Taban Lo Liyong Essays

How far has African literature developed since Okot p’Biteks’s Song of Lawino?
University lecturers still teach as we were taught and literature graduates are becoming journalists, as if literature worldwide has not moved far.
Young writers are writing mostly about problems of growing up and criticising mothers-in-law. There are now many schools of approaches to literature and its analysis.
Feminism is a new approach to literature but it is concentrating on complaining about men. A Chinese philosopher said that ‘women hold up half of the sky and men hold up the other half’, so both have to hold the sky up. Women writers are leaving men behind. There is need for a foundation to set up workshops for both. Writer, Goretti Kyomuhendo’s efforts in setting up an African Writers Trust, a centre that serves both men and women, should be supported.
At the 1977, Festival of African Culture (FESTAC), in Lagos, which attracted even people from the diaspora, it was agreed that ‘The African Civilisation in Literature Secretariat’ be set up next to the FESTAC Secretariat in Addis Ababa. Then Emperor Haile Selassie, who had supported the idea, was overthrown and African literature has since then, been left hanging.

Tell us something about your life’s journey
I was a beneficiary of an epidemic in Bobi, Acholi, which required all children in the area to have their jaws tested. The headmaster of Bobi Primary School who wanted pupils for his school, took advantage of the testing exercise and called in the local chief to help him recruit. I was interviewed on the chief’s lap, after which he ordered that I report to school the following Monday.
So in May, 1945, I joined P.1 in second term and some of my classmates were married men. One of my inspirational headmasters had completed O-Level at King’s College Budo, and had been trained at Buwalasi Teacher Training College. He used to tell us about Budo’s motto, Gakyali Mabaga, (we are just starting). Another teacher, Lakan Ogwang, better known as Cak Ngwec (start running) inspired me to run to school and I would get there when the boarding pupils were still slashing the grass.
I went to Gulu High School for Junior School, after which I joined Sir Samuel Baker School.
At Sir Samuel Baker School, I won a prize in essay writing and as the best student in English lifted the standard of English in the school. I was in the third batch of students who sat O-Level from there. After O-Level, I went to Kyambogo to train as a teacher in 1958/59, after which I taught at Gulu High School for two and a half years. Independence was coming and I was the secretary of the Uganda Peoples Congress in Acholi sub-region and our candidate, Alex Ojera (RIP) won a parliamentary seat.
To woo African countries, the Americans had a scholarship programme for Africa. I sat for the interview, whose panel was chaired by Dr Martin Aliker, with his wife, Camilla as secretary. In June/July, 1962, I left teaching and politics to take up the scholarship.
I did my BA majoring in Literature, with Journalism (minor) after which I proceeded to the University of Iowa for an MA in fine Art (Creative Writing). I became a Fellow of the International writers’ workshop.
When I came back to Uganda in 1968, I had hoped to join Makerere College, which with the Colleges at Nairobi and Dar es Salaam formed the University of East Africa. However Prof David Cook, head of literature frustrated me insisting that I had not done A-Level and therefore could not join them.
However, renowned historian, Allan Ogot called me to Nairobi College, to do research on the oral literature of the Luo and Masai in Kenya. A year later, James Ngugi (Ngugi was Thiongo) invited him to the literature department to help Africanise it.
I worked in Nairobi for seven years until I left for Papua New Guinea for two and a half years. I went through London where I was supposed to edit Africa Magazine, From London I joined Juba University in 1978. In 1979, I went to Berlin and when back in Juba, I met Eisel Kurimoto who took me to do research on words for numerals in African languages at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan.
In 1995, I became Professor of Literature, University of Venda, South Africa. In 2005, I returned to Juba University Literature Department until today. I was also inaugural professor of Social Sciences at the Curting University of Technology in West Australia.

Selecting a Primary Source for Comparison

It won’t be difficult to find reimaginings of The Tempest, as there are many. But you will want to choose a primary source that interests you. Take time to read, view, or listen to a few so that you begin to understand various perspectives on the play.

You should do this research yourself; but as a start, you might consider the following primary sources:


Atwood, Margaret. Hagseed, Hogarth, 2016.

Gorman, Benjamin. Digital Storm: A Science Fiction Reimagining of The Tempest, Not a Pipe Publishing, 2017.

Siegel, Jan. Prospero’s Children, WordFire, 2016.

Widmena, John Edgar, “Writing Teacher,” New Yorker, Jan. 22, 2018.


Percy Bysshe Shelley, “With a Guitar–To Jane.”

