I revere Buchi Emecheta, Ola Rotimi, Flora Nwapa, Elechi Amadi, Cyprian
Ekwensi, Gabriel Okara, Chinua Achebe, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo,
Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike, Wole Soyinka, and TM Aluko. Together, they
raised and nurtured those of my generation who loved the world of ideas
and we devoured their works like starved children. We owe much of what
we are today to these great owners of words.
So imagine my excitement the other day when I chanced upon a used copy of Clark’s book, America, their America.
As a teenager I had been awed by the audacity of this African that had
gone to America, hated her patronizing and condescending attitude, and
spat at her faux generosity. I cheered then, when in the end he was
unceremoniously ejected from America for being a prickly non-conformist.
Clark was defiant to the end. I was a hot headed youth in those days
and I loved beret wearing, brandy swilling, cigar chomping rebels, so
romantic. Besides I always liked JP Clark, as we called him in those
days. As a playful secondary school student, I appreciated that his
poems were always more accessible to me than those of Soyinka. Try this:
Read Clark’s Abiku and then read Soyinka’s Abiku. Your headache will ambush you after reading the latter.
America their America. America, their America
is an angry book from cover to cover written by a gifted young man that
railed against the alienation and sense of loss he felt upon turning
the corner and seeing the nightmare that was their America. Clark
gleefully deployed muscular prose to settle scores with America. The
America he saw was not the America of his dreams. And this young man was
not impressed. He spoke truth to their power in prose. It is an
important book; I will always include it in a study of Africans in
exile, along with Nnamdi Azikiwe’s My Odyssey and Buchi
Emecheta’s early books. I still think America, their America
is an important book; however, upon re-reading the book recently, I was
taken by how angry Clark was in the book. Clark used the novel to settle
scores with his American guests. As I read the book again, it occurred
to me that I did not know much about Clark beyond his poetry and the
book. Indeed, we do not have a robust culture of writing reliable
biographies of our literary heroes.
always filled with envy when I read unflinching high quality biographies
of folks in the West, most recently of VS Naipaul by Patrick French.
So, I was thrilled to learn that Adewale Maja-Pearce had just written a
biography about Clark, titled, A Peculiar Tragedy: J.P. Clark-Bekederemo and the Beginning of Modern Nigerian Literature in English.
I went online to buy the book; with taxes, shipping and handling and
other forms of robbery fees, I was looking at $30. Not happening, the
economy is bad. Seeing that the book was published in Nigeria (The New
Gong), I begged friends to scour bookstores in Nigeria in search of the
book. It turns out that The New Gong publishing company is owned by none
other than Maja-Pearce himself and the distribution structure on the
ground in Nigeria is non-existent. To cut a long story short, this
self-published book is not available in Nigeria. I finally relented and
bought the book online. I did not waste our family’s money but I
expected more for $30, I really did.
Hagiography or Biography? So,
how did this biography come about? It goes something like this:
Maja-Pearce dreams up a proposal to write Clark’s “biography” and
applies somewhere for a $63,000 grant to fund the project
(don’t ask me why he needed that much to write a book). When
he doesn’t get the grant, he approaches Clark who agrees to
foot the bill for the “project.” A flattered Clark readily agrees and
pays Maja-Pearce one million Naira (about $7,000) with a promise to pay
an additional one million Naira later. There are other perks;
Maja-Pearce is allowed free access to Clark’s records, house and wine
bar (and Maja-Pearce admits that he helped himself generously to
everything, especially the alcohol). Soon, things go wrong; Clark does
not like drafts of the manuscript and balks at the use of a certain
letter. The relationship goes south badly. Maja-Pearce is
unceremoniously ejected from Clark’s home and heart and he goes off in a
huff to write a stinging tell-all tale.
