The monthly Abuja Writers Forum for established, semi-established and budding writers took place at the Nanet Suites, Abuja, last week. The significance of that monthly assemblage is that it is a platform that brings poets, singers, writers and the intelligentsia together as a rendezvous for literary ferment.
Apart from the AWF, other literary bodies such as the Association of Nigerian Authors and the Abuja Literary Society try to keep the Nigerian literary fire aflame in one way or the other. Even though these bodies are not mandated by the Nigerian constitution to continue to stoke the dying embers of literary creativity in the face of appalling neglect, they have been forging on nonetheless. Take the Abuja Writers Forum for instance; since 2008, organisers have tried to use the forum to build synergy among writers, strengthen the interaction between writers and the general public, provide publicity for the development of Nigerian and African literature and ensure that the ‘bring back the book’ initiative of the government is not a farce as is being touted in many quarters.
But this effort has largely been in the hands of individuals who sustain Nigerian literature from their own pockets. Oftentimes, these private individuals have had to go cap in hand to corporate organisations and multinationals, seeking support for the growth and development of Nigerian literature. And instead of the massive investment that these banks, multinationals and the elite should offer, they would disdainfully throw sweets and toffee bars at them, to be deemed as ‘support’ for literature. That cannot be the kind of support that you give to the vital sector of your society and economy that helps to sustain and project what is intellectually, culturally and socially dear and noble to our country to the comity of nations. Nobody supported Chimamanda Adichie, E.E. Sule or E.C. Osondu before they became the literary successes that everyone is shamelessly attaching themselves to and leveraging. But afterwards, it’s a different ball game. And that seems to be the common denominator or theme in our country; you claw and fight all by yourself all the way to acclaim, and the minute you hit it big, the government, social and corporate institutions begin to lay spurious claims. In fact, Adichie’s is a classic example of how government and corporate entities leverage on the success of individuals who have cracked palm kernels by themselves. Instead of waiting for the gods, she cracked her personal palm kernels by travelling abroad and consistently attended literary workshops put in place by institutions established by governments and institutions of other countries. No sooner did she become a success than the ‘Nigerian’ adjective and appellation to her profile and name surface locally. Everyone and those who did not lift a finger to support her struggle to make it started to dance to a song composed by foreign hands and instruments.
This should not be so. While individuals here struggle to support literary activity from their pockets, overseas the government actively participates. The very best example of government participation in the Arts and how this government participation has been passed down over the years is in the example of the promotion of the works of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare lived at the time of an Art-loving Queen Elisabeth I, who spared no expense in the promotion and celebration of the Arts – music, drama and seeming irreverent revelry. She provided the platform for writers like Marlowe and Donne to express their literary potentials. And today, you cannot talk of the success of Shakespeare without relating it to the reign of Queen Elisabeth 1. As a matter of fact, you cannot make any significant reference to the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe if you do not refer to them as belonging to the Elizabethan era. To pursue this matter a little farther, such was the intensity and involvement of the Queen in the promotion of the Arts that to this day, people still doubt if it was ever possible for one man to have produced such a vast body of work in poetry and drama that is today ascribable to Shakespeare.
Because the peoples and governments abroad realise the indispensable role that literary creativity and the arts play in projecting the cultural and social well-being of their people, they do everything they can to support writers, singers, dancers and actors. And how do they do this? They institute prizes – either for the best poem, short story or play. They take this so seriously that they offer you – the writer, singer or poet or dramatist – a residence or a prize for your efforts. In that residence for two, three, six months or one year according to the need of the artist, they fund your writing by taking from you, three of the things that impinge on your writing or creative impetus – your need for food, accommodation, and they put money in your pocket. They understand that if you have creative potentials, running after your needs the way everyone does, doesn’t allow you to be at your creative best. For all of these things they provide you, all they need from you in return is for you to acknowledge them and the level of support they invested in your success as a writer.
Here in Nigeria, the reverse is the case. You suffer and struggle first, and when you succeed, someone comes like a flu or leech and attaches to you. Think about all the poets and authors who are making or have made an impact in Nigeria. It is either they went to school abroad, or that the recognition they now enjoy as writers or poets or dramatists is recognition mostly from abroad.
