“The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.” – Antonio Gramsci
“You, who was born for poetry’s creation,
Do not repeat the sayings of the ancients.” – Anna Akhmatova
“The will of man is beyond surrender.” – Wole Soyinka
“Why is the first window that opens out on this fictional world the consciousness of an idiot?” -J.P Sartre on William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury”
A writer’s business is to voyage into and take up commands at the threshold of consciousness; and report back freely the news of what is there. This is why the writer in any society being a freelance explorer of spiritually dense zones gains a certain license to behave differently from other people, to be eccentrics in order to fulfil the singularity of his/her vocation in the society. The definition of madness is arbitrary and at most political. The term madness fixes limits and could be exploited for alienating and repressive use; the frontiers of madness define who is ‘Other.’ The exemplary writer is a broker in madness because therein lies the powers of the new. And so when a writer accuses the other of being mad, we should ask what is his definition of madness? In the service of what idea is this definition and in whose interest is this idea?
I read with dismay Odia Ofeimun in his poem Anarch of Hubris (Sunday Mirror, 25 June 2006) deeming Chiedu Ezeanah, a younger poet, a mad, drunkard, morally irresponsible individual who mortgages resources for his wife and daughter to red-light captains simply because Ezeanah self-assertively queries Ofeimun in a soki poem, The Spinner of Dialectics (Sentinel Poetry, #43, June 2006) on why Ofeimun had to release larger doses of himself into his private life. Interestingly, their use of poetry as such flows from the tradition of the neoclassical poets: John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, William Congreve and such use had spun brilliant masterpieces like The Rape Of The Lock, MacFlecknoe, The Dunciad. Had I not reckoned the physics of paradigm shift and boundary maintenance, I would have disqualified my mind and pen from the fray. The godfatherly overstretch is a figuration in the process the older generation employs to pollute the progressive conditions that make vigorous, serious and necessary literature viable. The new Nigerian writer even before s/he is born or converted to one is already encumbered with the triple tropes of sleaze: enfeebling tuitions, philistine criticisms and standards, and insidious paternalism.
Unfortunately, Ibadan has yielded reluctantly its esteemed place as the capital of Nigerian literature and literary criticism to Lagos which unlike the days of Ibadan, is too considerate, obedient, compliant, kabiyesi-ish, worshipful, offensive to life of significant contentions, germane to received and comfortable positions and attitudes, and more about literary politics and self-posturing than critical vitality and qualitative literary tradition. In fact Lagos is an Absurdistan where to write and to line up are synonymous verbs; whereas continual rebellion is the driving force of aesthetic dynamism. Ever since this change of seat, there has being just one man, a Don, who does not entertain questioning, whose over dozen year dictatorship coincides with the inevitable loss called ‘the lost generation’ and his own inevitable literary leanness.
Says Helon Habila: “Odia Ofeimun was probably the most influential and the most visible poet in Nigeria. He was something of a cult figure among young poets, and few poetry books were published in Lagos during the 1990s without his name among the acknowledgements.” (Granta 80: The Group). He later adds: “Some of my friends advised me to get close to Odia Ofeimun, because in Lagos he decided who won which competition.”
Undeniably, Ofeimun cannot ‘blind himself to putrefying carcases in the market place pulling giant vultures from the sky’, nor can one refute that The Poet Lied is not a cherished addition to the Nigerian canon, nor that Ofeimun in Postmodernism and the Impossible Death of An African Author is not of obese intelligence, nor that Ofeimun of Imagination and the City is not a superb literary archivist. Chinua Achebe offers a good paradigm in Arrow of God where the people of Aninta set fire to and crush their god because he refuses to serve them and in its place installed another god. More pertinent here is the Yoruba mythological paradigm of Atunda, the first insurrectionary grand iconoclast. At the birth of time, his revolutionary initiative of rolling a stone over his master Orisanla (god of purity and father of the gods) disintegrating him – the original godhead into countless debris so that there is not just one god but many gods. That action liberated humanity from the divine tyranny of theism and monotheism. It inaugurated continued gustiness, revolution, fragmentation, individuality vis-à-vis heterogeneity and their other polysemic significations which in the Ibadan days of actively progressive scholarship were the impelling credos not only in spirituality but also the choice of literary teacher, mentor, critic, muse, discipline, genre of fiction or type of literature, worldview and epistemological system.