The conflict of interest inherent in this pay-for-your-hagiography
scheme shreds whatever credibility the book has. Clark was right in
demanding that the product fit his specifications. Well, think about it,
if you commission an artist to paint your portrait wouldn’t you want
the portrait to be flattering of your jowls? What doomed the project
from the onset, besides the sloppy writing is the loss of credibility.
When someone pays you to write his biography, he is most definitely not
interested in an objective tome. He wants something that will provide a
mirror to the side that flatters him the most. Why would you demand
payment from someone to do their biography? Who does that? It reads like
a shake-down to me. And it was.
Maja-Pearce has written is not a biography in the real sense. I am not
sure what to call it. Let’s just say that Clark will not be
pleased with the book. Wole Soyinka will not be pleased either. Neither
will Achebe. Maja-Pearce is an equal opportunity hack savaging the
dignity of any and every one in his jaded sight. Which brings me to
another point: Sometimes you wonder if this is really about Clark or
about Maja-Pearce’s desperate need to put together all his
sloppy research about various subjects in one book. He succeeds in that
and fails in virtually everything else.
the aim of the book was to diminish Clark and his generation of
writers, Maja-Pearce misses the mark terribly. The reader actually comes
away empathizing with Clark at the end of the book. And it was not for
lack of Maja-Pearce trying. He expends extraordinary energy toward
diminishing the man. Insults and put-downs fly gleefully and no one
escapes Maja Pearce’s teasing, especially Soyinka and Clark.
It is an unnecessary exercise that merely diminishes Maja-Pearce
himself. And as an aside, the notion of setting Clark up as a rival to
Soyinka and Achebe is a needless distraction. Maja-Pearce plays up the
rivalry between Soyinka and Clark to very tasteless levels. Each writer
is different, endowed with extraordinary gifts and if Clark is a
literary failure, as Maja-Pearce implies, many of us would like to fail
like that. The bottom line is this: The history of African literature,
indeed English literature would be incomplete without Clark’s
Analysis or Personal Opinions?
Maja-Pearce should have enlisted the help of someone who knows poetry;
his analysis of the works of Soyinka, Okigbo and Clark is disgraceful.
He readily admits that he knows little about Okigbo’s poetry
but he did some work on it because it “was just a job with a
modest fee at the end of it.” One thing about Maja-Pearce, he
is honest. He presents himself as a hustler lurking in the seamy edge of
the literary world scheming to make a quick buck. Here is a man who
measures a writer’s worth by the number of google hits: Achebe
is more important that Soyinka who is more important than Okri. Who
does that? His standard of success is suspect. Biases and prejudices mar
the book’s quality and credibility. I would read Robert M.
Wren’s Those Magical Years: The Making of Nigerian Literature
at Ibadan first before reading this book. The few insightful
observations in Maja-Pearce’s book are inspired, if not lifted
from that book.
this highly disorganized book, Maja-Pierce fails to provide the
appropriate context for his thesis. Who is Clark? Why are we reading
this book? The analysis of several weighty issues falls short, for
example Maja-Pearce lacks an appreciation for the complicated
relationship minorities had among the major ethnic groups leading to and
even after the Nigerian Civil war. He concludes that Clark’s
decision to side with the Federal government, rather than the Biafran
side, was reactionary and self-serving. To ascribe Clark’s
decision to side with the Federal side as self-serving is to totally
miss the complexities of that unfortunate war. Maja-Pearce does not get
it: Clark and Saro-Wiwa especially would never have joined the Biafran
side. His analysis of this issue is typical of the strands of his
arguments – they are mostly shallow and glib retorts to
all my misgivings, I would still recommend this book. Maja-Pearce spent
a lot of time developing and accessing sources for his book. The cited
sources alone are worth the steep cost of the book. It is a gossipy,
fairly entertaining and engaging book written in an accessible style. He
provides useful insights about the lives of Clark, Achebe, Soyinka and
Okigbo. The reader learns for instance about the influence of the CIA on
African intellectuals (funding grants, workshops, etc). One learns that
Government College Umuahia produced a bountiful crop of great writers:
Achebe, Elechi Amadi, Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike, and Gabriel Okara.