Robert Browning, “Caliban upon Setebos; or, Natural Theology of the Island.”

Joaquim-Maria Machado de Assis, “At the Top.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Spirit Ariel”

H.D., “By Avon River”

Suniti Namjoshi, “Snapshots of Caliban”; “Sycorax”

Lemuel Johnson, “Calypso for Caliban,” in Highlife for Caliban (1973)

Edwin Morgan, “Ariel Freed”

Ted Hughes, “Setebos”

Kamau Brathwaite, “Caliban” (1969)’ “Letter Sycorax” (1974)

Walter McDonald, “Caliban in Blue” (1976)

Taban Lo Liyong, ‘Uncle Tom’s Black Humour” (1971)

WH Auden, The Sea and the Mirror

Other Drama

John Dryden and William Davenant, The Enchanted Island (1667/70)

Ernest Renan, Caliban: A Philosophical Drama Continuing “The Tempest” of William

Shakespeare (1878)


Prospero’s Books (1991)

The Tempest (Jarman, 1979)

The Tempest (Taymor, 2010)

Forbidden Planet (1965)

Yellow Sky (1948; old west)

The Tempest (1982); Peter Fonda—family romance set in American South)

Westworld (2016; TV series)


Michael Nyman, Noises, Sounds, and Sweet Airs

Pyotr Tchaikovsky, The Tempest

Ralph Vaughan William, Full Fathom Five

Caliban is also a German heavy metal band.

Graphic Fiction

Neil Gaiman, Sandman #75 (The Tempest)


Brainstorming will be one of the most important steps in your writing process. It should do the work of identifying the similarities and differences between The Tempest and the reimagined text you choose to compare. This work will help you develop interpretive claims, collect evidence to support those claims, and ultimately ensure that you have enough evidence to write a compelling argument.

Your first task is to determine what two passages, scenes, or characters you would like to compare. First, choose one of these elements from The Tempest that particularly interests you; then, find a parallel element in a text you wish to compare. You have many possible genres to choose from: for example, a poem, play, short story, painting, film, or graphic novel. Your only constraint is to choose a text for comparison that is rich enough to offer you plenty of material to work with.

For example, suppose you have chosen Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest for your comparison. While your essay will focus on one element of comparison, so that your analysis fits into the space of 6-7 pages, you should use this brainstorming stage to explore possibilities. That exploration will offer you choices when you shift your focus to a single, more manageable, element of comparison. As you draft, you may find that you have to narrow your focus a few times before you hit upon the element you want to consider. But you have to start somewhere–maybe with a single scene or passage.

Next, how can you chart your brainstorming to highlight the similarities and differences between the texts in a way that will remind you to interpret their interaction? One way is a three-column chart. Suppose you have decided to focus on a specific passage: where Prospero interacts with Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban (I, 2). Chart the similarities and differences between the texts; then, interpret how their interaction makes new meaning.

The sample chart below demonstrates this process. Notice that it focuses on the specific language of certain passages to make comparisons. Because the texts chosen in this example are literary texts, the evidence represented here is linguistic; indeed, you may find it helpful to write a list of keywords for the literary evidence you cite.If you compare an image or film, you should highlight visual details or filmic techniques.




Introductory list of characters: Italians are characterized in terms of their legitimacy. Their legitimacy is based upon how they relate to one another. Caliban is described as a “savage and deformed slave.” He seems to be outside the language of legitimacy altogether.

First, by stating “As in Shakespeare,” Césaire implies that a literary/linguistic inheritance determines our identities. By changing Ariel to a “mulatto slave” and Caliban into a “black slave,” Césaire delegitimize the Italians’ actions and redefines what is legitimate. For him, legitimacy isn’t based upon how one Italian relates to another, but stems from how Westerners treat indigenous peoples. Prospero’s mistreatment of Caliban, then, delegitimizes him in Césaire’s text.

Introductory list of characters: “As in Shakespeare,” but with three alterations: Ariel is a “mulatto slave,” Caliban is a “black slave,” and there is an additional character: “Eshu, the black devil-god.”

Miranda: focuses on the sinking ship and is desperate to save the drowning sailors. Thereafter, she waits to be told about her own past journey to the island, instead of asserting herself and asking for her history. Has very few lines. In hearing the account of her past, she worries most about how Prospero has suffered.