The scene changes to a venue of the Lagos readings of Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come in October 2005. From the floor came a comment from the chairman of a big publishing house: that some days before he was terribly disgusted to see someone deliver a public lecture with a laptop. He was alluding to Dele Olojede, the Pulitzer Prize co-winner who rendered a lecture during NLNG award ceremony. The question is: what is bad in the new possibility of giving a lecture from a laptop? How come this ‘experienced mind’ in literature obstinately persistent in things of the past, whose interest is not magnetised by a dosage of custom-bending features which is what imagination and creativity is all about be a juror of literary prizes? Even more. His company feeding on past glory has not discovered any new writer in the last 20 years. The textbook publishing that is their staple is a process of recycling annually old textbooks that are long overdue for revision. The company like all others (Macmillan, Heinemann, Longmans, Evans, University Press) are yet playing notorious roles in keeping the WAEC and NECO literature curriculum reading lists caked. To mention a few. For African prose, on WAEC’s syllabus, the newest title is Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys Of Motherhood (1979) and on NECO’s (founded 5 years ago) Animata Sow Fall’s A Beggars Strike. For African Drama, on WAEC’s is Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and on NECO’s, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo’s Trial Of Dedan Kimathi (1976).
Students are in all directions fed cognitively with information, themes and atmospheres that history has overtaken and left museum caryatids. Whereas when those books were enlisted, they were refreshingly and contextually relevant. When Odia Ofeimun first appeared in Idoto, the University of Ibadan English Department journal in 1975 and was again included in Wole Soyinka’s Poems of Black Africa (1975), the curriculum quickly accommodated the young poet as the latest happening to literature worth studying. Can the embalmed syllabus do the same today to bombs like Rotimi Babatunde, Kunle Okesipe, Tolu Ogunlesi or a Chimamanda Adichie?
Charles Nnolim’s essay Contemplating Contemporary Nigerian Fiction (Guardian Friday, 5 August 2005) wherein he abducts new writers into a ‘flesh school,’ upbraids their works as flattering debauchery, corruption, irreligion and lacking fidelity to any serious theme or ideological commitment unlike the first generation of African writers (he broadens to Africa) who had as their theme: “the fight against apartheid and colonialism.” For the second generation, the fight is “for social equality, for feminism.” For the third, (he narrows to Nigeria) there is “no clear thematic focus. If anything they depict a people adrift, hedonistic, cowed…people lost in the imbecility of futile optimism, hoping that materialism and the pursuit of dirty lucre will compensate for the nation’s soul.” Nnolim discloses himself as a puritan like the Victorian critics who treat literature like a branch of moral argument. Any critic is entitled to his own wrong judgment, but certain lapses of judgment indicate a copious sensibility deficit. And they are not just isolated mistakes of judgement, but are proposing standards that call for assent.
Literature is special; it accommodates any level of language, any plot, any style, any ideas, any information. In short, it is open and free. Politics is ideological. Religion is dogmatic. Why should literature be stimulated along some predetermined patterns or goals even when the goals are considered desirable for the health of the society? Why should the fluid operations of the creative mind be constructed around certain frameworks of ideological intent or around the exigencies of engagement?
The responsibility of writers is to make an ingredient out of their immediate surroundings. Quality comes from the creative processing of this fund of ingredients, his speculative – probing relationship without declaring at once in advance ideological relations to this fund. To enlist literature at the service of an interest or ideology, in effect is bound to impose an intolerable strain on the imaginative faculty.
It is inaccurate to sum up the outputs of first generation as motivated by a predetermined commitment; they were just prima facie interested in how the colonial encounter has shaped the culturalscape for good or ill. Ditto for the second generation. The honour of literature is its capacity to pay attention to and develop a quarrel with(in) the social order and this is the unifying sensibility at work in writings across the genres and across the generations in the trajectory of Nigerian literature. A body of literature from diverse writers historigraphically unified only by time is insusceptible to easy summaries and categorizations. It is replete with complexities, tensed with (sub) thematic contradictions and every of its walls are unavoidably fluid. The critic must have those in mind as an operational background.