The most shameful part of all this for us is the endowment of prizes and the names given to some of these prizes for literary excellence. While the Canadians have the Governor General’s Award for writing, most of the prizes that are awarded and which propel a writer or poet to international stardom are prizes inaugurated from abroad. This is apart from the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas, NLNG Prize, and lately, the Etisalat Prize. All the others are foreign – the Man Booker, the Pulitzer, the Commonwealth, and the Nobel. Now, there shouldn’t be anything too specious in benevolent spirits from over the seas helping us crack our palm kernels. What disturbs me to no end are the names (and which I have discussed with some of the nice patrons of these prizes) ascribed to these prizes. They call one of the prizes XXX Prize for ‘African writing’. African Writing…? Isn’t this a misnomer and a negative tag? Should there be anything like Canadian, American, Australian or English writing? Shouldn’t writing be writing? Let’s look at the misnomerness of the name of the prize first of all by relating it to the reaction of one of Nigeria’s poet of the post colonial era – Christopher Okigbo, who was awarded a prize sometime in the 60s. The prize carried the same tag – African or Black, and the man promptly turned down the award, insisting that writing is writing, and even though it comes from Africa there was no point in regionalising or geographicalising or Africanising it. And I agree with Okigbo absolutely, even though posthumously. What prizes you see being awarded for ‘African writing’ are prizes awarded for stories that tell certain stories that are ‘African’ – the recurring decimals and common denominators point to squalor, disease, poverty, maladministration, cultural lumbago – these are the themes in the stories that have been adjudged and celebrated as the best and received prizes for ‘African writing’. These examples to be cited here are not in themselves an attempt to abnegate or discount the huge impact that the oyinbo is investing by sponsoring these awards, but to bring out the dangers inherent in our government and people not supporting our writers. Look at the year that a Nigerian won the XXX Prize for the short story – as soon as that story hit the internet, it went viral, particularly with the wannabes who now see writing as their own short cut to fame and fortune. This is in spite of the fact that relevant themes in most stories which receive ‘critical’ acclaim as ‘African’ stories are the stories that celebrate the seamy sides of life in Africa – hunger, poverty, dirt, disease and violence – stories that point to our inadequacies of self worth, respect and dignity. The following year when an announcement for that same prize was made, more than ten thousand entries from Nigeria reached the patrons only after a few hours of that announcement. But look here folks, the oyinbo people are not looking to celebrate our values and our unique place in world history, no. They look to ‘reward’ stories like the home videos that amplify and orchestrate the poverty, squalor and less than dignifying aspects of our lives as Africans.
Of course a lot of people are now inclined to write like this, placing a huge strain on originality and the individuality that go with the style of individual writing – particularly as the money for the prize is very good and the prospect of fame very alluring. I have often been criticised for criticising some of these prizes and have been told that Nigerians and Africans who enter these prizes do so with their faculties intact. But we must not run away from the fact that these stories we tell of ourselves are really being told for us by the owners of the prizes.
In spite of the shameful neglect of our writers from Nigeria, all of government and corporate effort is skewed in favour of another area of our PSEUDO-literary activity that tells our stories in the most odious of ways. Some years ago, while on a scholarship abroad, I ran into a group of Africans – Tanzanians, Ugandans and Ghanaians, bearing down on a television set in one of our rooms. They did not notice that I had walked in, apparently because they were so absorbed in the programme they were watching on the television set. So I drew nearer and found out to my dismay that this ‘programme’ which had caught their attention was a Nigerian ‘home’ video. It took some time for them to realise that I had walked into their enjoyment, and just as I was about to sneak off in disgust at what they were watching, one of them asked me: ‘is it true that in your country that you have to consult a native doctor for your wife to bear a male child?’ Before I could respond, another said: ‘Why are you, Nigerians always wicked to one another and to others because of money?’
