah Bay College, and one of my students suggested in passing once that we should write more on the English novel to help them understand that genre. This resulted in Studies In the English Novel. This work was deliberately directed at African students studying the English novel at university and in the sixth forms of secondary schools in preparation for the GCE “A” level exams. I decided this time, therefore, to go for an African publisher, African Universities Press, then located in Ibadan Nigeria. The book came out in 1986, and I must say that AUP did a good job with the production of the work, but unfortunately, up to this moment, I have not received a single cent from them in royalties, though I was told by a Nigerian colleague that the book was selling very well in Nigeria, especially since it was deliberately targeted for a special audience. The book was not even widely available in Sierra Leone. I even suggested to AUP, who had an office in Freetown, that they should send copies of the book to be sold in Freetown, and pay me my royalties in leones out of the proceeds. But this never happened. This is one handicap that African publishing has to overcome. We must try to introduce standards of integrity and professionalism into our publishing endeavors, the same kind of standards that Western writers have come to expect from their publishers. My next two books were published at about the same time here in the United States by Africa World Press in 2008. Knowledge Is More Than Mere Words is, as I have said, the first critical introduction to Sierra Leonean literature, and it was jointly edited by myself and Professor Abioseh Porter of Drexel university. Actually, I wrote the introduction and five of the fifteen chapters, about one third of the book. The other, Of War and Women, Oppression and Optimism, is entirely my own work, and attempts to bring my critical coverage of the African novel up to date and consider those trends in the development of the African novel that had taken place since the publication of The Growth of the African Novel. Since then, my first novel, A Hanging Is Announced, has also been published.
GK: Some literary critics say politics and literature should not go together, that politics would negatively affect the quality of one’s literary production. Any comments?
EP: I am afraid I disagree. I cannot see why they should say that. Literature is about life, all of life, and therefore should also be concerned with politics. Every individual work need not be concerned with politics, but there is no reason why particular writers should not be concerned with politics if they choose to. One of Achebe’s most famous works, A Man of the People, is about politics and politicians. So, for that matter, is his Anthills of the Savannah. Ola Rotimi’s brilliant play, Our Husband has Gone Mad Again, is partly about politics. What matters is how the political material is handled. It has to be handled in such a way that it does not become didactic. It should be treated as part of the lives and experiences of the people. Also, there is no reason why writers should not be involved in politics. After all, African writers are very much concerned about the amelioration of their societies and some of them take up their pens because they wish to suggest directions that change might take. If they also decide to play an active role in bringing about that change, there is nothing wrong with that. Soyinka has done so; so did Ken Saro-Wiwa, although unfortunately he incurred the wrath of the then brutal Nigerian regime, leading to his untimely death. But this does not mean that writers should refrain from politics. After all, African writers are among the most educated and articulate of their people and it would be unfortunate if we stipulate that the most articulate segment of the population should not be involved in politics.
GK: You have taught thousands of students (Sierra Leonean and non-Sierra Leonean), some of whom are now teaching in schools, colleges and universities around the world. What, in your opinion, is the present state of education and educational facilities in Sierra Leone and what needs to be done?
EP: By all the accounts that I have read I can only conclude that the present state of education in Sierra Leone is very depressing. In a sense this was inevitable. The economic, military and political environment that obtained until recently was bound to result in a lowering of standards. One hears of teachers going on strike because salaries have not been paid and of students going on the rampage. The tremendous exodus of brainpower that happened in Sierra Leone was bound to have an adverse effect on the educational situation. A lot can be done. One thing that we can do is to see whether we can imitate India. There was a time when we were cynical about the Indian educational system, especially their university system. But India had a tremendous number of people studying at British and American universities in all kinds of fields and this critical mass went back to staff Indian universities, the result being that India now has some of the finest universities in the world and she is a leader in fields like information technology, nuclear physics and economics, and India is poised to be a major world player. Similarly, Sierra Leone now has a large number of people studying and teaching at Western universities. It may not be possible to attract all of them back permanently, but some scheme could be worked out whereby a certain number could be encouraged to take professional or sabbatical leave and go and teach for a while at the University of Sierra Leone. For instance, we have enough Sierra Leoneans here in the US teaching English at various universities for two or three to go every year to teach for, say, two semesters at a university in Sierra Leone. They do not have to be paid Sierra Leonean salaries because they would be on sabbatical from their universities here and would be receiving their US salaries. They would greatly help the staffing situation in Sierra Leone and help train the MA and Ph.D. candidates who would eventually take over. We only need the will to do it. Also, those of us who are here can help our former schools in various ways such as having computer and book drives. We could also get together and sponsor the establishment of other facilities. We will have to realize that the government’s resources will be limited, and if we leave it to the government alone it will take a very long time for standards to get back to the levels we desire.
GK: As a world-class literary critic that has watched the progress and development of many African writers, what advice would you have for an aspiring African writer?
EP: In a sense it would be presumptuous of me to want to give advice to aspiring writers. But if I have to, I would say, write about what you know and what you have observed. And don’t be depressed if your work is, at first, rejected by publishers. Just keep on writing and sending your work to as many publishers as possible.
GK: What do you think your admirers around the world should keep in mind when they think of you? What, in your opinion, has been your greatest achievement in life? In other words what things do you consider important?
EP: I would be quite content if “my admirers,” as you call them, think of me as one of the pioneer critics of African literature who said what he honestly thought about African writers and sought to demonstrate the relevance of African literature for African readers. My greatest achievements in life were obtaining my Ph.D., completing the construction of my house in Freetown in spite of all the setbacks and under adverse circumstances, the publication of my books, and having a fairly successful academic career.
GK: Thank you very much, Professor Palmer.
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