The figures of this different generations have not stop writing. And more, many have published works in generations not designated as his/her own. Flora Nwapa, Gabriel Okara, Buchi Emecheta, J.P. Clark, Chinua Achebe, Festus Iyayi, Tess Onwueme, Femi Osofisan, have published works up till the later generation(s) and the have concerned themselves with realities, visions and anxieties of these later generations. This makes the man-made partitions of generational grand themes shift about and crumple making room for the project of intertextuality, collective dialogue across time. Such that when Nnolim says that the first generation burdened itself with ‘the fight against apartheid and colonialism’ it is easy to look at their later works and see no such fights but the current zeitgeist. When he says the second generation press their work as vectors of ideological theories, social justice, and feminism, it is easy to look at their later works as see no such thing but the status quo. And so when he says the new Nigerian writing is replete with hedonism, corruption and idioms of debauchery, it is easy to recognize the older works’s ‘grand themes’ resonating similarly. Ejike Eze’s dalliance with Ndidi in Omo Uwaifo’s Fattening House (2001) is no less debauched than the adultery involving Adisa and Obofun in Festus Iyayi’s Violence (1979). Chim Newton’s otherwise mediocre imitation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Under The Cherry Tree (2003) is no less about debauchery than Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala (1958), or Matei Markwei’s 1964 poem, Life in our Village. Maik Nwosu’s Alpha Song (2003) is no less about a country adrift, prurience, and inveterate beering than Soyinka’s The Interpreters (1965). In fact J.P. Clark, a first generation eminence, started off his non-fiction narrative, America, Their America (1964), “a book that established him as an able journalist, a keen social observer and critic,” with an account of himself, a willing participant, in bed with a call girl.
Alpha Song, the monstrance of Nnolim’s observations can be better assessed as a ceaseless quest of a deeper meaning to life than that given by the instincts and superficial affections alone or read as some allegory of a gnostic conflict of the spirit and body, the depletion of the possibilities of life of the mind by those in power whose day policies not only enlarge the army of the night but also lengthen night itself.
Soyinka in 1972 was part of the jury together with Lewis Nkosi and Martin Esslin that commended Jagjit Singh’s play for BBC African performance, Sweet Scum of Freedom, for “daring to [put] a prostitute into the centre of a play without moralizing about it,” and for “successfully point[ing] out that flesh seems to transcend the basic superficial prejudices.” The life of a whore is the most radical metaphor for the act of lending oneself to others. The ultimate the armed forces, the politicians, the religionists with the omnipotence of their God, the human rights and democracy activists at home and abroad, and the concerned international community could not execute to forestall the impending doom General Abacha was dragging to the nation, prostitutes did it. They offered liberation to a nation of 130 million people! The deed of course becomes a metaphor; a revalidation of the role of red light activity in the society and hence an asset to the literary imagination.
Charles Nnolim is a professor of authority who moulds young minds and he happens to be a judge of literary prizes so he matters. The coy self-textualization of the ravaging impact of the cancerous mushrooming of churches on himself is obvious when he urged on his view against the new literature in the final peroration with which his essay concludes. “In spite of the proliferation of churches,” he writes, “God is dead in recent Nigerian fiction, completely edged out by materialism and Epicureanism… No major character in new Nigerian fiction goes to a religious service on Sunday and none kneels down to pray for God’s intervention in moments of crisis.”
This ghastly religious newspeak criticism deserves a little ancestry. In Nigeria, every minute is being reworked into a Sunday and a Friday. A weirdly increasing number of offices devote enough time at mornings to praise worships. Once you dissent, you are linked to hubris and any failure in that office. Yet in these alternative religions – Christianity and Islam inhere the most powerful and most organized force for anti-intellectualism and ecumenical philistinism. Not in their fanatic varieties since no distinction is evinced between the mainstream and the fringe when it comes to their catechesis on matters of thought and the cultural heritage. While Islam proposes alarmingly growing limits to the influence of literary imagination and places veto on impermissible thoughts, Christianity proposes rigid moralism and spiritual correctness. According to the prevailing Christian diagnosis of the Nigerian socio-political and economic condition, the decay started in 1977 when Nigeria hosted the Festival of Black Arts And Civilization (FESTAC 77) and from far and near “we allowed evil spirits and gods to be brought and worshipped from all over. So God has decided to punish us.” The native mode is always divined to be in sinful competition to God, the disseminator of evil spirits and maledictions. In 2001, Obafemi Awolowo University Ife hosted the 7th World Congress of the Orisha. Barely a week after, different Christian groups comprising lecturers and students mobilized for a mass crusade to sanitize the campus of all horrendous principalities of cosmos the congress had invited, to prevent students’ deaths, secret cultism, exam malpractices, and all evils that allegedly blaze the heels of such gatherings. One of the neo-textual by-products of this prowling irrationality in the field of literary criticism is Nnolim’s charge. Again says he: ”even with the proliferation of churches, God is dead in…no major character in new Nigerian fiction goes to a religious service….none kneels down to pray for God’s intervention in moments of crisis.”