I didn’t know what to say. How was I going to convince them that Nigeria has over 360 languages, cemented with the diversity of cultures and traditional belief systems that are as different as the 360 languages and ethnic tribes? I wanted to tell them that if one or two or three of what is known as ‘major’ tribes have captured the instruments of video productivity to awkwardly launder their obnoxious cultural idiosyncrasies in public, it should not be seen as ‘Nigerian’. In fact, on some of my journeys out of Nigeria, I have observed that everyone I met looked at me in a certain way, as if they half expected me to pull something out of my hat akin to what they see in those home videos. And as I was not watching some of those videos replete with unpardonable grammatical and twisted phonic ramifications, terribly cast with puerile plots and scenes, I am torn between accepting them as deliberate application of the comedy of errors and manners or seeing them as vestiges of the pseudo intellectual and entrepreneurial capacity of some of our people. The Tanzanian chap told me that nobody from Zanzibar or Accra or Liberia watches American or British films – that they are captivated by our ‘home’ videos being the only trusted way to satisfy their curiosity and fascination with the disorder and chaos that marks the disorder in our lives. He did not end it there, assuring me that he could make his millions in his country if he could lay hands on a steady supply of Nigerian ‘home’ videos.
Perception is reality. Out of Nigeria, non-Nigerians know about Nigeria and Nigerians from these poorly wrought home videos than they know from our Chinua Achebe or from Wole Soyinka or from Chimamanda Adichie. And from sports as well – while on a trip to Freiburg, I ran into a German who told me all I needed to know, and more, about ‘J.J. Amokachi’. I tried to tell him that the name was ‘J.J. Okocha’, different from Danny ‘the bull’ Amokachi but he was adamant and would have none of me henceforth. We must not allow this to continue.
Our government and our social-cultural institutions help to celebrate a lot of the effeteness in certain areas of the industries that cast us in very poor light, particularly the home video industry which it has reportedly paid billions of naira to ‘help’. But the same government relegates the true custodians of our personality, style and verve as a nation to the background. Let us take for an instant somebody who writes for a newspaper. In saner climes, a writer is celebrated and almost venerated probably because that sane society recognises the depth of passion and intellectual involvement that it takes to write. It usually takes the full gamut of one’s being to put pen to paper. But that is the thinking of the oyinbo, not ours. If you write for a newspaper here in Nigeria and you are published, somebody thinks they are doing you a favour. You get vilified and castigated if you are paid to write, the assumption being that you sold your conscience or your soul for a mess of porridge. But the common thing today is that in Europe and America, people are writing for money and being paid to write. So, today, we must do all we can to tell our own stories and provide the platform for our people to tell real ‘African’ or ‘Nigerian’ stories. Our country can provide writers with residences in very conducive places like the Obudu Cattle Ranch. Nobody needs go abroad. There are people here who organise workshops for writers, poets and dramatists with monies from their pockets and have even gone a-borrowing to do so. On one occasion where I have served as facilitator for prose fiction, a Canadian was in attendance as a participant.
What must government and our economic and social institutions do to stem this embarrassing tide of neglect for budding writers from Nigeria and Africa? One, let’s cut our writers some slack. All over the world, our writers are probably the only ones newspaper and magazines don’t pay for publishing their work. And even though we write for people abroad who want to pay us, the financial systems of payment like the Paypal system is unavailable in any Nigerian bank, not even the Central Bank. As a young lad struggling through university, I wrote for the Nigerian Observer and was paid for every article. We cannot now say that we cannot pay because opinions and write-ups now come at two and a penny. Two, we must climb down our primordial ladders and process of thinking and begin to do the needful. We must establish residencies, create literary endowments the way Etisalat is doing, sponsor literary festivals and help with the publications of books by subsidising the cost of publication. The government must do what it has done to Nollywood to Writerswood by doing what the NANET Suites is doing – they have offered a sizable portion of their premises to Nollywood and have done same to writers in Abuja – for free. Look around you at the ‘musicians’ being celebrated by Glo, MTN, or Etisalat today. Check out their videos and if in so doing you don’t always get movements in your groins for the half clad, bare-chested Weenie-the-poohs gallivanting around on your TV set, then you should see a doctor. But is this the kind of story we want to tell, and to our children?
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