Clark’s valiant struggle to sustain several high quality
literary magazines is nicely documented here.
Slivers of Brilliance and Petulance.
Maja-Pearce is more at home with plays. In Chapter 3, he devotes
literary muscle and rigor to analysis of plays. Chapter 3 is almost
worth the price of the book but it has little to do with Clark. It reads
like a failed manuscript from a different project. The book provides
some good history showing Clark as a visionary when it comes to
promoting our literature (Mbari, Black Orpheus, etc.). However,
Maja-Pearce manages to diminish Clark’s contributions by
ascribing significant credit to the late Ulli Beier. He is genetically
incapable of giving unqualified praise.
most egregious failing of this book is Maja-Pearce’s
misrepresentation of a 1975 letter which clearly showed that Clark was
in the oil business and was soliciting business overseas. Maja Pearce
sought to represent that Clark “benefitted from an oil
contract for services rendered to the nation following his support for
the federal side during the civil war.” The letter, a copy of
which is in the book’s appendix, makes no such claim. I think
it was irresponsible journalism, bordering on blackmail for
Maja-Pearce’s part to make such an insinuation. In a
responsible society he would have been hauled before an ethics
issues plague the book and careless statements are paraded as facts.
The book is a dizzy harvest of tipsy thoughts struggling to pass the
sobriety test. As a result, the book fails grandly. There are all these
loopy drunken sentences dripping with vinegary venom. Maja-Pearce quotes
myriad sources but there is ample evidence that he did not read them
thoroughly. I urge a more talented writer to use the same sources and
write a real book about a great man- John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo.
Faced with Clark’s alleged pettiness, Maja-Pearce rises above
the effluvium with his own brand of pettiness. In that department he
easily bests Clark. The story of the book is of a shakedown gone awry.
And Clark is the victim here. Maja-Pearce’s fee to write a
shoddy book is a hefty $63,000 and he is piqued when Clark asks him why
he would need all that money to write a damn book. This is one Nigerian
intellectual pining for alien wines, turning tricks for quick bucks.
describes Clark’s eagerness to fund the book as part of an
elaborate plan to rehabilitate his image, in the hope that he might get
the Nobel Prize. Bizarre. Some of it smacks of megalomania on
Maja-Pearce’s part. It is quite possible that Clark was
unimpressed by the work. Maja-Pearce had trouble selling the book to
Western publishers but he ascribed ulterior motives to their refusal to
publish his book. Reading this poorly edited book, I can see why no one
would want to touch the manuscript. It is poorly written, poorly
organized and certainly not marketable as presented.
portrays Clark as a tragic Walter Mitty character who still harbors
dreams of making it big on the world stage. Maja-Pearce is no angel
himself. A self-confessed heavy drinker, in one forgettable passage, he
leaves Clark’s dining table after a feud but does not forget
to grab a half-empty bottle of wine on his way to his bedroom. What a
class act. The Clarks were generous to him, paying for his writing and
buying his wife’s expensive art. Still he whines nonstop; he
even complains that the Clarks put him in a bedroom that lacked a
balcony. Someone hand me my violin.
Broken Guns for Word Deities.
Clark is a well-read complex thinker. It would have been more
respectful and productive to pair him with a thoughtful and gifted
interlocutor. Clark is an accomplished playwright and poet and nothing
can take that away from him, not even his own demons and there are many
of those. Clark is not the only victim here; Maja-Pearce
dismisses Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
but offers no reason for such recklessness. Who does that? One of the
chapters offers an egregiously awful rumination on writing in
one’s own language, one that calls to serious question,
Maja-Pearce’s ability to engage in these kinds of
debates. It is a poorly articulated filler that was
relentlessly stretched to give the impression that it is somehow about
Clark. There is scant evidence that he personally interviewed Soyinka,
Achebe, Ike, etc. And missing are the insights of the female writers of
the time, someone like Buchi Emecheta who is still alive.