This is equivalent to a piece of cheap proselytizing for a metaphysical possibility. None in Nigerian literature has done such and there is nothing wrong in never doing it. Because in life and literature, the budding generation does not will to bend or kneel down and commune with an almighty, Prof Charles Nnolim like Papa Eugene Achike in Purple Hibiscus’s opening spark “flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère” just because his irreverent and irreligious son, Jaja “did not go to communion” on Sunday.
The intellectuals, military, politicians, civil servants, and business gurus who ravaged Nigeria and set a standard of thorns for the young actively grace churches and mosques yet do not reckon any sin in wrecking the country and to distract, they employ godot tactics by urging the masses – their victim, to call on God, a force outside of history for solution. Toni Morrison’s Nobel acceptance lecture captures the emerging fire precisely: “Our inheritance is an affront. You want us to have your old, blank eyes and see only cruelty and mediocrity. Do you think we are stupid enough to perjure ourselves again and again with the fiction of nationhood? How dare you talk to us of duty when we stand waist deep in the toxin of your past?”
Much of the continued authority of prevailing literary standards is devoted to upping the threshold of what is terrible. The 2004 maiden edition of the NLNG prize could not be awarded because the judges discovered that all their shortlist was complete with errors. The shortlist is included in the matrix of fiction Nnolim’s essay chastises for lacking ideological focus et al. Though the judges still noted that the plagues of the previous year were active, Gabriel Okara’s The Dreamer, His Vision emerged as a co-winner. It was praised for having “a moral and spiritual meaning,” and “does not shy away from making political statements on the civil war and the devastation in the [Niger] delta” [my emphasis]. With its extant engaged standards, neither Shakespeare, nor Kafka nor Garcia Marquez’s Love in Time of Cholera, nor Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, nor Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Compliant (a story strong on some details of masturbation and other sexual adventures) nor any book with anything homosexual no matter how splendid it is treated can win the NLNG Prize. And we wish to have a respectable literary tradition?
The Pat Utomi Prize states that no work that has won any award elsewhere should be tabled in order to help other writers – financially of course. If a book has won £1000 commonwealth prize, or a N30, 000 ANA third place prize, or won a non-cash Farafina Online award, it cannot win the Pat Utomi N1million prize. By saying that, the prize has little or nothing to do with fostering literary excellence enhanced by comparative evaluations that is the purpose of judges. All things being equal, even if all judges are geniuses, they are prone to subjectivities. That a French book wins the Goncourt does not imply the Prix Novembre is its. More if the intention is to make easy room for younger writers, it is ruinous. Every distinguished writing career started as a personal quest to beat the status quo. In the UK, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) trounced established writers like Nobel Laureate J. Coetzee and Salman Rushdie to the shortlist. Adichie’s trounced heavyweights like Margaret Atwood to the 2004 Orange Prize shortlist. If a book is really great, it deserves to garner all the prizes available. This enriches standards. Other writers should submit themselves to self-punishing tutelage and harder work. The architects of the Pat Utomi prize can create grants, sponsor advances and fund writers’ resorts instead of the current magun (don’t climb) practice. It spells a greater peril. A prize should be designed chiefly to boost the readership of a book rather than enhance the financial station of the author.
Deola Bello, an emerging voice of the Yahoo generation continues the narrativization of this new sensibility in her poem The Quest (Farafina Online, January 2006) which is not expressly an endorsement of an ideological vision or the valences of cultural exocentricity but of the quest for irreligion, creative autonomy, free education, and liberation from the seductive shackles of prizes. She is worth full quote:
If it is true that I am a weed without roots
Flowing on the river with the whims of the wind
If to the beat of Bata I won’t dance
But instead sit at the sides and observe
Then let me be
In peace leave me.
The bat that refuses to fly except at night
Must have a reason for keeping malice with Sunlight
Tarry with me a little longer in a little madness
And I will show you the wisdom of folly.
If it is true that I refuse to make a sacrifice
Of three wraps of pap sprinkled with palm-oil
And placed in a calabash made of mire
To gods I know not who tarry at crossroads.
I will rather eat my food late at night
And go to bed with a full belly
After sacrificing to my stomach
But what about that calabash and the pap
That I saw at crossroads
It is most disgusting, I refuse to touch it
This is the reason why I sit in your midst
Telling you a parable, the story of my life
Like a sword, I assure you its sides are
For come nightfall the little dancer will surely dance
To the fine rhythm of a choice Samba by night
Gather round folks, let’s make merry
For here, behold the quest ends.
