Harry Garuba who passed in February 2020 was a well-known figure on the Nigerian literary scene primarily as a mentor to many budding writers at the University of Ibadan (UI) where he taught for two decades. He also served as an assistant general secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) in addition to editing the ANA Review, the association’s journal. In 1998, he relocated to South Africa where he lived with his family until his demise due to complications from leukemia.
At Ibadan, in the early nineteen eighties, along with a few other colleagues, Garuba established the Poetry Club from which emerged a particularly creative circle fondly called the Thursday People. The poets that made up the Thursday People were highly passionate about poetry and imposed strict standards upon themselves in mastering the craft. Poetry as an art form was not only wholly believed in but was also meant to be lived and experienced in its entire range even if it entailed transcending the boundaries of sensibility, convention and nationality. Garuba was undoubtedly the glue that held the group together and once he was no longer available, it splintered like an explosion of lights into myriad creative voices.
The poets regarded as being at the core of Thursday People were of course Garuba, Afam Akeh, the late Sesan Ajayi, Remi Raji, Onookome Okome, Chiedu Ezeanah and Sanya Osha. They represented the core but non-Ibadan resident poets such as Uche Nduka were sometimes seen as part of the group. The most talented figures within the group pursued poetry with little or no material inclinations. And at brief irretrievable moments, they caught the effervescence of inspiration and creativity in the bloom of youth which brought a certain gravitas and sincerity to what they did.
Garuba’s first collection of poetry, Shadow and Dream and other Poems, was quite influential as a bridge between Christopher Okigbo’s subliminal work and what came after in the shape of an effusion of boldly expressive styles.
But apart from his inspiring poetry, Garuba also had an immense gift for friendship. He kept friends from all spheres of life; high and low, erudite and non-literary, the creatively endowed and the talentless. No particular type of individual was exempt from his intimate circle and his passing has merely demonstrated that his talent for cordiality was perhaps as significant as his literary gifts.
As a young man and throughout his eventful life, Garuba was a quietly charismatic figure who formed relationships with people who were oftentimes more colourful than he was.
When he was still in his twenties, as an already remarkable lecturer at the Department of English, (UI), Harry cut quite a dashing figure on campus. Since he was often about the same age as many of his students or sometimes even younger, he mingled and forged strong ties with many of them.
Two of his very dear friends were Okome and Chuks Okoye, both PhD candidates at the Department of Theatre Arts. They shared a room at the annex of Balewa Postgraduate Hall, situated right in front of the university bookshop. There was nothing elaborate about this partially hidden outpost of Balewa Hall. It was ringed by a thick high edge of bougainvillea which lent it a pristine and secluded feel away from the prying eyes of the world.
The rooms in the quarter were in fact built from light wood and the place had the ambience of a miniature trailer park only that it was small and cozy. Chuks’s and Okome’s room was where all their poet friends would go for quick afternoon naps, cookouts on the lawn and full-blown birthday parties.
Chuks was a blunt, no-nonsense fellow. He didn’t write poetry but instead he painted and wrote plays. He was also an excellent cook with a caustic tongue who threw legendary get-togethers. He had an eclectic taste in music introducing the crew that converged around Harry to the wistful tunes of Michael Franks, a South African born L.A. based jazz vocalist.
How can one forget being ushered onto the soundscapes of the inimitable John Lee Hooker, one of the great blues icons of the twentieth century? Hooker was a favourite of Chuks’s. Chuks had an impeccable eye and ear for the arts but he didn’t suffer fools gladly and if he possessed a touch of romanticism, it was definitely submerged. The trait that came to the fore, more often than not, was a clear-eyed sense of rationality that worked as an infallible bullshit detector.
Dayo Olumide, Harry’s erstwhile lover, was a stunning beauty who wrote equally remarkable poetry. She had many gifts for someone born into a good degree of financial stability and political prominence. Her father had been a top-ranking naval officer so her circle of friends reflected her distinguished familial background. She was friends with all the cool kids on campus but she was also considered a bohemian associate of the poets, certainly not an easy combination to maintain by any means.
Dayo’s poetry was in a way very similar to Harry’s. It is probably safe to say he had influenced her poetically. She wrote in the same deliberate yet free-flowing style of handwriting that Harry employed. A person’s handwriting is often an indicator of the state and landscape of their soul. There was beauty in Dayo’s handwriting and she possessed an Anais Nin-like insight into the feminine spirit. Her sensibilities throbbed with soul and an ineluctable female strength. But she was also a free-spirited individual who was beholden to no one but to her own independent adventures.