The book is a petulant retort to a spurned relationship with JP Clark-Bekederemo Paul Theroux wrote Sir Vidia’s Shadow,
a good book on VS Naipaul based on a sustained decades-long personal
relationship with Naipaul. It was a work of rigor and scholarship.
Maja-Pearce is no Theroux. For one thing, Maja-Pearce desperately needs
to read new writing to update his opinions.
decades ago, Paul Theroux, a young aspiring writer befriended an older
writer VS Naipaul. The friendship of two complex persons was to be a
marathon journey of at least three decades that Naipaul ended abruptly
and on a sour note. Theroux did not take being unceremoniously
dumped well. He wrote a caustic but important and well-received
biography of Naipaul, Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents. Patrick French followed up with his own book, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul which
largely corroborated the main burden of Theroux’s book. In
neither instance was the subject of the biography asked to pony up money
for the privilege of being flattered or lampooned. Such an act would
have been inappropriate and unethical. Maja-Pearce owes Clark a huge
chapter on how to win the Nobel Prize is yet another long unnecessary
chapter that has a long unnecessary riff about Soyinka. The chapter has
little or nothing to do with Clark. Tasteless is the rumination about
whether Soyinka was worth the Nobel. One senses that he is unhappy with
Soyinka because the latter wisely declined to be a reference for one of
his numerous money making schemes. (p253).
Recreating Faux Naipaulean Drama.
In his book, Maja-Pearce’s attempt to recreate a
Theroux-Naipaul drama is self-serving and falls short on many levels.
There is clearly no chemistry between the two men and Maja-Pearce is in
too much of a hurry to make a quick buck to establish a rapport with a
clearly more complex man. And when Clark boots him out of his house, he
responds with a poorly written book that is remarkable mostly for its
vindictiveness and cutting sarcasm. He paints Clark as a has-been writer
for whom several doors are no longer open. Did he not know this before
going to Clark with a proposal to write a biography about him?
This is the same man who in the book proposal to Clark praised him as
the most underrated writer of four men, the rest being Achebe, Okigbo
and Soyinka; who stated that Clark’s plays were more
accomplished than Soyinka’s; and who shared that he
had a poor opinion of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
(p 125).. It would appear that he basically said all of this to make
money off an old man. The intellectual dishonesty is blatant
is a pattern to Maja-Pearce’s mischief; he has sought to
sustain a tottering career in letters by attacking better known and
accomplished writers. He is probably best remembered for his long
rambling attack-review of Soyinka in 2007 under the smirking title Credulous Grammarian a scathing “review” of Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn that is so full of ridicule, it barely has room for substance.
Quoting liberally from Soyinka’s The Man Died,
Maja-Pearce makes sinful literary hay out of the tensions between Clark
and Soyinka and pits both men against each other. He is quite gossipy,
Maja-Pearce is not someone you want to invite into your home, you will
regret the result. The disrespect shown Okigbo, Soyinka, Achebe, Clark
and even Odia Ofeimun is particularly troubling. There is no compassion
for the bravery, intellect and erudition of these men who taught several
generations of youths even as they were youths themselves. Despite
their flaws and demons, these men deserve our gratitude not ridicule.
Maja-Pearce owes these great men unqualified apologies.
the burden on these brave warriors of letters in the face of the birth
of a new nation is hard to quantify. They were certainly no angels, but
that is what makes their narrative powerful, evocative and compelling.
Try to imagine as a twenty something year old, writing Things Fall Apart long
hand without the benefit of a word processor and definitely without the
Internet and you get some sense of what these griots accomplished. A
balanced objective biography that tells the truth warts and all and
respectfully is what we need. In the twilight of their life’s
journeys we should treat these brave men and women with compassion,
respect and definitely with appreciation for making our world a better
place than they met it. I salute Professor John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo,
warts and all.