The new Yahoo writers must not allow themselves to be captured by critics demand to express engaged, seminary or Sunday school literature or refrain from writing ‘blemished’ or ‘debauched’ works. Since great works are the best resources for a revolution –literary, intellectual or political, the new Yahoo writers should resolutely stand for literary and intellectual beauty in wherever spheres their imagination can see it achieved. They must will to be vigilant against all species of philistinism masking as political, moral or religious values as indices of literature. They must decidedly project an eternal antagonism towards the forces that wish to normalize repression and popularize censorship. They must defend the nobility of free thought. Like charity that must first start at home, the new Yahoo writers must get rid of the inner censor. Dissent is an asset.
In his gusty poem, The Spinner of Dialectics, Ezeanah lacing strong accusatory vibes in his 14-line couplets suggests that Ofeimun is fond of just rising up and leading the side of those who matters; that he enters himself into any discourse, spit vituperation on everything in order to meet a vituperative need (which is not dissimilar to Nnolim who spits Christian tirade against the new because he must meet a Christian need); that everything to Ofeimun is about a power game, a power show; that he would ‘gossip’ and ‘meddle’ in his tender marriage whereas he squeezes juices out of oranges and toss the remains into the trash can.
Ofeimun in his 143-line Anarch of Hubris scores a direct hit on the refusenik and attempts to cut him to shape. He saturates the verse with significations of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Rimbaud who were alcohol laureates and severe eccentrics:
Neither love nor charity can save him
from the night that takes his mind
When frothing malady spirits him
To the vomitorium….
Poet of hubris, fallen angel of clap-trap!
Not for nothing is he the self-flagellator
who, to blind the sun overhead, throws werepe
up the skies unready for his stem’s collection
of body-scratches until, squirming naked,
he break-dances into market-squares.
Comparing Ezeanah’s stint in the bank and accommodation problems to Rimbaud who abandoned versification for gun running and slave merchandise in the jungles of Africa:
he turns love of poetry, so often betrayed,
into a licence to kill, sell a little daughter
to jungle alleys…
Poe and Rimbaud we must recall are each a genius of the word. Unlike others, the stories of their severe eccentricities could only live because of their everlasting contribution to language. When he harks back to when Ezeanah together with other progressives worked for Arishekola Alao, an Abacha goon and eventually succeeded in getting shot during the ferocious anti-Abacha riot in Ibadan on 1st May 1998, Ofeimun of the barricades rightly carries placard:
he turns love of poetry, so often betrayed,
into a licence to kill,…… dance to nation-wrecking,
taste blood with wolves in comradely toast
Setting forth with the highly emotive, highly pitched pronoun, ‘I,’ and the syncopating jolt resident in it so as to facilitate a sense of terrific pride and indeed grandeur in his affairs with oranges, coyly suggesting they could be held accountable for his literary leanness, Ofeimun begins the second section of the poem:
I was a poet before politics
set the women at the pump
to braid my hair…
they steeled my muse
to temper time and ward off hogs
muddying the healing waters
I remain the poet who stood
with the women at the pump…
…my solidarity endures
with the women at the pump
who taught me to see…
The third part of Anarch of Hubris is typically repetitive and deservedly insipid but it is not without its jewels. First, Ofeimun tries to be contrite but with celerity changes his mind. An act of contrition is a product of grace, of humility but not of self-abasement. It does not diminish; on the contrary it confers integrity. It also carries with it the burden of avoidance of the initial error, of greater caution in negotiating the Southern Lebanon that originally blew up in one’s face. Second, in terms of speed, rhythm, and assortment of images, this lean section arrives at a sombre steadiness. Third, in the preceding section Ofeimun alerts us to significance of ‘women’ and ‘pump’ in his career graph. In this sombre section he illustrates the leanness. God forbid the ageing Ofeimun suggesting he wants to persist sitting like the poem at the middle of page with an abundance of unused spaces all around it. The British Deputy High Commission does not believe he is a poet anymore. Ezeanah tactically hints that his contemporary relevance as a ‘writer’ rests on ‘tons of dusty manuscripts,’ not even manuscripts of poems or prose but just manuscripts. Wole Soyinka foresaw this tendency of leanness in the then talented young promise. In My Tongue Does Not Marry Slogans, published in Mandela’s Earth and other poems (1989), he derides Ofeimun whether it is ‘a passing inhibition’ or ‘an overdose of reality’ that ‘stuns the mind and beggars lyrics.’ Soyinka insinuates further that maybe it is his ‘brain’s fevered contest with the world.’ That world no doubt includes his Mandela-ing of the Lagos literary politics and other things.