Responds to Caliban with anger and contempt when he is charged with her rape. Calls him incapable of learning to behave better (though some editions have Prospero saying this)

In Césaire’s play, Miranda still defers to her father, and still speaks little (though more than in Shakespeare’s play). But, she assertively asks her father about her past. By doing this, she implies that she has a right to her past, something the original text does not afford, and that Prospero has acted unjustly in keeping her past from her.Given the contexts of the passage, her deferential speech seems more ironic than in the original.

Césaire’s play implies that when one speaks up (as Caliban and Ariel do) one is not another’s property.

Miranda: speaks more in this scene than in the original. Ask questions of Prospero to know the truth about her past (pg 7, “How did we come here?”). Doesn’t speak much; worries about her father’s suffering (as in original).

Says nothing to Caliban when the issue of rape comes up.

Ariel: Recounts the ways in which he fulfilled Prospero’s orders. Only later does he resist Prospero’s authority by asking him to remember that he promised Ariel freedom. This inspires Prospero’s anger, which ultimately subdues Ariel. “Pardon Master, / I will be correspondent to command / And do my spiriting gently” (297-9).

In the original, Ariel is deferential and is most concerned with completing the tasks asked of him because his primary desire is his freedom. In Césaire’s play, Ariel resists because his first objective is to act morally. In this way, he complicates the idea of “freedom.” Can one be “free” if one has acted unethically toward another person?

Ariel: almost immediately, Ariel resists. He says he is “disgusted.” “I obeyed you but. . . I did so most unwillingly” (9) Ariel’s concern is with the morality of his task and his identity to have a “will” of his own.

Caliban: enters muttering a curse in English

Caliban identifies the effects of Prospero’s authoritarianism on him: “For I am all the subjects that you have, / Which first was mine own king.” (l.341-2)

In the end, Prospero considers him a “thing”

The shift to native language suggests that the English language serves to constrain Caliban and maintain empire.

Césaire’s Caliban isn’t just angry and recalcitrant, as he is in the original play. He exposes the structure of power in his relation to Prospero and thereby proves himself to have more authority. He focuses on language as the source of power. He also uses English to turn Prospero’s language of “barbarism”against him. “Jabbering” = Barbarism. And it is Prospero who jabbers.

Caliban: enters speaking his an African language, not English.

Caliban identifies how Prospero’s authoritarianism allows him to take power. “You didn’t teach me a thing except to jabber in your own language” (11) and “Without you? I’d be the king, that’s what I’d be” (12).

In the above case, suppose you decided to concentrate on Caliban. Return to your evidence that focuses on Caliban and close-read the passages once again, teasing out the keywords and the contours of your interpretations.What does your textual evidence suggest about the purpose of the reimagined text? Why do the same points of comparison remain the same? Why do the different points differ? As your focus narrows, your comparisons should become increasingly complex and interrelated. For example, a close reading of the passage above, supports a working thesis that Césaire’s Caliban views the English language as the foundation of colonial oppression and characterizes resistance as the act of turning the English language against his oppressors. That is a solid beginning that will be revised and complicated as you develop your comparison.

Organizing Your Paper

Before you begin writing, plan the logic of your essay. You may have been offered models for writing comparison papers in the past. Many students think of comparison papers as being mapped out in one of two ways:

1) The AAABBB pattern: where all comparison points of the original text (A) are represented first, followed by all comparison points of the comparative text (B), or

2) The ABABAB pattern: where one point of comparison is discussed at a time, using both texts.

Both patterns presume that your comparison will take a neat, binary shape; and perhaps your essay will take the form of one of the patterns above. But, it should do so only if your ideas flow from one idea to the next in such a way that no other form of organization would be more persuasive. The patterns should not dictate how your ideas are formulated and presented. Rather, your ideas should dictate form. As you write, you will gain even more insight into the way transitions determine your argument, your formulation of claims, and your presentation of evidence.

What if your comparisons are not so neat? You may find, for example, that one comparison can be divided into numerous sub-comparisons, some of which might focus on similarities, some on difference. And some comparisons may not be as clean as the patterns above suggest. Or, what if you prefer to make a comparison of Shakespeare’s written play to a painting? What would it mean to compare textual and visual evidence? There, you would need to use technical terms, and the formulaic patterns could either enrich or limit your presentation of evidence.

Instead of feeling constrained by a form, map your paper to represent your argument. A good place to start is to pinpoint your points of comparison (and possible sub-comparisons). How would these best be ordered? Do certain points require several paragraphs, or only one?

Most importantly, be sure to choose an image, film, or other text that you really like, and about which you have a lot to say! As Shakespeare might say, the world is your oyster.


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