Another striking figure that passed through Harry’s life with a meteoric shine was Ogom, a tall imposing personality who wrote no poetry but carried herself as a work of art. She wasn’t exactly the sort of girly, make-up wearing sort of chick. Instead she was a strong girl who could hang out with the coarsest of sailors and give back as good as she got. Apparently, she didn’t mind the dreaminess of poets and one really pictured her travelling the world breaking hearts everywhere she went until she eventually found some weird pursuit to hold her down. Surprisingly, after she obtained her degree, she promptly married and settled down to a life of ‘normalcy’ and domesticity.
Over the course of several years many figures drifted in and out of Harry’s ever-expanding crew of friends, lovers, poets and non-poets. Each of them brought in tow distinctive colours and flavours that immensely enriched our lives. But one preoccupation remained constant; our collective love and fascination for literature.
However, Harry also knew how to enjoy life. As noted, he forged links with a bevy of talented and beautiful women; women who often wrote poetry and loved the arts just as he did.
Harry had time for his friends no matter their status in life. In the late 1980s when some of us came together at Chuks’s Balewa Hall annex room, it was usually a blast. Yvonne Chaka Chaka, a then sultry South African songstress had just burst onto the scene with an exotic slice of Afropop called ‘Umqombothi’. One evening, seduced by Chaka Chaka’s exotic sultriness, Harry uncharacteristically took to the dance floor. Tall, slim and elegant, he slid downwards like a dark river, coursing down the undulating face of a hill. Prince’s era defining hit, ‘Sign ‘o the times’, also made an impact on the crew. I recall Harry enthusiastically getting down to that one too. It was a well-deserved break from the constant ministrations he served to literature- with a capital L.
Harry Garuba is gone but in cobbling this piece together, I imagined an interview, during which a hypothetical Harry is asked what he thinks about the current state of African literature. Here is his long drawn out response:
Don’t get me wrong. Winning international writing prizes can be very good. But somehow a disturbing trend is happening in African literature especially the writing that is taking place outside South Africa which is perhaps the most vibrant cultural melting-pot on the African continent.
African writing has always sought validation from without. It appears the cultural capitals of the world such as London, New York, Paris and Lisbon more or less define what our literary tastes should be. This has been so because the headquarters of the most powerful publishing houses are located in the West even if they sometimes operate small outposts in Africa. When books are written, they need to get reviewed in appropriate publications in order to develop a critical mass. Sometimes major publishing houses organise book tours and launches to facilitate the public reception of books. Only major Western publishing houses can organise such events. They are usually the ones who can facilitate the process of entering books for all kinds of prizes. Even with the emergence of the internet as a major source of distribution we cannot underestimate the global powers of the majors.
However, the drawback is if African writers must always depend on Western cultural institutions, then we would be creating a very narrow and specific kind of writer which says much about the parochial nature of current African writing. It means we can only have one kind of writer who panders to the whims of certain Western literary cliques. If this state of affairs persists for too long then there wouldn’t be much interesting African writing going on.
Another point: The jamborees associated with winning international writing prizes create a false impression about the labour of the writer. Writers by some quirk of the public imagination ought to acquire the glamour usually reserved for movie stars. And so the media circus events, well-publicised book launches, TV appearances and so on are made out to be most of what a writer does. In other words, winning international writing prizes in Africa falsely glamourises the back-breaking labour writing normally entails. So it is thought that when writers are not junketing from one cultural capital to another, they are conducting reality TV-type writing workshops for aspiring writers. The part of writing that involves countless hours of solitary vigil in front of a computer screen is carefully air-brushed out of public perception. The life-numbing pain of innumerable rejection slips is never mentioned as being generally the lot of the average writer. Also, the fact that there are simply too many writers in existence as Milan Kundera once famously remarked is ignored. These are some of the false impressions winning international writing prizes have created among aspiring African writers.
Perhaps the most damaging one is the one that associates the act of writing with glamour, with star quality. But the simple truth is writing is usually extremely unglamorous. Sad but true in spite of the high public profiles of the likes of Wole Soyinka who is an exception to the rule of writing being a drab preoccupation.
Colm Toibin, the Irish writer, maintains it is healthy for a writer to have written four books before he or she wins a prize. In this way, a writer can go through the painstaking process of developing a distinctive voice. In Africa, this is usually not the case as the push and shove to win international writing prizes take their toll. A writer wins one international prize and then decides to live like a reality TV personality offering earth-shaking advice on the basis of having published a single book. Yes, this is but one species of the African writer but we need more for the general health of our cultural landscape. We mustn’t be constantly inundated by what those who are more or less lackeys of global publishing circuits are doing in the public eye. Every now and again we need to be shaken out of our complacency and this can only be accomplished when our writers manage to challenge pre-existing jaded cultural establishments and produce work that destroys social media age illusions about what writing really is.
The views expressed above might have been held by any of the known members of the Thursday Group whose approach to literature, as I have attempted to demonstrate, was quite serious and demanding.
Image: Univ of Cape Town (modified)