Ofeimun drops a reference that can be taken as his diagnosis of Ezeanah. He toss the line ‘He’s at war/with himself’ under the overarching line ‘never ask me why’ – which together with ‘I will raise a fist to your guts’ are the shield and sword of his dictatorship. Of course we have to ask you why and raise fists to your gut. How could Ofeimun take liberty with memory, with history, with epistemology? How could he prefer to forget that this war with oneself is the primordial ordeal that made Ogun, our shared comrade, brother and ancestor, the Him of creativity? That it was from this inner conflict, this tragic symptom of creativity that the world itself came into existence as Soyinka delineates in The Fourth Stage. Has Ofeimun now truly forgotten the process of inspiration to production? Every creative work of art is a blast of an artist’s war with the inner self, the abyss of dissolution, those caves of the collective psyche. To be there, it requires high voltage courage outwardly called madness. The madness of the brave is usually the wisdom of life. Walter Benjamin theorized on the concept of Hashish – a series of protocols of drug experiments to achieve a depth psychology or chemical exploration of consciousness to re/illuminate experience, provide alternative coordinates of perception, interpretive/interpretative perceptives, and to catalyse the powers of language in which the creative mass usually or occasionally indulge. To take up positions at the frontier of consciousness, couple the infinite aspect of being to the chthonic abyss, and survive its terrors, Ezeanah has had profound ordeals with green daemons of froth. Ogun, under the influence of alcohol, [perhaps because hashish and tough chemicals were alien then, trust Ogun would have spontaneously subscribed to them] murdered friends and foes alike in the Battle of Ire. This uncancelled error enriches earth and myth because Ogun is compelled in atonement to visit earth annually bringing the seasons of harvest.
Can’t an artist choose to fervently subscribe to the Surrealist’s faith in the access to wider consciousness afforded by alcohol, dreams, drugs, sex, and asocial behaviours? I am not conceding absolute authority to the irrational but apprehensively conceding legitimacy to it being a sure route towards a new necessary mental planet. This planet gives light to new truths, new awareness and new conceptions.
Character Chiedu Ezeanah is a multimania no doubts. In this atmosphere of consensus, of phoney characters, Character Chiedu is a rare real thing. He is a connoisseur of indefinite expansion of the possibilities of freedom, of pleasures. Like Nietzsche who has been mad before he became mad, or Nikolai Gogol who lived his short life as a long psycho-illness, the obligation Nigerian literature requires from Character Chiedu is to invent trophies from his experience. Michel Houellebecq is variously described as ‘a zombie back from the dead telling us what he likes,’ chemically challenged, a bore, a severe drunk, a Fela with women, a reactionary, nihilistic, repulsive, funny, melancholic, but no one accepts him as dull. He is the star of French literature, the best contemporary French writer. Houellebecq said until he met fellow writers the most interesting people were inmates of mental hospitals.
So numerous are memorably interesting characters, great citizens of literature with grossly weird possibilities of themselves common in other world literatures that Nigerian literature lack but myriad in its reality. Think of Cervantes’s Knight Quixote and Sancho Panza, Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, Vladimir Nabokov’s Hubert Hubert, Gunter Grass’s Oscar Matzerath, Nikolai Gogol’s Chichikov and Aksenty Poprischin, Albert Camus’s Caligula, Garcia Marquez’s Femina Daza, Zadie Smith’s Samad Iqbal. Characters like these are priceless, sociologically, they are amunludun, without which existence will be bore or sore. How could writers of the new sensibility then be blind to literary possibilities of an ace like Character Chiedu Ezeanah and hence defend its right to exist?
Oh yes there is a fresh impulse and a new sensibility that fits well into the theoretical framework of Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. An ominous disposal of ‘fathers’ in emerging debut fictions are evocative of the new wave’s poise to belt fresh energies into the literary tradition come what may. Fathers or godfathers that lays down magun or embody ideas or fixes conditions with suppressive weight on the flowering of the new are necessarily murdered. I speak of Agu’s father, Commandant, and Luftenant in Uzodinma Iweala’s Beast of No Nation (2005). The young hero, Agu, lost his parents when rebels of extraordinary brutality led by Luftenant and Commander raided his village. Agu is recruited like other children as soldiers. After Faustian ordeals, the child soldiers revolt and shot the fearful commander and a child prostitute knifed Luftenant to death. They became free. In Everything Good Will Come (2005) Sefi Atta makes the self-assertive protagonist Enitan call her father a liar, packs out of his house before getting rid of his existence ultimately.
