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On Writing, Prizes and the Nigerian Mind

 

In the interview granted to The Guardian, Mr. Samuel Kolawole suggested that Nigerian literary works that win prizes abroad are culturally irrelevant to Nigeria because they are not patriotic. They are not patriotic because they promote the West’s sordid image of Africa. This line of thinking is patently false and unfair to Nigerian Diaspora writers.

Mr. Samuel Kolawole’s interview granted to Anote Ajeluoruo and published by The Guardian on Saturday, November 28, 2009, “Kolawole To Writers: Prizes Won Abroad Based On Negative Writings About Nigeria Are Unpatriotic,” deserves a second look. There is little doubt that Mr. Kolawole has a deep love for his country. This is evident in his near-selfless devotion to a thankless job of publishing in Nigeria. For that, we all, who are interested in the life of the mind in Nigeria, owe him a basketful of gratitude.

There are, however, many assertions in his interview that at first appear carelessly made. On a closer look, however, one realizes that they are not only unfriendly but also grossly misleading and do little to enhance the life of the mind to which he is obviously devoted. Mr. Kolawole believes that most literary awards given to Nigerians abroad are made because these works do no more than confirm the West’s negative image of Nigeria: “Go and look at the themes of almost all the books that won awards. It’s about how impoverished we are in Nigeria; the problem of adjusting to another culture in America and all that…”

I cannot pretend to know the exact books he is talking about since he did not discuss any in particular. It is, however, worthy to note that he has given a louder voice to the dominant pseudo intellectual jabs coursing their ways in various internet groups such as Krazitivity, the tenor of which is premised on the notion that Nigerian works that win prizes overseas do so on the strength of their anti-African stance; they become bestsellers mainly because they support the white man’s image of Africa. This is an unfair assessment of Nigerian Diaspora literature.

I am not sure that these detractors lay claim to any intellectual rigor. Nevertheless, it is not hard to point out how damaging their mindset can be to our national discourse. In the first place, it is primarily unsympathetic to, and unsupportive of the toils of these Nigerians. Of course, support is not an essential component of literary criticism. It would be a different thing though, if these opinions would lay claim to critical analysis. Unfortunately, however, they are mostly generalizations about Nigerian writings that are often tangential to literature.

Besides engaging in these generalizations, these detractors insult Nigerians who tell stories that reflect their experiences, or their interpretations of our common Nigerian reality. In doing so, they forget that every story is primarily a personal interpretation of reality. No true literary work sets out to write about a given culture; literary works focus on people’s individual experiences, even when they, like Things Fall Apart, claim to come to the defense of an embattled culture.

Mr. Kolawole seems to have unwittingly engaged in a simplistic notion of the Nigerian culture. I am always stunned that the so-called avowed lovers of Nigeria believe that there is a common Nigerian culture and that it is the job of writers to defend it. If we intellectuals (writers, critics, readers etc) are really to take our world seriously it is high time we began to engage these written works as works; see what they want to achieve, what they have achieved, how they contribute to our national or continental discourses, indeed, what they tell us about our reality. It should be stated clearly that no Nigerian writer writes about the negatives of Nigerian life purely because she or he believes it would appeal to the white man. Believing this amounts to self-pity that corrodes the soul from within.

In introduction to literature courses, we learn that every good writing literally pitches its tent between the experiences of pain and joy. These two define what we know as the human condition. Any writing that fails to address these, indeed, misses the mark. In this vein it is only logical that any writer who reaches others with the wealth of his experience does so with the knowledge that he is addressing the truth, the human condition. Nigeria, it appears, doesn’t offer Nigerians much of the positive side of the human experience. Why wouldn’t Nigerian writers write about what they experienced? When, for example, an Ogoni young man eventually begins to tell his story, what do we expect this story to be like? If he accuses Nigeria of having failed him, would any of us blame him for washing our dirty linen in the public? I understand that most of us are shocked when they read about the extent of decay in our communities. Yes, indeed, shocked, because we chose not to listen to people, we chose to look the other way when we saw people lynch people, or when we saw a corpse lying by the wayside; we chose to live in a different world, a kind of utopia where “neither moth nor rust” will touch our naiveté.

The problem with Nigerian writing might, in fact, be that Nigerian writers have not yet begun to address the “open sore” of our nation. The larger problem with Nigerian protectors of culture, on the other hand, is that they have invented the culture of exclusion. Like our military dictators do. It is unfair that the guardians of Nigerian culture at home would first exclude the works of Nigerians living abroad from national literary awards such as the NLNG Prize, go on to stigmatize these works as unpatriotic, and ultimately exclude them from being culturally relevant. This is as tyrannical as it gets. In this scenario, we all lose, the military wins; in this scenario, we can never begin to articulate national discourses.

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