And more, the murder of Eugene Achike in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus (2004). The arrival of Purple Hibiscus marked this overdue materialization of the new Yahoo impulse and concurrently it is its first harvest. Eugene Achike has a domineering spread in the entirety of the novel. In him reside the polarities of progressive humanistic sentiments and retrogressive coagulants. He is a widely adored philanthropist, he wins a human rights award, only his newspaper stands up to the corrupt, repressive and brutal military government of the day. To his wife and children at home, he is religiously glitzy and a chauvinist; he despises his delectable father, Papa Nnukwu as ‘a heathen’ because he sticks to his indigenous Igbo religion. In the end Adichie obliterates the household tyrant to allow his wife and children to freely breathe and ‘for the new rains [to] come down soon.’
To mobilize the regenerative energies for the new rains to come, genuine giants of Nigerian literature and their achievements are never considered impediments to emerging voices’ aspirations to originality or qualitative outputs as Bloom’s theory posits, only the poseur figures of speech are. Their insidious authority clenches its fists around the minds of the young.
Now that the forces of conformism and fatuous acquiescence to authorities have certainly been strengthened by the introduction of bosomy literary prizes (the NLNG, Pat Utomi, Soyinka Prizes), the Yahoo writers and critics should sponsor scepticisms, formulate questions and construct counter-statements to reigning pieties. They should will to bravely and maddeningly symbolize and defend a higher standard of literature. The Yahoo generation should no longer allow Nigerian literature respond to Mathew Arnold’s notion of culture that defined arts as the criticism of life (understood as propounding and referencing with moral, political, religious precepts) but as the extension or reinvention of life (understood as representing clamorous modes of vivacity). There is no necessary denial of the role moral evaluation. Only that the scale must change. It should become less gross, and what it forfeits in discursive explicitness, it profits from subliminal power. It is a move toward Kafka, that is, a move from the phenomenal, to the nuomenal, to the plane of regard. This is perhaps why Kafka’s works has been squeezed rightly into diverse philosophical and theosophical movements. I see his works as telling the time before the clock strikes. J.P. Sartre claimed them for Existentialism. Albert Camus claimed them for Absurdism. Max Brod claimed they are elaborate quests for the unreachable. That is the essence of literature: to be many things and nothing else since it is not subordinate to anything.
This article hits a nail on the head of present day literature. Writers are thrust in between standing true to the hard work required by their craft and ‘drawing in a wider audience’.
It is noticeable that authors in the UK are more inclined to hone their craft of writing. Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Andrea Levy’s Small Island are testament to this.
Lines like, ‘But Gilbert’s hands surrendered into the air and that wretched ugly extremity began deflating, sagging, drooping, until it dangled, flip-flopping like a dead bird in a tree'(105, Small Island) are so fresh you want to read them again and again. You imagine the thought that went into the prose and syntax by the writer.
I hope to write serious fiction one day and face criticism squarely in the face.
clever and thoughtful.
u are good critical writer.NGOZI JOY MUO
An excellent essay on the current perspectives of contemporary Nigerian Literature. With highlights of the sparks in the dim light.
The best examples of works of genius are yet to be published since the leading publishing houses Longman and Heinemann Educational Books became dormant from the late 1980s to date.
Most of the unpublished classic novels given to Longman and Heinemann Educational Books have not been published. My “Man of the Earth” and seven other novels are still not published. Also included are volumes of plays and poems and I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon of self-publishers on rampage in Nigeria.
Olu Oguibe is ignorant and since he left the shores of Nigeria, he is yet to excel as a writer. The only person who has impressed me is Ben Okri and also coming up fast is Chris Abani who wrote “Graceland”. Sola Osofisan and Akin Adesokan are higly gifted writers. But, most people are ignorant of this fact. The next Nigerian writer who will likely win the Nobel Prize is Ben Okri for his genius is not questionable. And after Ben Okri, who is next Sola, Osofisan, Akin Adesokan, Chris Abani and Helon Habila will excel.
I will not mention my name until two or three of my novels are published. My worth should prove my genius and not my mouth.
Have you read Sola Osofisan, Akin Adesokan, Chris Ebani, Ekenyerengozi Michael Chima, Adeleke Adeyemi and others Go and read all the unpublished masterpieces with Longman and Heinemann Educational Books.
The next Nigerian who will win the Nobel Prize in Literature is Ben Okri.
Every piece of creative endeavour will attract certain degree of criticism.This is ths case if we take cognisance of the fact that creative works are mixture of entertainment and plotlines.It is impossible to entertain and entrench the plot without language.The works which you have dragged through the mud have some things of interest in them. So, at times I wonder if criticsm is not a subjective exercise.
I understand the angst of the author of this piece, but at the same time, I do think the literary community takes itself too seriously. Books serve many different purposes. Some provide us a way to study and appreciate the beauty of language, and others exist just to entertain us, plain and simple. I don’t know about you, but I like to be entertained. Only a select few really appreciate literary fiction. I am fairly certain that the majority of the people who have read Shakespear did so because they were mandated in school, and very of them actually fall in love with the prose enough to go looking to read it on their own. So are the rest of us barbarians? Perhaps in the eyes of the literary community, yes. But when I am sitting on the beach on a hot summer day looking to relieve some of the stress in my life, I pick up a Sydney Sheldon, and I thank God for commercial fiction!
This is an excellent dance in the square, which should draw coins to the sweaty face of the dancer. I, therefore, place several. I also thank the writer for reminding us about the need to tell stories with the language of our African forebears. A language that dances with the story and tickles the ears.
If I recall right, African night entertainments put a lot of emphasis on 1. audience understanding of the story, 2. Sustaining the interest of listeners and but not limited to using language that will make the story easily memorable.
Above all these, is the moral lessons a well strung tale is teaches.
It is a little bit unfair to believe that it is only writers who pay less attention to the beautiful art of story-telling (creating intrigues) and more on the vehicle which is the language that make good writers. I think that a good African writer must not sound like a classical English writer like Okri, to be the best we can give to our people. Our audience are Africans and the key elements of African story telling must be African. Unless you believe that it is only writers who write to tickle the ears of white people that write good literature. African literature must not be interpreted with the style of our colonial masters but clearly with style of our forefathers who invented and passed on the rites to us. Thanks.
I love it.
its quite encouraging..100 people like this would definitely save Africa
Very few African intellectuals of the literary arts dwell on the language of literature;it is still a relatively new field here, which is enough reason why E.E. Sule`s effort should be praised.He has really delved deep into the subject and has whetted the appetite of those of us in the literary field. Writing on language, it is encouraging that he has himself demonstrated good command of the queen`s language.I urge him to keep talking about fiction.
I have always thought that Nigerian writing is pompous, especially amongst its writers in reportage and critiquing. Journalists flood their stories with grandiloquence, essayists clog intelligent point-making with periphrasis. I find that there are valid ideas in this piece. It is certainly important that writers should leave their audience with memorable images and thought-provoking expressions that give colour to the fabric of the narrative. However, your disdain for the reader is wrong. Writers everywhere realise that first and foremost your reader should not be left in the dark. Writing, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observed, is a strange calling because it needs validation, and if you cannot make your readers understand you, your writing is effectively worthless. I have read most of the writers that you have castigated and I think it must be a matter of personal opinion that you are not moved by their metaphors because I find that, though Helon Habila makes striking use of language, Miss Adichie’s prose is quite often meatier.
Again, on the issue of American writing, this waylaying of American stylisation as generically unsuitable is, I think, unfair. Anybody who’s read a John Updike or a Jack Kerouac novel knows that these are geniuses of the turn-of-phrase. Looking into the startling works of Toni Morrison will always unearth gems of imagery that are unsurpassed anywhere. I think it might be beneficial to read more American writers before consigning them all to the wastebin. Similarly, this attempt to classify what constitutes ‘African’ writing will always fail because of the diversity of history and heritage in Africa. Perhaps you should have stuck with the term ‘Nigerian’ writing. As for South African writers, even a cursory inspection of Nadine Gordimer’s oeuvre will show that apartheid is not the only concern of storytelling.
Writing should be difficult, that is T.S. Eliot’s view. And he might concur with you on some observations. At the same time, writing should not alienate readers, that is the perspective more often celebrated. I think you might benefit from learning to appreciate both viewpoints, Sir.
‘Namdi Awa-Kalu (please email me if you disagree- firstname.lastname@example.org)
PS If “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” is the foundation of your argument I can definitely see where you’re coming from. Armah’s description of the overflowing receptacle of rubbish at the start of that novel and his relation of this to the failed promises of Ghanaian government is very satisfying for any reader.
this stuff blew my mind. i’ve learnt; i’ve been instructed; my mind illumined. exhaustive piece. thanks for putting this up.
A beautiful, instuctive delightfully crafted read.
Very imaginative! I was hurled into this world and only found out where I was, at the end. I am about to read it again.
This article is superb.You really illuminated the literary landscape for young writers.Being your Fomer Student at Nasarawa State University Keffi, I am
really anointed with your intellectual sermon.